Writers are insecure … especially when they’re writing. Oh sure, they seem self-confident, like they have the world by the tail. But when they’re alone and they’re sure no one’s watching, they tell themselves that whatever it is they’re working on is garbage … and how did they ever think they had anything important to say? Who are they kidding, anyway? They’ve seen Marmaduke cartoons with greater emotional and intellectual depth.
As a corollary to all the self-loathing, writers are convinced that other writers don’t suffer from all this doubt. In fact, all the stuff other writers write is probably brilliant, unlike all the stupid drivel you’ve been dumping on the world day after day. Most writers regularly convince themselves that they ought to quit—that the whole thing is just too difficult, and that they’re not any good at it anyway.
It’s a crisis of confidence: “What if I’m not all that? What if I’m just a big phony?”
All right, so maybe you’re not a writer, but have you ever done that to yourself about something you care about? You want to learn Spanish, or how to paint with watercolors, or rebuild a transmission, or go noodling with native Arkansans. When you’re in the middle of doing it, there are regular occasions, I bet, where you think to yourself, “I’m the worst. Somebody smart wouldn’t have any trouble with this. I swear, I should just give up.”
I remember when I was in fourth grade, I played the violin. Ok, that’s giving myself too much credit: my parents rented me a violin, upon which I scratched out strangled cat sounds a couple of times a week in my bedroom. I didn’t practice like I should have, I suppose. Then, my violin teacher broke her leg, and missed like a month and a half. Not a recipe for orchestral success.
So, by the time the Spring Concert rolled around, I couldn’t play anything. That’s not an exaggeration, either. I could literally play nothing. My violin teacher, who had just returned from the whole broken leg thing, announced that we were supposed to have this big concert the following week, at which time we would play all these songs I’d never even seen before.
I said, “I don’t even know those songs. How am I supposed to play them?”
She said, “Oh, you don’t have to play them. Everybody else can play them; you only need to act like you’re playing the music.”
Well, that was a non-starter for me. I told my parents I was not, under any circumstances, going to that concert. I didn’t need to sit in a room full of people, knowing everyone else could play, while I couldn’t. Who needs that kind of humiliation?
Whether or not everyone else really could play the music was beside the point. I was certain they all could, but that I was an incompetent hack who would never learn to do it right.
I never picked up the violin again.
Do you ever feel that way? All Saints Day has a way of reminding me what a huge phony I am. All these people who’ve lived faithful lives, in many cases, heroic lives—and here I sit, pretty sure that I’m the only one who doesn’t have the slightest clue—that everybody else must have it figured out in ways that will forever elude me.
All my insecurities come bubbling up on All Saints. I’m not that great at a lot of things preachers, let alone Christians, are supposed to be good at. I’m not that great at prayer. I get angry way too easily—and not only during rush hour on I–64. I’m way more self-centered than I’m comfortable admitting—even to myself. I’m more afraid of what’s happening in the world—political and otherwise—than I should be. I get too impatient. I’m assailed by doubts.
Have you ever felt that way—that everybody else has it figured out, while you’re sitting alone in the dark, hoping against hope that your whole world doesn’t come tumbling down?
Have you ever felt like the blessings other people enjoy are theirs because they somehow deserve them, but your lack of blessing totally reflects what you deserve?
Have you ever felt that whatever else can be said of your faith, it certainly doesn’t measure up to everyone else’s, let alone the saints?
Look at our Gospel for this morning. Jesus is offering up his sermon on the plain—an abridged version of Matthew’s sermon on the mount. Luke open’s our text for this morning with Jesus saying:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Jesus says in Luke that being poor, being hungry, being grieved, being hated are all viewed as blessings in the world of God’s new reign.
Now see, that’s a tough one.
How are we going to square that circle? Isn’t that just a way of papering over people’s hardships—a kind of inveterate naïveté that helps us escape responsibility for the plight other people experience by calling it blessed?
“Aw, don’t worry about Doug. He likes being poor. It’s a blessing, after all.”
See what I mean?
And if we take the alternate translation, what we get instead of “blessed are the poor,” is “happy are the poor.”
Dang! That doesn’t seem much better, does it?
“Don’t worry about Janice. She’s happy to be hungry.”
Yeah, that’s not going to work either. We have a difficult time imagining Jesus ever saying somehow that people enjoy grieving, that people are grateful when others hate them.
Clearly, Luke doesn’t mean what we mean when we call somebody blessed, when we say someone’s happy.
So, what exactly is going on here in Luke?
We might find a clue in Aristotle. When Aristotle uses the Greek word, makarios—the same word that Jesus uses in our text this morning—Aristotle’s talking not about the individual’s personal feelings about her life or about personal self-satisfaction. Instead, to say that someone is makarios is to say that that person has divine approval.
But that’s not the end of it. For Aristotle, divine blessing was realized only after the individual had achieved a virtuous life, a complete or perfect life through the cultivation of virtuous habits. Such a person would be recognized as also having received divine blessing. Makarios, in other words, was the divine cherry on top of an otherwise amazingly constructed human sundae.
That is to say, a popular Greek conception of blessing was that being blessed was the divine Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on an already great life—a life with plenty enough to eat, a life without occasion for much grief, a life universally admired. These happy, fulfilled lives are the ones everybody looks at, and feels like a failure by comparison.
But what Jesus does in the sermon on the plain is to turn that popular conception completely on its head. Jesus adds divine blessing on lives that everyone else looks at and shudders. In the reign of God, the life that is blessed isn’t the one that the individual can point to with pride and say to the world, “See this great life? I built this.” Nobody looks at the lives of those whom God calls blessed in this new reign and needs to feel inferior.
Because in the reign of God there isn’t any pushing to the front of the line. There’s no need to envy the beautiful people, no need to be jealous of the rich, no need to resent those who appear to have everything. Because God has made a place for everyone—and an extra special place for those folks who always seem to be on the outside looking in—we’re able to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. In the reign of God, because God uses a different set of values to assign worth, we need not strike back in anger at the one who hurts us; we need not cling to the stuff we have, for fear that if someone takes it, there won’t be enough.
We don’t have to sit around fretting that everyone else has figured it out, while we’re still trying to make sense of the directions.
We don’t have to look at one another and worry, “What if I’m not all that?”
Because, according to Jesus, the reign of God is for losers. It’s for all the people who’re afraid that they’re not worthy, that they don’t have enough going on to commend themselves.
But the good news of the Gospel is that no one does. Our lives aren’t blessed because we’ve managed to do amazing and wonderful things that make everybody else envious.
Our lives are blessed because God desires us, regardless of our condition. We are saints, in other words, not because we’re perfect, but in spite of the fact that we’re not.
You see, saints aren’t people who do great things for God because they have no shortcomings, no flaws; saints are people who do great things for God in spite of the fact that the deck’s stacked against them, that the shortcomings and flaws always threaten to undo them. Saints are people determined to live their everyday lives as if God matters more than the sum total of their weaknesses.
We’re saints, you and I. We’re blessed because God loves us.
And the wonderful thing about the reign of God is that because we know where we’ve come from, because we know our limitations, because we know we’re not all that, we’re able to welcome the poor and the hungry, we’re able to offer hospitality to the grieving and the despised because we know what it feels like to have those things define our lives, and we know God’s love overcomes all of that and makes us saints anyway.
That’s why those who follow Jesus can live with such hope, can open our arms so wide in welcome … because we’re part of a community of saints that teaches us how blessed we are, and therefore how crucial it is to let the rest of the world know how blessed it is.
I was at an interfaith dialogue one time down at Keneseth Israel. A Buddhist woman came up to me after I spoke and asked me again where I was from. I told her, “Douglass Boulevard Christian Church.” She said, “Is that the one on the corner in the Douglass Loop?”
“Yup. That’s us.”
“That’s a big old church. There must be a lot of stories there.”
“Sure are. And I only know a few of them.”
“I hope they’re good ones. For all our sakes, I hope they’re good ones.”
That’s what she said.
And she’s right. There’s hope in our stories. That’s why we tell them. And not just stories about heroic acts of faith, either. Those are hopeful enough, to be sure.
No, most of the stories we tell are about everyday saints who do small but vital things that help align the world we live in with the world God desires create.
The whispers you hear in this church when everything is quiet are the voices of all the saints who’ve made a home here over the last 160 some odd years. Their stories sustain us.
But we’ve got saints right here who not only make the world a better place … they won’t be satisfied until all the poor are made whole, until all the hungry are fed, until all the grieving are comforted, until all those who are hated know that they’re loved.
I know who you are. God knows who you are. And just as importantly, the people you bless know who you are.
With al the violence and craziness around us, the world needs us to take our place in the long line of saints. The world needs the love and the healing we bring; it needs the justice and peace we pursue.
But what if I’m not all that?
You’re not. But God is.