Saturday, October 31, 2009
Sermon for All Saints' Day (November 1, 2009)
“The State of Blessedness” (Matthew 5:1-12)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Famous words from Thomas Jefferson as written in the Declaration of Independence. That last phrase is the title of a 2006 movie starring Will Smith as the main character, Chris Gardner.
“The Pursuit of Happyness” is based on the true story of how Chris Gardner went from living as a homeless salesman to being a Wall Street stockbroker. Gardner invests his family savings in a company making medical equipment, but things don't work out as planned. He's financially ruined. The stress on his marriage is too much. His wife leaves him and moves to New York to work in a pizza parlor. Knowing she won't be able to take care of their son, Gardner insists the boy stay with him.
Still out of a job, with the rent due, Gardner decides to shoot for a stockbroker's job with a major brokerage firm. Trouble is, during the six-month training period, there's no pay … and no guarantee that he will get hired once the training period is over. Instead of giving up, Gardner forges ahead with the program. But this means that he and his son will be forced to live in motels, then on the streets, scrounging for food, sleeping in homeless shelters and train station restrooms.
At one point in the film, when Gardner was still homeless, he says, “It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it.” It was the pursuit that made all the difference for Gardner. Happiness, after all, is elusive. And most of the things that make people happy are transitory. Here today, gone tomorrow. One moment you feel like you have it in your grasp. The next, it's slipping through your fingers like fine, dry sand from the desert.
Jesus had something to say about “happiness.” The word he uses is “blessed.” That word in some translations is rendered as “happy,” but that doesn't seem to tell the whole story. Puppies can make you happy. Pizza can make you happy. But I wouldn't say those things make you “blessed.” There's something much deeper behind this idea of “happiness” that Jesus is trying to get across.
And this “blessedness” is not something that you can pursue. If it were, I'm not sure there would be a lot of takers. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Hey! Sounds like fun! Sign me up!
Oh, there's more. Poverty of spirit. Mourning. Not happy stuff.
Meek and merciful? That might make you happy. But then again, it might cause you to get walked all over and taken advantage of. Wouldn't you rather be strong and assertive in order to get your own way?
What about being hungry and thirsty for righteousness? But that means there are some fun things that I'd be missing out on, right?
Pure in heart? How can I pursue that? I've already looked inside my heart and know that it's a far cry from being “pure.”
And a peacemaker? Well, there are some people in my life that I know I will never like and never get along with. So that's just the way it's going to have to be.
It's a good thing that this “happiness” or “blessedness” or whatever you want to call it is something that we don't, and in fact, can't pursue. Instead, it's something that you “are” simply because of who you are in Christ.
Jesus is the “blessed” one. Jesus became “poor in spirit” and “meek” for you. In his Incarnation, he set aside his rights as God and humbled himself to become a man. St. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 8, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Jesus knew what is was to “mourn.” The prophet Isaiah called him “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Is. 53:3) In the Gospels, we see Jesus weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus. On Palm Sunday, we also see him weeping over the city of Jerusalem, grieving over the coming judgment because of that city's rejection of him as the Messiah.
Jesus did not need to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” because he already was righteous as the sinless Son of God. Without the stain of original sin, Jesus is the only person who ever lived who was truly “pure in heart.” The “pure in heart … shall see God.” And Jesus tells us in John 6 that no one has seen the Father “except he who is from God” … meaning himself … “he has seen the Father.” (John 6:46)
Jesus was “merciful.” He was constantly acting in mercy towards those who cried out to him for help … the blind beggars, the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter, the Gadarene demoniac, blind Bartimaeus, the 10 lepers, and so many others.
Through his death on the cross for the sins of the world, Jesus has brought peace between God and man. He is the great “peacemaker.” “For in him,” Paul writes in Colossians 1, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:19-20)
And what did he get for all this? Persecution. Revulsion. Just like the prophets who went before him and foretold his coming. All kinds of evil uttered falsely against him. Crucifixion.
But Christ's reward was great in heaven. Rising from the dead and ascending to be seated at the Father's right hand, he now shares with us his reward of eternal life. Jesus is the “blessed” One, and we share in his blessedness by baptism and by faith. All who are baptized in his name and who trust in his saving death will also rise to life again and rule and reign with him in eternity. (Rev. 4:4) They will be a part of that great multitude that no one can number who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:14)
This is not something we pursue. This is something that is given to us. The pursuit of happiness gives way to the state of blessedness. We recognize our spiritual poverty, but we have a place in God's kingdom. We mourn over our sin, but we are comforted with the promise of forgiveness in Christ. We can be meek and humble, but know that Christ will exalt us to be with him in the new heaven and new earth when he comes again on the Last Day. We can hunger and thirst for righteousness, and be satisfied because the righteousness of Christ has been credited to us. We can be merciful, because God has already shown mercy to us in Christ. We can be pure in heart, devoted only to the Triune God who gives us faith not “by [our] own reason or strength” but by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we can be peacemakers, seeking to reconcile with whomever we are at odds, forgiving as Christ has forgiven us.
But if we share in Christ's blessedness, that means we will also share in his suffering. You can expect persecution and lies told about you because you are a follower of Jesus. That's what our fathers and mothers in the faith endured. Why should we be surprised, then, when the Christian life is not always a bed of roses? As St. Peter reminds us, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you … if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Pet. 4:13-16)
On this All Saints' Day, we give thanks to God for all those believers in Christ who have gone before us and have given us an example of faith to follow. In this life, they were sinners just like you and me. But they were forgiven in Christ. Through Christ they enjoyed the state of blessedness that he earned for them at the Cross and which he applied to them in their Baptism. Many of them were persecuted for their confession of faith. Many were martyred because they confessed the name of Christ. Today we join them as we worship on this side of heaven. Here we get a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Christ's Body and Blood. One day we will join them on the other side of this earthly veil, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in our hands. And there we will no longer hunger or thirst for righteousness, because sin and death will be done away with and we will see God the Righteous Lamb with our own eyes. He will shepherd us for eternity. He will guide us to eternal springs of living water and quench the thirst of our souls. And there will be no more poverty of spirit or mourning over our sins. Once and for all, God will wipe away those tears that were shed over any sin or sorrow or suffering or slander that came our way in this life.
Chris Gardner came to realize that “the pursuit of happiness” is just that. A pursuit. Happiness is something we may never have in all its fullness. For those who are saints – and that describes all believers in Christ, not just those who have gone before us – you can already enjoy “the state of blessedness.” It's not something you pursue. It's a gift. So rejoice that, in Christ, you already enjoy “the state of blessedness” and can look forward to the day when we “come to the unspeakable joys [God] has prepared for those who love [Him].” (from the Collect for All Saints)