Sermon: Saints and Citizens of the Kingdom

Sunday, November 5, 2017
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
All Saints Day

I brought some of my own saints with me today. This is one of the most precious pictures I have. This is my great-grandma Martha, my mom, Becky, and my grandma Orpha – we always called her Grandma Ziggy. And that’s little, tiny, baby me in the middle. I’m so grateful to have this photo, because all three of these women died by the time I was ten years old.

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My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was five or six years old. She fought it for several years, with courage and with laughter. But eventually, she died. I was only nine years old. After she died, at her funeral and afterward, I remember people coming up to us and saying things that I know they meant to be comforting. “At least she’s not suffering anymore.” “God just needed another angel in heaven.” “She’s in a better place.”

I know these words were meant to be kind, but in reality, these kinds of statements are an attempt to put a positive face on death and loss, and to push away the ugly, painful reality of grief. It’s like covering a pile of dirt with astroturf in a cemetery. We all know what’s under there and what it’s for, but that bright, fake, plasticky green seems to be just enough to help us pretend.

And afer Mom died, almost no one ever even talked about her. Growing up, I was taught not to “dwell on the negative,” to leave the past in the past, and just “get over it.” And so we went on almost as though she had never been there at all. It wasn’t until years later that someone called this into question for me.  While I was in the Peace Corps, I had a little girls’ art club that met at my house in the Dominican Republic. One day, I asked them to draw pictures of their families. And I drew one of mine, with me, my dad, my brother, and my sister. The little girls were outraged that I hadn’t drawn my mom in the picture. I explained to them that I didn’t have a mom anymore, that she had died. Their very poignant response to this was, “Yeah, but she’s still your mom!”

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Every year, the church observes the feast of All Saints Day. We remember our dead as a present part of our community. In fact, here at Peace, every single week, we remember the saints of Peace. And because we are so used to this practice, I think it’s easy for us to forget just how unusual it is. It’s easy for us to overlook the fact that Christian attitudes toward death and grief are profoundly countercultural. Our society views death as a kind of failure. It idolizes youth and marginalizes older people. It markets all kinds of potions and creams and snake oils to fight aging and help us to retain our “youthful glow.” It tells people that their loved ones are in a better place and that they should let it go at that.

But Christian practice is dramatically different. We remember the dead. We celebrate the living, at all stages of life. We grieve with those who grieve. And we live in the sure and certain hope of life that overcomes death.

Our gospel text for today, the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, really underscores this difference. Again, the Beatitudes are something that has become so familiar to us that it’s easy not to realize just how countercultural they are. I mean, we just talked about how our society feels about verse 4: “blessed are those who mourn.” Our society doesn’t bless the mourning; it expects them to get over it. And a society where the top 20% of households owns 85% of the wealth would hardly call the poor “blessed.” A society that is increasingly anti-immigrant, that sends even unaccompanied children back into the violence they came from, can hardly be called merciful. And a society that spends well over half its budget on the military hardly seems to have any use for peacemakers.

In fact, one of my seminary colleagues – my dear friend Maddie – reimagined what the Beatitudes might look like in the world we live in. But instead of the Beatitudes, she calls them the “Ridicudes,” and they go like this:

Ridiculed are the poor in spirit – why can’t they just get a job?
Ridiculed are those who mourn – isn’t it time they moved on?
Ridiculed are the meek – they need to grow a backbone.
Ridiculed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – those dirty SJWs.
Ridiculed are the merciful – criminals need to pay for what they’ve done!
Ridiculed are the pure in heart – one day their heads will come down from the clouds.
Ridiculed are the peacemakers – damn hippies.
Ridiculed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – they had it coming.

Do these kinds of attitudes ring any bells? It sounds like our world, doesn’t it?

So when we stand up and say, blessed are the poor, blessed are the grieving, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek, we are pushing back against these attitudes of selfishness and greed, and offering the world a vision of something better.

And when we say these blessings, we aren’t saying them as some kind of aspirational statements. It’s not something we only hope for in the future. We’re not saying, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if the peacemakers and the persecuted and the poor were blessed?”

No. We’re saying blessed ARE. Blessed are these ones. Because when we say these things, we aren’t just talking about a future hope in God’s kingdom. We are describing the reality of God’s kingdom right now, in which we are already beginning to live. We live real, tangible lives in this world, lives in which we experience pain, grief, separation, and death. But what gives us the strength to live these lives is knowing that we are also living our lives as saints and citizens of God’s countercultural kingdom. We are already citizens of a heavenly kingdom that cares for the marginalized and that transcends the very boundaries of life and death. It is a kingdom where hunger and thirst are no more, where God wipes the tears from our faces and quenches our thirst with the water of life. And that changes the way we live in this world. It changes everything.

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Today, as we celebrate All Saints Day, we remember our dead, and we are reminded that, with them, we too belong to God’s countercultural and life-giving kingdom. We are standing among the multitudes robed in white, palm branches in our hands. For that reason, I think it’s fitting that this is also the day on which we celebrate the harvest of fruits from our stewardship campaign. Now, to some of you, it may seem like I’m cheapening this festival day by talking about money, but I think nothing could be further from the truth. Living in the reality of God’s kingdom, as I said, changes the way we choose to live in this world. And as John wrote in his letter, our second reading, the world often does not understand it at all. To the world, a lot of what we do looks like insanity. Why dwell on death? Why get bogged down spending time with someone else in their grief? Why throw away your time and money on some old religious institution?

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Especially when it comes to wealth and material stuff, the world does not understand Jesus-followers at all. Money is the god of this world; it’s treated like an absolute good that we are expected to acquire and to accrue at any cost. I know it’s an uncomfortable topic for us to talk about, but that just goes to show how much power and influence it has in our lives. That’s why our choice to give it away carries so much power. When we as a congregation give away enough of our money to keep an expansive ministry like Peace Lutheran going, from the outside, it looks kind of nuts! But it is a potent witness to the power and hope of God’s kingdom. It’s a declaration of our true citizenship.

It takes a lot of faith and a lot of courage to live this way. We live a truly borderlands life, in God’s kingdom and at the same time in the material world. God knows that we have needs and wants and obligations in this world, even as we try to live out God’s call in our everyday lives. It is a daily struggle to try to be as cunning as serpents and yet as gentle as doves in our stewarding of God’s creation.

And so, I am deeply grateful for this festival day – because it reminds me why we do it. I am grateful to be reminded that there is more than death and separation, to be reminded that there are many, many more people in our own family drawings than we think. I am grateful for the chance to gather together as God’s kingdom people in the community of saints, both the living and those who have gone on before us. And I am thankful for the heavenly vision in our text from Revelation, a reminder of our true citizenship, and of the glorious future that God intends for us.

I hope that this day gives you comfort and hope as well. I hope that you leave here with that vision of the kingdom burning brightly in your hearts.

Can you see it, in your mind’s eye? The shining, glorious throne of God? Can you see the multitudes of the saints gathered around us, the jubilant faces of our ancestors in the faith? Close your eyes and breathe it all in. Smell the green smell of freshly cut palm branches and feel the rustle of the beautiful, clean robes you are wearing. Taste the water of life, running cool and fresh over your tongue. And listen. Can you hear it? The singing of the angels and the elders before the throne… Listen!

This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain,
Whose blood set us free to be people of God!
This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Power, riches, wisdom, and strength,
And honor, blessing, and glory are his!
This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Sing with all the people of God,
And join in the hymn of all creation!
Blessing, honor, glory, and might
Be to God and the Lamb forever, Amen!
This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, Alleluia!
This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

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