A sermon preached by Alice Lawhead on 30th October 2022
Today is the Sunday when we remember the saints of the Christian church, along with those we love who have died. It’s a yearly event that many of us look forward to, not only because of the cracking hymns we sing, but because, instinctively, it seems right to honour those who have gone before.
But, what is a saint?My husband is a saint for putting up with me! My friend is an absolute saint – she took me to that hospital appointment when my car wouldn’t start. This afternoon, the New Orleans Saints are playing the Las Vegas Raiders in American football. Go Saints! My taxi driver had a St. Christopher’s medal dangling from his rear view mirror. Annora, who attached herself to this church building – literally! – well, if she isn’t a saint, she should be. And then there is Mary, the mother of Jesus, after whom this church is named. St Mary the Virgin.
We often associate sainthood with suffering. I’ve recently been to Italy, and boy do they like to honour the suffering of saints! The beheading of St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Sebastian with arrows sticking out of him, St. Francis with bleeding hands and feet, a visible sign of his suffering with Christ.
But the essential truth is that all who worship God, who follow his commandments, are saints. Today’s readings bear that out. In Daniel’s vision, he was told that ‘the holy ones (other versions say ‘saints’) of the Most High’ would receive the kingdom. The psalmist tells the congregation of the faithful (again, other versions say ‘saints’) to rejoice and sing. In the New Testament letters, the early believers are often addressed as ‘saints’.
All who follow Christ are the saints of God. So, welcome to sainthood!
Today’s Gospel reading contains The Beatitudes, a series of statements that are also recorded in Matthew as part of The Sermon on the Mount. When Christ made these statements he had just chosen his disciples and was beginning his ministry. He was starting to perform miracles, starting to draw crowds. I’m sure some came out of idle curiosity, others out of acute need – but for whatever reason, people were beginning to associate with him, deciding to follow him. And immediately, it seems, he lets them know what they’re in for. It’s not going to be an easy ride. And things are going to seem counter-intuitive.
For example: All who were raised in the Jewish faith would have associated righteousness with prosperity. Do the right thing, and God will bless you materially. Conversely: Do you have wealth, lots of land, a big healthy family? That must mean you’re righteous in God’s eyes.
Jesus upends all that kind of thinking. It ain’t necessarily so! He’s ushering in a new Kingdom, a new order, where the first will be last, and the last will be first. The wealthy man who puts a lot in the collection bag actually gives less than the widow who drops in a couple of pennies. A child is more illustrative of this Kingdom than the great and the good. His harshest words go to those so-called ‘righteous’ people, and his tenderest words to the diseased, the degraded … the sinners.
So right away he’s letting his followers – and us, of course – start to get their heads around this Upside-Down Kingdom. Not a kingdom with palaces and armies – another upended expectation! – but a kingdom where humble people are at home, and the rich man struggles to even get through the gate.
These counter-intuitive statements of blessedness in the gospel reading today include one that is very apt on this, All Saints Sunday. ‘Blessed are those who weep.’
Doesn’t that resonate with us this morning? – In the wake of Covid, and all the death and suffering it’s caused. – Having recently experienced our time of national mourning for HM the Queen. – Before the national day of remembrance for those who have died in war. – As we recall those we love who have died, who will be named in this church on All Soul’s Day.
It is attributed to the Queen Mother, on the subject of grief: You don’t get over it, you just get better at it.
Many of us are sad when we remember those we love, who have died; and of course there are other griefs that may be even stronger than those that come from death, and that are harder to bear. And so often, we can’t shake our grief; when we think we have, it hits us on our blindside, and we find ourselves overcome when we least expect it. It may seem that we aren’t getting over it, and we aren’t getting better at it, either.
But in this grief, in this mourning, Jesus comes to us with words of comfort and hope: ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’ In the gospel of Matthew, these words are remembered as ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’
It’s a strong word, ‘Blessed.’ What does it mean? To be blessed is to be in that enviable position of receiving God’s special favour; it is a positive and dynamic state of being where we are close to God and God is close to us, when we are assured of his love and living in the way that pleases him.
And here we are told that when we weep, we are blessed. In that state of grief and anguish, we are blessed. When we are crying, we are blessed.
The weeping – our sadness, our mourning, our grief — it’s not a weakness in our character. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not an embarrassment. It’s not something to just ‘get over’.
We are blessed in our weeping, not in spite of our weeping. That’s a deep truth to reckon with. Our tears indicate and bring us into that place where God looks at us with particular favour – where we are aligned with all the saints, in theirsuffering. In it, we enter into a fullness that we may be missing in times of happiness and joy. We experience something real, often something unexplainable and inexpressible. We experience blessedness.
Many years ago my husband Steve was seriously ill and had to undertake devastating medical treatment. It was an incredibly difficult, frightening time. A friend put me in touch with another woman whose husband had an almost identical illness, almost identical treatment. We wrote to each during those hard times: sharing information, encouraging each other, complaining about the physical and emotional exertions that WE were experiencing. Both our husbands survived the ordeal; we all came out the other side.
About a year after the worst of it, and after months of not communicating, she wrote to me. ‘Alice, I can’t say this to anyone else. But maybe you will understand. Do you ever miss it? Those horrible times? Because they were horrible, but weren’t they also wonderful? The way we trusted God day by day, feeling so close to him, so close to life and death? Everything was so vivid, so real, so elemental. Now, I miss the intensity, I miss how easy it was to pray, and how confident I was that Christ was walking alongside me through everything. I knew I wasn’t alone. Now …. Do you miss it?’
Blessed are those who weep. They’re not only blessed because they’re going to have the last laugh, as it were, but they are actually blessed in that state of sorrow – in the weeping. It’s in our weeping that our hearts are torn open, our defences are down. When we are at our lowest, that’s often when we’re most receptive to God; when we’re closest to Him. And close to God – that’s the best place to be! He is our essence, our true home, and He is the place where we – saints of God that we are – belong.
We are not promised an easy life, or a life where the good people get all the good stuff, and the bad people go without. Obviously, not. What we are offered is a life where we don’t have to go it alone, and that is our comfort in this world and our hope in the world to come: To be with God.
Now it’s not all tears – of course it’s not. Jesus doesn’t just say, ‘Blessed are you who weep’ – full stop. Because, surely, we were not created for sorrow; we were created for joy. He says, ‘Blessed are you who weep NOW’ and then follows it up with, ‘for you will laugh.’ You’ll be laughing. Actually laughing. That’s more than just getting over it, or getting better at it. That’s real joy, real happiness.
We are a people of hope. We who believe in God, who consider the life and teaching and quality of Jesus’ life and say, ‘Yes’ – we are people who believe that although Christ died, he is alive and always will be; and that we too, along with those we love, will also live. Every week we stand and say that ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ No one knows exactly how that plays out, but it is our great hope. That as blessed as it is to mourn in this world, it is infinitely more blessed to claim our inheritance, as the saints of God — with all the other saints of God — with our tears dried, and our mourning turned into dancing, and laughter at the joy of it all.