Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
November 5, 2017; All Saints’ Sunday, Year A
(Matthew 5:1-12) When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Nearly forty years ago I preached my first sermon as a seminarian in Grace Church, Nutley, New Jersey. The Gospel was the one we just heard, the Beatitudes from Matthew. I was so excited. I preached about the grand trajectory of the Spiritual Journey using the Beatitudes as a map. I talked about the three stages of the spiritual journey – the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive stage, and I showed how the nine Beatitudes fit so beautifully into that pattern of journey. The first three – Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek – as the purgative stage. The next three – Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart – are in the illuminative stage. The last three – the peacemakers, persecuted and reviled – illustrate the unitive stage. I was so excited. But I could tell somewhere around Blessed are the merciful, that the people in the pew were not quite as excited as I was.
Now afterwards, the reviews were inconsistent. Some said it was 23 minutes; others said, no, more like 26. The gentle rector suggested I might find one point and try to stick to that. Kathy said, “If you keep preaching like that, nobody will listen to you.”
So when I read today’s Gospel – the Beatitudes – for what will probably be my last sermon as your Rector, I was so excited.
We hear this Gospel for All Saints Day. And we baptize new souls into this wonderful spiritual journey today. We invite them into the community of the fellowship of the saints. And in this sermon, I want to share with you some of the wisdom of the saints who lead us into community, starting with our patron, St. Paul.
Paul’s liberating insight was that God loves him just because that’s the way God is. God is love. God loves us just as we are, warts and all. When Paul realized there was nothing he had to do to earn God’s love and acceptance, he was transformed; he was free to relax and be himself, not worrying about failure. Not worrying about himself at all. He gave up his performance anxiety.
Does anyone around here have performance anxiety? Do you ever worry about what people might think about you? Do you worry about living up to your own expectations? Is there something nagging inside of you that you just aren’t all right? …you’ve got to prove something? Are you worried that things in general just aren’t right? St. Paul says, “Forget it!” Don’t worry. God’s love is raising everything and everyone into God’s heart. God turns every cross into resurrection. You don’t have to prove anything. You don’t have to become something special or different. All you have to do is to trust the fact that God loves and accepts you here and now. Flip your context from anxiety to trust. God is bigger than any mess any of us can create, and God loves us infinitely. That’s the way God is.
So, Paul says, relax. Let God love you. Accept the fact that you are accepted. You are just fine. Trust that.
For me, this works like a switch. I catch myself feeling anxious or fearful. I remember to trust. The anxiety and fear dissolve. Sometimes instantly. Sometimes it takes a few doses of God’s love for it all to dissipate.
The ethos of every saint is anchored in the experience of being God’s beloved. Once you trust enough to let God love you, gratitude blossoms. You feel grateful.
And that brings me to another saint – this one is still living: Brother David Steindl-Rast. David lived his teen years in Austria under Nazi occupation, escaping from the German army, hiding until the war’s end. He saw so much suffering from such an early age. Yet Brother David articulates an abundant gospel of gratefulness. “Everything is a gift,” he says. “Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy – because we will always want to have something else or something more.” He puts it this way: “We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart.”
For me, gratefulness is another switch. Whenever I catch myself feeling self-absorbed – whiny – if I just think how lucky I am, how much I have to be grateful for, that one grateful thought flips me from whiny to thankful.
Listen to this from one more saint, this one a Jewish child in hiding before her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz. Etty Hillesum wrote to God in her journal on a stormy, grey, Sunday morning. “Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, where there is still the strength in me to do so.”
Love and Beloved. Trust and Gratefulness. That’s all there is. The life of God the Holy Trinity. Whenever you know yourself to be the beloved, you are free, and grateful.
For me, these two thoughts are like little on/off switches, whenever I am awake enough to flip the switch. Trust and Gratitude.
If I find myself feeling anxious, I can remember God’s infinite love for me and for everything, and entrust it all to God’s loving wisdom. Trust. (Click.) The anxiety dissolves.
And whenever I notice myself becoming pitiful, whiny, I can flip on the gratitude switch. (Click.) There is always something to be grateful for, even a cloud drifting by a narrow window.
Anxious? Feel beloved. Trust Love. Whiny? Be grateful.
I don’t know about you, but insights like that excite me. As I approach a transition toward retirement, letting go of the work I have loved, I find I’m not anxious. I’m not anxious about myself, and I’m not anxious about this church. God loves this congregation so much. God wants to lead St. Paul’s to new possibilities we haven’t even imagined. Embrace that love, and trust. Be confident. Be excited about new beginnings.
And be grateful. Oh, I am so grateful. Grateful for the friends and colleagues and the work and relationships we’ve enjoyed. I feel like the luckiest priest in the Episcopal Church. And you, be grateful! You’ve got Suzanne, the best pastor I’ve ever known. A wonderful staff creating music and education and prayer and service. This is a community that can do nearly anything you can imagine. With such abundant resources and generosity. Some lucky priest is out there just waiting for this bonanza.
So, be excited. If you notice any anxiety in yourself, let it dissolve into the infinite love that energizes all creation. If you find yourself becoming whiny, remember everything there is to be grateful for. Trust and Gratitude. Love and Beloved. That’s really all there is.