These days the average age of the seminarian is on the increase. Increasingly people are receiving a call or responding to a call to ministry after they have already spent a number of years in another career. But back some time ago when most seminarians were fresh out of college, there was one young man, and this was back in a day when seminarians were for the most part men, one young man who was going to spend his summer internship at the beach. It was a dream appointment for the summer. To get to go to the beach and be the chaplain of a small chapel there at the beach. Well he arrived, and the place was a wreck. A real mess. It was a very small, abandoned church that wasn’t used at all during the winter and spring months. It was used only in the summer time. He realized that he was going to have to work all week to clean and to get ready for the first worship service the next Sunday.
So he went at it, hard at work all week long, cleaning and moving and dusting and polishing. Saturday morning he was there in the chapel putting the finishing touches on all the polishing that needed to be done and in walked some men in suits, dark suits. Now the young seminarian thought to himself, ‘Boy, they look out of place. You don’t see very many people walking up and down the beach in suits.’ The guys in the suits came up to him and introduced themselves as Secret Service agents. They said that president Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing in the area and he saw this little chapel and he noticed the industriousness of the chaplain all week and he wanted to attend chapel service there that Sunday.
Now the young seminarian, his knees just sort of gave way. He didn’t know what to think. The president of the United States is going to be worshiping here with me. The Secret Service men left and the seminarian began to think a little more. He felt his stomach begin to churn and churn and churn, especially as he realized that he has never preached a sermon before in his entire life. He’s heard a great many sermons, but he’s never preached one. He hasn’t even had his course in preaching yet. He wasn’t sure what to do. He immediately went back to the place where he was staying, he sat down, and he searched his mind, pulling out his hair, thinking of the best and most wonderful stories and sermons and illustrations that he had heard growing up. He wrote down the best of them. He took those and he strung them together. He thought, ‘I’ll make them fit somehow, all these wonderful stories and all these wonderful illustrations.’
Sure enough he worked up a thirty minute sermon filled with the best stories and illustrations that he had heard all his life. Well Sunday morning came. As he walked up to the pulpit to begin the service, he noticed that there were about a half a dozen men in suits and president Teddy Roosevelt was seated there amongst them. One or two other people came in from the beach in casual clothing and sat in the back. He began the service. He got down to the sermon and he began the sermon telling all those wonderful stories of the faith. Telling all of those wonderful illustrations he had heard as a child and as a young person growing up in the church. He put all of his energy and effort into it. At the end of the service he was just exhausted, but he went back to the door to greet the people as they left. President Roosevelt came up to him and shook his hand and said, “Well done my son, well done.” He said, “I plan to be spending all my weekends here and I’m going to attend chapel service here every Sunday.”
Ah, such are the dangers of pride. How they sneak up on us and grab us when we’re not even aware that we have succumbed to such a lovely mistress. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus sits down to teach the people who are gathered around the mountain to hear him. It’s one of two recorded sermons that we have in the New Testament that Jesus preaches. The Sermon on the Mount, here in Matthew’s gospel and the other one is found in Luke’s gospel and is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. His sermons, I guess, got noted for the geographical region in which they were preached. But here he sits down, and up until this point it seems that the message that he has been sharing with the people is substantially the same as that of John the Baptist. “Repent, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
So here he sits down to teach the people that have gathered. Perhaps many have already heard his sermon on repentance, his sermon on the kingdom of heaven. He begins with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That really sets the tone of all that is to follow. It sets the tone for the Sermon on the Mount. It sets the tone for the beginning of this chapter, the beginning of the sermon that we refer to as the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You know later in his ministry, when he preaches the Sermon on Plain, part way through the sermon he gives another list of Beatitudes that are much more terse than these. They are much more physical in nature. There he says, “Blessed are the poor”. He cuts it off right at that point. As though reminding the people that this poverty in spirit and poverty in our physical lives is related. That the way we live in our physical lives affects the way we live in our spiritual lives.
I think that Jesus would say that the real danger of wealth is not a poverty of the soul but that the danger of wealth is that the soul becomes rotten and corrupt and soft. No, there is something about this poverty of the soul that opens itself up to the richness of the kingdom of heaven. That is what Jesus is talking about here. Be open to the kingdom of heaven. You might say that when he talks here he is speaking about an attitude. What’s your attitude? How’s your attitude? Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Such spirit. Such life. Such a message that so utterly contradicts the message that we are bombarded with day after day.
I’m a parent. I have two sons. Many of you have children living at home. Some of you have children that are grown. Some of you have nieces and nephews that are still quite young, grandchildren. Some of you just have children in the neighborhood and that’s enough and all you want. But most of us, most of us have children in our lives, even now. It’s a burden, trying to instill this sense of values and morals into the lives of children. Knowing that even as we do it we contradict those very values in our own lives. It is so hard to teach our children that the meek will inherit the earth when we constantly upbraid them to be strong and firm and to resist. It is hard to teach our children the humility that is spoken of in the Beatitudes when we teach them to fight back when people want to fight with them. It is tough indeed to live the life of a Christian when the world is looking for suckers to punch and people to push around. So how are we to live then? It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this text is often the text that is chosen on All Saints Day and All Saints Sunday. But here is a text for life. But here is a text for living and we look and we say, “Boy if I know a person who is poor in spirit, I know a person who mourns and is meek and who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is merciful, surely, surely I have met a saint” That’s the point. You are called to be the saints of God. You are called to be his people.
I remember a story that I read a long time ago, so much so that a lot of the details are foggy to me now, but I believe, I believe that it took place in Atlanta. It was a case of a man who was mugged, beaten brutally in the streets of Atlanta. A man saw him being beaten and robbed and ran to his rescue. The muggers ran off and the man reached down to offer assistance to the man who had been beaten, picked him up, carried him to a taxi, and took him to a hospital. the next day the man went back to the hospital and entered the room and said, “You are real. You are real. Last night as I lay there in the street, half conscious, and somebody came to help me, I looked at him and I knew, I knew that it was Jesus. Why did you come and help me?” And the man said, “You know that’s funny, when I saw you lying there and being beaten and hurting, I thought I saw Jesus.” That’s what the Beatitudes are about. It’s living a life so that when we look at other people we see Jesus. It is living a life that so when people look at us they see Jesus.
These days angels are very popular, even faddish. A lot of weird information going around about angels. One thing that the bible does say about angels in the New Testament, that angels of God are not only supernatural beings, but sometimes they are flesh and blood people. The word angel quite simply means “messenger”, one who is sent by God. Sometimes we are the people who are sent by God into the lives of others. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said, “Practice hospitality, be hospitable to strangers, because many in so doing have entertained angels unawares. That’s the kind of attitude we need to carry out in the world in our lives. This is what being meek is about. This is what being poor in spirit is about, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. This is what it means to be a peacemaker. To look out into the eyes of people all around us. To look into the eyes of those whose lives are full of pain. People who are hurting, people who sorrow and to see Christ and to minister to his bruises and his afflictions. Because in so doing we are angels to them and people might see in us a glimpse of Christ.
A glimpse of God’s glory and grace. It’s not easy but it never was. It’s no harder now than it was for our forefathers and mothers. To live a life that Christ has called us to live. A life that is marked by kindness, gentleness and compassion. People might be able to see, even for the first time our Lord Jesus. Carry that with you as you depart from this place. Amen