When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Today I want to begin with an illustration from a movie that a person I follow for sermon ideas. The movieis “The Incredibles.” For those of you who might not be familiar with that movie, it is a 2004 American computer-animated superhero film, written and directed by Brad Bird and produced by Pixar Animation Studios. I don’t want to be a spoiler for those of you who have not seen this great film, so I won’t go into the narrative for my message today but I do encourage you to watch it.
I do want to focus on Buddy Pine, the superhero fan turned villain. Buddy resents the Supers (superheros in the movie), not so much because they have powers he lacks.
He hates them because they represent something he will never be, namely, a hero. Buddy, it seems, has no interest in protecting the public or fighting evil. He craves the status, the admiration and esteem in which the Supers were held in their heyday. In one very telling exchange with Mr. Incredible, Pine discloses his plan to murder all the Supers and set the Omnidroid loose on society. As he alone holds the key to disabling the Omnidroid, it will appear to all the world that Pine is a true superhero when he shuts the savage robot down. Anyone with the technology to manage it can be a superhero. Buddy ends this dialogue by saying: “And when everyone is super, nobody will be.” Rather than raising himself up through aspiring to the Supers’ heroism, Buddy Pine would pull them all down to his own level.
Let’s take a look at our familiar Gospel text for today. This is the Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Matthew, and it is very different from what some rabbis of the time would have said. The sayings commonly known as the beatitudes are not telling people what they have to do to be blessed by God; instead, they are telling them what kind of people and character qualities are already blessed by God.
Instead of requirements, the beatitudes describe what God’s grace looks like for humanity. But it is a radical departure from what the culture says about who God blesses and how those blessings come about. Blessings like comfort, mercy and purity come to those who life humbles, who experience sorrow, and who are merciful to others. The prophets mentioned in verse 12 shared messages from God to the people of Israel, which parallels the way followers of Christ are called to share the good news of salvation with others. Jesus knows that not everyone is going to be open to hearing about him, and that his followers are going to face persecution.
So in light of the text what does the movie possibly have to do with All Saints? Well, it makes me wonder whether we protestants don’t cheapen the term “saint” when we apply it as liberally as we do. Yes, I understand that in some sense all the baptized are “saints” and that this status is conferred upon us by grace alone through faith—not by any effort on our part. With that understanding, “saint” is not a title I would willingly confer on myself. I cannot imagine telling anyone to “imitate me” as does Saint Paul. But there are people I believe are worth imitating and that I do my best to imitate, however imperfectly.
- I try to emulate Saint Augustine’s thirst for understanding and his devotion to articulating the Christian faith in the shadow of civilization’s collapse.
- I try to emulate St. Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the love and wellbeing of all creation.
- I struggle to emulate the courageous witness to Christ given by Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the weight of oppression and hostility.
- I struggle to live out grace to others that God bestows upon us described by Martin Luther.
- I try to practice the faithful concern and care for others that my Aunt Sharon showed to many people who often didn’t treat her fairly because she was gay.
I do not come close to matching the work and witness of these saints. But I like to think that I am a better man for having spent my life trying.
We live in a cynical age where negative campaigning, tearing one another down and ruining reputations is the norm.
Though it probably is not fair to blame social media for all of this, there is no doubt that it has exacerbated the problem. Many voices I hear regularly on social media take a perverse delight in exposing the shortcomings and failures of public figures, be they politicians, preachers, journalists, or others.
Of course, corruption, falsehood and hypocrisy need to be exposed. No apology is required for that. But I sometimes worry that our overheated zeal for cutting people down to size amounts to nothing more than a desire for a world where “everyone is super” and therefore nobody is. I worry that we are lending credence to the jaded assumption that all politicians are corrupt liars, all journalists are purveyors of fake news, all preachers are hucksters, all religious people hypocrites, all cops are bullies, everybody is finally out for themselves alone and life is just a war of all against all. People who put their lives on the line for anything that doesn’t profit them are “suckers.” I worry that we are making for ourselves a world without heroes, saints or anything worth sacrificing for. That would be a bleak and sorry place.
If we are not seeing saints among us these days, perhaps it is because we are looking in the wrong places. Our culture celebrates power and success, but often sainthood lives under the shadow of weakness and failure. Heroism burns most brightly in the wake of defeat.
- I think of Congress and other officials who willing vote on principle against legislation they knew it could and ultimately did result in her losing re-election.
- I think of a people who have more than enough support for nomination as a synodical bishop, but declined because they did not feel called to that officde and felt others we more deserving.
- I think of professional athletes and retired nurses and first responders who voluntarily returned to practice last March, serving on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19.
There are saints among us worthy of our emulation. We just need eyes to see them.
Most of us never rise to the level of saintly heroism anymore than saintly heroism rises to the level of Jesus’ perfect obedience to the will of his Father.
But the courage, humility and willingness to put the wellbeing of neighbors and the priorities of God’s reign ahead of self interest displayed in the lives of the saints can inspire the rest of us to be better disciples of Jesus.
In America today, Christians have a great deal of freedom to talk about our faith and share it with others, but that doesn’t mean it will always be well-received. Elements of the culture are still hostile toward Christians. Persecution may not include being martyred, but that doesn’t mean you won’t face some sort of negativity for your beliefs.
If I were to choose a word to capture the tone, character, and importance of Jesus’ sermon, it would be “transformation.” We are invited to transform our sense of where God is at work. Not simply, or even primarily, in places of strength, but in places of vulnerability—amid our grief, alongside those who exercise mercy and work for righteousness, and in so many other activities the world considers not just meek but weak. The God we know in Jesus always shows up where we least expect God to be: in a feeding trough in a stable rather than in a jeweled crib in a palace, among the poor and destitute rather than with the rich and powerful, and on the cross of an outlaw rather than a war horse of a conquering hero. Similarly, God shows up in our acts of sacrifice and mercy rather than through assertions of will and attempts to collect worldly power and goods.
It may not feel like God is blessing you when you face persecution, but that’s because some of our blessings are not experienced during our life on earth. The kingdom Jesus describes starts now, but its ultimate fulfillment is in heaven.
We can’t wait until heaven to look for the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, but we also can’t expect to fully experience that kingdom in this life either.