Join Us for Sunday Morning Worship Services - 8:30am and 11:00am

Visitor Info

Video

Audio Player Below

Saints Together

SAINTS TOGETHER

Matthew 5:1-12
A Communion Meditation by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
All Saints’ Sunday                  November 6, 2016

            Tuesday looms large in everyone’s hearts and minds, as we try to find our way through in such an unsettled time in our land. Somewhere this week I read someone’s comment that it feels like we are watching a bad train wreck, only this time we are on the train. So much is at stake. The anxiety level is so high, framed by dread, perhaps, more than hope. More than with any other election in my lifetime, this one feels as though the future of our republic hangs in the balance.  After Tuesday, will we find our way back to the civil society we have long sought to be? Will we be able to reclaim a nation that, for all its stress on individual dreams and individual success, nonetheless has long valued the common good as a noble ideal?  Will we be able to reclaim a politics where reason, and respect, and truth hold the higher ground?  Will we ever be unified enough again to reclaim the remarkable vision embodied in the preamble to the Constitution?

I learned that Preamble back in my ninth-grade civics class. I bet some of you could still say it with me:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It struck me this week that several of those preambular assumptions have been all but forgotten in today’s America, where the common good is commonly ignored, or even disdained, and the “blessings of liberty” seem to be accorded to some, but not to all. That Preamble records our founders’ vision of America and their hope for the kind of citizenry that would populate the land.[1] That vision seems to have lost its luster in the outrageous and disturbing campaigns of 2016, and I find myself a bit homesick for the country and state I had thought we were becoming.

I say all this as preamble to sharing a discovery I made this week while revisiting the Beatitudes Elizabeth just read for us, namely one biblical scholar’s assertion that the Sermon on the Mount is, in some powerful ways, Christianity’s constitution and that the Beatitudes are its preamble.  He says, “The Beatitudes proclaim what is, in the light of the kingdom of heaven, unassailably true. They describe the purpose of every holy law, the foundation of every custom, the aim of every practice of this new society, this colony of the kingdom, the church called and instructed by Jesus.”[2] At the outset of this crucial week in our country, I can think of no more important text for the church to consider than the Beatitudes.

            The Beatitudes are our preamble… our mission statement, as it were. These nine sentences are not sociological statements of conventional wisdom, but rather radical assertions about the nature of human life within the providence of God. Jesus challenges his hearers to readjust their way of thinking about reality… about life… about God. He says things, in truth, are not what they seem. “It becomes quickly apparent,” says Tom Long, “that the Beatitudes turn the world’s values upside down.” If we were to take them seriously, they would turn our political landscape upside down, too.

What is true for those who live in the power of the kingdom of heaven is a flat reversal of what is considered to be true in the culture at large. The Beatitudes declare that the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers are the ones who are truly blessed.  We live in a world, however, that pronounces [such] benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers.  The people whom the world would see as pitiful – the mournful, the persecuted – are the very people Jesus claims are truly joyful.[3]

No one with a lick of sense was going to vote for any of [these] definitions of the Good Life [says Barbara Taylor], but Jesus did not ask for anyone’s approval. He just redefined the Good Life in nine short sentences and held them out for everyone to see: nine portraits of kingdom people, previously known as victims, dreamers, pushovers and fools. These are the chosen ones, he said, the blessed ones who will see God face-to-face. These are the happy ones… who shall be satisfied – not because they got an advance copy of the rules and played by them to win but because winning was the farthest thing from their mind.[4]

The subtle use of verb tenses in the Beatitudes is not unimportant.  Each beatitude begins in the present tense: “Blessed are…”  In other words, those who are blessed are joyful now, in the present.  Six of the beatitudes, however, offer specific reasons for such blessedness that are not located in the present, but the future. Long says this indicates that “the church, the community of Christ, is a joyful people, but the source of their joy is not that they live easy lives in a happy world or that things are getting better every day, but that their trust is in God’s coming kingdom.”[5]

That is to say, the church always sees its life in two frames of reference.  First, it sees what everyone else sees – a world and a nation of struggle and pain and injustice, where innocents suffer, where so-called leaders demonize people because of their race or their religion or their national origin or their sexuality or their gender.  Based on what we see, there is not much reason for hope or joy.  War follows upon war, violence begets more violence, and the poor and the innocent suffer every day. But the church, by standing on its head, also has a second frame of reference, for it sees what others do not see, that God is at work in this world even today and will surely bring the world to a time of joy and peace.[6] Such confidence enables people of faith to live in the present, aware that they are blessed, despite everything that would assert the contrary.

Now, I want to be clear.  This is not some “you’ll get-your-reward-later” sort of faith.  Christian life, discipleship, and hope is very much rooted in the present as well as the ultimate future.  Jesus is not inviting us in these beatitudes to become victims.  He is not calling us to seek persecution for ourselves, or grief or even poverty of spirit, as though by doing so we could earn a place in God’s realm.  Rather, he is offering assurance and strength to all who find themselves in a position of weakness, or poor in spirit, or mourning, or hungering for righteousness, that they know God’s heart.  Perhaps the best way to understand Jesus’ words is as an imparting of grace.  He is assuring those who are in pain or experiencing deprivation of spirit, or those who find it difficult to follow God’s commands, or those who are broken in any way, that God is right with them precisely where they are hurting or struggling.[7]

One theologian acknowledges that to those who live outside the church’s faith, the beatitudes may seem to be nothing more than the absurd delusions of sentimental minds. “But to those who have wept in the arms of a sister or brother, to those who have tasted compassion, to those who have committed themselves utterly to God, the beatitudes are the captions to life that reveal a wild, extravagant, unceasing love that breaks upon this world from the heart of heaven.  In and through our hunger and our sorrow we know what the world cannot figure out: we are blessed.”[8]

Now, here’s the rub. If we believe the Beatitudes are indeed the Preamble to our Christian faith, then we may find ourselves thinking that we don’t measure up to their high expectations. And if we speak only individually, such worries certainly might have validity. New Testament scholar Eugene Boring concedes, “Not every member of every congregation can claim to be meek, merciful, and pure in heart, but [he adds,] the beatitudes are addressed, not initially to individuals, but to the whole faith community.”

Among every authentic Christian congregation can be found persons of meekness, ministers of mercy, and workers for peace […all forms of saints]. Their presence and activity among us are signs of God’s blessing and a call to all of us to conform our common life more and more to these kingdom values.[9]

In community, you see, our own faithfulness is multiplied. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul reminded the Christians there that they were “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[10]  Called to be saints…not by themselves individually… but together.

On this All Saints’ Sunday, we are especially aware of such connections, not only with Christians in every place, but also with the faithful in every time: those who have sought and seek still to uphold the constitution of the church and to embody its preamble… the mourners, the peacemakers, the righteousness-seekers and the mercy-bearers… saints together.  In this place our saints include the faithful who have gathered for worship on this site as far back as the 1840s and as recently as this morning; our saints include those whose names we called when we saw them across this room, those whose names we will tearfully speak during the Great Prayer, and those whose names are all but forgotten, except to God.  Our saints are all those who live in God’s light, all who are willing to try to live by Christ’s constitutional promises, all who embrace a world turned upside down by the claims of this One, who is, after all, “the only one who really knows which way is up.”[11]

That we have been called to such faithfulness together with all those saints is a great comfort… and a great challenge. If we will but claim our connection for this time and this place, their solidarity with us can be a source of considerable courage at a time when we may need it most. Indeed, together with Christ and together with the saints, we can still turn this world right-side up!  We can, you know!  And God knows, this week and beyond, we surely should! We simply must.

 

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 46.

[2] Long, 46-47. Italics mine.

[3]Long, 47.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1995, 146. Italics mine.

[5] Long, 47.

[6] Long, 47-8.

[7] I am grateful for these insights to the late K.C. Ptomey and his sermon, “Foolish Blessings,” preached January 28, 1996 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Nashville, Tennessee.

[8] Thomas Troeger, Lectionary Homiletics (VII, 2, January 1996), 30, as cited by Ptomey.

[9] Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995, 180-181. Italics mine.

[10] 1 Corinthians 1:2.

[11] Taylor, 149.

Bob Dunham , Pastor

Email: dunham@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).