A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday
November 3, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
O God, you prepared your disciples
for the coming of the Spirit
through the teaching of your Son Jesus Christ:
Make our hearts and minds ready
to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit,
that we may be filled with the
strength of his presence;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Road To Zion” by Petra
[Based on Psalm 84:5-7]
There is a way that leads to life
The few that find it never die
Past mountain peaks graced white with snow
The way grows brighter as it goes
There is a road inside of you
Inside of me there is one too
No stumbling pilgrim in the dark
The road to Zion’s in your heart
The road to Zion’s in your heart
The river runs beside the road
Its waters living as they flow
In liquid voice the water calls
On thirsty knees the pilgrim falls
Sometimes a shadow dark and cold
Lays like a mist across the road
But be encouraged by the sight
Where there’s a shadow, there’s a light
Sometimes it’s good to look back down
We’ve come so far – we’ve gained such ground
But joy is not in where we’ve been
Joy is who’s waiting at the end
To listen to the song on YouTube, please use this link.
One of the most powerful images which those in the primitive Jesus Movement used to speak of themselves was “The Way.” They self-identified as Pilgrims on a Journey. Like their ancestors who had left Egypt and wondered through the desert to the Land of Promise, they saw themselves as being part of a New Exodus, traveling to a new Promised Land. The very language which they used made this imagery clear: “There is a road that leads to life . . . there is a road that leads to death.”
This language was inspired, of course, by the words of Jesus. But, for them, it served to confirm the reality of the often difficult, confusing, tiring, and troubling journey which they undertook. Like their ancestors in the desert they faced dangers, snares, and obstacles; hunger, thirst, and serpents (literal and figurative). It was not an easy road to travel. At times, the journey seemed too much for them. They were tempted to give up, to admit defeat, and to abandon the trip.
At such moments, these earthly pilgrims turned to the words of Jesus for comfort, for strength, and for hope. At such moments of crisis and difficult decision, they recalled the honesty with which the Lord had prepared them for their journey–which they had begun with his blessing and undertaken in his name.
One source of encouragement which these Pilgrims relied on was Jesus’ teaching about “Blessedness,” they called this teaching the “Beatitudes.” These consoling words of the Lord reminded them of the importance of persevering “on the Way,” and of making sure that they were, in fact, traveling on the road that “leads to life” and not on the road that “leads to death.”
It is not uncommon for people to shake their heads when they hear the “Beatitudes” from the Gospel of Luke. We are far more accustomed to hearing the eight blessings from the Gospel of Matthew. They, of course are addressed, all except the last one, in the “third person:”
- Blessed are the poor in Spirit
- Blessed are those who mourn
- Blessed are the meek
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
- Blessed are the merciful
- Blessed are the pure in heart
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
- Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account
So, then, the obvious question is “Why does Luke present this same teaching in such a different way?” Why use “blessings” and “woes” rather than just blessings?
Luke also chooses to address his listeners in the second person, rather than the third: “you,” rather than “they.” Luke wants to make clear to us that we are faced with a choice. We will either choose the arduous “road that leads to life” and to happiness, or we will choose the easy “road that leads to death” and to sadness, woe, and regret.
In both recollections of this Sermon, Matthew and Luke reflect on the teaching of Moses on the Mountain–after he had handed on the Law to the People of Israel. In the Twenty-Eighth Chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses followed the presentation of the Law with words of advice. If you follow the law which God has given, you will find happiness, joy, and fulfillment. If you do not, you will find sorrow, sadness, and disappointment.
Jesus’ audience knew the Torah well—some even by heart. So, they would have been quite familiar with that teaching. Their own history would have taught them the truth of Moses’ instruction. Although there had been fleeting moments of glory under David and Solomon, much of their history had been one of factional in-fighting, violence, and subjugation by outside powers: Egypt to the South, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the North and to the East. The prophets had been quick to suggest that their defeat had come about because of the poor choices which they had made. They had not chosen the road which led to happiness and life, but rather the road which led to sorrow and to death. In fact, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had literally disappeared—swallowed up by the Assyrians. Their choices literally brought them woes rather than blessings!
In an unexpected move, Luke turned Moses’ instruction on its head! He suggested that the things which might appear to bring woe and sorrow in this life are actually blessings when traveling with the New Exodus to the Land of Promise. Material blessings in this world could actually be distractions, stumbling blocks, or obstacles, to finding happiness in the life to come.
To put it simply, Luke suggests that followers of Jesus will have to make a difficult choice. Either we choose to make the priorities of God’s reign our own, or else, we will choose lives which are self-centered and primarily devoted to finding fulfillment in the here and now.
The question then is “How does one find happiness, value, meaning and purpose in life?” The Greek word for “blessed” is makarios—which literally means “happy.” Using that insight, let us listen again to what Jesus tell us. “You will find happiness if you are poor, if you are hungry, if you weep, or if you are mistreated. You may well find only sadness if you are rich, if you are full, if you laugh, or if you are praised.”
Why? Because those in the “happy” group have learned to totally and completely trust in God. And those in the “sad” group have no real need for God in their lives. It is the story, which we have heard so often, of those who appear to “have everything,” and yet are lonely, isolated, fearful–even miserable. It reminds us that the things which appear most important at a given moment often prove to be quite insignificant in the end. We come into this world with nothing and we will take no material possessions with us when we leave.
God does not want us to be homeless, starving, tearful and abused. In fact, God does not desire those things for any of his children. We are reminded that it is our duty to alleviate those sad conditions for anyone who suffers from them. And yet, we learn that the weak, the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed need greater faith than we do. They have only God to care for them and so they have learned to be completely dependent on God.
On many occasions Jesus singles out three particular groups—and reminds us that these groups are sacred to God. God treasures widows, orphans, and aliens or foreigners. They are the most vulnerable because they have no one else to help them. They have no safety net. They have only God.
There is another group which is especially dear to Jesus: children. Throughout the Gospels we see the tender interactions that Our Lord has with children. He welcomes them, embraces them, lovingly touches them, holds them, and blesses them. They are a source of great blessing and happiness for him. “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.” He often uses children as models and as examples of faith to us.
Parents so often feel a tremendous sense of obligation when they first have children. They are responsible in a way that they have never been before. They must care for their children. They must feed and clothe them. They must provide health care and education. They must guide and help their children to grow to become good and responsible adults. At first, they can feel overwhelmed and inadequate as they contemplate the duty which lies before them.
Jesus, though, suggests that parents have the opportunity, if they choose to accept it, to become students rather than only teachers. Their children will teach them many important lessons as they grow and mature. The most important of these might well be the reality of faith—and the reality of happiness.
Children find it easy to believe. Faith comes to them easily—even automatically. They do not struggle to accept mystery. They do not want or need complicated answers to difficult questions. They have not yet become jaded, cynical and skeptical. They are not afraid to trust. They are innocent—never assuming the worst of others. And, unless they are taught to be, they are not racist, misogynistic, homophobic or xenophobic. They are friendly towards everyone.
Children are also happy with the smallest of things: playing with friends, spending time with loved family members, enjoying good food. They are not obsessed with possessions—parents are often surprised when children derive more joy from simple things than from expensive presents! The love which children demonstrate is unconditional. Even in sad cases in which they are not treated with the love, respect, and care which they deserve, they continue to love.
Rather than focusing on how much we need to teach children; we are invited to learn important lessons from them. There is such wisdom that they can impart to us—if only we are open to listening to them and learning what they are able to teach us.
There is another word which we could use to translate “blessed.” That word is holy. Today we celebrate the Feast of All the Saints—the Feast of “All the Holy Ones, the Feast of All Hallows.” This is the feast of all whom we now believe to be happy in God’s presence. This is the feast of Triumph and Joy for those who chose to follow the arduous road that leads to eternal life.
Today, we welcome Bryson Alphonso. In Holy Baptism he will be made a member of God’s family. He will be “marked as Christ’s own forever.” He will join us and will travel with us on our Exodus to God’s Land of Promise and Joy. May we assist Bryson with our love and prayer—and may we learn from him! Together, with Bryson, may we travel the road that leads to life—the road that leads to God’s loving embrace.
Together, regardless of the woes and sorrows which we may experience as we travel, may we come to know the love, peace, and joy of God, which passes all understanding. May we become truly happy, truly blessed, and truly holy in God’s sight.