All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2020
When I started preaching ten years ago, I made a rule for myself, a rule I still live by: I never recycle an old sermon. Of course, the truth of the gospel never changes but a preacher changes. Times change, the way a passage strikes me changes. And so I believe that every worship service and calls for a fresh sermon, something that is made for the moment.
Yet this week, I was tempted to break my rule. I went back and read my sermon from four years ago. The Sunday before Election Day 2016. All Saints’ Day. I preached about the saints, I preached about baptism, I preached about death, I preached about the cross of Jesus Christ. I preached about power. How the leaders of this world vie for power, and how that power is but a shadow of the true power of God. I preached about how this world idolizes strength, and yet God strength’s looks like human weakness. Four years ago I told the story of how I marched with the Longhorn Band in 2005 in the Second Inaugural Parade for George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. I said that the powers of this world are so afraid, so afraid, that they even put my tuba through an X-ray machine; while Jesus opens wide his arms upon the cross.
But that was a different sermon meant for a different time. If fear was the theme of that season, anger is the theme of this season. Anger. It seems that we get enraged at the drop of a hat. We descend into endless cycles of “gotcha moments.” Believe me, I am not given to pearl clutching, but even I have been scandalized at the public vulgarity that seems so common now. I’m dismayed by the lack of empathy. I’m jaded by the coarsening of our political speech. I see it in myself; we have become an angry people.
I read these words from Jesus and it seems as if they come from an alien place, an alien time. On this All Saints’ Day Jesus is talking about these blessings, these things through which we are made happy by God. And they seem so removed from anything we are experiencing now. For now, the poor in spirit are laughed at. Those who mourn by the hundreds of thousands have become mere statistics. The meek are shouted down. The merciful are mocked. The peacemakers have disappeared. The way of the saints was once rejoicing when one was persecuted for the Lord Jesus. Now it seems that Christians are ready to fight at even the slightest hint of having lost their power in the world. My friends, what has become of us?
And look, I know that most of us are just ready for Election Day to pass. And I know that lots of us come to Church in order to avoid all that, to escape all that. But that is also part the problem. Yes, Jesus climbs this mountain and gives this, the sermon of all sermons, but we are not called to stay on the mountain. We take these lessons that we have learned, hard though they are, down the mountain and back out there, into the fear, into the anger.
It’s what the saints of God have always done. The saints of God have never shied away from their duty to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. In seasons of anger, in seasons of fear the saints have always been the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek, the merciful. The saints do not claim power for themselves, because the saints know that true power only comes by dying upon the cross. And the saints do not treat the world as if they are just passing through, because the saints know that this is the world that God created and loves.
It has always been this way for the saints of God. Merciful. Meek. Peacemakers. Rejoicing in persecution. In the darkest of hours, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own cathedral by the king’s henchman. He did not fight back, he gave himself as only a true saint and martyr would do. In a time of fear and occupation, the Virgin Mary needed no self-congratulation. With meekness she accepts her vocation as the mother of God, and in that she shows true strength. A strength greater than Caesar could muster with all his armies. A saint named Ignatius is fed to the wild beasts. Latimer and Ridley are burned alive. Perpetua, a young mother, is slain by a Roman soldier for the amusement of the crowds. No sermon could ever be long enough to recount the glorious deeds of the saints of God. In times of darkness, in times of fear, they lived the message that Jesus gave on that mountain two thousand years ago – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers. A message that seems impossible in these days of anger. And yet, a message that is the core of everything we know to be true.
And I know that I cannot stand here today and tell you to just not be angry. A few paltry words offered here stand little chance against the extraordinary pressures out there. But what I can say is this – the path to happiness, to path to blessedness is not the path of anger or fear. Blessedness, happiness, are gifts from God that we discover by showing mercy, by being meek, by making peace, by rejoicing, yes rejoicing, when we are persecuted. Strange as it sounds, that is the blessing.
So yes, this is an Election Year. But as you know, elections come and go. Times in office have a beginning and an end. Countries rise and fall. And the way I look at it, I have eight more election years left in my preaching career. As I look back on this sermon, and the sermon I preached four years ago, I see they are not that different after all. For today, as I did then, I hope to have shared a message of hope about the saints, about the cross, about God. So I’ve chosen not to define my life by the political whims of the day, of the characters who come and go. For in the long run, the only real option is to define yourself by the one person who will never change – the Lord God Almighty made known to us in Christ Jesus. And when you need courage to live like a saint, when you feel the pull to anger and hatred, climb that mountain again and sit at the feet of Jesus, and hear him preach that sermon of all sermons:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
”Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”