by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
This weeks first reading from Revelation and the Gospel reading from Matthew are all about turning our worldly assumptions on their head. Who is a saint? Who is blessed? What do saints look like? What is blessing?
In our culture saints are extra special people who do extra special things -- things us normals could never do (or, really would never do) like give up all of our possessions to feed the poor or risk our lives for the sake of others in some grand way. There are stands of theology that teach that only the extra good go to heaven, or that we get in God's good graces by earning points through good works. Even Lutherans like myself can get caught up in the "good enough" way of thinking, placing boundaries around God's love and grace to ensure some people are in and others are out. Empire corrupts our theology and gives us a way to earn our way into heaven in the same way it teaches us that he who dies with the most toys wins. The toys are just good works or right belief.
(note: I am reading this from the vantage point of literary criticism for the purpose of this being All Saints) This scene revealed to John runs counter to this message that saints are certain really good people or people who believed the right thing, and counter to the message that there is some magic number of people who will be allowed to be in God's sight as the world is reborn. There are multitudes from every nation, speaking all languages. God's empire is a whole lot bigger, more colorful, vibrant and beautiful than the empires we pledge ourselves to on Earth.
One of my favorite things to do when a bigot has died is to imagine them welcomed to heaven by a giant gay pride parade or some other celebration of people the recently deceased never imagined in heaven. Imagine the shock! Imagine the shock of John seeing all of these people he might not have even knew existed worshiping God! We will ALL likely be shocked when we get to heaven and see who is there because of the vastness of God's grace. Sainthood isn't for super special people, it's for people like you and me who are saved by the Grace of God. The grace of God flattens hierarchy and turns empire on its head. We are all sinners by virtue of human nature; we are all saints by virtue of Christ.
As a campus pastor, I see a lot of #blessed. If you exist on social media at all, you probably have too. We have long confused getting what we want or having nice things with being blessed. Indeed, the prosperity gospel is all too popular in the United States as it echoes the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people, or you deserve what you get. But we know that God's blessings and the world's blessings are radically different things.
Jesus breaks apart our idea of what blessings are right off the bat by saying that those who don't think they are good enough (the poor in spirit, which in Greek can also be translated as those who have been reduced to beggars) are indeed blessed -- the kingdom of heaven is theirs! It isn't going to go to those people who think they have qualified for heaven either by good works or by God's grace. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the person on the floor of their bathroom sobbing, feeling covered with sin, begging for a way out.
Those who mourn will be comforted -- just a little note on the Greek here, comforted can be translated as brought beside, and I just *love* the image of God bringing the mourning beside Godself, holding them in a holy embrace.
Those who are gentle get the land! What?! This is not how our world works AT ALL. It is the violent oppressors, the colonizers, the warmongers who get the land. But in God's empire, this will be flipped on its head and the quiet and powerless will get the land. In God's empire, the protests at Standing Rock win -- heck, those native to our land win. In God's Kingdom, Europeans lose as soon as they try to take the land.
In our empire, the merciful and peaceful are mocked as unrealistic wimps. IN God's empire they receive mercy. They are called Children of God. Children of God are not those brandishing weapons calling for war. Those screaming out for an eye for an eye receive no quarter, while in our worldy empire, these are the people who end up with political and corporate power.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. God's empire will see that Black Lives Matter, that LGBTQ+ people will be treated with dignity, respect and love, that the undocumented will have a home, the death penalty will cease. All of us who fight for our own lives and the lives of others will see our dreams realized. The empire of the United States, at least at this time, stands firmly against God's empire, ensuring that these thirsts receive no water, these dreams die in jail cells, police vans, and on our streets.
The persecuted for righteousness sake -- those who lose friends, family, power, status, freedoms and their very lives inherit the kingdom. Where worldly empire takes away when we stand up for righteousness, God's empire gives the entire kingdom to those who do this work.
There is a danger to this passage -- all too often it is used to tell people to wait, to endure injustice, suffering, hunger, homelessness and all manner of wrongs because their reward will be in heaven. This logic was (and likely is) used to keep slaves enslaved, and to quiet rebellion. However, the blessings laid on the peacemakers, those who thirst for justice, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake tells us we are to keep doing this work. We are not to back down and wait for what happens after we die (especially as the kingdom is present as much as it is far off). For those of you struggling to preach peace and justice into a time of war and injustice, take heart -- this is for you too. The kingdom is yours. God's kingdom, not that of this world.
God's blessings to not look as we think and they do not go to those our culture defines as the "winners" or the "blessed."
Who does God bless? The marginalized, those in pain, those who feel unworthy. The spoils are the kingdom of God.
Who are the saints? The unexpected. Those of every race, nation, language. The saints are multitudes. The saints are you and I.