St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2020
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
THE SPIRITUAL LIFE is a shear mystery to all those who don’t experience it, all who resist the notion of some Divine Creator, that supposed Authority who lives beyond our skies. They don’t see Him, and so they do not understand the reason why other people, smart people, good people “waste a morning a week to worship … Him, It, They, whatever God is. Oh well, if it makes them happy, I guess it can’t hurt.” ‘Happy’ doesn’t cover it. In fact, some of it might not be happy at all. If happiness is all you need, then open an ice cream shoppe. The Christian’s life is better than that, it has to be.
Christians have, at time, tried to figure out their own motivations for taking the Church at its word. Why do we follow a man whose life ended 2,000 years ago, and believe the witness of those who said He rose again alive, and now lives in God’s high heaven? Some have offered logic: it is reasonable to believe in a God, if this creation of His is so impossibly ordered, wonderfully designed, amazingly capable of sustaining our lives; if, in fact, we are this creation’s product, we are so like gods in this world, we must have been designed by a Genius beyond geniuses. But there are other pundits who spin it the other way and are convinced by their rendering of the facts in their adamant atheism. Reason may not prove God after all.
Others suggest our moral nature is the clue to God’s mysterious draw to faith: our nature is basically selfish, and yet we are drawn to sacrifice our pleasure for a higher good, to make others happy, to delay our gratification, to build rather than burn, then we appear to answer a call to do superhuman good, and that goodness must mean a superhuman God. Yet there are philosophers who, like Pharaoh’s magicians, can also dance their words around in like manner and deny us the certainty that our moral nature offers.
A modern approach to spirituality points to mere feeling as the proof of God’s nearness and reality. If we feel the spirit, we are experiencing Him, and that’s all you need. Many churches today are built on the experience of feeling God, or feeling something anyway. The new church music is totally based on feelings. And that’s the portion of the new non-denominational services that are called worship. I was in a music store a few years ago and saw a book in the rack entitled “Christian Guitar Chords.” I wondered at the title: how can musical chords be Christian? They’re all in the key of C? Anyway, you know I picked it up and flipped through to find that all the chords were strange in some way, a-tonal, slipped between two keys, suspended, augmented, phase-shifting, irregular. I recognized them as the droning sounds you hear on modern Christian radio, much like the psychedelic sounds of the late 60s that made you feel stoned just listening. I realized that Christian music, so called, is bent on giving you a feeling by suspending you between chords and unresolved transitions, simulating a spiritual high of sorts. They make you feel spiritual. Ok – feeling the spirit is no proof of being in the spirit, nor for that matter, knowing what spirit you are feeling…
So, what is the faith-experience? Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount in powerful authority, knowing exactly who God is and what life in God’s kingdom means. Seeing a crowd gathered, He began:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled…”
We love the words, and the evident tension between the word “blessed” and the uncomfortable status that in each part is our condition: poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry. For those are we blessed, and will receive heaven, comfort, the earth, and infilling. I’m not sure how to use this word “blessed” here, or to explain it. Let’s try Webster’s. The dictionary has Blessed as: to be venerated, worshipped, beatific. Well, those describe saints or God Himself. One who is blessed by our honoring of him or her. There is also enjoying happiness or bliss, bringing pleasure or good fortune. That’s closer to it, I think. Jesus means that we are in luck, for true bliss will be ours. With that in mind, listen to how another translation offers its attempt at Matthew 5:
“What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom. What delight comes to you when you wait upon the Lord! For you will find what you long for. What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you will inherit the earth. How enriched you are when you crave righteousness! For you will be surrounded with fruitfulness. How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you. What bliss you experience when your heart is pure! For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God. How blessed you are when you make peace! For then you will be recognized as a true child of God. How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy—since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” The Passion Bible
I sense a blessedness here that calls to deeper places in myself than intellect, moral rightness, or emotion. This place may have no name, but Jesus calls it blessed. Some translations try to render it “happy” as in Happy are you when you are spiritually impoverished. I reject that. There is such a vast difference between mere happiness and what we might plainly call joy.
Happiness is external. It’s founded on the moment, circumstances, a favorite flavor, a visit from a friend. The ice cream all finished, normal humdrum life returned, and that happiness evaporates like the effervescence from a soda pop. It was nice while it lasted. Our hopes for happiness are equally shallow in their perspective, and often are future oriented, putting all our eggs in someone else’s basket, depending on events that may never come, and if they do, they disappoint us. Jesus isn’t talking about happiness.
Joy, that state of blessedness He tells of, comes from God only, and lives deep inside of us so that events outside can’t touch it. In fact, outer events strangely have an inverse effect on joy, such as He describes in the Beatitudes. Suffering can bring it forward.
Knowing God, His ways, His Son, can make our intolerable moments deeply meaningful, and therefore joyful. We are rooted and grounded in love. Joy isn’t accidental, but like love, joy is a choice. We set our sails, lift anchor, and then God’s wind fills the sheets as we exhilarate in His power, cutting through the waves. That’s our life in the Spirit, a joy to behold, power that denies our enemies and injuries the power to ruin us. Insult me, and I promise you, a gradual smile will bloom on my face. Not a smirk, but a real smile. I know who my redeemer is. Happiness is the fizz on a soft drink. Joy is the refreshment we get from a deep drink of God’s Spirit.
It’s All Saints’ Day today, and I salute the Saints among us, all of you, who have a sense of what I’m driving at. You all know the trauma and tragedy of living in this world. Stuff happens and we fall down, get hurt, and play hurt despite the blood and the mud and the catcalls at our back. Depending on happiness only makes you bitter at such treatment, but depending on a holy God, whose Son loved you enough to die in your place, who promises that you will never die, but live a great life forever in Him – that joy is yours. It’s not a feeling, it’s the truth. You have been sealed by a great and awesome God, and that seal is His Holy Spirit.
We do that at Baptism, when the priest takes a few drops of the water on his thumb and traces the cross on your forehead.
WE receive this Child into the congregation of Christ's flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end. Amen.
And at Confirmation, as the Bishop places his hands on your head,
DEFEND, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that he may continue thine forever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom. Amen.
The Spirit of God is your seal, and God sees His Third Blessed Person of the Trinity in you now. You have been blessed to receive Him, and He is what you feel when that restlessness, that stirring when you want to be lazy, gives you a sense you need to worship. Yield to Him, pray to Him, know Him, and be blessed, joyful, satisfied, delighted, blissful, enriched, fortunate and ecstatic, for your day is today, as it is every day we live in this mysterious world, a day marked in white on the Kalendar, white for holiness, a bright celebratory day.
Living and not martyred, Saint [blank] (put your own name here) Day speaks of the joys of heaven on earth, invisible, subtle, but powerful, overcoming obstacles, getting the job done, loving even when it hurts, moving mountains (of dishes or paperwork), building bridges of friendship, gaining the world by faith, and giving the world back for a much better world. A blessed All Saints’ Day to you all. I am blessed to be in your company.