Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Greatly Honored

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
All Saints Sunday (November 5, 2017)
Matthew 5:1-12 – “Greatly Honored”

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Presbyterians haven’t always observed it, but there’s still a lot to celebrate today, although “saint” is a loaded and often misunderstood word.

How many of you grew up Catholic or attended Catholic school? You’ve mostly likely had some exposure to saints in that tradition. When I hear the word “saint,” my mind harkens back to my fourth and fifth grade years at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. St. Joseph’s Church is renown for its Romanesque, neo-gothic architecture, especially the 60 stained glass windows. The big window behind the altar depicted St. Joseph (a little whiter than he probably was in real life) being tended to on his deathbed by Jesus and Mary. There were other windows featuring saints: Francis of Assisi, Anthony, 11 of the 12 Apostles, the four gospel writers, Teresa of Avila, and so many others I’d never heard of. These were magnificent windows that really added to the sense of mystery of the place and the feeling that there really was this “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us. I was enchanted with them as a child.

Growing into adulthood and wading into ordained ministry, I’ve started to wonder if the church throughout the ages has done a disservice to these people by enshrining them in stained glass or calcifying them into marble statues. Their stories, the stories of their witness, have inspired people throughout the world for centuries, and that’s a good thing. But I wonder if by venerating them, we take a little bit of their humanity away. Little room is left for the times that they struggled, doubted, and dare I say, sinned. They’re saints because they triumphed, after all, and because the depth of their faith allowed the light of Christ to shine through them, not because they were perfect, right? The collective memory of tradition tries to make them perfect, though.

Think of what happened to Teresa of Calcutta, AKA Mother Teresa, now canonized by the Catholic Church as St. Teresa. She was made famous for her work among the poor, for the radical work that her order, the Sisters of Charity, did in the slums of India. Though she was not perfect, though her fellow nuns were not perfect, her name became synonymous with someone who gives of themselves selflessly, helping others even to the point of martyrdom. When, about ten years ago, an author wrote a book about Teresa’s doubts, people freaked out. “She wasn’t a true believer,” they’d say or, “I knew she wasn’t a pure as everybody says.”

In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Teresa wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.

That’s a saint I can relate to because she was human!

What tradition has done to folks like Teresa, we do to those we call “saints” in everyday life. “He’s a saint,” we say about someone who’s exceedingly patient, kind, or otherwise virtuous. Or “She’s such a saint to put with him for all those years.” All of this may be true, but it doesn’t make room for people being people—to be cranky, opinionated, or self-centered, or any number of natural, normal attributes that are a part of the way God has wired us.

As loaded and misunderstood a term as “saint” can be, it’s even more the case with what Jesus means by “Blessed.”

Here Jesus is in part one of three of the Sermon on the Mount. He’s speaking to all his disciples, not just the 12 apostles, and presumably also to the hearers of Matthew’s gospel. He’s speaking to us, too. He’s speaking to all of us of being citizens in the Reign of God, as “blessed ones.”

“Blessed” is one of those words that has been diluted of its meaning lately. “I’m blessed” could be said in earnest because it means that you feel like you have God in your life. But “#Blessed” is on bumper stickers and coffee mugs and it’s one of those things people say after winning on scratch tickets and such. Proponents of prosperity gospel have hijacked the word, claiming that to be blessed is to have material riches as a sign of God’s favor.

That couldn’t be farther from what Jesus means here. The Greek word “Makarios” can be translated as “blessed” and “happy” and “fortunate” are also options. But “blessed” is also colored with those wonderful Hebrew Bible concepts of salvation and shalom—peace, wholeness, well-being. So you won’t get a list from Jesus here “9 Steps to Your Best Life Now” with these pronouncments on those who are blessed. You will, however, get a sense for what life is like in the Commonwealth of God, in the coming reality of life lived under the Rule of God. As one commentator put it, “the Beatitudes are not ‘entrance requirements for outsiders, but a declaration about insiders.” [1]

The Beatitudes are about the character and the destiny of saints, in other words, those who live according the counterintuitive, counter-cultural ways of God’s Reign vs. the ways of the world. Margaret Aymer says that “greatly honored” is a better rendering of the word. “Greatly honored” are the people who live in this way.

  • Greatly honored are those who are poor in their spirits, who lack arrogance, who are aware of how much they depend on God and others for what they need.
  • Greatly honored are those who mourn the present state of the world, who yearn for a better world, who know in their guts that there is a better way.
  • Greatly honored are those who are meek, who resist violence in speech and action.
  • Greatly honored are those whose zeal for righteousness—not piousness-—but justice, for a relationships and communities to be put to rights.
  • Greatly honored are those who do mercy for the exploited and outcast, and not just think about it or talk about it.
    Greatly honored are those who are pure in heart—again, not pious of heart or clean mind necessarily—but of sincere devotion and faith.
  • Greatly honored are those who make peace, who pursue reconciliation vs. retaliation, an “eye for an eye” mentality.
  • Greatly honored are those who live in such a way that the world considers them losers vs. winners in the rat race, in the winner-takes-all systems in which we’re all ensnared.
  • Rejoice, O greatly-honored-ones, Jesus tells us, not because you’re a martyr, but because you live according to God’s system, and not the oppressive systems of this world.

Saints are simply this: people who are greatly-honored, not because they are perfect, but because their lives reflect Christ.

They’re people who, boiled down to a word, love.

Sometimes we’re more likely to see these saints next door instead of up in stained glass. There was a movie a few years back starring Bill Murray called St. Vincent. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. It’s about a drunk ol’ curmudgeon who ends up babysitting his neighbor’s kid, Oliver, after school for $11 an hour… because, well, he has gambling debts. The mother, who’s played by Melissa McCartney, is reluctant to do this, but as a single parent she’s desperate and out of options. Murray’s character, Vincent, ends up befriending the boy in his own unique way—teaching him to stick up for himself and giving him math lessons… at the dog track. Not an ideal role model, but it get’s better. Sorry, if I spoil this.

Later in the movie, you find out that Vincent visits his wife who’s in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s really often and does her laundry. And he’s broke because he puts her in a really nice, really expensive facility.

Oliver, the neighbor’s kid, attends Catholic school. One of his teachers assigns a project on saints in everyday life. The teacher says this: “A saint is a human being we celebrate for the sacrifices that they make, for their commitment to making the world a better place.”

So today, as we pray, as we come to Christ’s Table to dine with the great cloud of witnesses, let us give thanks for the saints in our lives. Let us give thanks for those who were not perfect, but who were vessels of God’s grace. Let us celebrate…

  • The man at the hardware store who mentored us when we were teenagers;
  • The woman in the prison cell who taught us enduring lessons about kindness;
  • The coach who never let us give up, even when things were hard;
  • The crusader who is relentless in her pursuit of justice;
  • The writer whose words carried us through;
  • The leader whose example of integrity we hope to emulate on our best day;
  • The ones who believed in us, cut us some slack, picked us off the floor, helped us when we were broke, reassured us that “yes, you can do this,” forgave us, held us, and gave us hope.

For all those saints of God, “who from their labors rest,” who are greatly honored for showing us how things ought to be now and how things will be then, when God’s kingdom comes.

Who knows? You might be one some day.

May it be so…

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VIII (1995), p. 177.

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