Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Family of Insufficient Saints

(I'm not sure why I haven't been posting sermons here, as well as on the St. Andrew's website, but better late than never.... Here's the sermon from All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 6.)

Over the past several weeks, different parishioners have shared how they hear God’s call as stewards and how that call is being answered in the life of this congregation. Steve Rock, our senior warden, spoke about the contrast between seeing this church as a club and seeing it as a family. Dan Spicer spoke about the value of kids and youth as full members of our parish family. Chris Nazar spoke about using our time, talent, and treasure to take this family’s love into the world through outreach ministry.

Today, our witnesses are a little young to get up and talk in church. In fact, they aren’t yet old enough to talk at all. They’re the six babies we’ll baptize in just a few minutes.

You may wonder what kind of witness these babies might have to offer, other than witnessing vigorously against strangers pouring water on their heads. Well, I think they have a lot to teach us about stewarding the blessings God gives us, especially in the light of this morning’s Gospel reading.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday; and in this year of the lectionary cycle, we hear the Beatitudes –- the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. “Beatitude” means ultimate blessing, and that’s what Jesus is describing here –- what it means to be one of the most fortunate, one of the truly blessed in God’s eyes –- what it means, in fact, to be one of the saints of God.

Now, if someone asked us, “What does it look like to be blessed?” –- our first answers probably wouldn’t sound much like what we just heard Jesus say. As we usually think about these things, we might say someone’s blessed if she has a spacious home in a gorgeous neighborhood. We might say someone’s blessed if her kids go to excellent schools, being shaped for successful lives. We might say someone’s blessed if she has a talent like art or music, something that clearly sets her apart from those of us who wish we could just draw or sing on pitch. Those are the kinds of blessings we usually think about –- blessings about what we possess, or what we’ve achieved, or what we can do.

When Jesus starts talking about blessedness, we can bet he’s going down a different path. For Jesus, the blessed are those who are poor and broken in spirit, those who mourn a deep emptiness in their hearts, those who’ve been humbled by what life dishes out, those who manage to show mercy despite their own injuries, those who are persecuted for their faithfulness to God’s ways. Blessed and fortunate are those who find themselves powerless in the world’s eyes, Jesus says.

What kind of blessing is that? Well, it’s the surprising blessing of having our expectations turned on their heads -– expectations about ourselves and expectations about those with whom we share our lives.

The culture around us says that what we have, or what we don’t have, is a function of our own capacity. We succeed in school –- or not -– based on the hard work and commitment we put into our studies. We succeed in our professional lives –- or not -- based on our insightful analysis, strong leadership, and excellent performance. We succeed in our marriages and child-rearing –- or not -– by reading books, learning from experts, and becoming skilled in managing our closest relationships. Viewed through the eyes of the culture, we are blessed –- or not -– largely by virtue of ... our own virtues. If we’re good enough, our lives will be good, too.

There’s a lot of truth in how the culture defines success. But success and blessedness aren’t necessarily the same thing. To see blessedness, we need look no farther than to the children in our front pews this morning. These babies have done nothing to earn their parents’ love. They’ve done nothing to earn the embrace of their blankets and the comfort of their cribs. They’ve done nothing to earn the welcome they’re receiving today into the fellowship of the saints; no heroic service for the kingdom of God places them in the same ranks as Mary and Peter and Andrew. But here they are anyway, loved by their families and welcomed into the family of God.

Those who aren’t “good enough,” those who haven’t proven themselves –- these are the inheritors of God’s richest blessing, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven itself.

There’s a reason we proclaim, every All Saints’ Day, that all of us are saints of God. And the reason why isn’t because we’re all great. Frankly, it’s because we’re all not that great. And neither are the saints. True saints are those who come to situations of conflict looking not to be victors but peacemakers. True saints are those who come to the table not to put on a sumptuous feast themselves but with empty hands, eager for God to fill them. True saints are those who come to church on a Sunday morning admitting that life has left their spirits battered and bruised and that they need God’s healing love, freely given.

The babies in our front pews this morning are completely insufficient, as functional human beings go. They can’t take care of themselves or provide for themselves -– left on their own, they can’t even survive. They must have family, they must have community, simply to live from one day to the next.

So they may be our best example of the saints of God, models for us to emulate. Blessed are those, Jesus says, who can see their own insufficiency and who are humble enough to rely on God instead of relying solely on themselves. Blessed are these, Jesus says, for they shall be truly satisfied by knowing the kingdom of heaven –- and not just in the sense of eternal life in the sweet by and by. These insufficient saints will know the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.

You don’t have to look far to see it. In fact, just look around. The kingdom of heaven is among you.

This is the family of God, the nursery in which God’s children of all ages grow into spiritual adulthood. This is our parish family, the place where we can admit that we aren’t –- and can never be –- the autonomous overachievers the world tells us to be. When, like little kids, we try to carry burdens too heavy for us to bear on our own, our family is there, saying, “Wait, let me help you with that.” In this family, there is no shame in needing someone’s help. In this family, we find our connection with God made real and active in our connections with each other. When we come together for a meeting or a picnic or party or a dinner or a class, we see that we are truly not alone on this journey -– because our brothers and sisters are there.

In the relationships of this family, we live out the fundamental truth of stewardship, the real bottom line that relates to so much more than money. That fundamental truth is this: we are dependent on God for everything that comes to us, and ultimately we can’t make it on our own. We need a family of faith to feed our spirits, satisfy our hunger, heal our hearts, and wipe away the tears from our eyes.

If you understand that, then you’ve probably already noticed something I’m going to ask you to notice now: that some of the members of our family haven’t been here for one of our Sunday-morning reunions in quite some time. There are many reasons why, I’m sure –- probably a different reason for each missing brother or sister. But whatever the reason, their absence diminishes us as the family of God in this place. And it’s equally true that their absence diminishes them. Without this family bearing us up, we’re left to sink or swim on our own in the waters of this world. And you can’t swim on your own forever.

So as you’re here this morning, looking at all these familiar faces and welcoming new children into God’s family, think for a moment about the saints who aren’t here. At our parish meeting downstairs after this service, we’ll talk more about how we might reach out to these family members we’ve been missing. But for now, just do this: pray for them, and pray for us. Pray that God’s love might so move the saints in this room that we would reach out in that love to invite our brothers and sisters back to this table -– the banquet table of the kingdom of heaven, present among us right now.

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