Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
All Saints Day
November 1, 2020
After 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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And 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 worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I 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.
For 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.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre 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.’
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.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
This Gospel of Matthew version of the Beatitudes is the traditional reading for All Saints Day, probably to remind us of the many different ways Christians have been invited into saintliness. It isn’t all heroism or perfection – you can be poor in spirit, or meek, or grieving, and still be blessed. And at the gathering of the saints by the river in the Holy City, that Heather read about from Revelation – that great multitude of white-robed, singing saints that no one could count – well, you can try to imagine all the different people who have led deeply good lives that the poet is conjuring up for us. You can think of people you have known, people you have heard of – perhaps on Anniversary Sunday some of the wonderful Bloor Streeters who have gone before us, but all the way back through the centuries too. Good people, as we are told, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. We think of those whom we have said goodbye to this year – Ellen Spears, John Tinker, Mimi Gillies, Gwen Graham, Betty Savich, Paul Wesley, Fran and Peter Hogg, my parents. And the promise to them and to us is that the Lamb will guide them to springs of living water and wipe every tear from their eyes.
Sainthood and blessing go together – the invitation is not so much to be outstanding as it is to be blessed, to let the blessings of God define your life.
In our gospel reading, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses the variety of blessings there are, but there is an interesting clue in the order they come in. I don’t want to be too technical, but there is a rhetorical device used here by the gospel-writer called a chiastic structure, in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. It is named for the Greek letter chi, or x, and you can see that on the left.
As you can see reading them this way, the writer begins with discouragement (poor in spirit), then moves to pain (mourning), then humility (meek), then longing for goodness. And mercy is at the centre. In all these areas of life, Jesus reminds us, there are blessings. Moving on, the order is reversed – the longing for goodness of the pure in heart, the humility of peacemakers, the pain of persecution, and the discouragement of being reviled. The reversal has a certain elegance – but the real goal of a chiastic structure is to emphasize the point at the centre.
So, the structure itself is telling us that the most important idea here is that the merciful are blessed. This may come as a surprise – I mean, no one is exactly against mercy, but we don’t often think of it as a primary emotion or moral impulse. It isn’t often at the centre of our thinking about what kind of people we should be. We might be more likely to talk about lovingkindness, or compassion. You could easily imagine Jesus saying, ‘Blessed are the compassionate.’ In fact, in many ways that is what he does say, and model it, over and over again throughout the Gospel story.
But compassion and mercy are slightly different. You can be loving or compassionate in almost any circumstance, whenever you put yourself in another’s shoes, whenever your heart goes out to them. [ Feel with.] But mercy goes farther – it implies judgement – if you are merciful, it is because you have correctly judged someone to be in the wrong and decided to be lenient. You have seen their shortcomings and been tolerant, forbearing. There is a kind of generosity in mercy, a hint of forgiveness. We have a little echo here in the Beatitudes of Jesus’ tally of the forgiveness we need to offer – not seven times, but seventy times seven.
I think this is helpful for us now in the midst of covid, and with the American election looming, and all the stress and anxiety that is welling up in our society around race, the fear of economic disaster, and worry about the children’s education, and about what this is doing to the young people. It is very clear that no one is at their best right now. Tempers are short, patience has worn thin, the constant uncertainty has ground us all down.
And into this comes the voice of Jesus: blessed are the merciful. Put mercy at the centre. Practice forbearance. Smile when you are tired. Be merciful to friend and stranger, be merciful to yourself. Be assured that mercy surrounds you. For mercy is at the centre.
And for this we give God thanks. Amen.
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