Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sermon: All Saints – 2015

1 November 2015

Text: Matt 5:1-12 (Rev 7:2-17, 1 John 3:1-3)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Dear friends, the word “saint” means many things and has many contexts.  It also has many misunderstood meanings.  On this day in which we honor all of the saints of the Church, known and unknown, great and small, those who were martyred for the faith, and those who died comfortably in their beds, it is particularly fitting that we ponder what it is to be a saint.

The popular culture has it all wrong, as usual.  To them, a saint is judged solely by how nice he is, how much of a humanitarian he is, and how famous he is for his work.  To the world, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are saints.  John Lennon is a saint.  All soldiers who die in battle are saints.  Teachers  who take interest in them or idealists who wished to change the world are examples of saints as far as the world is concerned.

But this is not what is meant in the Scriptures by sainthood.

Many Christians likewise have a wrongheaded view of sainthood, thinking that a saint is a person who has lived so holy a life that he or she is admitted directly to the gates of heaven upon death because of his or her goodness. 

Others may get caught up in the bureaucratic definition of sainthood, a matter of jumping through procedural hoops, filling out the right forms, and getting the proper rubber stamps to be officially canonized by a church hierarchy.

Dear friends, when St. Paul’s addresses his letters in the Bible to the “saints,” he is not even referring to the dead, but rather to the ordinary living and far-from-perfect Christians who work hard during the week, who raise their families, and who attend the services of the Church on the Lord’s Day.

On this day, dear friends, we are honoring the saints who have gone before us, those who have passed from this life to eternity, and who now sing the praises of God for forever, taking their rest from their labors, and waiting for the day when their bodies will rise, and they will be reunited with us as well in the flesh.

But what makes a saint is not a seal from a church bureaucrat, nor is it a person’s righteous deeds.  Now, to be sure, we do emulate the great acts of the saints.  We all need heroes and role models after all.  But they didn’t get to be saints by earning the title through their sweat.  Rather they are saints because of our Lord’s blood shed on the cross and by the waters of Holy Baptism, which claimed them in the name of the Triune God to be God’s own child, given a new birth.  The saints live in their baptism, and their deeds reflect their faith that was given to them by grace.

But notice again what our Lord says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Of course, our blessed Lord is not using the words “hunger” and “thirst” in a literal sense.  These words both have a figurative meaning, “to long ardently” for something.  For these words indicate a lack of something.  To be hungry in the literal sense goes back to the garden of Eden, after the fall, when humanity had to struggle with the soil just to eke out food to eat, food which is often denied because of draught or disease or insects or just plain uncooperative land.  To be thirsty in the literal sense also goes back to the garden of Eden after the fall, when the perfect rivers no longer brought fresh waters in abundance, as draught and polluted water supplies and the malice of enemies mean that there is no assurance of a drink of water at any given time. 

Jesus uses these powerful words that remind us of the fall, namely “to hunger” and “to thirst”, in a figurative way, meaning that we lack something that we really want, something that we desperately yearn for and seek after, as though our life depends on it – because it does!

For our Lord isn’t talking about food and water, but something far more elusive since the fall: righteousness.  To be a saint is to be hungry and thirsty for righteousness, not because we are righteous, dear brothers and sisters, but precisely because we aren’t!  We hunger and thirst for it first and foremost because we lack it, and we know it.

This perplexes the world.  How can we honor people who lack righteousness as saints?

Well, in order to hunger and thirst for it, you must desire it.  The unholy trinity of the world, the devil, and our sinful flesh do not desire righteousness, but rather satisfaction.  We want to be comfortable and rich.  We want to feel good.  We want to be entertained.  We want what we want, and we want it when we want it.  As one popular song puts it: “I want it all, and I want it now.”

But, dear friends, sainthood seeks after something the world scoffs at because it is considered worthless: and that is righteousness.  To be righteous is to be freed from sin.  It is to have a new nature, one that seeks after spiritual things (treasure stored up in heaven) rather than corrupted material things (those things that rust, are eaten by moths, and are stolen).  To hunger and thirst for righteousness seeks communion with God in love, rather than that which the world admires: money, fame, power, comfort, entertainment, and control of others.  But before one can be righteous, one must recognize that one is not righteous, but desires to be. There is a desire to be changed, transformed, and made into something different.

In other words, the saints we honor today are people who understood how unsaintly they were, but wanted to be changed.  They also knew that they could not become righteous through prayer, by buying a token from the church, by good works, by being social justice warriors, or by will power.  One who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is drawn to the cross, to the preaching of the Word, to the Holy Absolution, to the body and blood of the Lord, to the transformative and life-giving power of the Word and Sacraments.

Sainthood is humility, not pride.  It is love, not ambition.  It is being blessed by Christ in spite of our mourning and meekness, and our lack.  It is rooted in mercy and purity instead of power and might.  It is to be a peacemaker instead of a warmonger. And it is to bear the cross of mockery, hatred, oppression, and perhaps even the loss of life itself for the sake of Jesus Christ and the confession of the Gospel.

For notice the promise, dear friends.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who know their lack of righteousness and yet who desire it, will be blessed.  By the blood of the Lamb, through His Word, by means of Holy Baptism, they who hunger and thirst “shall be satisfied.”  Their hunger will be ended by eating living bread from heaven.  Their thirst will be quenched by living water.  Their desire for righteousness, their acknowledgement that they are poor, miserable sinners will be replaced by the very righteousness that they seek after.

It is an alien righteousness, that is, a righteousness won for you by someone else at the cross.  That someone else is Christ.  And yes, dear friends, you are saints.  You are still feebly struggling in this fallen world, even with your own fallen flesh.  You still hunger and thirst, and struggle, and fall into sin, to be raised to life again and again by the promise of the Lamb. And when your life in this vale of tears comes to an end, those who persevere in the promise will be saved and made anew, to be received into the Church Triumphant, they who in glory shine, those who rest from their labors, who worship God, saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.”

We honor these beloved saints today, our heroic brothers and sisters in Christ, and we look to their examples of faithfulness to spur us on to good works.  And yet we also know that it is Christ who lives in us, the Holy Spirit who guides and protects us, and the Father’s love for us that satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

For it is by God’s grace that you saints have gathered here in this saintly, holy place to join the saints triumphant in this very worship of the Lamb, to unite around the altar to eat and to drink His body and blood, to be satisfied with the food that cures hunger, and to drink the blood of Him that ensures that we shall never thirst again when we join that heavenly band.  For as St. John bids us: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are…. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.”

For indeed, our blessed Lord has declared it unto us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.