All Saints Sunday A — November 2, 2014

Necessary Losses

Revelation 7:9-17           
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In today’s text from Matthew, we begin making the transition from hearing about the kingdom of heaven to seeing it in action. Jesus has plucked up a couple of disciples from their fishing boats and takes them on a tour of this new kingdom.  Jesus is on the move, preaching and healing every disease.  And people are beginning to notice.  A lot of people are beginning to notice what Jesus is doing.  Life is starting to become complicated for the disciples.  This kingdom building is a lot messier than they bargained for. 
But Jesus climbs up a hill, and the disciples follow him. Jesus tells the disciples about the new reality of a God that is not only with them, but also with the crowd of wounded, needy people waiting at the bottom of the hill.   These words dare us to imagine that we are there on that mountain, deciding how much further we want to go with Jesus on this crazy quilt jumble of a journey. Because we know that crowd at the bottom of the mountain isn’t going away anytime soon. We live every day with hurting and broken people.  We live every day AS hurting and broken people. Try as we might to keep our eyes looking upward to heaven, or averted entirely, we cannot escape the pressing reality of the life as it is right now.  We cannot deny that we are badly in need of Christ’s healing touch.  For ourselves and for people we love.
The last few months have been pretty awful, because I miss my best friend.  I do.  I miss my best friend who had a mastectomy in August and is now undergoing radiation treatment which has left her ragged and raw and in tremendous pain.  She has kept everyone except her immediate family at a distance, communicating through email, texts and Facebook postings.   I don’t blame her for shutting down. If I were in her situation, I’d probably do the same thing. 
I’ve done my best to respect her wishes, but the loss of her laughter and her listening ear and her physical presence feels an awful lot like death. Which is stupid because of course, she’s not dead.  In fact, she’s doing everything she can do to not die.  And I want her to get well even more than I miss her.
And yet, I am flooded with a heavy sense of loss, because I know nothing will ever be the same after this. Not for us as friends, and certainly not for her.  She will survive the cancer, but her life has been forever changed.  She will, in the fullness of time, be ok, yet nothing about any of this has been remotely ok.   
I am not very good at putting a positive spin on pain.  I do not see people who are suffering as blessed.  I am hard-pressed to see anything good or valuable coming out of my friend’s cancer.  I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a blessing in another friend’s major depression or another friend’s failing marriage or even in David’s continuing struggle with autism.  I do not see blessings in the deaths this year of my mentor, Janie Swart, or my friend Don Polito, both of whom were much too young to be called home to Jesus, as nice as that home must certainly be.  Nothing about any of these losses feels like blessing.  It feels like crap, to put it bluntly.  It’s feels only like grief and sadness and I-feel-like-punching-something kind of anger.
I know, I know.  We are supposed to rejoice always in the Lord and be grateful for all of life, even the parts that really suck.  As if a sunny Christian attitude has the power to sterilize the messiness of it all.  Yet, I confess to feeling distinctly ungrateful as we enter into this month of thankfulness.  My ungratitude extends beyond my own friends and family.  I am ungrateful for the never-ending wars in the Middle East and for the kidnapped Nigerian school girls who will never, ever finish their educations and never, ever come home. I am ungrateful for the growing population of homeless families right here in the North Boroughs. I am ungrateful that Bill McCracken is in terrible pain.  I am ungrateful that Tom’s cousin is losing his job, perhaps the only thing that might keep him sober.  I am ungrateful that Carol McCoy nearly died from an infection. 
I could go on, but you are probably capable of making your own list of things for which you are distinctly ungrateful.  And maybe naming those losses for which we are distinctly ungrateful is something we all need to do before we get to genuine thanksgiving. 
A friend of mine — a die-hard Kansas City Royals fan — said on Thursday night, after the Royals lost to the Giants in the World Series, that, “losing is good for the soul.”  “Baseball” he said, “is proxy for the fundamental drama of humanity, with its failing and adjusting, redeeming and overcoming.”   In other words, it is not that loss itself is good for us.  What is good for us is recognizing that the cycle of life, with its ups and downs, celebrations and grieving, gains and losses, is what makes us fully human.  A whole human life is a movement between gratitude and ungratitude, and one cannot exist without the other.  By attaching ourselves to something or someone we care about, even to something as inconsequential as a particular baseball team, we are attaching our heart to the near certainty that our heart will be broken.   And as a Pirates fan, I have entered into many Aprils knowing that baseball would break my heart.  But, as I always say, what else are hearts for?
So it is with friendships.  Relationships.  A full life on this earth means, by necessity, that there will be times when we mourn and gripe and grouse, and enter into periods of deep ungratitude.  Until we have deeply loved into the possibility that loss will devastate us, there can be no blessing.  Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. 
In our text from Matthew today, Jesus says that people who will be blessed will also suffer. Jesus says that losing is not only good for our souls, but also a necessary step to saving them.  It seems that some losses are necessary ones because we cannot receive God’s blessings until we are in a place to receive them. 
You can see this played out in the beatitudes if you invert them…
We cannot receive the kingdom of heaven until we become poor in spirit.  If you are rich in spirit, Jesus doesn’t have much of anything to say to you. 
We cannot be comforted until we mourn our losses.  If you do not allow yourself to grieve, Jesus doesn’t have much comfort to give you.
We cannot inherit the earth until we are meek.  If you think you have all the answers and don’t need anyone’s help in figuring out this God stuff, you haven’t left Jesus much room to teach you.
We cannot be filled with the good things of God until we are hungry and thirsty enough to receive them.  If you are stuffed with junk food theology or sugary sweet faith, you won’t be hungry for the real stuff which is the bread of life.
We cannot receive mercy until we are merciful to other people.  If we unwilling to forgive other people, we probably won’t believe that Jesus forgives us we mess up just as badly.
We will not see God until our hearts are broken wide open to receive God. Jesus will have a hard time getting in to a closed and protected heart.
We cannot be children of God until we are willing to be peacemakers in our families, our communities and our world.  If we are quick to anger, we’ll be following an angry, vindictive God and miss the love of Jesus.
We will not receive the kingdom until we do the right and loving thing, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do.  Staying safe and out of trouble is not the path that Jesus is urging on his disciples.
The Beatitudes seem to suggest that the world’s designated losers are winners in God’s eyes. And let’s be honest.  None of us want to be losers.  There’s nothing easy about being merciful to someone who has hurt you deeply and will probably hurt you again.  Peacemakers are ignored, imprisoned or shot.  Being meek and mild instead of assertive and ruthless can land you in the unemployment line. 
And yet, on this All Saint’s Day, my guess is that the saints you remember today are probably the kind of people who amazed you with their open hearts, works of mercy, and all sorts of qualities that made them stand out like a beautiful sore thumb in your life.  Your saints probably weren’t perfect people, and they probably weren’t people who escaped the human reality of suffering, pain or loss.  In fact, like many martyrs and saints throughout the centuries, the saints you’re thinking about today were probably people who taught you something about dealing with pain and loss because you saw how they dealt with their own necessary losses.
I watched Don Polito give himself fully to his family and his church, even as he suffered from life-threatening heart disease.  I saw how his physical weakness was transformed into a tender heart for vulnerable people.
I learned from Janie Swart how hearts and minds poisoned by the sin of apartheid and racism could be healed through the power of the gospel and the courage of God’s people.  I saw how his courage transformed the people he ministered with in South Africa.
I think we’re going to be surprised in heaven by the scope of healing we will encounter there. I know that most of us already think of heaven as a place of personal healing. And what a comfort it is to know that our loved ones, many of whom have suffered great physical or mental or emotional illness in this life, will be completely whole in the life to come.
But when John lifts up the veil in this text from Revelation, and gives us a glimpse into heaven, we see it is also a place where all the injustices of this world will finally be made right, where the lowly will be lifted up, the mighty brought low–as Mary foretold in her “Magnificat”–and where God’s vision of a community of justice and peace and equality will finally hold sway.
When we gather at this table, we are gathered with all of our saints of every place and time.  And at this table, God sees you too, as the saints you are.  You with all the grief that weighs down your heart.  All of your uphill battles and challenges.  All your doubts and fears.  God sees you and honors you and blesses you, saints of Emsworth U.P. Church.  Blessed are you who are poor in spirit.  Blessed are you who are meek and afraid.  Blessed are you who look at this hurting world and hunger for righteousness and mercy.  Blessed are you who haven’t given up on God’s promise to wipe every tear from every eye.  Blessed are you who are scared and unsure, because you are closer than you know to the very heart of God. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen.