A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 6, 2016 (All Saints’ Sunday)
It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for president because the Sermon on the Mount would make a lousy stump speech. I mean, it’s got a nice rhythm to it with the memorably repetitive “Blessed are those who…for they will…” trope. But we want our candidates to project an image of strength and power; we want to see leadership and action. We want messages of confidence and abundance and optimism. We don’t want to hear about the meek and the poor and the persecuted and the hungry. We want uplifting rhetoric that inspires and reminds us of our national supremacy on the global stage. We want someone who will make the kingdom of heaven great again! Not someone who will highlight the as-of-yet unrealized dream of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Now you might have heard that we have an election coming up. In two short days we, as a nation, will head to the polls to elect our next president. For many, it will be a relief to put this particularly nasty election cycle behind us. Sure, it’s been entertaining in an I-just-can’t-avert-my-eyes kind of way but it hasn’t exactly displayed the best of human nature. The bitter divides in this country have come into stark relief. And the election process has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of hatred and bile that I fear will be difficult to contain in the years ahead, no matter who wins on Tuesday.
More than ever, we need role models to serve as beacons of hope amidst a sinful and broken world. And this is why I love that a mere 48 hours before Election Day we are gathered together in this place to celebrate the great feast of All Saints’ Sunday. We can put aside the vitriol and the partisanship and the insults and focus on humanity’s better nature. Because this is where, if we invite them into our lives, the church’s saints offer us such promise and guidance.
These men and women we call saints lived in a variety of times and circumstances — some walked this earth during periods of great turmoil; some were reviled for their faith; some were ardent in prayer; some were strong leaders; some helped us experience God in new and profound ways. But their greatest virtue is not that they were somehow holier-than-thou or that they displayed pious perfection. They were flawed human beings just like you and me — just like our presidential candidates. They sinned, they messed up, they lost hope. But ultimately, often in the midst of great difficulties, they were faithful. Faithful in the ways they sought to follow Jesus. Faithful in their devotion to our Lord despite what they encountered. Faithful in their seeking after God again and again and again.
And this is a timely reminder that there is an antidote to the darker forces at work in the world. Which is the whole point of the baptismal rite. Water, that powerful and life-giving element, is used to cleanse and renew and wash away and give new life. Once blessed, this water of divine relationship changes everything. And while it doesn’t suddenly and magically erase the darkness that seemingly surrounds us at every turn, it does offer hope. And it helps us tap into this witness of the the saints who surround us like so great a cloud of witnesses. Saints who, just like us, have passed through this very water of baptism into deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, politics are a funny thing when approached from the pulpit. I’ve never suggested how anyone should vote. That’s not my calling or my function within this community of faith; I’m not a public policy analyst. That doesn’t mean I don’t get political on occasion but my calling is simply to preach the gospel of Jesus and trust that this contributes to the enlightenment you bring to the voting booth. Yes, Jesus himself was exceedingly political, in a subversive, fight-power-with-truth kind of way. But my calling is less partisan than it is, as the saintly Dorothy Day put it, one of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” And that, like hearing a political position with which we disagree, can make us uncomfortable.
But then, being a disciple of Jesus brings us into some uncomfortable places. The baptized life challenges our preconceived notions and often our very human nature. It lifts up the lowly and tears down the powerful. It challenges our assumptions and helps us see life not through a human lens but a divine one. The Beatitudes are radical because they flip over everything we think to be strong and powerful and instead underscore the qualities of faithfulness. For faith is ultimately what this life is about, not winning. And that’s a tough sell in our winner-take-all culture and political climate.
So today, we’re invited to look back towards those who have come before us in the faith, while also looking to the future. Even as we look to the saints, we don’t live our faith in the past tense. We revel in their good example and their witness to what really matters in this life. But our faith isn’t a museum exhibit. Something that we can only gaze upon but not touch, for fear of setting off an alarm or raising the ire of a guard. There is beauty in a museum and history and a sense of connection to past civilizations. But you can’t actually use that hand-painted vase from antiquity.
So we link this to the forward thrust of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who…for they will…” They will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will receive mercy; they will be called children of God.
And the same could be said about the baptismal rite. As we bless the water, we look simultaneously backwards and forward as we recall all the ways that water has been present throughout our salvation history — as Moses crossed the Red Sea, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. We look back but we don’t keep our gaze fixed behind us. We look ahead to new relationship in Christ, to living out our faith in the world around us.
Jesus does invite us to look forward by holding before us the vision of the Beatitudes. To see a world where fear and hatred are driven out by compassion and love. We often need to pause for inspiration along the way, to look back to those who have endured hardships and come out all the more blessed for the experience. But the vision of peace and justice and love abides. And we’re reminded once again, that God doesn’t demand perfection but faithfulness. And there’s something so merciful and loving about that, isn’t there?
Unless you’ve already done the early voting thing, please do get out to the polls on Tuesday. And bring with you the spirit of the Beatitudes. Bring with you the poor and dispossessed, the meek and mournful, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful and pure in heart. Together and with God’s help, we can build up the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. Because as Christians living out our faith in the world, we can collectively do infinitely more good than we could ever possibly imagine.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck