Bad Blessings for Imperfect Saints

Comments for All Saints Sunday (and Confirmation) – 3 Nov 14

Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

T: “Praise to you, O Christ?!” It’s one of those Gospel readings that makes you wonder. It really doesn’t sound much like good news.

N: Yeah, agreed. If this is what a blessing from God is like, we may ask if we even want to be blessed, or if it’s more of a curse.

But we should pause, since these are among the most famous sayings of Jesus. They’re his first public words in the Gospel of Matthew, the very start of the Sermon on the Mount. We call them the Beatitudes. The name actually comes from the Latin in this passage, beatus, blessed, and it doesn’t take long to realize the Beatitudes are probably the opposite of that old Crystal Cathedral book about the “be happy attitudes.” These blessings definitely don’t seem like they’re designed trying to make you happy.

But maybe that’s a worthwhile thing to remember as we get going today. Blessing isn’t something we choose, and following Jesus isn’t about just getting what we want. If we’re simply seeking happiness and some sort of self-satisfaction, then this says we’re barking up the wrong tree. We’d go running the opposite direction. See, nobody would say, “I’d be more fulfilled in life and really be an achiever if only I could suffer some. I think I’ll go out and really find something to make me mourn and grieve. That’d be great!” Right?

So the beatitudes could seem like real buzzkills and downers. But we also need to recognize that Jesus isn’t exactly giving a motivational speech here, at least not like we’d normally picture it. These first words of his first sermon aren’t a mass-market advertisement trying to make his listeners happy, and they certainly aren’t about telling them how they can get more from God, how they can manage to be more blessed, to squeeze more blessing out of a reluctant God.

Instead, this is already what his listeners were dealing with, and what we’re dealing with. It’s about God and our reality, real life. And it’s still remarkable to hear. There’s something inside of us, or something about our culture, that still wants to claim that if you’re suffering, if you’re sad, if people don’t like you, if you’re weak, if you’re not rich, then you’re doing something wrong. It claims that if God really liked you—or even if God really existed—then you’d be pain-free and happy and strong and have a bigger house and no worries.

Jesus says that’s a lie. God does not abandon us in the hard places. God’s blessing is especially where you need it most, when you need it most. And not only that, but all that rotten stuff of persecution and hunger and war and injustice and poverty and all that makes us so sorrowful and even death are not the end of the story and that doesn’t define you. Jesus not only says, but shows that there is more. Even death, as completely terrible as it is, cannot separate us from God’s blessing and love. That’s the point of this message especially for All Saints Sunday.

T: the ordeal and Revelation

ending with Rolf joke for confirmation – “Who are these robed in white? The ones who came through the great ordeal!”

N: That’s a great line, though I have to stick up for Confirmation here at St. Stephen’s. Especially for those of older generations who with fear and trembling faced tests on memorization in front of the congregation, you should know that students at St. Stephen’s really do enjoy this program. We have students wanting to be here, Sunday School students begging parents to get to go to church, even dragging their kicking-and-screaming parents here!

For this set of Confirmands today, they did talk about the ordeals earlier. I even heard that when he was 7-ish, Nate made a little sign to hold up in worship that said, “I hate church.” And they’ve all faced questions and struggles, wondering about how the science of evolution fits in with belief, for example. This group is also concerned for justice and angry at how exclusionary and oppressive some churches and those claiming to be Christian can be, and part of what makes St. Stephen’s work so well for them is that we’re Reconciling in Christ, welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Nate, Sydney, and Jordan would be quick to point out the ordeal of being in the Boundary Waters with me through a fearful lightning storm. And Travis certainly has had more than his share of ordeals, as today among the saints we are remembering the death of his grandmother and last year his father.

Yet, again, it’s not just the ordeals and struggles and doubts, but also many great moments of community. And that’s part of what makes these four students exemplary saints for us today. We can look at them as our examples, as reminders of what faith means and what it can do as we share it in community. They describe great relationships with each other.

Even more, they’ve been broadly important in this community. I love thinking back to my early days, when I’d be leading Time for Children and as soon as I started to ask a question, Sydney’s hand would be up, and I’d call on her and there’d be a pause. She didn’t have an answer; she just liked being called on. Still my office door is decorated with sketches from Jordan, including a favorite of mine from an early one of our annual Martin Luther King observances, portraying his victories for racial equality and justice. Travis, or Lars as he was known during Confirmation classes, was always good for some humor and laughter, but you shouldn’t let that fool you because he’s tremendous at caring for young children and is eager to teach Sunday School. Nathan not only brought his pet snake Steve to VBS, but also connected with the Senior Ministry Team and did a presentation at Seasoned Saints.

All of that shows these four saints can’t be isolated by age group, or restricted in our view of them. They are very fully saints, sharing the struggles we all have, and also being a benefit to this community in at least as good of ways as the rest of us.

T: baptism as tying all of us into this promise and sainthood

Cloud of Saints


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