Download this sermon audio (right click and save)
All fall I have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new television series on Netflix called The Crown. It’s a historical drama depicting the rise and reign of Queen Elizabeth II and it was finally released this Friday. Please don’t ask me how many episodes I’ve watched already; it’s an embarrassing number.
That said, there was a touching scene toward the end of the first episode that I’d like to
share. Princess Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, is becoming more and more aware of his own mortality even as he is kept in the dark about the deterioration of his health. Consciously or not he understands that he needs to begin to prepare his daughter for the role she will one day play as sovereign. One day during their Christmas holiday he invites her into his office to talk to her about his daily routine. Pointing a stack of papers in the royal in box he explains, “Everything they want me to know, they stick on top. Everything they’d rather I didn’t know… they tuck away at the bottom. Which is why… the first thing I do when no one is looking, is this,” as he flips the stack upside down and lets it slam down on the desk. A very practical moment of education for the future queen, I’m sure.
As their meeting continues the king also tells the princess that he would like for her to be his representative on the next year’s royal travels throughout the empire. He is giving her the opportunity to learn through experience what her responsibilities will be when someday sooner than she realizes she will take the throne and wear the crown. Her education and preparation, her father ensures, will include both words of knowledge and experience.
Jesus’ own grasp of this pedagogical balance is demonstrated in our reading today. Early in the gospel, just after he has called together this rag tag assortment of disciples, he gets right to the task of providing both words and experiences that they will need to be his representatives in the world. Humbling himself in spirit and location, he came down to be on a level plain with the crowd of named and unnamed disciples and the multitudes that now gather wherever he goes. The people around him are straining to hear his vision for the kingdom of God and clamoring for his touch so that they may be healed.
I imagine Jesus walking among those who have gathered, touching people gently, and looking into their eyes, as well as the eyes of his disciples, as he taught, “Blessed are your who are poor…. Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now…. Oh, blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you….” “Blessed are you!” he says to this crowd of people who are used to being called anything but blessed.
Some in the crowd were probably laughing and scoffing as Jesus said these things. After all, the cultural wisdom of the day said that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment, that health and wholeness are proof of God’s love and grace, while disease and infirmity prove God’s condemnation. Who was this guy saying just the opposite of what they knew to be true?!
Only the rich would have laughed, though; the poor, the outcast, the lonely, those excluded and left on the fringes of society through no fault of their own may have wept for joy, receiving Jesus words of blessing like long gulps of water after trudging through the desert. It was the good news they had craved, the promise of new life they had hardly even dared to hope for.
As we consider this passage of Scripture while observing All Saints’ Day, I can’t help but hear it as an education in sainthood, in the broadest sense of the word, a training manual for discipleship. In our tradition we don’t have a formal beatification process for naming official saints of the church throughout history. We don’t hold that name and title for a select few whose miracles can be counted, but instead count as saints all those who move through this life with faith and compassion, generosity and grace, those whose lives and words have pointed us toward Jesus and exemplified his way in the world.
In our tradition saints are the people who touch our lives with the touch of Jesus. Saints are the people who bless our spirits with the blessing of Jesus. Saints are the ones who love all of creation with the love of Jesus – indiscriminately, unendingly, and graciously.
Saints are the Stephen Ministers and others who offer care in official and unofficial capacities through this and every church – walking with those who grieve; offering a steady hand to those whose lives have been turned upside.
Saints are the peaceful protesters and pray-ers at Standing Rock reservation calling for the care of creation, the protection of clean water, and justice for the poor, the reviled, and the neglected.
Saints are the teachers and volunteers in our Sunday School classes who share the words and teachings of Jesus with our children, youth, and adults.
Saints are the elders and deacons who submit themselves to a ministry of servanthood on behalf of the Body of Christ.
Saints are our own loved ones, friends, parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and mentors who have witnessed to the power of a personal relationship with Christ so that we, too, would be drawn in to seek him out ourselves.
Saints aren’t any more perfect than the rest of us, because, really, saints are any of us, as we are led by the Holy Spirit to reflect the love of Jesus to those around us. Saints are all of us as we answer the call of Jesus to carry his vision into the world.
The vision Jesus teaches through his words of blessing and woe and his actions healing those who would have been thought of as cursed is a vision that calls for a radical reversal of the way we usually think, especially the way we usually think about our well-being and privilege. Instead of going to extremes to stockpile our status, power, and wealth, as Jesus’ disciples today we are called to go to opposite extremes to share with those who have no say, the forgotten, the populations crippled by poverty.
According to Jesus’ vision those who are poor can have the riches of a kingdom. Those who are hungry can be filled. Those who weep can be filled with joy and laughter. Those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed can feel the love and acceptance of community. And the disciples in his name, the saints we long to be, are called to make that vision a reality.
To do so means looking at who we choose to talk to and who we choose to ignore. It involves examining the places we work to see that all workers are treated fairly and humanely. It means thinking about our fields and courses of study not just with academic minds, but with minds and hearts of faith. It means structuring our priorities and our energy around activities that empower and benefit others.
As those called to carry Jesus’ teaching into the world, we must reach out to others with Jesus’ touch. We must offer his words of blessing and warning. This is the training we have received. This is the way of the saints. This is the call to the church.
Standing Rock photo by Daniella Zalcman included in the article “Standing in solidarity with Standing Rock” at the website of the Presbyterian Mission Agency