Sermon November 1, 2020 UCC Matthew 5.1-12
(first draft of a sermon)
Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a Festival of the Church that recognizes those who have gone on before us — their journey is done and they now rest from their labors. The day was celebrated by the organized church as early as 300 a.d., but it wasn’t until it came to England about 800 that Halloween was connected to it. Historians have linked Halloween to Samhain, the Celtic festival of the summer's end celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. According to Celtic mythology, the veil between the Otherworld and our world thins during Samhain, making it easier for spirits and the souls of the dead to return. So you can see how all this started to come together. When Madison Avenue caught hold of its significance — well, today more money is spent on Halloween decorations than Christmas.
All Saints’ festival comes at the end of the Church Year. In about three weeks we will be at Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year and then Advent begins the new church year. We are at a summing up time. We in this rural area know the importance of harvest for our families in agriculture. Harvest is bringing in what you have created and then seeing that it will sustain you through the winter months. There is the weighing of profit and loss. “All Saints” parallels this harvest idea. It is a time of recognition of all the saints, those who have attained heaven, but whose sainthood is known only to God. A wrapping up, a time of closure: The great hymn “For all the saints” begins —1 For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. I think of holy communion as the “communion of saints”. When we share the bread and cup, we join in that holy meal God has prepared for us and all the saints. When we take the bread and the wine, as we will in a few moments, we are with the saints and part of that great eternal body blessed by God and that is no small thing. The hymn continues: 4 O blest communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
In the 1600s, author Paul Bunyan wrote a book called Pilgrim’s Progress. It is said to be the most popular book next to the Bible. It is the story of an ordinary man who reads the Bible and is convicted of his sin and begins the journey to the Celestial City. The trials and tribulations that Pilgrim meets on his journey have much to do with that idea of attaining sainthood. Until we go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death or the Slough of Despair or must contend with those who would draw us away from our journey we don’t see ourselves as saints. We think we have to be good enough to be saints. Well, saints are not perfect. All Christians are saints.
Let’s think about it. The months since New Year’s have really been long and tough. When you know that over 200,000 people have died from Covid in the United States alone and then you begin to add the count from around the world it is frightening; we have suffered through forest fires of terrible fury, hurricanes; protests on systemic racism; political anger; unemployment; poverty. And in many ways we are numb. As God’s people we really do feel we are called upon to care for others and speak out of behalf of justice and the poor. If I am going to call myself a Christian, if we are saints of the Cross, then where and how do we stand not only in these tempest-tossed times, but throughout all our lives?
Jesus offers us a solution. It is rather like answering a want ad. Listen to Jesus, the One we follow as our Lord and Savior, speak to his followers in Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is like a want ad. Let’s listen to the job description, because it is here we can lay out our marching orders for the days ahead: 5 — When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
So here Jesus lays out God’s plan for us to follow. And its not a cakewalk! Answering the advertisement to be a saint is tough — we are called to be merciful, to look with the eyes of Christ, to care for the persecuted, to give ourselves to others with no concern for ourselves. And then Jesus reminds us that we are salt and light for the world. People cannot survive without salt and without light.
A saint is anyone who accepts the job description as it is written and faithfully follows Jesus. Most of us don’t see ourselves as “saints”. How do you describe a saint? I think of quiet people. They don’t walk with the crowds, but rather work with just a few to make things right. They don’t expect to make a statement or be remembered. They see something that needs doing and they do it. They don’t have to be asked. Saints don’t work for sainthood — to have a day named for them. It isn’t like a promotion in the Kingdom of God. Saints work because they love God and their lives are lives of gratitude for all they have been given.
The end of November is also the secular holiday Thanksgiving. That was never a festival set by the church. For Christians, everyday is thanksgiving day when we approach it as a saint. The saints of God are those who live lives of gratitude to God for all we have been given — life itself is central to that gratitude. The hymn “For all the Saints” closes with a vision of that blest place which is prepared for all the saints to praise God. Our desire for this place is built into our very DNA and we do not rest peacefully until we rest there. 7 But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. 8 From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia! Alleluia!
This is our final destination granted to us by a good and gracious God. May our lives be saintly examples of God’s love and care for us as we walk the path of sainthood, caring for the people of God.