Grace and peace to you, saints of God, from our risen savior, Jesus Christ.
This morning, as we worship, we are surrounded by the saints. It’s really the case every Sunday, but on this day, we’ve made a special effort to make visible a portion of the great cloud of witnesses. We’ve brought in pictures of deceased loved ones, in thanksgiving for the faithful encouragement they have given us during their lives. We’ll walk by these photos as we come to the table for the Lord’s Supper. There we remember that Jesus gives himself so that we would all have life. We eat a morsel of bread as a taste of the eternal banquet at which we will join all the saints who have gone before us, and the saints who are yet to come.
As we gathered this morning, we were met with the signs of our entrance into sainthood. In font and water, word and promise, we were united with Jesus Christ. At our baptism, we put on Christ, we were clothed with the righteousness that belongs to Jesus. We were made saints, claimed as people of God, and joined the whole communion, the great host, of saints.
Many of you were made saints long before you could walk or talk, and no matter where you’ve gone or what you’ve said since then, you’re still a saint today. This may be the one day of the year when anyone calls you a saint. If tomorrow over coffee, you start telling your friends all about how you are one of the blessed saints of God, you’re more likely to elicit laughter and embarrassing stories than a hearty “amen.”
What is it about our God that God calls us “saints” when surely God knows we hardly deserve such a title? Does God not know that we really deserve no title but “sinners?” Even the precious little babies we baptize, although we tend to call them innocent, really are the best examples of the sin to which we are all born. Their only concern is for themselves, and they loudly demand that their needs are met, and quickly. This self-centeredness is the root of sin that continues to plague us our whole lives. And yet, from our earliest absorption in ourselves, God comes to us to name us, not sinners as we deserve, but saints.
Jesus does this same strange naming of opposites as he preaches to the crowds of disciples on the plain. We hear in the Gospel of Luke Jesus blessing groups of disciples. Jesus declares, “Blessed are you poor people, blessed are you hungry people, blessed are you mourning people, and blessed are you hated people.” Jesus tells people that they are blessed, right now, as they struggle with poverty, hunger, grief, and ridicule.
They are blessed now, and will receive a future where their circumstances are reversed. The poor will inherit a whole kingdom, the hungry will be filled, the mourners will laugh with joy, and the scorned will be rewarded. As is typical for the Gospel of Luke, good news for one group of people often means bad news for another. The reversal that flips the downtrodden up, drops the well-off and comfortable down. These reversals remind us that our trust in God leads us to look forward to even better things than we experience now. Our daily working for money, food, joy, and social standing need to be put into God’s perspective. As saints of God, our lives, our daily struggles, are met with God’s blessing that extends beyond this earthly life. We are blessed with God’s promise of good things to heal the pain of today.
Today, as we give thanks for the lives of all the saints, we fear what the next year will bring: who will struggle with illness, whose names might we be reading in remembrance. Many here have reason to mourn today. We have a long list of those who have died in the past year. Many of you have a special person in your lives you are thinking of today. We are surrounded by pictures of those we wish could have been with us longer. On this day, we celebrate them with thanksgiving, but we cannot deny that many are also grieving.
We who mourn, Jesus calls blessed. This is the kind of foolishness that the Apostle Paul calls a stumbling block: to those who don’t know Jesus, it doesn’t make any sense. What sign is there that would prove there is life after the reality of death? Why should we hope for more than what we can see? Why would there be joy alongside our mourning?
Jesus Christ makes possible a reality that turns upside down our reality and our expectations. We witness to this blessedness at every funeral and burial. What makes a Christian funeral different is that it’s not all about the person who died. The point isn’t to say nice things about the deceased, to attempt to solidify them in our memory, as if that were the only place they would now exist. The focus is on Jesus, through whom the reality of death is reversed. The sign that inspires our hope and trust is the empty cross and tomb. Jesus Christ died for each one of us, and God raised him from the dead. While we mourn the deaths of those we love, we also trust that God is faithful to each of them, and will raise them from the dead just as God raised Jesus.
God makes a new reality that turns what we perceive on its head. Any cause for despair, hopelessness, meaninglessness, God answers. God has a future with hope. God has already named and claimed us in that hope. We who are mourners, God makes joyful. We who are sinners, God makes saints. In God’s gracious promise, we are indeed blessed.
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