Saint Don of Long Beach

Matthew 5:1-12

My sense of time is out of sync.  With Covid messing up all our internal clocks and scrambling our routines, Summer didn’t so much fade into Fall as crash land into it.  Halloween just didn’t feel like the big seasonal transition point that it has been in past years, and after seeing everyone in masks for nine months it lost a bit of its punch.  Still, this is where we are in the calendar, so it’s probably best for all our psyches if we acknowledge the season and move forward.

Since Halloween and Reformation Day happen at the same time—you do remember that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on All Hallows Eve in 1517, right?—I always used to suggest to my confirmation students that they should dress for Halloween as great characters from the Reformation.  You know, Martin or Katie Luther, Phillip Melancthon, Duke Frederick the Wise, Father Staupitz, Cardinal Cajetan, Pope Leo X….  For some reason none of the kids ever did it.  

Did you dress up for Halloween?  Did you put on a costume or a disguise?  I think we should stretch the All Hallows fun for a while.  I was thinking a kind of masquerade might be fun.  It might even help to take some of the anxiety out of election day.  

I think we should all pretend to be Saints.  Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate All Saints Day?   And the best part is, you don’t have to wear a costume or make yourself look different in any way.  You would need to wear a mask if you go out in public.  Because that’s what a saint would do. To protect others.  But other than that, you could just look like you.  Because if you’re a disciple of Jesus—if you’re someone who is really trying hard to listen closely to Jesus and live the way he calls us to live—you are a saint.

Somewhere along the way in the last two thousand years we got the idea that saints have to be dead—that saints are particularly holy persons who have performed miracles both before and after death.  Somewhere we got the idea that to be a saint you have to be people put through a rigorous certification process by the Roman church. 

Well, those people definitely are saints.  They deserve our respect, and any number of them can serve as good examples of how to live a saintly life.  But when St. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Phillipi or Corinth or Rome he wasn’t talking about people who had been canonized by an official process that didn’t yet exist.  And he certainly wasn’t talking to people who were dead.  The word he used, the word we translate as “saints” was hagiois.  It means those who are consecrated or dedicated to following Jesus and serving the community of the faithful.  It was Paul’s way of referring to all those who had been baptized.

So, if you’ve been baptized—consecrated to Christ—you are a saint.

So see!  No costume! 

Except there kind of is.  A costume.  Of sorts.

It’s a very subtle disguise we wear, we saints.  So subtle that most never see it.

Our costume, our masquerade, is that we actually live in a different world, a different reality, than everyone else, a world that is in, with, and under, and around, and through, and over the world everyone else is living in.  We who are saints are called to live in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future reality that we may accomplish someday.  Well, it is that, but it’s also a present reality that we can be living into right now. 

The kingdom of heaven is not some abstract life after life.  It is not some mythical place with pearly gates and golden slippers and halos and harps.  It’s not fluffy clouds and angels.

The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus to heart and live into them.  Here.  Now.  Always.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the contrast between heaven and earth as something that isn’t as binary as spiritual versus physical or now versus later.   Heaven is, quite simply, where God’s will is done.  Heaven is where God rules rather than where “the kings of the earth” hold sway. Heaven is the place God is constructing and inviting us to enter. Now.  Not in some indefinite future.  Not after death.  Now.

Heaven is both present and future, since God is both present and future.  God’s kingdom is not yet fully established “on earth as it is in heaven,” but we are invited to live into it now and to help make it more fully a reality.  The thing is, though, even though we are saints we need instructions on how to do that.  Fortunately, Jesus gives us those instructions.  

The Sermon on the Mount is, as Amy-Jill Levine describes it, “the beginner’s guide to the kingdom of heaven,”[1] and the Beatitudes which we see in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:1-12) are the first lesson in that guide.  This is the lesson where the saints learn how to see, because living in this other reality, the kingdom of heaven that’s layered over the world of everybody else, requires a special kind of vision.  

The first thing we need to learn to see is who are the blessed ones.  We need to learn to see this because common wisdom tells us that the blessed ones in this world are the rich, the powerful, the well-connected—the people who know where are all the strings are and how to pull them.  The blessed ones, according to common wisdom, are the healthy, the well-fed, the well-housed, the well thought-of, and the well-off –those for whom everything is going pretty darn well.  

Jesus would quibble.  Those folk may or may not be blessed.  Certainly they are fortunate.  But blessed, as Jesus is using it here, is different.  Blessed means God sees them.  Blessed means God takes note of them.  Blessed means God is on their side and in their corner.  

So who are the blessed?  

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  I’ve always struggled with understanding exactly who “the poor in spirit” are, with what exactly that phrase really means.  One understanding has said that the poor in spirit are those who struggle with or are weak in their faith.  Maybe, but that has never felt quite right to me.  Another definition says the poor in spirit are simply those who are not being conceited or prideful.  That might be closer, but it’s not quite there.

Amy-Jill Levine defines the poor in spirit as “those who recognize that they are both the beneficiaries of the help of others and part of a system in which they are to pay it forward and help those whom they can.  Poor in spirit are those who do not sit around saying ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished,’ or worse, feel resentful because they have not received what they consider sufficient honor.  They know they did the right thing; they know God knows, and that’s sufficient recognition indeed.”[2]

The poor in spirit see their privilege.  They are aware of their interdependence.  They see the gap between what they have and what others do not have and they have a vision of leveling the field.  The poor in spirit feel empathy for those who do not have what they have and that spurs them to generosity. They are blessed because they have that insight, that vision of the kin-dom, an understanding of their common humanity with others. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

Let’s back up for a moment to our definition of blessed.  The Greek word here is makarioi. It literally means the blessed ones but in most of our translations it becomes blessed are.  But it’s still a tricky word.  Makarios, the root word, can mean happy, fortunate, free from care, favored.  It can also mean a gift bestowed.   None of those definitions seem to go with “those who mourn.”

As I noted a moment ago, Jesus is using the term blessed a little differently.  Remember, this is lesson one in entering into the kingdom of heaven.  This is learning to see how God is present and at work in our lives, even in the excruciatingly painful moments.  Even when we mourn. 

Death is painful.  Death is real.  And the Bible takes death seriously.  The scriptures do not diminish mourning with platitudes.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  The disciples mourn for Jesus.

So where is the blessing for those who mourn?

“In part those who mourn are blessed because not everyone can mourn.  To mourn is to say, ‘I loved this person, and I desperately miss this person’—a heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that know how to love,” writes Amy-Jill Levine.[3]

Being able to mourn also means taking time to mourn.  Our culture is so uncomfortable with loss and grief that we tend to want to rush through it and diminish it.  We say the most inane things to each other instead of acknowledging the loss and listening with open hearts and open arms or simply sitting in silence.

Blessed are those who mourn because they take time to mourn.  Blessed are those who mourn because God stands with the brokenhearted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Meek does not mean insignificant.  It does not mean being a doormat.  The Greek word that’s used here is praus. It’s the same word that’s used to describe a wild animal that’s been tamed.  A tame lion is still a lion.  It might be more helpful to think in terms of gentle.  Blessed are the gentle.  Blessed are the nonviolent.  Blessed are those with great authority who do not lord it over others.  Blessed are those who model servant leadership rather than despotism.  Blessed are those who do not use their power for exploitation.  They shall inherit the earth.

To inherit the earth is not a windfall.  It is a responsibility.  Creation is handed into your care and stewardship.  It is something to be treasured and tended and cared for.  It is an inheritance to be passed along to bless future generations.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, righteousness is one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Righteousness is also one of the hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven.  In Greek, the word is dikaiosyne. It’s a compound word combining dike, justice, and syne, together.  It means to be just together or to create justice together.   Righteousness affects the whole community.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who want to live in a just and fair world where laws and economics and opportunities are applied evenly and fairly to everyone regardless of their station or standing in life.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They will be filled because their hunger and thirst will move them to address the inequities and inequalities of the world one by one as they encounter them.  Their lives will always have purpose and they will know that they are doing good as the prophet Micah described it: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

And so the list goes on—the beginner’s guide for entering the kingdom of heaven.  We keep learning– learning to see life through the blessed eyes of the merciful and the pure of heart, learning to be peacemakers.  Learning to endure persecution if we must.  Learning to live in this other reality that is in, with, and under the day-to-day world.  Learning to live into the kingdom of heaven.  Learning to be saints.

And yes, this is All Saints Day, the day we pause to remember the saints who have gone before us.  Saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.  But also we remember our local, everyday saints.  Saints like St. Mike and St. Marion and St. Don of Long Beach.  This is the day we stop to remember how they were blessed, and how they blessed us.

This is a day to remember that, now and always, we are blessed.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven; Abingdon, 2020; xiii

[2] Ibid, 8

[3] Ibid;12

Sowing Generosity

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.

Karsten Lundring is an alum of California Lutheran University who really loves his alma mater.  Karsten attends every CLU football game and when the Kingsmen score he throws out handfuls of Jolly Rancher candies to the crowd in the stands.  Some of those candies fall through the bleachers and land on the ground.  Some are caught by people who are dieting or diabetic so they get passed along to someone else.  Sometimes people catch the orange ones but they just don’t like the orange ones, only the red ones so they give them away.  Some are caught by fans of the opposing team.  But a lot of the candies are caught by hungry children and CLU fans who are enjoying excitement of the touchdown and are delighted to celebrate with a taste of something sweet.[1]

A sower went out to sow.  

Jesus doesn’t usually explain his parables, but because his disciples pestered him about it he explained this one.  Well, partly.  He explained about the ground where the seeds landed.  The different places where the seeds end up serve as analogies for the different people who will hear the message that Jesus and his disciples are proclaiming, the announcement that the reign of God is about to begin.  Some will get it, some won’t.  Pick your reason.  Some are too shallow or too self-involved.  Some are too busy.  Some are too worried.  Some are misguided by their own misconceptions—these are all things that can keep the domain of God from really taking root in your life or, to put it another way, that can keep you from taking root in the domain of God.  

We have an natural habit when we read the parables of asking “What does this mean?” Please explain this.  We want to read them all as allegories—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.  We want to translate the analogies, to solve the riddle and walk away from the parable knowing The Point.  But Jesus tells parables not so that we can ask questions of them and arrive at some moral maxim like an Aesop’s fable, but so that the parable can ask questions of us.  Jesus tells parables to help us see the world, ourselves and God differently.  

When I’ve preached or taught on this Parable of the Sower in the past, I’ve always focused on the soil since that’s the part that Jesus explains.  My sermons were usually some version of “What Kind of Soil Are You?” with sometimes a side order of “What Are You Going To Do To Become More Productive Soil?” 

If you ever heard me preach one of those sermons, I apologize.  I messed the point.  I also missed the point.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s always a good thing to be looking at what we can do to let the love and life of God take deeper root in our lives.  It’s always good to pay attention to how our faith or lack of it is manifested in the lives we lead.  But that’s not the point of this parable.  There are other parables for that.  The fig tree in the vineyard comes to mind.

Parables ask us questions, and as I sat with this parable and listened to it again, the question it was asking me was “What do you see here that you haven’t seen before?”  Jesus is giving his disciples some answers, but not all the answers.  There’s more to see here.  And then I saw two things that made it a whole new story for me.

The first was this:  the soil can’t change itself.  It is what it is.  The pathway is going to be the pathway as long as people are walking on it.  The rocks are going to be the rocks.  Thorn bushes don’t uproot themselves.  

Jesus is telling his disciples and “anyone with ears” who will listen to not make themselves crazy trying to talk people into signing up for the reign of heaven if they’re just not ready to do that.  Just sow the seed.  Go out and announce it: the Domain of God is within reach.  Live it.  Be it.  Those who are ready will get it, and it will surprise you how many of them there are.  As for the rest, let the Holy Spirit work on them.  Rocks can be moved or worn down.  Pathways can be rerouted or tilled and fertilized.  Thorn bushes can be removed in any number of ways.  But right now that’s not your job.  Leave the Holy Spirit and the circumstances of life to soften them up.  You sow the seed.

The second thing I saw that absolutely turned this into a new story for me is this: this is a story of unbridled abundance and generosity.  There is no shortage of seed.  The sower throws it everywhere with no regard whatsoever about where it’s landing.  The word of the kingdom, as Jesus calls it in his explanation to the disciples, is an endless resource and when it lands with someone who hears and understands it, it reproduces itself even more abundantly. 

God has created this world to be a world of abundance and generosity.  As Gandhi said, this world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.  The earth itself participates in the generosity of God. The generosity of God was spoken in the word of creation.  The word of the kingdom is a word of perpetual regeneration.  Genesis.  Generation.  Regeneration.  The creative love of God is grounded in Generosity.  

“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars,”  wrote Martin Luther, and surely God’s message of generosity and abundance is written in every harvest and planting.  

I remember being on our family wheat farm in Kansas once in the spring when the new wheat was standing bright green and knee-high in the fields.  I looked out and saw a family of deer grazing on the new shoots down by the creek.  I asked my mother’s cousin, Frank, if we shouldn’t maybe do something to shoo them away.  He just smiled and said, “Oh there’s plenty for them and us.  We’ll share it.”  

There was good soil there in Kansas where my family grew wheat.  The harvest was plentiful.  There’s good soil for the word of the kingdom, the domain of God, in many, many hearts out in the world.  Many people are already living in the heart of the kingdom whether they know it or not, living lives of generosity that produce more generosity in others.

When Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Washington, because of the Corona virus, she was, naturally, upset, so she went home and made herself a big pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe.  Nothing works like comfort food to soothe the soul.  Michelle realized that if her grandmother’s lasagna was making her feel better, it might lift other people’s spirits, too, so she posted on Facebook, “Hello favorite friends… if any of you want some fresh, homemade, no calorie-counting lasagna, let me know and I will gladly prepare it.”

A few requests trickled in—a retired neighbor, an out of work friend… Then Michelle took it on herself to deliver a few pans of lasagna to hospital workers and first responders, a few struggling single parents and others she knew of who were just scraping by. Word began to spread.  Soon she had so many requests that making homemade lasagna for others had become her full-time job.  When the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club got wind of Michelle’s mission, he offered to let her use their commercial kitchen which had been closed because of Covid-19.  Three months later she’s still at it.  So far she has given away more than 1200 pans of homemade lasagna, although she’s lost track of the exact number.

Michelle initially used her $1200 stimulus check to pay for lasagna ingredients but that money was soon gone.  Fortunately, without being asked, people began to contribute what they could.  Some would give a dollar.  One person gave $100.  Somebody set up a Facebook fundraiser for her that raised $10,000.  All in all, people have given about $22,000 to the woman who is now known affectionately as The Lasagna Lady.  Every penny goes into lasagna while Michelle, herself, gets by on unemployment insurance. 

“It’s a pan of love,” says Michelle. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

When Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower to his disciples he said, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Or 1200 pans of lasagna. 

I don’t know where Michelle Brenner heard the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the good news of God’s abundance and generosity.  I don’t know if she ever attended any church or is part of any faith.  Maybe she learned it from the earth itself.  Maybe it was layered between the noodles and the meat and the sauce and the cheese in her grandmother’s lasagna recipe.  I don’t know where or how she learned it, but she learned it.  And she’s passing along.

And a sower goes out to sow.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Pastor Kirsten Moore, Calvaray Lutheran Church, Rio Linda, California for this story.