Monday, November 2, 2020

For All the Blessed Saints (We Mean To Be One Too!)

'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."'
--Matthew 5: 1-12

This past Sunday was the Feast of All Saints, one of our high holy days in the life of the Church.  It is one of my favorite celebrations, but with everything going on, it's been hard to celebrate.  All Saints was supposed to be the day that we returned to public worship, with baptism, incense, and physical Eucharist, but the virus had other ideas. 

How can we be joyful while we are still separated, still stuck in our homes, still held in the grip of COVID-19? How can we remember that we are children of God, as John puts it in his first letter, when we lack engagement with the physical community and liturgical rituals that help remind us of that fact? 

I have personally struggled with remembering that over the past several months.  Priests need church community, too, you know!  It’s been hard, and for good reason.  In the most frustrating times I’ve found myself hanging on to anger and fear much more so than I should, but recently I have been working on reframing, finding some small measure of gratitude in those frustrating moments.  

This isn’t about ignoring the anger or fear but instead acknowledging them and then finding, how shall we say, a blessing, in the midst of them. I’ve taken up a gratitude journal to help me reframe my frustrations, and maybe such a practice could help you process what is going on around you and find some grace, some blessing, in the middle of it all.

Reframing whatever situation we are in is a tremendous gift from God, and it is something that Jesus provides in what may seem like an unusual Gospel text for All Saints Day.  The passage for this week is Matthew is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, maybe the most famous and misunderstood piece of that Sermon: the Beatitudes.  

An Eastern mosaic of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here we find Jesus preaching to a crowd who are caught in the grip of fear:  they’re fearful of militarized police, of a serious lack of health care, of persecution based on racial, cultural, and gender identities, of corrupt politicians and fanatical religious authorities that are in league with each other, and a host of other daily struggles that are not unfamiliar to us.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of reframing not only their plight but the very concept of what it means to be blessed by God, and in these declarations, I believe we can find what we need right now.  So let’s take a deep dive into the Beatitudes.  

We start with blessed are the poor in spirit.  Who are the poor in spirit?  For Jesus, they are anyone on the margins, anyone struggling with literal poverty and the message being conveyed to them about their lack of worth by a society that only measures worth in power, prestige, and possessions.  Theirs, Jesus says, is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, not only personal grief but the deep wails and lamentations of the current state of the world and how far it is from the fullness of God’s kingdom.  Anyone who is brokenhearted will be comforted, Jesus promises.

Blessed are the meek, which does not imply being some kind of sacred doormat, but rather one who is aware of their identity as God’s oppressed people in the world, who have renounced the violent methods of the very ones doing the oppressing.  These will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; that is, those who actively do the will of God and who long for and work for the kingdom to see it come on earth as it is in heaven.  They will be filled.

Blessed are those who are merciful, who show compassion toward others, for when the time comes they will be shown mercy themselves.

Blessed are the pure in heart, which is not in response to being impure, necessarily, but rather pure as in refined and focused and undiluted—a single-minded devotion to God.  Such folks will, in fact, see God.

And blessed are the peacemakers, which is ironic when we consider that the Roman Emperors had the title of peacemaker after having established the pax romana through brute force and domination.  The peacemakers Jesus lifts up are those who know that redemptive violence is a myth, who work through acts of mercy, devotion to God, and the active pursuit of justice and grace.  These are the children of God, to once again echo the words from John’s First Letter.

At first glance, none of these qualities sound worthy of a blessing, at least not by modern standards:  poor, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty.  But what do we really mean by blessing?  That is the reframing.  The kind of blessing Jesus pronounces is not one that is seen in the size of our bank account or the number of cars in our driveway—the Beatitudes are VERY anti-Prosperity Gospel.  These blessings are not promises that the struggles people currently face will be magically wiped away or that the corruption and violence seen in the world will be overthrown.  What kind of blessing is this, then?  Do I even want it if it means I have to continue to endure?  Yes, brothers and sisters, because it’s the only kind of blessing that makes it possible for us to endure.  Do you find yourself in the Beatitudes, or at least know of someone whom Jesus would count among the so-called blessed today?  

The poor in spirit are fighting to get by on a daily basis, struggling with disease and debt, without any support from those in positions of authority.  We are all mourning right now for the quarter million lives lost in this country to COVID-19.  While some folks are pushing harder and harder to get “back to normal” while the virus rages, wise leaders among us are cultivating a more meek and gentle approach.  Look on tv each night and you’ll see people hungry and thirsty for righteousness as they protest systemic injustice and beg for people to stop killing them.  The merciful are not repaying violence and hatred with more violence and hatred, but are meeting them with compassion and grace.  The pure in heart are actively pursuing God, knowing that even if they can’t have their Sunday morning routines, they can still study, pray, and be formed.  And the peacemakers, in their non-anxious manner, are calling us to remember that we are all in this thing together.  The Beatitudes, it seems, is actually a perfect reading the Feast of All Saints.

For decades we have had the discussion in this country about public displays of the 10 Commandments.  I’d argue we shouldn’t display the 10 Commandments but rather the Beatitudes.  Maybe by doing so we can reframe what blessing looks like. 

In a time of plague, political upheaval, and fear of every kind, where the things that normally bring us comfort and strength through active engagement are unavailable—like our special church services—we need to be reminded that blessing comes not from anyone or anything out here, but it comes from God, who sees us, who knows us, who calls us each a beloved child, and whose blessings are not predicated on anything but that belovedness.  Those we call saints, in front of whose names we put the word ‘blessed,’ are simply those who knew and understood this, who lived their lives grounded in that truth, and we mean to be one too!

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