SERMON FOR ALL SAINTS SUNDAY 5.11.17
If someone sneezes, an American is likely to say immediately, Gesundheit! Which of course is the German for wishing one good health. When I moved to Britain many years ago, I was rather charmed to discover that the response to a sneeze in this country is universally the words “Bless you!” So as a habitual sneezer, especially whenever the sun gets in my eyes, I tend to gather quite a few blessings in the course of my daily life, even from strangers in public places.
Responding to a sneeze is probably the only occasion when most people consciously bless another person, unless they are clergy and expected to do so as part of their role. But in recent years there has been a growing tendency for people to say “Bless!” in response to hearing about something particularly sweet. And I understand that it’s the urban way for young men to close a conversation, which is interesting – a sort of verbal substitute for a hug or a kiss.
So linguistically, there is a fair amount of blessing going on all the time, even in our secular world. I think people are hungry for blessings. There is a deep human need to sanctify the present moment.
The first Christians did it consciously, by making the sign of the cross. Around the year 200 in Carthage, north Africa, Tertullian wrote: “We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross”. They did it before and after meals, when getting dressed, when starting a journey, when getting up or going to sleep, before beginning any task. Every action of the day was consciously offered to God for blessing.
Orthodox Jews also consecrate all their daily acts by pronouncing a blessing. Technically they bless God for something, rather than calling down a blessing on the thing itself or on themselves. Baruch atha Adonai Elohenu, Melech ha-Olam, Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, is the beginning of hundreds of different prayers, that then go on to describe what it particular act or aspect of God they are thankful for. There are special prayers for eating cornflakes, greeting a long-lost friend, catching sight of the Queen, and countless other events. It is considered good fortune to have the occasion to say a special blessing that is not usually required.
Jesus, formed in this tradition of blessing God again and again throughout the day, uses this tradition in the Sermon on the Mount, the most famous piece of his teaching, whose most famous bit is the Beatitudes that we have just heard. Blessed are those – baruch in Hebrew, makarios in Greek – who … and then he goes on to enumerate the kinds of people or conditions that are blessed.
What is he doing by giving this series of blessings? I believe he is connecting our lives, moment by moment, with the remembrance of God, just as a devout Jew does in saying his numerous blessings, or an early Christian did in crossing him or herself on every possible occasion. Jesus is saying, it’s not the High Priest in the sanctuary or the King on a throne who is blessed. It’s not the solemn moment of sacrifice in the Temple that is blessed. It’s not the lavish gift of the rich person that is blessed. It’s you, here and now, in your everyday life with God.
Let’s look at what he says, in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. His blessings are not factual statements – they are more like exclamations. In Hebrew there is no verb used here. They should be understood as “O how blessed the poor in spirit!” and so on.
There are eight blessings in two groups of four, and then one special blessing in a different form. The first four Beatitudes bless the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and the hungry. Those are conditions that we haven’t chosen.
The poor in spirit translates a word that means someone crouched down like a helpless beggar – in other words someone who has been beaten down by circumstances, who knows his or her total dependency and need for help. The one who in humility, at rock bottom, calls out to God for aid is poor in spirit and is blessed. This is something Russell Brand reminded his audience of when he spoke about the Twelve Step Programme a few weeks ago in this church.
Those who mourn are those who have broken hearts, who care deeply, who are sorry about a situation they find themselves in, which may have been caused by their own sin or simply by external circumstances. They too are blessed.
The meek are those who know they are not in control. They recognise that the universe does not revolve around them. Their eyes are open to majesty of God and the insignificance of puffed-up human pride and conceit. Jesus blesses them.
The hungry and thirsty are blessed too – both those who through poverty do not have clean water or enough to eat, and also those who hunger and thirst after meaning in their lives. Again, like the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek, Jesus is calling down a blessing on those who know their need.
So in all our daily littleness, sadness, powerlessness and need, we are blessed. Jesus then changes tack slightly, and calls blessed those who do certain things.
First of all it is the merciful. The Hebrew word for merciful comes from a word meaning womb – it is the compassion and love that a woman feels for her unborn child that is being referenced. Jesus blesses those who show care and concern for people who are helpless and dependent, who have no one to speak up for them and no power of their own to get what they need. Those who have just been on a study trip to Palestine may be able to tell us more about the need for mercy in Jesus’ own homeland.
Blessed are the pure in heart, he then says. This is nothing to do with avoiding lustful passions! The heart in Hebrew thinking is the seat of the mind and the will, not the emotions. Those who have purity of heart know, like Martha’s sister Mary, that only one thing is needful. Their whole longing is to know God. They are focused completely on what is most important.
Then Jesus turns to the peacemakers. Peace in Hebrew, shalom, is not just the absence of conflict. It’s the rich idea of wholeness and healing, creation as it is meant to be. Being a peacemaker means bringing estranged people together, healing divisions, guarding the earth, having a vision and working together for the common good. Those who make peace in this sense are so blessed that they are at one with God, named as God’s own children.
Finally Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. O how happy those who suffer for God’s kingdom! In their lives there is enough evidence of God’s action for other people to notice and react. Those who are so inoffensive that they are never criticised or abused for their faith lack the courage of a Christian disciple. Christians are being martyred right now in North Korea, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, northern Nigeria, India, and over 50 other countries, and the result of persecution, as always, is that the Church is growing and more and more people are coming to faith in Christ. In the UK we complain if the Today programme presenters sneer about Thought for the Day, and the pews continue to empty. Maybe a little more persecution would make us more happy and blessed.
So there are four blessings for those who find themselves in need, and four blessings for those who take an active role in showing mercy, seeking after God, making peace and standing up for their faith.
Finally Jesus moves from speaking about the crowds and calling them blessed to addressing his disciples, and he changes the pronoun – blessed are you when you are reviled and traduced for my sake. That last blessing seems to be a really important one. He tells his inner circle that following him may lead them into all kinds of suffering, but they are consider themselves happy and blessed because it will be a sign that they are at one with him.
As John writes in his third Epistle, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”
Today on All Saints Sunday we give thanks and bless God for all the numberless Christians who have hungered for God, shown mercy, made peace, and stood up against persecution for their faith. We may not know their names, but we know that they are called children of God. One day may we too share the blessing of rejoicing with them in God’s eternal kingdom.