Sermon Archives

The Blessing of the Saints

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 05

Text: Matthew 5: 1-11

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

One thing I love about biblical preaching is the multiplicity of meanings that any given text will offer up. There’s rarely a single interpretation that everyone agrees on. Approaching these ancient texts, about which much ink has been spilled, is like entering into an ongoing, millennia-old conversation. And it gets even more interesting when you realize that it’s happening across a vast array of languages and cultures. I love that different translations often lead me to preach different sermons about the same passage. For example, the last time I preached on this familiar clip of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, also known as the Beatitudes. I recall dwelling on a particular translation for the word “Blessed” as in “blessed are the poor!” The New Testament Greek word for blessing, “marakoi,” translates literally into the English word happy. You can find this in countless versions of English language Bibles. Last time, I doubled down on that translation and used it for the rest of the sermon. I even began that sermon by leading a little sing along of a few verses of that catchy Pharell Williams pop tune from a few years back…”Because I’m Happy.” This time though, I’m choosing another path entirely— especially since Jesus didn’t speak a lick of Greek, a fact I conveniently forgot to mention last time! Scholars tells us that Jesus spoke first century Aramaic. And he would have read ancient Hebrew in scripture. His “sermon on the mount” actually riffs off that Hebrew. It echoes songs and psalms that carried similar cadences and phrases. “Blessed are those” was a formula he knew well and was making his own.

Bear with me as a I nerd out a bit here with some different translations. In fact, there are two Hebrew words for blessing. First, A’shar means blessing but it can also translate as “to find the right road”. And, Barak - yes, it’s the same spelling – which also means blessing but translated literally means “to stoop or bow down”. Consider what these translations open up when we return to these familiar words from Jesus.

“You are on the right road” when you are poor in spirit, or when you are merciful.

And forget for a moment about “happy” or even “blessed” are those who mourn, or “happy” are those who are persecuted. To be honest, this doesn’t make much sense despite what you’ve heard me preach before! Consider instead this far more poignant offering:

God bows down before those who mourn.
The Lord stoops before those who are meek.
God bends the knee to peacemakers and to those who are persecuted!

Today is All Saints Sunday, a day in which the church remembers that great cloud of witness who have come before. Today is the day we honor our losses but also give thanks for the examples of our loved ones and ancestors. As we do, we recommit to being ‘saints in the making,’ saints and yet sinners too. Always. All of us.
I’ve never thought of the Beatitudes as an All Saints Sunday sermon of Jesus, but it makes sense! Not only does it honor those who are grieving, whether recent or lasting losses. It also honors —and blesses— the memory of all who have shown us the way, all who took the right road and showed us how to live and love on this great journey of life and faith. The Beatitudes and All Saints also acknowledge who we already are, in God’s eyes, and who we are becoming. You see, all of the nine blessings we just heard are paired with a promise.

Imagine it: God bends a knee for those who mourn and they will be comforted! Peacemakers are on the right road, and they will be called God’s children! God bows down before the persecuted, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is describing the world as it is, albeit from God’s eyes. Our translations open for us that maybe God isn’t always looking down on us from on high, whether in judgment or love. What if God has stooped down such that God is looking up to us and to the saints, blessing the poor and the pure in heart and those who hunger for righteousness. Imagine this God’s eye view of the world as it is, with God looking up at us, encouraging us, honoring our good choices, extolling our love for one another and the world— and that’s just the here and now part of the sermon! That’s the way it is, says God, you are blessed when you mourn. You are blessed and I bow down before you when you are meek, when you are merciful, when you are poor or persecuted!

And that’s just the beginning! As for the world to come, well, “you’ll see” says God – you will receive mercy, you will see God, your hungry hearts will be filled, you will inherit the kingdom of heaven, as have those whose names we will recall together at the end of the service. The blessing of finding the right road now, and the promise of where it will lead us all!

All Saints Sunday is poignant for many of us not only because it calls to mind those tender absences we feel, day to day, year to year— those whom we have loved and still love but who are not here. It also calls to mind the ways they lived, the models they left, what we learned from them, and also what we are passing on to the next generation.

I recently came across a poem by David Whyte. It’s called “Dougie”. Here’s the first half:

My uncle Dougie 
was killed 
on Sword Beach, 
the 6th of June, 
nineteen hundred 
and forty four. 

The cadence 
of the date 
like a slow chant 
in my father's mind 
round the one 
central memory -- 

Dougie taught 
him how to swim 
before he died. 

There are other words
still said
In assuming
Reverence…
And you remake
And relive
The familiar loss
As if forging his absence
New again,
Each phrase measured
By its careful placement in silence.

I got this far in the poem and found myself wanting to try Whyte’s idea of the “cadence of the date” with a loved one of mine. It was as an almost immediate tear-jerker for me but invite you try it too, if you’d like, whether now or at a future time. At some point, try saying slowly to yourself, if you know it, the specific date on which you lost someone you love. There may be a special go-to memory as well, a phrase you often conjure like “Dougie taught me how to swim.” I’ll give you a moment in quiet.
What came to my heart was: the 3rd of September, nineteen hundred and ninety. Albert A Smith. My father. ‘He taught me how to play guitar when I was 7’, ‘how to turn wood on a lathe in his basement workshop,’ ‘how to be a father (for better and for worse).’ ‘He taught me the importance of moral accountability.’ These are the phrases that I often repeat about him in ‘assuming reverence,’ knowing full well that words can never do justice to his life or our connection. When I conjure them and that date, one of the most significant in my life, it does call forth an absence, to be sure, but the absence somehow becomes palpable and remarkably present, as if I’ve made a space for him to be near and close.

The poem about Uncle Dougie who died on Sword Beach continues:

Now I remember 
my father's repeated 
weekend need 
for the ice cold waters 
where he taught me 
how to swim 
and his fatherly 
satisfaction 
at the slowly 
growing strokes 
that kept his son 
above water. 

I could not know what 
was being given then 
not knowing 
how as the years pass 
we must always strike 
boldly to save those close to us, 
hold them 
above the drowning water 
with our words, 
so they live again. 

if not the man, 
then the loved 
memory,
Father to son,
Brother to brother,
Hand dipping in the water
Toward shore,
Saving them
Now
As we could not then,
Phrase by repeated phrase.

It can be hard to let these words sink in but there’s a gift in them, too, I think. There’s a reminder that we, also, need ways to hold above water, if not the person then at least the memories of loved ones— fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters, given family, chosen family, and dear, dear friends whose lives ended way too early! We need to hold them afloat lest they get drowned out by present day distraction. We need to hold the lessons they taught us, for better or worse, above the drowning water, saying their names, saying those dates, repeating those albeit paltry phrases that never do them justice. For their memories are blessed! They deserve to be bowed to and their memories, perhaps unlike any other human experience, can bless us by helping us to find the right way forward.

So—

Blessed be Uncle Dougie, for he has by now taught even the angels to swim!

Blessed be Albert A Smith, for he has by now seen God’s beloved workshop!

Blessed be Minnie Taylor, longtime Deacon of First Church, patron saint of the sacristy, whose favorite hymn We’re Marching to Zion we just sang and who is hearing that sung but a chorus divine!

Blessed be the puppet Saint Maya, the patron saint of cycling, for she will lead the peloton of God!

Corny as these blessings may sound to some of you (and to me too, a little), All Saints Sunday calls us to just this kind of imagination– the God’s eye view of our ancestors and each of us, the imagination of what comes next after we’ve lived out what lies between that “narrow parenthesis between our birth and death.” It calls us to the imagination of puppet saints and poets and sermons preach over 2,000 years ago that still carry the ring of truth!

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed be all the names and memories of those we will soon call out, for they have shown us the path, the right road, if sometimes by roundabout ways or by examples of what not to do.

Blessed be all saints and sinners alike.

Blessed be us, saints in the making, everyone, for we will be so remembered too, one day, when all the saints go marching in!

Amen.