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Toiling Upward

Matthew 5:1-12

The Rev. Jon Roberts

5 November


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Toiling Upward

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, Fra Angelico, 1423-1424, The National Gallery, London

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night. [1]

Longfellow could not have been more true in defining the life of a Saint, when he wrote these words in his poem, St. Augustine’s Ladder. There is so much life that happens between baptism and burial. The life of the Saint is summarized by their accomplishments and their failures. From each one, we learn more about our own life. We find that our struggles are similar; different time and place, but very similar.

Today we celebrate the lives of all the Saints. On the books, that’s over ten thousand men, women and children. This elite group captures our heart and produces favorites. We study them, we honor them, we even call out to them in our prayers. So who are they? They are people who toiled upwards in the night. They were builders, writers, musicians, teachers, and scholars. They were Bishops, Priests and Deacons. They were kings and queens, soldiers and subjects. They were sons and daughters. They were husbands and wives. They were fathers and mothers. They didn’t receive the title of saint so easily. It wasn’t attained by sudden flight but rather over hundreds of years. While they walked on the earth, the people that really knew them certainly wouldn’t call them a saint. They did not always say the things that made others feel comforted. Because of it, many were imprisoned, starved, beaten, tortured, burnt, impaled, stretched, hung, and beheaded. They stayed close to God in prayer and devotion.

The word “saint” comes from the Greek word, “Hagios” which means to be, “consecrated to God, blessed, holy, sacred and pious.” How many of us here would say we live up to that? They are referenced in the Acts of the Apostles. “Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he came down also to the saints who lived in Lydia.”[2] The Episcopal Church released its volume of saints, titled, “Holy Men & Holy Women,” seven years ago.[3] The preface reads,

“Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs,
holy women, holy men,
with affection’s recollections
greet we your return again.
Worthy deeds they wrought,
and wonders, worthy of the Name they bore;
we, with meetest praise and sweetest,
honor them for evermore.” [4]

They are blessed and honorable; sacred and holy. If you lived in the 16th century, it would have been unimaginable to think Martin Luther, Jan Hus or Jean Calvin could ever be considered a saint in the Church. They spurred so many great divisions and protests all over Europe. Yet, three hundred years later, here they are in our book. Once they were considered dastardly trouble makers. Now they are holy men. Modern additions include musicians such as, Bach, Isaac Watts, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. They too were not rid of scandal. Female deacons from long ago, like Cecilia and Lucy are included. One of my personal favorites was a World War II priest, whose name was John Roberts. We all have a favorite one but we are reminded They did not attain this title of saint by, “sudden flight.” Neither is a person guaranteed sainthood either. Take the Pope for example. No one could be holier than the head of the Roman Catholic Church but a Pew Research Report shows the road towards Papal inclusion to the Sainthood is a mere 30%.[5] That’s rare.

With ten thousand others, all saints, who toiled upward, while their companions slept, the next question remains, “How shall we become one too?” We are reminded by their lives that the road for a saint is not easy and you must be prepared for what lies ahead. By reading The Beatitudes Jesus tells us how they got there.[6] They were blessed saints because they…were poor in spirit; they mourned; they were meek. They hungered and thirst after righteousness. They were merciful and they were pure in heart. They were peacemakers and they were persecuted because of righteousness. They were saints when people insulted them, persecuted them falsely, said all kinds of evil against them because they spoke in love.
The final question remains, “Why should I become one too?” Somehow, through all that toiling upwards, they rejoiced for they discovered their reward was in heaven; the same way it was when the prophets were persecuted before them. We become one flesh with the succession of prophets, apostles and martyrs who travelled this earth before, believing they followed Jesus’ voice and calling.

Such conviction and faith between the bookends of baptism and burial. As we witness another life being adopted and chosen for this calling today, through Holy Baptism, we are to pray for them. We should pray that they will have the endurance to carry the torch so as to reach and keep the great heights of heaven before us. Pray they will know they are living in God’s will when they are poor and meek, when they mourn, when they hunger and thirst for righteousness. Pray they will keep their eyes towards heaven in search of peace, acting with mercy when they are being persecuted and when evil things are being said about them. Above all, follow the directions of Jesus when he said, “the humble will be exalted and the exalted must be humbled.”[7] In other words, God will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In this way, you too will toil upward on the road to becoming a saint.

People on this earth may not recognize you as holy for a few thousand years to come, but God knows who you are now. Set your course for sainthood and know this…
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
Always toil upwards by your faith in Jesus Christ. He will always help you find great heights.

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Ladder of St. Augustine, st. 10.
[2] Acts 9:32
[4] Holy Men & Holy Women, Twelfth century Latin text, preface, translated John Mason Neale #238, The Hymnal 1982
[6] Matthew 5:1-12
[7] Matthew 23:1-12

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