Sermon for High Mass – All Saints’ Day Sunday 6 November 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar, All Saints Margaret Street
Readings: Isaiah 56: 3-8 ; Hebrews 12: 18-24 ; Matthew 5.
The liturgy for All Saints speaks of our being encouraged by the example of the saints. I don’t know about you, but when I hear or read of heroic deeds and holy lives, the effect can be quite the opposite: one of discouragement. How can I ever emulate them?
When we listen to today’s gospel reading – the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon on the Mount, we might well feel the same sense of discouragement; if we think that these are the conditions of entry into the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew has just been showing Jesus announcing the nearness of the kingdom and calling disciples. Now he begins to fill out what “kingdom” and “discipleship.” Neither is what the wisdom of the world expects.
They are not statements about general human virtues – most are the exact opposite of worldly wisdom. They pronounce blessing on authentic disciples in the Christian community. They do not describe nine different groups of good people who get to go to heaven, but are nine declarations about the blessedness, contrary to all appearances, of the community which lives in anticipation of God’s reign. Like everything in Matthew, they are oriented to life together in the community of discipleship, not an individualistic ethics. The blessings of the Beatitudes are not the conditions of conversion to Christ, but the consequence of it. They describe what a community called by Jesus, centred on him, formed by his gospel, fed by his sacraments, a people who live as if the kingdom of heaven has already come, looks like. They are the marks of Christian community.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
From the Psalms onward, the “poor” is a description of the true people of God, those who know their communal and individual lives are not under their own control and that they are dependent on God. The “blessed” are not those who claim a rugged independence and strong sense of self-worth, but those whose only identity and security is in God. Their identity is not in what they know or possess, but in having a poverty of spirit. Poverty of spirit was not limited to the destitute, but their dependence on God and others was seen as a model for the life of all believers in the God who had repeatedly made known through law and prophets his special care for the poor.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” does not refer only to those who are bereaved, who have lost a loved one; as we have done in this last week with our beloved Dilys Thomas. If you were at Evensong last Sunday, you heard me preaching on the Book of Lamentations, and on the place in scripture and worship of lament. The second beatitude speaks of those who lament, who sorrow and weep over the evil cruelty of our world; that so much of its life is not under God’s rule: that the poor remain in poverty, the hungry go unfed, the sick untended for, prisoners unvisited, the lonely unloved, strangers find no welcome, swords or smart bombs are not turned into ploughshares, children grow up neglected and abused, people are hated and denied dignity because of the colour of their skin, their faith, their gender or their sexuality.
It is sometimes said that Matthew spiritualizes the idea of poverty in a way which gives the comfortable of this world a get-out clause. But if we read to the end of the gospel and his description of the last judgement with its “Inasmuch as you did it not unto these the least of my children, you did it not unto me,” we see that is anything but true.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Meekness is not a quality much appreciated in today’s world. It is not a virtue for the aggressive and competitive: it will not get you far in “The Apprentice,” or even filling in a job application in the Church of England. But “meek” here means not weak or soft, but the opposite of the proud, the self-assured, those over-confident in their own abilities: those whom the Psalmist describes as those who “wear their pride like a necklace. The meek know their true position as creatures before their Creator; subject to God’s law, in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. They are “docile” in the sense of being willing to learn, to be taught by God. Their meekness before God translates into their attitudes to others; they are considerate and unassuming.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Disciples of Jesus Christ do not only lament that things are not as they should be; they long actively for them to be that way. They pray, we pray, as Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount, for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
That dependence on God of which poverty of spirit and meekness speak does not mean passive inactivity on the part of the community of disciples. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven translates into behaviour which mirrors that of the one who supremely demonstrates that dependence on God: Jesus.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God and the kingdom of heaven entails being “merciful,” for mercy is a key attribute of God. We see it above all in his forgiveness. We are reminded every time we say the Lord’s Prayer – and we should say it often – that God expects those who seek forgiveness to be themselves forgiving. Jesus’ ministry of compassion demonstrates that divine mercy. His teaching makes it clear that anyone who does not show mercy cannot count on God’s. He rejects a legalistic piety that fusses about externals but neglects mercy – one of the “weightier matters of the law.” That is a temptation not only for the Pharisees we encounter in the pages of the New Testament but for all religious people. We may choose different things to be judgmental about, but the result is same neglect of that mercy which triumphs over judgement.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“Purity” has a rather antiseptic, sterile, “kills all known germs,” sound to it. It suggests the avoidance of sin more than the pursuit of goodness and holiness. We assume that it is just about sex.
But placing this beatitude between mercy and peace-making makes clear that though it might appear passive it is really active in character. The “heart” in scripture is the centre of all being. It shapes our entire life, often unconsciously. Purity of heart means being single-minded devotion to God and his will. It means allowing the Gospel to transform the way in which we relate to others. As we see God revealed in Jesus Christ, we come to see others revealed as God’s children.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
Discipleship is about more than a theoretical preference for peace over conflict; much less the desire for a quiet life. It means an active cooperation in bringing about peace. It blends with Matthew’s emphasis on forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.
God’s peace, his Shalom, is more than the absence of war. It is a fullness, a wholeness, a perfect state of well-being in both individual and society at every level. It is about the common good. No person or community achieves this without sustained effort. A ceasefire or a peace treaty between nations might bring cessation of hostilities but more is needed if true reconciliation and peace is to be achieved. The making of peace between nations and within them, in communities, families, congregations, requires patient effort and willingness to listen to the other. On a national and international level, it demands a concerted and sustained effort to encourage the virtues which develop and sustain peace. In an anxious and febrile age, one in which truth seems to be no more than what any demagogue or media mogul wants it to be, when those who shout loudest think that is enough to win the argument, commitment to truth and truthfulness, becomes all the more important the more it is threatened. The same is true of the rule of law which make a peaceful society possible; which protect the weak against the tyranny of the strong; a point which seems to have eluded some of our newspaper editors and politicians in these last few days.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first saints the Church began to commemorate were the martyrs; those whose witness to the kingdom of Christ had brought them into a fatal conflict with the kingdoms of this world; just as his own total dedication to the will of his Father had brought Jesus to the cross.
While we should discount over-heated claims from some in the west that Christians are persecuted in our societies, this is not just ancient history but a present reality for many of our fellow-believers today: Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. We who are not persecuted have a responsibility not to forget those who are, or allow them to be forgotten for reasons of political expediency. We have to recognize, too, that there are those who have been martyred not by the sworn enemies of the Church, but by those who while claiming to be fellow-believers, rejected persecuted those whose prophetic voices called people back to the righteousness of the kingdom. We who are not persecuted might ask whether that is because no one regards us as enough of a threat to their position to be worth bothering about.
In Genesis we read that God spoke and creation came into being. The truth of the prophets’ words in the Old Testament sprang from them being authentic spokespersons for God,. In the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, the one who speaks is not just another wise human being but the Son of God. The authority behind the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount is the Son of God, the Lord of the Church, who in his risen power is able to make these words effective and the source of blessing. These words are not law but gospel – good news. When we hear and receive and act upon that good news, then we find that blessing. When we read the lives of the saints, we find not discouragement but the evidence that this is possible.