All Saints A Sermon (2023)

All Saints Sunday
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Rev 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3

Facebook live (sermon begins at 31:55): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/884377092694452/

AN INVITATION TO BELONGING

A centerpiece of All Saints Sunday is to lovingly remember those who have passed away in the last year. We’ll do that in a few moments. Along with the dearly departed, we also pray for those who are left behind. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That’s a significant part of why we’re not only here this morning but also on most Sundays. It’s a part of why we value this loving community in Christ here at Bethania. Because we care for one another, including and especially, at the times when we are most vulnerable. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Why? Because in Christ there’s a community who cares for them. We care for one another.

The puzzle in recent years, especially since COVID, is why more people don’t seem to want that. Why is our community of Bethania shrinking? Why aren’t there more people who will join us in being a caring community of folks who take care of one another, especially at vulnerable times like when we are mourning the loss of loved ones? Why don’t more people want to belong to such a loving community? The one we know and love so much?

Well, these are the kinds of questions that many churches are asking these days, right? Why are our churches struggling to survive? On this All Saints Sunday, I’d like to ask these questions with you for a few minutes and even suggest some answers we might ponder together. A first suggestion is that we haven’t emphasized enough the thing we’ve started with this morning: belonging. The fact that we have such a sense of belonging in this place of people caring for one another. Haven’t we for some time now put up a screen of sorts to that sense of belonging? It’s another b-word: believing. Have we implied too much that to belong here you need to believe certain things first? In other words, have we led our invitations to loving community with believing instead of belonging?

Diana Butler Bass is a wise Christian writer who studies such things and earnestly seeks to give guidance to the church in these times of waning numbers. In her book Christianity After Religion, for example, she talks about three B’s typically involved in community life: belonging, behaving, and believing. She shows how most churches, in their ways of operating, have ordered these three as believing, behaving, and belonging. In order to join a church, you first of all need to believe certain things, then behave in certain ways, and then you can belong. But Butler Bass goes on to argue that Jesus — in calling his disciples and gathering the first Christian community — seems to have ordered things in reverse: belonging, behaving, and then finally believing. Jesus seems to have led with a radical sense of belonging based in love. He was criticized for too easily hanging around with the wrong people. He gave no tests up-front for behaving and believing in order to belong. The belonging came first. Then, in watching Jesus himself and following his example, they could learn how to behave in loving ways. The believing came last. How do we know? Because of the ways in which Jesus’ closest disciples constantly failed to understand. Sometimes it was years later that they were finally understanding, like when Peter goes to the home of the Gentile Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10). He no doubt hits his own head when he says, “Duh, I finally get it! God shows no partiality.” We read this story every Easter. With Jesus, the order of the three B’s seemed to be Belonging first and foremost, followed by behaving in love, and learning to believe according to that same love. He even did things like reducing the whole law down to love. Love God whole-heartedly, and love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as I have loved you. That’s what we need to believe above all other things.

I believe the Beatitudes, which we read this morning, are another example of Jesus leading with radical belonging. The first words of teaching that come out of Jesus’ mouth reflect a radical sense of belonging through those whom he proclaims to be blessed. Please take a few moments with me to reflect on how blessings — and their twin, curses — usually work in a society. We can begin with Jesus’ own society, where the Roman Empire was in charge and the Jewish leadership could only be there by rubber-stamp of the Romans. How are blessings and curses usually seen in such communities? Doesn’t it go like this? That those who are wealthy and in power are seen as blessed, and those who are poor or otherwise on the margins of the community are seen to have been cursed? And here’s the more important question for our community of faith: what kind of theology goes along with this? Isn’t it that the gods have blessed the wealthy and powerful and cursed the poor and marginalized? Caesar called himself a son of a god and expected the Roman citizens to include him in their worship of the gods. It was all part of a theology that simply rubber-stamped the status quo. A theology where the gods have blessed whose already in power and cursed those on the fringes of power, the powerless.

So here’s the really tough question this morning: how much have we bought into the typical view of blessing and curses in empires, as opposed to the view of blessing that we see this morning in the Beatitudes? Because, seen in the context of Jesus’ own society controlled by the Roman Empire, we can clearly see how Jesus was representing a God who blessed the exact opposite, right? We can see how Jesus’ Beatitudes proclaim blessings on those who were seen as cursed in the Roman Empire. His Beatitudes are in the face of those of the Empire. And so we can also assume an exact opposite theology. Jesus was proclaiming a God whose community of belonging was not based on the blessings of the powerful at the center. Jesus came offering a God whose sense of belonging is highly radical by embracing those at the margins. Jesus was thus calling together a community on that radical basis of belonging.

Have we built our communities more with Jesus’ radical belonging or with society’s more typical sense of blessings for the wealthy and powerful? Let me give a rather benign example. How many of you enjoyed the TV series Downton Abbey? It’s the story from British broadcasting of a lord and lady and their family at the beginning of the 20th century. You can see the rubber-stamp theology of empire. Those in power are seen as clearly blessed by God. They are put in their places of power by God. And those in lower stations of life are destined to be there, too, at the design of God.

How much have we moved away from that, when we examine our current politics? How much are we representing an upside-down and inside-out theology that we see in the Beatitudes?

At the end of this month, on Christ the King Sunday, we will see the very last teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. This morning we saw the very first teachings. Funny thing, they amount to same thing. Because the last teachings in Matthew’s Gospel are even more familiar. I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was sick, naked, in prison, a stranger, and you ministered to me. Even as you did these things to the least of my family, you did it to me. It’s the same picture of a God who tends to the least powerful rather than the most powerful. I look forward to pondering these matters further in the next couple weeks (Proper 27B and Proper 28B) as we move to that climactic teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.

Today, let me simply leave you with this question. As we look around us, it’s especially our children’s and grandchildren’s generations that are missing. They face many challenges in their lives, no doubt often felling like they are the marginalized in our society. They feel left-out from some of the blessings our generations enjoyed. Would they perhaps feel more a sense of belonging if we extended the sense of blessing in community by reaching out to the marginalized? A sense of belonging that truly embraces all of God’s children? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, November 5, 2023

Facebook live (sermon begins at 31:55): https://www.facebook.com/BethaniaLutheran/videos/884377092694452/

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