There’s something about our commemoration of All the Saints each year that appeals to historical sensibilities. Each year, as I reflect on the day and prepare my sermon, I find myself drawn to the stories of Christians who lived in the past. Usually my focus is not on the famous saints, the ones we remember in our calendar of commemorations, but on ordinary men and women who lived out lives of faithfulness in obscurity.
I also think about those who have been saints in my life, the people who have played roles in my formation as a Christian. It’s probably not something most of you have done; or if you have, it’s probably not something you do regularly or intentionally. So I would like you to take a moment right now, to think of someone who has been a model of faith for you, perhaps someone who brought you to faith or deepened your faith. Take a moment, think of someone, and think, too, what it was about them that made them a spiritual mentor or guide for you.
After you’ve done that, I’d like you to turn to the person sitting next to you, if you don’t know each other, introduce yourselves, and briefly share your stories.
Now, it’s possible, I suppose, that some of you can’t think of anyone quite like that. If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s because there’s been nobody in your life that has played such a role. Rather, I think it’s because you probably haven’t realized that someone, probably many people, have been playing such roles. Their influence on you may not even have been noticeable.
Today’s gospel helps us to make sense of the roles others play in our lives, and also about the roles we may play in the lives of others. It takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. For Matthew, these are the first words that Jesus says publicly. It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and we commonly call these first verses the beatitudes—the blessings. Blessing or blessed is one of those words we don’t use in regular conversation anymore, except when someone sneezes, or in certain phrases, like the southern “Well, bless your heart!” and even then we use the word without thinking about it much.
The word that’s translated as “blessed” could also be translated “happy” and that translation may help us get at all this means. “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Get it now?
I didn’t think so. That makes no sense, but that may be what Jesus means by all this. Happy are the poor in spirit; happy are the meek, happy are the merciful, happy are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, happy are the peace makers, happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We don’t associate any of those things with happiness. For us, happiness is associated with a very different range of ideas, emotions, and states of being. We can’t fathom how the poor in spirit might be happy.
So we try to do something else with these sayings. We try to make them goals for ourselves—if we become poor in spirit, we will attain the kingdom of heaven, if we become merciful, we will receive mercy. But that’s not what Jesus is saying, either. Rather, those who are already poor in spirit are blessed, those who are merciful are blessed. Jesus is describing people who are already doing or being the things for which they are blessed.
We know the world we live in isn’t like the world that Jesus describes. We know that the meek, the pure in heart, peacemakers, the poor in spirit are not praised or rewarded in our culture. What Jesus is describing is an alternate reality with different values. Jesus is proclaiming, as he does throughout the gospel of Matthew, the reign of God. It’s a world turned upside-down, where the last are first and the first are last, where the meek, not the powerful inherit; where the merciful receive mercy.
I would like you to think back to that person who came to mind as a spiritual guide or mentor, someone you looked up to. Did they express any of the values blessed by Jesus? Did their lives exemplify one or more of the values of the reign of God?
I hope you have been thinking of that person or people who have been saints to you. Now, I’m going to ask you what might be a more difficult question: How are you a spiritual guide, mentor, support for the people in your life? How are you accompanying and aiding others on their spiritual journeys? Are you a blessing in the lives of others? The answer is, of course you are. And you may not even know it.
The wonderful thing about the beatitudes is that they are not just counter-cultural or counter-intuitive. They really do describe an alternative reality. But it’s an alternative reality in which we already exist as members of the body of Christ, as children of God. We experience that alternative reality when we encounter Jesus Christ, when we share in the Eucharistic feast. We experience a world where all are welcome and equal, where we all share one bread, where we all become one body. At the Eucharistic feast, we experience for a moment, our acceptance by a loving and gracious God, who accepts as we are, with our weaknesses, our shortcomings.
When we go from this place into the world, taking our experience of being blessed by God, we take too the responsibility, and the possibility, of blessing others, of being a blessing to the world. I hope some of you will take the opportunity today to thank those who have been blessings in your life and that you will open your eyes to the ways in which you bless others. Thanks be to God!