Blessed are you, the Church Militant

This sermon originally was delivered on Nov. 3, 2019 in observance of the Feast of All Saints, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla.

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Who is a saint?

As we gather here in a sanctuary named for St. Matthew, that may seem an odd question. Certainly, all the canonized saints are included in this definition — St. Matthew, St. John, and all the others — even St. Drogo of Sebourg, patron saint of unattractive people and coffeehouses (not sure if there’s any connection between the two).

But, not all saints are canonized. Who, then, do we honor on this celebration of All Saints’ Day? I want to consider that today, and just as importantly, how we honor those saints on this feast day.

On this question of ‘Who is a saint?’ I found several quotes I think shed some light on the matter.

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century Danish philosopher, tells us: “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.”  For those keeping score, that’s you and me.

Christian author Mark Hart tells us there’s a simple two-step process to sainthood:

“Step 1. Write a list of reasons you just can’t become a saint.

Step 2. Tear it up. God doesn’t believe in your list. He believes in you.”

Catholic video blogger Father Mike Schmitz tells us you don’t even need two steps — you just need one: “If you do this one thing you will become a saint. If you don’t do it, you never will. The one thing is this: Let Jesus interrupt your life.”

Perhaps the clearest answer to ‘Who is a saint?’ comes from Fr. John’s friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá, who tells us: “A saint is a sinner that keeps trying.”

I love that little collection of quotes because they all point to the true meaning of saints, and how we aspire to sainthood. Saints are all Christians who have fought the good fight during their earthly life, and risen in glory to be with Christ. As Pope Francis tells us — just one more quote — “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

Sainthood is our vocation. All of us. No matter how hard we’ve fallen on our face, or how short we’ve come up, sainthood is our calling. It is our Christian vocation.

On All Saints’ Day, we honor those who have gone before us in that vocation. They are commemorated as “The Great Multitude in White Robes” in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:

9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. … 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. … 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

These saints in white robes are the congregation of what we call the Church Triumphant. They have triumphed over death in Christ, and risen to eternal life with Christ.

I recently had a chance to read that passage from Revelation with my friend, and I am certain, current member of the Church Triumphant, Walter. Walter was a member of our nursing home ministry. He was a sincerely devout Christian, who prayed constantly, adored the Eucharist and could recite more passages of Scripture, prayers and Church history than I’ve ever tried to learn.

A couple days before he died — the last time I saw him when he was still expressive — I sat at Walter’s bedside and read him that passage from Revelation. I read to him of the saints, who came out of the great tribulation, who washed their robes clean in the blood of the Lamb — “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

After I read him that passage, I wanted to say something profound. Something adequate to the occasion. But, all I could think to say was: “You’re almost there Walter. You’re almost home.”

And that is what we strive for — it’s the vocation of our faith. We strive to attain the ranks of the Church Triumphant, and we are here, today, to honor them. But, we only get there by fighting the good fight of this life — by coming through the tribulation of sin, of falling flat on our faces, and getting up, every time we fall plus one, with the reassurance that Christ is our Salvation.

In other words, to reach the Church Triumphant, we have to put up the good fight in this life, in the Church Militant.

The Church Militant. That is all of us. But, the term sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel. The Church Militant. I used to avoid that term because it connotes fighting in the terms of this world — and I’ve seen enough of this world’s fighting to know it’s not of God.

But, the Church Militant is not about fighting this world’s battles. The Church Militant is about fighting God’s battles — fighting darkness, evil, fighting for souls and for the dignity of the image of God reflected in every child of God. Those battles are fought in this world, but not of this world.

St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

What St. Paul is talking about, and the fight before us every day, the fight within us, is spiritual warfare. It is the fight — at every level, from within ourselves to society as a whole — between the ways of this world and the ways of Christ. But, if this spiritual war, on which hinges our entrance into the Church Triumphant, isn’t fought as this world fights — How do we fight?

Our Gospel reading from today, the Beatitudes in Luke, tells us how to fight. Whether you’re reading the Sermon on the Plain from Luke or the longer Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, the Beatitudes are our instructions for spiritual warfare — they are, if you will, the marching orders of the Church Triumphant.

The first verse of the Beatitudes is, I think, perhaps, the most important. There are four blessings in Luke’s Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourning and those who face persecution.

But, only the first verse is in the present tense: “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 who are persecuted, for your reward is great in heaven — later, in the Church Triumphant. But, blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God — right now, here, in the Church Militant.

The disciples Luke wrote of were literally poor. Matthew reduced the meaning of poor down to poor of spirit, or humility. But, either way, they were poor. They were hungry. They had reason to weep. They were persecuted.

The point is, they suffered for Christ. They took up their cross to follow Him. They underwent the tribulation of faith. Nothing about the Beatitudes tells us we won’t suffer in life. No. In fact, the Beatitudes tell us the opposite. We will suffer for our faith — spiritually and/or physically. But, those who are willing to undergo the tribulations, those who don’t shy away from the battles of the Church Militant — blessed are you, blessed are us all, because the kingdom of God is ours. Now. Here. Not just in some future time and place.

The kingdom of God belongs to us in the Church Militant. It is ours to build up. It is ours to fill with souls. It is ours to honor and serve. It is ours to defend.

We fight this battle in a way that defies the ways of this world. It is a fight fought with a type of spiritual Judo. In some martial arts, such as Judo, Jiu Jitsu and Aikido, you fight by using the opponent’s force against them. In the last few verses of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to fight spiritually in just such a way — by using the enemy’s force against them:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

When the world throws you darkness, turn darkness into light. When hate arises, turn hate into love. In the face of violence, sow peace. Have an enemy? Love the heck out of them.

This is a hard path to walk — to respond in a most unnatural way in the terms of this world. But, we are not called to be of this world. For, ours is the kingdom of God. It is ours in the Church Militant, as we strive for the Church Triumphant — as we strive to join All Saints. The kingdom of God is ours to serve and defend.

In this service, in this tribulation, St. Paul tells us we should “…pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

Pray for each other. Pray for courage. Pray for strength. Pray for victory in each battle. Pray to get back up after every defeat, plus one, and continue the fight for the kingdom of God.

Let us pray:

‘Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.’

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