READING FROM THE GOSPEL (Luke 6: 20-31)
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
SERMON “Blessed Are You” by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on All Saints Day, November 6, 2016
First Church in Sterling, MA
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We need the saints, though in a world of soundbites and short attention spans and 24 hour news cycles, we sometimes forget that we do. The primary reason we need church is because of the two most oft-repeated phrases in our scriptures: “Do not be afraid,” and “Remember.” We are doomed without our memory.
We need the saints.
Last week, in Matt’s letter to his daughter dedicated here, he said: There is something special about knowing this building will watch over you, thinking about the memories of generations hidden in the timbers of its frame. Our saints are hidden in the timbers of this frame—they hallow these hallways; they are the very foundation of this building and these people. They haunt us in the very best way. The Saints built the walls of this church, and the covenants we promise to one another. The stories we tell are their stories. They are the reason people have been coming together to this church in unity in love for hundreds of years. We live because of them.
We need the saints because our job is to become saints. They showed us how by their example.
And Lord, for those of you who are new to us this morning, you need to know that we lost so many saints this past year. I want to tell you about two of them.
Rick Dell was a member of First Church in Sterling. Husband of Pam, friend to all. Pam and I and their niece sang him “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor as he lay dying in hospice. This church was home to Rick. He and Pam were married here in 1995, and Pastor Jonathan sang the Lord’s Prayer in their wedding. Rick’s faith blossomed here, just as his friendships did. He held leadership roles here including Treasurer. And Rick meant a lot to this church. His smile was contagious, and so was his kindness. He was the kind of guy that would run into burning buildings to save people, not worrying about his own life.
I will never forget the day when the choir and I took church to Rick one day on the Sunday before Thanksgiving almost exactly a year ago, because he was too weak to sit in the pews. It was his last service with us. I was sitting with him, his hand gripping my hand so hard I could still feel his grip after I went home. And this choir sang him to heaven even while he was still here on earth with the song they will sing for you this morning. “if you would mourn me and bring me to God. Sing me a requiem. Sing me to heaven.”
We also prayed the Thanksgiving prayer by Robert Lewis Stephenson as we had in worship that day:
“Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and, down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another.”
I served him communion that day, and he smiled and wept. For the joy of friendship; for the joy of remembering, for breaking bread together one more time, and tasting the sharp sweet taste of grape juice-- the symbol of our lives poured out for each other. Loyal and loving to one another down to the gates of death. Rick takes communion with us again today, too.
We need the saints.
Anita Benware was beloved by this congregation, and she loved this congregation right back. On the first day I preached here, as First Church’s new, young female settled pastor, the rest of the elders sat back squinting their eyes at me skeptically. But at the end of my sermon, Anita loudly announced to the whole congregation, “She’s a keepa!” almost daring the rest of the congregation to say otherwise.
She sat in that pew, right there, with Ken, beaming up at me while I preached each week. “I love ya,” she’d say, as she greeted me in the receiving line. “You’re a good one,” she’d say. I looked forward to seeing that smile every Sunday. She is there, in the pew, next to Ken, who she fell in love with at 80, who made her giggle like a school girl.
This was Anita’s place, and we were her people. Each week, she held up our visitor card, with a bright toothy white smile in exuberant hospitality to our guests and visitors. Every time we raise that card up in the air, we honor her memory.
We have an Aging Gracefully group, which is a group of seniors who meets twice a month here at the church. Anita was a faithful member. One day when I was there the group was talking about dealing with adult children. The folks in the group were sharing about how their adult children treat them like kids now…trying to put them in nursing homes and telling them they can’t eat this, and they can’t eat that, and they can’t go on trips to the Caribbean.
I will never forget Anita’s response.
She said, “yeah, the other day I was walking with my son, and he was holding my arm, and he told me to watch out for a hole in the sidewalk.” And I said, “Jesus, I’ve been walking on this sidewalk for 30 years, you think I don’t know there’s a hole there?
“But you know what?” she said to the rest of the group, “that’s how they love ya. They are just trying to show you that they love ya. And that’s a lot nicer than the alternative. So I just let them steer me around the holes, and I pretend that I need them to help me, because that’s how they show me that they love me, and I love them even though they are ridiculous.” We need our Saints because it is in their memory that we remember how to love—they remind us to just let people steer us around the holes, even though we don’t need the help.
We need the Saints.
Anita was not perfect. She swore like a truck driver, told you exactly what she thought of you when she was mad at you. She told me once about her erstwhile plan to piss on her abusive first husband’s grave. She didn’t do it when he died not because she thought better of it, but because she decided he wasn’t worth it.
Our friend, Jen Kalnicki just sent me a meme last week on Facebook that says, “if you don’t sin, Jesus died for nothing.”
We don’t have to be sinless to be a saint. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to commit ourselves to the process of becoming Saints. We need to commit to rehearsing for the reign of Love on earth.
“The Beatitudes”—the scripture we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke-- means in Latin a condition or statement of blessedness. We read Jesus’ Beatitudes on all Saints day every year because Saints are just imperfect people who lived the spirit of this blessedness. We need to look no further than the Beatitudes for an instruction book for sainthood.
The Beatitudes is the Manual for “Becoming Saints,” because it highlights the clash between the world as it is, and the world as it should be.
The world says, the more stuff you have, the happier you’ll be. Jesus says: “Blessed are you whose wallet is empty, and you whose credit card is maxed out, and blessed are those of you who don’t know where your next meal will come from. Blessed are you who have plenty to eat, but not enough meaning in your life, for you are starving. You will be fed.”
The world says, happiness means nothing bad ever happens to you. Jesus in the “Becoming Saints Manual” says “Blessed are you who know what it’s like to mourn the death of a husband, a wife, a relationship, a child, because you will love other people with a profound and real love exactly when they need it.”
The world says, “You have to be strong and powerful to be happy.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who know you are a little or a lot messed up, afraid and unsure and are willing to admit it--for your vulnerability is your strength.”
The world says, “To be happy, you have to be super hot, have great hair, and look good in a bathing suit” and in the “Becoming Saints Manual” Jesus says “Blessed are you who love others exactly as they are, and who love yourself exactly as you are, for you will see God.”
The world says, “Seek revenge. Take to twitter in retaliation. Return anger for anger. Hurt those who hurt you,” And Jesus in the “Becoming Saints Manual” says, “Blessed are you who love your enemies, for you will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The world says, “Win every fight. Show no mercy. Arm yourself with an arsenal of weapons so that you may protect you and yours,” And Jesus in the “Becoming Saints Manual” says “Blessed are you who are merciful, for you will receive mercy” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
The world says, “Be nice to everyone so that no one will think badly of you. Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company and keep your voice down,” And Jesus in the “Becoming Saints Manual” says, “Blessed are you who are persecuted because you stand up for the good” and “blessed are you who are unpopular because you refuse to be silent in the face of tyranny and oppression,” “blessed are you who pull the lever this Tuesday not for your own interests, but for the interest of those on the margins,” “for your reward will be the kingdom of heaven.
The Becoming Saints manual says, “BLESSED ARE YOU.”
Jesus says “Blessed are you.”
I want to close with one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.