Sunday, November 19, 2017

Year A Proper 28 2017 Risky Talents

Year A Proper 28, 19 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, Virginia
“Risky Talents”


Collect: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”


Sometimes things have been with us so long we no longer question them. We give them little or no credence or no attention because we already “know,” there is nothing new here, so why bother.


The Gospel of Christ has been with us for 2,000 years, and the good news has been active and at work for those millennia for the betterment of all humanity. Part of the success of anything longstanding is the calcification that comes with time. So let's break out our spiritual CLR(link), and get some of this calcification off of this story we know so well.


Pop Quiz: When someone does something good for a stranger in our culture, we call them a…
Good Samaritan. Of course.


When we talk of someone who has strayed from the way they were raised they become a…


Prodigal Son or Daughter. Of course.


When someone has a special gift entrusted to them, something they do uniquely well, we say they have…


Talent. Of course.


And to this day we have Talent Shows, where we showcase people’s unique giftedness, or silliness, or whatever. All three of these, Good Samaritan, Prodigals, Talents all come from the parables of Jesus. Thinking about Talents as something you do as opposed to something you have is a departure from what the story says. But the interpretation that some have a talent that is done not held, all comes from this story. We are called to use our talents, use it or lose it, it is said. We are inspired by stories of people having secret talents who finally step forward and share their wonderful giftedness.


The world was inspired by the story of Susan Boyle, a contestant in 2009 on Britain’s Got Talent, a show that was the precursor for America’s Got Talent. Simon Cowell produced both. A middle aged woman, 49 and having lived a sheltered and quiet life in her village in Scotland, she shocked the world with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical version of Les Misérables. Ignoring the snickers when she walked out from her frumpy nature, the cynical audience was flabbergasted when she started singing. One of the judges, Amanda Hoyle said that the audience “got the biggest wake-up call ever” about judging a book by its cover. Saying she wanted to be like the singer Elaine Paige in an interview after her stunning debut, Paige responded by asking if they could record a duet, and saying that Boyle was “a rolemodel for anyone who has a dream.” Her mother had begged her to audition, saying her talent was too good to be kept in just her parish church. Since she debuted she has sold millions of albums, and transformed her life. A bullied child that always thought she had a learning disability because of being deprived of oxygen at birth, she has since learned that she was misdiagnosed and actually has above average intelligence and deals with Asperger Syndrome. Imagine if at 49 she had not taken that risk and chose to keep her talent buried in her village in Scotland. How would she have been different? How about all the people whose lives she has inspired?


Talents are like that. When we hide them away, they are not talents.


The word talent comes from the Greek word meaning a unit of measure, a weight, usually of a precious metal like gold. It was when there were so many coins that one weighed them instead of counting them. The word has just been adopted and used phonetically in Latin, English and many other languages. So powerful was this story, that it just became a part of this culture and much of Western society.


And we know the moral, use what you have been given. Take a risk and attempt a gain. You did nothing to get this. You owe it to everyone to use it. Such is the power of this story. We all know it. The word “talent” has weight even to those who have no idea where it came from.


And instead of telling the story of the one who did not use their one talent, which is so often the focus (and another of Jesus’ cautionary tales as discussed last Sunday), let us look at the ones who did what they were supposed to with what they had been given. Last week a number of you said that you were “convicted” by my approach to the 10 Bridesmaids parable, and we do not need two weeks of feeling down. So what of those who returned their talents one for one when the master returned?


The servants who were praised and rewarded did not do the flashy and showy thing, they did the simple, daily tasks and those accumulated over time. Jesus very clearly said, and too often we skip this part, “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” It has been almost 2,000 years of action waiting for Jesus to return. We, the Church Universal, has accomplished much. But the Master is still away and there is work yet to be done.


The story is told of a fan approaching the maestro after a concert gushing, “Maestro, I would give my life to play the violin like you do.” The Maestro immediately came back, “Oh, but I did.”


You see, when we have been tasked with a treasure, we play the long game. We do not go in for flashy promises or get sidetracked with pettiness. When we play the long game, we do today what needs to be done today. And tomorrow what needs to be done tomorrow.


The philosopher Friederich Nietzche in Beyond Good and Evil, link  put it this way:
The essential thing "in heaven and in earth" is, apparently (to repeat it once more), that there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction, there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality-- anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine.
This goes against everything our culture celebrates now: immediacy, consumption, celebrity, lack of discipline. But here, very clearly, our teacher and Lord, Jesus wants us to go against the grain. He calls us to put ourselves out there and take the risks and play the long and steady game to get us to the point of having something to show for what we have been given. To risk the venture is fulfilling God’s call, and leave the return up to God. The founder of the modern missionary movement, William Carey put it this way, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”


God has so blessed this Church, and this town. And God has blessed each of us. There is something that only you can teach me, and something only you can bring to this parish. “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it,” I Corinthians 12:27 reminds us. Together we have come together in a mighty way, and many of you have stepped out in faith looking at your role in this Church and in rebuilding trust and relationship in one another. As you have heard me state before, we begin with deciding to give each other the benefit of the doubt. That is not always easy when water has gone under the bridge, but it is a sign of forgiveness and essential to hope and moving forward. This week I have seen the power of God when brothers and sisters have come together in forgiveness. It was a beautiful thing. The talents of this Church, each of us collectively, is more than enough to make a difference in this town, and in this county, and in this world. Seriously.


But when we think that we are “just” a church, or “just” a bunch of silly people, or “just” anything, we sell ourselves and the God who formed us short. In fact, sometimes I wish we could just ban the word “just.” But that just won’t happen. But when we use it with people, we really need to be careful. Not a one of us is “just” anything, thanks be to God! The Talents of the Church is the collective talents of her people. “Now you are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.”


When we look to where we spend our time and energies, are we taking the steps down the long obedience in the same direction? Or do we allow ourselves to be sidetracked and misled from where we should be? If we are, we are burying the precious gifts we have been given thinking that they will grow by themselves.


There is are two wolves in each of us. One good, one bad. And they are always at war. How will we know which one will win? The wolf that wins is the one that we feed.


As you cultivate your talents, which do you feed? What do you nurture? We all reap what we sow, Jesus promised us this. We all are called to account for that with which we have been entrusted.

Will we be accounted the good and faithful servants who stepped out in faith? Or will we take these gifts of grace and let them sit unused, unopened, and unappreciated. This week as you sit around your table and thank God for all that you have been given, give an eye to how to take those good and precious gifts and risk them to the honor and glory of God. Happy Thanksgiving. Blessed Thanks-living. Amen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Year A Proper 27 Wed Samuel Seabury

Year A Proper 27 Wednesday, 15 November 2017
St. James the Less, Ashland, Virginia
“Samuel Seabury”


Eternal God, you blessed your servant Samuel Seabury with the gift of perseverance to renew the Anglican inheritance in North America: Grant that, joined together in unity with our bishops and nourished by your holy Sacraments, we may proclaim the Gospel of redemption with apostolic zeal; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is one day after the anniversary of his consecration.


FROM A Great Cloud of Witnesses:
Samuel Seabury, the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was born in Groton, Connecticut, November 30, 1729. After ordination in England in 1753, he was assigned, as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to Christ Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1757, he became rector of Grace Church, Jamaica, Long Island, and in 1766 rector of St. Peter’s, Westchester County. During the American Revolution, he remained loyal to the British crown, and served as a chaplain in the British army.

After the Revolution, a secret meeting of Connecticut clergymen in Woodbury, on March 25, 1783, named Seabury or the Rev. Jeremiah Leaming, whichever would be able or willing, to seek episcopal consecration in England. Leaming declined; Seabury accepted, and sailed for England.

After a year of negotiation, Seabury found it impossible to obtain episcopal orders from the Church of England because, as an American citizen, he could not swear allegiance to the crown. He then turned to the Non–juring bishops of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. On November 14, 1784, in Aberdeen, he was consecrated by the Bishop and the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Caithness, in the presence of a number of the clergy and laity.

On his return home, Seabury was recognized as Bishop of Connecticut in Convocation on August 3, 1785, at Middletown. With Bishop William White, he was active in the organization of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention of 1789. With the support of William Smith of Maryland, William Smith of Rhode Island, William White of Pennsylvania, and Samuel Parker of Boston, Seabury kept his promise, made in a concordat with the Scottish bishops, to persuade the American Church to adopt the Scottish form for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

In 1790 Seabury became responsible for episcopal oversight of the churches in Rhode Island; and at the General Convention of 1792 he participated in the first consecration of a bishop on American soil, that of John Claggett of Maryland. Seabury died on February 25, 1796, and is buried beneath St. James’ Church, New London.


We have much to be thankful for in the Episcopal Church. And I wanted to point out the uniqueness of our origins in our flag. We have the white and red Cross of St. George, recognizing our Anglican origins. And we have the Cross of St. Andrew in the blue field representing our debt to the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Also, the Saltire (St. Andrew’s Cross) is made up of nine stars representing the founding dioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. He served as a chaplain to the British troops during the Revolutionary War, and remained loyal to the Crown throughout the war. Once a United States citizen, though, we became committed to their spiritual welfare. We owe a debt to Samuel Seabury who overcame his differences with his fellow citizens for the sake of the propagation of the Gospel.

A lesson to be learned there. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Year A Proper 27 Silly Bridesmaids and a Cautionary Tale

Year A Proper 27, 12 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Silly Bridesmaids and a Cautionary Tale”


Collect: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”


There are certain things one learns after being in the ministry a while. Be loving and gracious to all. Especially those where extra grace is required. Take care of your spiritual and emotional life. If you are running on empty you cannot feed or nurture anyone else. And when you get a Gospel reading like today’s, preach from another lesson. But, alas, I am going to do it anyway. So much for wisdom.


We studied this passage this week as a vestry, and different comments came out. Some said this seemed like a Grumpy Jesus. And it can.
Some said that it seems exclusive. And it can.
So where is the good news here? That is the question we all have to ask. Some weeks it is easy to see, and some weeks the Lessons are like this.


Let’s look at exactly what is said, and some assumptions we are making.


First, this is a parable, an extended metaphor if you will. And Jesus is spinning it. Now remember, he is a master storyteller, and he sometimes says a fish is “this big” [stretch arms WAY out] to make a point. Jesus is not lying, he is not stretching the truth. He is telling a story and stories are told for different reasons. He is giving instructions here, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this…” He is not talking about people coming into the Kingdom of Heaven, he is talking to insiders. To be blunt, this is a cautionary tale;  it is supposed to make us stand up and give pause. Anybody here take Drivers’ Ed in high school? The point was to keep you safe and on the right track with those horrible movies. This is Jesus doing the same thing for us.


These women are part of the wedding party. They are as "in" as one can be, and not be the bride. So there is a distinction here. Jesus is talking to those with a job and a responsibility to fulfill. The Bridesmaids job is to welcome the Groom and lead the celebration, standing in support of the Bride at the festivities. That was their role and their responsibility.


We in the Church have responsibilities. We have roles and functions. We have things that are our duties. These tasks vary, by day and season and role, but they all must be done and they all have their place. If undone, someone has to step up or they are left undone.


Also notice, the Bridesmaids, ALL of THEM, fell asleep. The “Good Ones” and the “Bad.” They all fell asleep. All of them succumbed to human nature. Some were ready when they slipped to recover, some were not. The unprepared ones wanted to be rescued, but if those prepared had done so, then none could have fulfilled their responsibilities and the whole wedding would have been in shambles.


While the unprepared bridesmaids were away covering their inability to fulfill their duties, the Groom came, the party started, and the door was closed. Part of having a job is being ready and able to do it, or find someone who can. Is this harsh, or an expectation of the Kingdom? The King wants workers who are ready to labor. The King wants laborers up to the task at hand. Remember, we are talking to the ones who are the insiders, the ones who should have no excuses. The ones who knew better than to be unprepared.


We are speaking to ourselves. What do we need to do to be ready for what is to come?


One of the hardest parts of growing up is being held accountable for our choices when we choose poorly, and learning to pick ourselves up when we fall. I taught Middle School for 12 years, and daily I was asked for a rescue or to give another chance. Now the wonderful thing about Middle School, is most of the choices, especially the bad ones were recoverable. But consequences still were needed. I was constantly amazed at how stupid kids thought that I was. I was a Middle Schooler. I knew the scams. I had pulled them, too! So instead of yelling and screaming, which is what my students expected, I would get so I could look them in the eye, and I would be very clear. “I respect your choices,” I would say. “You can do Fill-in-the-blank-here, and when you do, this Fill-in-the-next-blank-here will have to be my response. Now I will not want to do that, but if you do A, then B is the response. Now, if you do C, this good and better choice, then this other outcome would happen. When I could tell they needed to save face, I would let them step out into the hallway for a No-harm-no-foul time out to get themselves together, and hopefully get into the right space to make the right choice.


And that is what I think Jesus is saying here. We are invited, welcomed, and part of the insiders to the party. Sometimes we all slip up, and are caught off our guard. But even then, if we have done the proper work in preparation to fulfill what the Master requires of us, then we can still rise to the occasion and fulfill what is expected of us.


The other thing we must remember with any analogy or extended metaphor, none of them are perfect. None. Stories are just that. Stories. These are not laws or dogmas. This parable is an analogy, and some are prepared and some are not. There are responses to both. Parables are teaching stories, nothing more, but nothing less. We forget that sometimes.


I had the great good fortune of visiting Israel/Palestine while I was in Seminary. It was a wonderful time that I will never forgot. I will never read the Bible the same way. While there, we took a bus from our hostel near Jerusalem through the Wilderness where Jesus had his temptations on the same road that has been used for millennia. While winding our way down to Jericho and the Dead Sea we passed a small building on the side of the road, and the guide stopped the bus, and said to this group of Seminary students, “This is the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the man he found on the road.” En masse my fellow seminarians jumped up and began flashing pictures. I was aghast, and cried out, “It was a parable! It was a parable! There was no Good Samaritan or man in the road!” Now I took my picture, too, because it looked as dilapidated enough to be 2,000 years old, and I did it mostly to be able to tell this story today. But it reminds me, we can often elevate the story so much that we miss the point.


If we get sidetracked here by how mean it is, or how unfair it seems, we miss the two little words that is the point of telling the whole story. And what is the point?


“Keep awake!” That is it. If you are awake you will not be caught unaware or off your guard. As subjects of the Kingdom who enjoy the privileges, we have certain expectations we should not be surprised to fulfill.


Looking at the metaphor, the Groom speaks honestly, he does not know them. The Bridesmaids should have been ready and prepared, no matter when he arrived. The posers attempting entry were not real Bridesmaids or were not ready to fulfill their duties.


This parable could not be more appropriate to this season of our Stewardship where we are looking and planning and preparing for the tasks at hand in the coming year. We are trying to have our personal and our collective houses in order, our wicks trimmed, and haves healthy systems in place and be fit for whatever God brings our way in the coming year.


So if “Keeping Awake” is the point, how do we stay WOKE? A few brief ideas.
  • God wants to be in your life, daily. Find a way to connect with God in prayer and God’s word regularly. Daily even. Or even, as Paul put it, pray without ceasing.
  • Find a place where you can serve and make a difference all year long. Humbly, quietly, in service. We all can serve. We all should serve. In so doing, we remember whose we are. We love God by loving and serving our neighbors, especially the Least of These.
  • When you see your fellow insiders slipping, and not keeping their wicks trimmed, find a way to encourage, support, and bolster them so they can put first things first. Often we forget that that is our spiritual duty, and yes, we are our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.
  • When we fall asleep, and at some point we all do, rouse yourself. Do your spiritual jumping jacks and get your heart, soul, and mind going again. Don’t quit and say why bother. Keep awake.

Not one of us knows the day or the hour when we will be called upon. All we can do is our best, be prepared, and keep a watchful eye. And when the time comes, we will respond. No one knows the day or the hour, therefore, “Keep awake!”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Year A Proper 26 Wed 2017 Never Go Home Again

Year A Proper 26 Wednesday, 8 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“You Can Never Go Home Again”

Collect: Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 13:53-58
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place. 54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” 58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

As James Taylor sang in an old forgotten song: “They say you can never go home again, and that's no lie…” Today we see not the limit of God and God’s power in Christ, but the need for us to show up when we are invited. I do not want to steal my thunder, or at least my “barbaric yawp,” from Sunday as it’s parable and today’s story deal with the same point.

We do not limit God but God will not force Godself on us. God has tickets waiting for us at Will Call; will we call on God and get them? In today’s story, people were blinded by the nature of familiarity. They could not see with new eyes, and because of that their sight of the Jesus-they-knew kept them from seeing Jesus-for-who-he-was.

At my home church in Newport News, the pastor took another church and my mom asked me to think about applying. I did. For about 5 seconds. I thought about all the times I was baby with poopy diapers and that people in the nursery changed them. I think about all the times I was a snotty teen who was acting out (which is normal behavior for teens, so no judgment). So I thought about these adults who knew me before I was an adult, and before I was trained and equipped to be a pastor, who would probably be stuck seeing me the way I was then, not the way I was now. “They say you can never go home again, and that's no lie…” Applying truly was not an option.

And Jesus was in the same boat. “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” Systems strive for an equilibrium. Anything that gets out of whack upsets the system and the system does its best to put whatever is out of kilter back into place. This is true in mechanical, biological, or sociological systems. This Sunday we are meeting with Karen Salter once again, the Diocesan consultant. We do this not because things are bad. She came because there was conflict. I was not here and I cannot nor will I speak to what took place before my arrival. We have Karen coming back because she is helping us change our System here. My pastoral counseling professor put it this way: “Whenever there is change there is conflict, and whenever there is conflict there is change.” We have had some conflict in our System out here. And when equilibrium in systems are off kilter the system does what it can to whack it back. Sometimes the whacking is on members and sometimes it is on the system as a whole. We are in a place now, one of good feelings and increased attendance and giving, to give attention and focus on what a healthy system looks like and functions, and to recognize early when the system is hurting to the whacking back does not need to be so hard.

Jesus knew this. He knew they could not see him for who he was. So he moved on. It is not that he did not love them or that he did not care. He knew that to get them to the place where they could see, respond and grow his time would be over. We all must pick our battles that we will fight. Jesus offered, was rejected, and moved on.

Our ministry in Ashland, however, is one of stability and presence. We are tasked with staying here and being healthy. We are playing the long game. I do not go walk or jog when I have the flu. I build up my body when it is well, so when I do get sick it does not last as long.

What will we see if we re-look at situations with new eyes, instead of assuming what we “know” to be there?

Can we step back and see with new eyes the people who we may have written off as someone who does not deserve our notice?

Will we miss out on “deeds of power” because of our “unbelief?” Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Year A All Saints 2017 The Story of Now

Year A All Saints Observed 5 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Story of Now”
Collect: Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Revelation 7:9-17

I John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

We shape our reality by the stories we tell ourselves. It really is as simple as the glass is half full or the glass is half empty. Now situations and brain chemistry may get in the way of that at times in all our lives, but the reality of our perception is mostly in what we choose to see and what we choose to let go of. Whose story are we going to tell ourselves when it is all said and done?

There is a whole genre of videos on YouTube which are nothing but trailers of movies redone to make them into entirely different tellings of old stories. Jaws becomes a Disney family musical, or The Terminator as a chick flick, or The Shining  as a rom-com. Our perception shapes our reality.

I have seen it when people in long term intensive care say that they were gonna get outta that bed and eat a steak. And I have seen people who doctors cannot find anything wrong with say that their time is up, and it suddenly is. We are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. As you have heard me mention before, my first week with you in fact, if we look for the good we give people the benefit of the doubt. If we look for the bad,  it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, even Casey, mighty Casey, eventually strikes out.

No matter the story, it is how we tell it that creates our understanding. And the stories we tell on All Saints Day says a lot of how we see: the world, ourselves, and what comes after.

All Saints Day reminds us to think not of this world as all there is. We are not talking about “pie in the sky by and by.” But it is a reminder that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. We tend to put the cart before the horse. This plain of existence is our training ground for heaven. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a poem by William Blake, artist and mystic: “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” All Saints tells us that “What we do here today, echoes through eternity.” to quote General Maximus from Gladiator. This world is not our home, and “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in” God. We are tied, along with those that have come before and all those that will come hereafter in the “Great Cloud of Witnesses.” All Saints reminds us of all this.

And like the nature of reality, All Saints reminds us that we are not Saints becoming, we are the Children of God NOW, as the I John passage said. We are the Saints of God. How does that make us act? How does that change the choices we make? It is here and now, not there and then. It is not One Day, it is ToDay.

I used to work at a store in the mall during seminary, the Warner Bros. store where we could fulfill all your Bugs Bunny needs. And one of the tasks, especially during the holidays was to be the Greeter, the person who stands at the front and says Hello and Welcome! One of my managers asked if minded getting stationed up there. I said, “No, happy to do it.” And she said good, and thanked me, and then she said. “You are good at it because you can pretend you actually like people.” And therein lies the difference. My story is I like people, and in my naivete believe other people do as well. And my manager did not, and she assumed the same of me which is why I impressed her doing what I naturally do. All Saints urges us to see each other, ALL OTHERS, as Children of God, and for me, even if they are despicable and maybe hard to love, they could be Saints Becoming. (They just may have longer to go.)

And lastly, All Saints tells us to see what is to come as not something of which we need to be afraid, but another step in our walk with God. Peter and Captain Hook were fighting (in Spielberg’s morality play Hook):
Captain James Hook: Prepare to die, Peter Pan!
Peter: To die would be a grand adventure!
Mean old Hook! But think about it, it is the only thing EVERYONE in this room has in common, we are all going to one day “drop this mortal coil.” If you have ever seen still lifes from the Middle Ages, or portraits of Philosophers sitting at their desks, often there will be a skull. It is not to be morbid, in a creepy way, but the memento mori was just that, to be a reminder that our time on earth to do good is limited so we are to seize the day. Not out of fear, but out of the joie de vivre. “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.”

All Saints Day, if we can listen to the stories from I John and the Revelation, we can hear a different way to see the stories that we have been told. Death need not be a fear for us. I John urges us to claim our identity. Instead of being less than others, we are heirs of God’s reward. In Revelation, the ones who suffered the great trial, are the very same ones who are lifted up as the righteous. They may be losers by the world’s standards, nobodies persecuted and crushed under the might of the Empire, but they are the ones God points to as the ideal. The very Saints of God.

Probably the greatest “story” rethink that I am going to toss at you today is how Jesus retells the story of who is blessed in the passage we call the Beatitudes. And this is where SO MANY PEOPLE, in my opinion, have gotten bad theology over the years.

The Beatitudes are not a checklist for holiness. GOD DOES NOT WANT US MISERABLE. And God does not want us to FAKE HAPPINESS. The Beatitudes were Jesus’ way of telling us who can be counted amongst “The Blesseds.”

In Jesus’ day, The Blesseds were seen as the rich, the powerful, and they were seen as being rewarded for GOOD BEHAVIOR. We still have this heresy floating around today in Prosperity Theology often touted by TV preachers. It is an easy and fast way to fill a church, and one’s own pockets. God wants you rich, happy, and comfortable. In fact, what Jesus is saying here reframes the story of rich=blessed in the most stark of ways.

Who wants to be poor in spirit, or to mourn? Or to be called meek, much less be that? Who wants to be persecuted or reviled? NOBODY. Nobody would sign on for these, so how could they be a “holiness checklist?” So what is Jesus saying here?

I believe he is saying (and again I point people to Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy that really shaped my thinking on this), God meets us wherever we are and whatever we are going through, and even there, even in our own pit of hell (whether of our own making or not) and God can and will meet us there. And he not only meets us, he blesses us. Jesus did not say, you could be blessed, he says that we are. He is reframing our reality, and telling us a story of how God sees us and how we can and should see God. And the word for this reframing is Grace. [Come down out of pulpit]

Picture Jesus on that mountain top, and looking down it is filled with people. He sees them, he loves them. And he starts the Sermon on the Mount by walking among them and redefining reality… the poor in spirit…  the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake…  you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” You. Have you ever noticed You are on that list? And it is the very time when the world is crashing on your head.  
People who are doing good things, and people who are at the end of their rope. They are all invited in, and they are all welcome. And they are all BLESSED. This is a radical theology of inconceivable Grace. This story goes against everything that the Pharisees and other teachers of the Law were talking about. They were talking about what it took to receive God’s favor. And they were so busy looking, they missed that they already had it.

A study was done on the psychology of the classroom, and in it teachers were told at the beginning of the school year that one of their class was a genius, a child prodigy of unbelievable potential, but that who could not be shared. So the teachers were on pins and needles trying to figure out which amongst their group was so special. And what the study found was that by treating the class as if it had someone special the entire class’s test scores went up. The story the teacher told themselves is they had to treat every child as a genius, just in case. And every child did better because of it.

Now how would your world be different if everyone you saw, and every stranger you met, was a beloved Child of God? And all of us were Saints Becoming? How would this world be a better place? How would it change how we act towards one another? How would the whole be changed? [Singing] And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love...

Jesus declaring anyone amongst the Blessed is a radical departure back then and now. It is rethinking the story. What seems to be apparent is being turned upside down. We are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, and that is what makes all the difference.

Jesus is telling the story this way. It is not “You are blessed, if…”

And Jesus is not saying, “You are blessed, because…”

Jesus says “You are blessed. Period.”

You are the Children of God, NOW. And that is the Good News. What story are you telling yourself when you see others? What story are you telling yourself when you look in that mirror we blessed last week?

All Saints reminds us of who we are, and whose we are. So be blessed beloved Saints of God. Amen.