Following Jesus to the margins

Following Jesus to the margins

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the diocesan worship service for All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020.


All Saints Day FW 2020
November 1

Today in the life of the Church is All Saints Day, the day we celebrate the communion of saints – the saints past, present, and future. And as we hear the readings from scripture appointed for this day, and say the prayers designated for All Saints Day, a number of images come to mind and heart.

In our Opening Collect we acknowledge that God has “knit together … in one communion and fellowship the mystical Body of Christ our Lord.”  In the Prayers of the People we conclude with “Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy.”

Typically, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist on All Saints Day, and in that specific prayer we give thanks to God, saying, “for in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we may rejoice in their fellowship.”

And every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the Presider leads the prayer, saying: “Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn … ‘Holy, holy, holy … heaven and earth are full of your glory.’”

So, today we remember and honor all of the saints of the Church – named and un-named, known and unknown. We give thanks for their witness to God’s power and mercy;  we give thanks that we remain in communion with all the saints;  and we give thanks for their support, as they pray with us and for us, and encourage us by their witness and example.

The Gospel reading chosen for All Saints Day comes from Matthew. It’s the famous passage known as the Beatitudes, the “blessings” which introduce the Sermon on the Mount.  We hear Jesus describe what it is to be blessed. He says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

That’s very different than the cultural understanding of blessing.  I suspect it’s different than ANY society’s understanding of what it means to be blessed. I would suggest that lots of Christian preachers have a different understanding of what it means to be blessed, as we hear them preach the so-called “prosperity gospel.” And, throughout the culture we hear that SUCCESS is evidence of God’s blessing – from a talented athlete to a wealthy entrepreneur (and maybe so).

But certainly, LOSING is not seen as evidence of blessing – not dwelling on the bottom, not living on the margins of society as an outcast, not fighting for the seemingly hopeless cause. So, while it’s true that the Beatitudes are not a call to strive to be meek or to finish last, it’s also true that these “blessings” challenge the values of society.

And if we listen to the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’re going to hear about loving our enemies, and turning the other cheek, and list of other rather inconvenient and counter-cultural ideas.  Throughout his sermon, Jesus says what it means to follow him. When we are baptized and grafted into the mystical Body of Christ as living members of the Body; when we make vows at baptism to follow and obey Jesus as Lord, this is what it means.

Baptized people are chosen and called for a purpose: to follow Jesus to the margins. We may not be called to BE meek, but we are chosen to side with the meek, chosen to mourn with those who mourn, chosen to show mercy, chosen to hunger and thirst for righteousness, chosen to be peacemakers, chosen if necessary, to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake.

The words “empathy” and “compassion” come to my mind, as I read the Beatitudes. Empathy is the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.  The word “compassion” breaks down to mean “suffer with” or “feel with.”

I would suggest that Jesus chooses empathy and compassion at his very own baptism. Remember the story?  John the Baptist proclaims a baptism for the repentance of sins, and Jesus, who had no reason to repent, and who could have watched from the riverbank as multitudes were baptized, steps into the river with crowd.  Jesus chooses solidarity with US.  Then, as the story goes, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, and the devil tempts him; he is tempted – just like we are tempted.

The Apostle Paul tells this another way in his letter to the Philippians.  Paul writes that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”  As Paul tells it, Jesus chooses to live as a limited human being, even to the point of death.  Jesus puts himself in our position, choosing to feel with and suffer with us.  I think this passage from Philippians is one of the greatest passages in all of the scriptures.

The novelist Graham Greene conveys why this passage is so important in his novel entitled “Monsignor Quixote.” The character Monsignor Quixote has a dream, a nightmare. It goes like this:

“He dreamed that Christ had been saved from the Cross by the legion of angels to which on an earlier occasion the Devil had told Him that he could appeal.” (Remember one of the three temptations from the pinnacle of the temple, the Devil says throw yourself down, the angels will catch you?  He dreamed that Christ had been saved from the Cross by that legion of angels.)

“So [in the dream] there was no final agony, no heavy stone which had to be rolled away, no discovery of an empty tomb. Father Quixote stood there watching on Golgatha as Christ stepped down from the Cross triumphant and acclaimed.”

“The Roman soldiers, even the centurion, knelt in His honor, and the people of Jerusalem poured up the hill to worship Him. The disciples clustered happily around.  His mother smiled through her tears of joy. There was no ambiguity, no room for doubt and no room for faith at all. The whole world knew with certainty that Christ was the Son of God.”

Greene continues: “It was only a dream … but nonetheless Father Quixote had felt on waking the chill of despair felt by a man who realizes suddenly that he has taken up a profession which is of use to no one, who must continue to live in a kind of Saharan desert without doubt or faith, where everyone is certain that the same belief is true. He found himself whispering: God save me from such a belief.”

God save us from such a story: a successful triumphant lord, unscathed by the world, who is worshipped by those drawn to triumphalism, power, and absolute truths.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul proclaims the Gospel, the Good News, that Jesus chooses to live in day-by-day dependency upon God. He chooses a life of vulnerability – even to the point of death on the Cross. He chooses solidarity with ordinary human beings.  Jesus chooses US.

And that means everything to those who are suffering.  Right now a lot of people are suffering. That’s true always, but there is no denying the toll taken by the pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, and our deep political divisions as we approach the national election.

Since the onset of COVID –19, it has been reported that anxiety disorders are three times higher, depression is four times higher, and suicide rates are two times higher than the previous year. The toll taken by physically distancing ourselves, and following all of the safety protocols, reminds us that the pandemic is not the only health challenge we face. People are suffering.

Jesus chooses solidarity with US. And that means everything to those who are suffering.  It means everything to those of us called to serve God’s people. For, Jesus has been there.

It’s no wonder that there are so many various kinds of support groups for the numerous crises we face. When we are traveling through the valley we want someone around who has travelled that road; someone who understands; someone who knows what others luckily cannot know.

We are looking for an authentic, vulnerable human being who knows what it is to suffer. And we are looking for that kind of community of faith, as well. Not a perfect community; God save us from that.

Christians gathered here today – in person or virtually – and people beyond the Church, seek a community of authentic, vulnerable human beings who strive to follow the compassionate, empathic, merciful God revealed in Christ – I would suggest, people like you, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

These are difficult times.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who can and does testify to God’s loving power and mercy throughout history.  We are knit together in one communion and fellowship, as we follow the One Who loves us enough to BE one of us  in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being.  Amen.