Year C, All Saints Luke 6:20-31
It’s complicated. All Saint’s Sunday is complicated. This is partly because the understanding of this day has evolved over the years. It was originally meant to be a day to commemorate all the Christian martyrs (those who had been persecuted and died for their faith). In the first few centuries of the church, they would commemorate a martyr with a specific day. But by about the 4th century, with the increased persecution of Christians, it became clear that they were going to run out of days. Finally, by the 9th century, they picked one day and called it All Saints Day. This was to be the day that would not only commemorate all Christian martyrs, but all Christians who had died. With all of these changes, the understanding of what it was to be a saint shifted to what many people perceive as the original intention of the New Testament—to mean all Christians who have died and all Christians still living.
When Paul used the word saint, he was almost always referring to those who were alive. In his letter to the Ephesians he wrote, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” Here at St. John’s, and in many other churches, we attempt to embrace both perspectives. In the evening, our choir provides a lovely Evensong where we read the names of those in our parish who have died in the past year.
At this service we sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God” and we talk about how we can meet them at school, on the sea, in church, in trains and at tea—and then we end by singing, “…and the Saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.” I don’t know about you, but I have always interpreted that as, I mean to be one in this life.
But that is the thing about the Christian life, the line between the living saint and the saint that has died is blurred. We live in this life—it’s all we know. But we live this life with a promise of what is to come. We live knowing that life as we know it could end at any moment. We have all experienced that too many times, someone we love dies unexpectedly or even a personal health crisis that has taught us how incredibly fragile life is and how narrow the line is between life and death.
A lot of people think that we come to church or read the Bible to learn how to be good Christians/saints, so that we can get into heaven when we die. But the Bible isn’t a how to manual on heavenly acceptance. Jesus was a lot more concerned about how we live in the here and now—how we love the saints in our midst.
Our gospel reading is often referred to as “the beatitudes.” You can also find the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. However, Matthew’s beatitudes are a little tamer, more palatable. Both gospels contain blessings (which in Latin is translated to beātitūdō). However, Luke contains fewer blessings and balances them with woes. Like All Saint’s Day, Luke’s beatitudes are complicated.
First of all, they contradict what we think of as being blessed. Usually when someone says that they are blessed, they are talking about something good that has happened. They just had a healthy child. They got a new job, a nice house, a clean bill of health. No one ever says, “I just lost my job. I am so blessed. Everyone is mad at me. I am so blessed. I am so depressed…and blessed! I have never heard anyone say anything like that.
But that was what Jesus was telling his disciples—“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…” Another way that blessed is translated is to be happy. That makes even less sense. The best translation that I have found is “unburdened or satisfied.” While that is better than happy, it still makes this text complicated. Usually when people are struggling with money, they don’t feel unburdened or satisfied. People who are grieving are not unburdened. Sometimes you can tell someone is grieving by the way they walk as if they are literally sinking under this invisible weight. So what in the world is Jesus talking about?
We aren’t blessed because we are poor or sad or persecuted. We are blessed because in our grief or poverty, we are (hopefully) able to reach out to God, we are able to acknowledge that we need God and that we are nothing without God. That is where the blessing comes in. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
Luke also has a woe section—“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” This doesn’t mean you aren’t blessed if you are rich. In means that if you find your consolation (or your comfort and security) in your wealth, then woe to you. Alas, that doesn’t really make me feel a whole lot better because most of us find comfort in financial security. That is why it’s called financial security. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if we put too much faith in that and not enough in God, then our priorities are askew. Because in the end, money can only do so much. It can’t protect us from grief or illness. It definitely cannot protect us from death. And when we face those things, we better have some other place where we can find comfort and strength.
That’s why I think Jesus said that the poor, hungry, weeping and persecuted were blessed. It wasn’t because their life was easy. In fact, it almost guaranteed that their life was hard. It was because their hope was in God. Remember who Jesus was talking to in this text—the newly chosen disciples, who had just left their homes, their family and any chance of financial security. They needed to hear this. While I find the beatitudes a lot more challenging than comforting, I bet the disciples found comfort in these words.
All Saints Day was first created to commemorate the lives of Christians who were persecuted for their faith and died as a result. There was a time in the church when sainthood was exclusively connected to martyrdom and how you died. Today, I think most of us want to be remembered for how we lived.
I’ve buried a lot of saints since I have been at St. John’s. Many of them inspired me with their faith and service. Yet I think the ones that inspired me the most are the ones who found blessings even in the midst of trials, those who never gave up on God. This isn’t to say that they didn’t question or struggle, but they found strength in their weakness, they found God’s strength. I have seen that in many of our living saints as well.
And if I have just one hope for each one of you, it would be that—to find blessings not merely in the success and security that life can bring, but also the hard and scary times when we can see glimpses of God’s presence in our lives and the lives of those around us. When we are overcome by darkness, the blessings come in narrow rays of light that break through the broken places in our lives. Those narrow rays of light might be the most beautiful and life sustaining light we’ve ever seen.