All Saints’ Sunday is one of my favorites of the church year. A time to commemorate all the saints who have gone before us and are at rest, all the saints who still form the church on earth today, and all the saints who are yet to be. Together forming one mystical communion that crosses the bounds of time and space.
And then we had our gospel reading, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, one of my favorite passages. Luke doesn’t go Matthew’s route and spiritualize the conditions Jesus calls blessed: there’s no “blessed are the poor in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” Instead for Luke it is just “blessed are you poor, blessed are you hungry.”
So, favorite day, favorite passage, this should be easy, right? The challenge was making these two things speak to and inform each other. What do the Beatitudes have to do with All Saints’? What does All Saints’ have to say about what blessing means?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
They’ve come from all around. The nearby villages and towns, but some from Jerusalem and all over Judea, even as far away as Tyre and Sidon. They’re dusty and tired, but they’ve come to see this Jesus that they’ve heard about. They’ve heard he can heal people who have been sick for years. They’ve heard he can cast out demons. They’ve heard about the kingdom he talks about—a kingdom where the blind will see, and the prisoners will be released. And they want to know it for themselves.
Some are poor and hungry, but hope that through seeing Jesus they might be fed. Others are dressed in fine clothes and are curious about what this Jesus means for them. Some are limping with illness and pain after their journeys. Others have rested at inns along the way. And as they watch, he and his newly chosen disciples come down off the mountain. And Jesus stands on a level place with the rest of the crowd. They’re reaching out to him, hoping to touch just a piece of his cloak. Hoping for healing. Hoping for a miracle.
And then he speaks. Only it’s not to heal or to cast out demons. It’s not to teach. It’s to bless them. He speaks right to them, as if they were important people, and says: Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame on account of the Son of Man. Leap for joy and be happy!
They can’t believe it! Surely, they’ve heard him wrong. Blessed are…us poor ones? Who worry every day about how to take care of our families? Who have seen our children go hungry and suffer pain? Who cry in the night, unsure of how to face the next day? No one has ever called us blessed before. No one has seen us anything other than a burden, an inconvenience, a failure. Blessed are…us?
The Beatitudes, what we call these blessings that Jesus offers, are striking in their imagery, but also so very familiar to us. So familiar, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what it was like hearing them for the first time. How shocking and surprising these blessings are. And, in a sense, how shocking to hear them today. On All Saints’ Sunday, why does the church have us read this list of blessings and woes, and not, maybe, something about saints?
What is All Saints’ Sunday about, anyway? Originally, it started as a feast day to honor all the early Christian martyrs whose names we do not know. Saints with names get their own feast days. But not wanting to forget those countless saints whose names are known only to God, the church began the feast of All Saints. And through the years, we’ve come to recognize not just the unnamed martyrs, but all those who have died in Christ, even especially those that we do know. Those saints who were very much known and loved and cherished by us.
But even as we remember and honor those who have died, All Saints is also about letting that remembrance shape our lives right now. Saint is not just a term that is reserved for those who have died. All of the baptized are saints of God. And that means that God has a purpose for us—right now. Our lives as saints do not begin with our deaths, but with our baptisms. And so, Jesus’ words about blessings and woe speak a powerful message to us saints on earth today.
How ought God’s saints be living and viewing one another? Jesus gives us a different ethic here, a kingdom ethic. To see and treat one another, not as the world does, but the way they are in the kingdom of God. The poor are honored. The grieving are comforted. The hungry are filled with good things. We are to pray for our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good for those who would harm us. This is what it means to be part of God’s new kingdom come, says Jesus.
And then there are those pesky woe statements. You notice I haven’t really touched on them yet. Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you. And this is where many of us might start to squirm in our seats. That sounds like me. I might not consider myself rich, but I certainly have enough. I have a full stomach and a pantry full of food. I’m not perfect, but I think people generally like and respect me. Why are these bad things? Aren’t these really the blessings, instead of poverty and hunger and grief?
But Jesus isn’t describing blessings the way we’re used to. He’s describing what blessing looks like in God’s kingdom. These woes shouldn’t be seen as some eternal damnation—instead think of them as a warning. Watch out! Says Jesus to the rich and full and happy. The things you think are advantages are actually misleading. You’re thinking about the wrong things when you think of blessing. The things you think are good might just be things that are drawing you further from God.
Instead Jesus invites us into a new way of being. A new community, a new social reality. We are invited into the communion of saints—the community of saints. To be a saint literally means to be a holy one, a person set apart. And that is who we are, a holy, set apart people, as we are marked as Christ’s own in baptism. With all the saints—past, present, and future—we get to be God’s body, God’s set apart people, in the world.
As our reading from Ephesians said, we are set apart for God’s purposes in this world. That’s what it means to be a saint. To be marked with God’s love and blessing, and to have that blessing shape us, shape the community we create to fulfill God’s purpose.
In this sermon on the plain, Jesus blesses us. He blesses some more directly than others, but he blesses the entire community gathered by forming as people of God’s kingdom, by shaping us into his body to be blessed and broken for the sake of the world. Rejoice in this day and leap for joy, for you are God’s blessed and holy saints, set apart for God’s purposes in this world. Amen.