November 3, 2013

All Saints Year C

Theologian and Bishop of the Church of Sweden, Krister Stendahl, said that theology is worrying about what God worries about. Jesus said that God worries about those who have dropped through the cracks, the poor, the hungry, the hurting, and the left out. But God also worries about the wealthy, the well-fed, the self-satisfied, and the popular, because trusting in our own good fortune leads to emptiness.

The sixth chapter of Luke includes Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching commonly called the Beatitudes. Matthew’s version offers only blessings. He skips the woes. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger after righteousness.” Luke’s version is, “Blessed are the hungry.” 

Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now, who are hated by all.  Something better awaits you when God’s reign comes.

But woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh, who are well spoken of by everyone.  When the great day comes, you will find yourself desolate.

These contrasts are enough in themselves to make us uneasy.  But then come some verses that rank high on the list of bible passages most of us like to zip through as though they were not there.  Jesus says, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." 

And if these calls to doing good to our enemies are not challenging enough, Jesus then gets more specific,  "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."

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Jesus presents the charter for God's kingdom. Theologian Walter Wink talks about this as the Third Way which Jesus embodies and teaches.  It is a third way beyond both passivity and conventional violence.  It is an alternative to both fight and flight.  This Third Way that Jesus promotes enables people to resist violence so that love prevails.

In that place and time, slaves were reprimanded by a slap with the back of the right hand to the right cheek of the slave.  To strike an equal, however, you would use your fist and hit him, usually on the left cheek.  

Now, if someone treats you as a slave and strikes you on the right cheek, and you turn to him your left cheek, that forces the hitter to treat you as an equal; it exposes the injustice of regarding you as something less.  Thus it challenges the entire system of domination.

What Jesus advocates is not attacking your opponent, nor acquiescing to injustice, but that you use the circumstances of the moment to expose the injustice and disrupt the oppressor's power over you.

The Church has sometimes almost forgotten this Third Way that Jesus teaches and lives out.  But it has always remained alive in the hearts of great and ordinary saints whom the Spirit has inspired to love their enemies as well as their friends.

A saint is someone who knows emptiness. Someone who needs no pretense or deceit. Someone whose purity of heart allows God to be present in a transparent way.

It is not just the radiantly holy and the astoundingly wise who are saints. Poverty and poverty of spirit are the reasons that infants and children can be saints, too. Can there be any more empty person than a newborn child, hungry and curious, who yet has such an enormous capacity for God? If we have eyes for it, these children show us the mystery and wonder of God. So, the sick, too, can be saints. The elderly are saints; they show us the mystery and wonder of God. Through those who are weak, we see God’s light.

Frederich Buechner  wrote, "In his holy flirtation with the world, God sometimes drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchiefs are called saints."

God comes to us in mystery, as Buechner says, in a holy flirtation with the world. The way we will know God is to let time stop, to not be in a hurry, and to learn from God’s presence in the person sitting next to us.

One of the great advantages of growing older is that we come to know a variety of saints. The broader our life is, the more we know the grace of God through other people. We begin to recognize that other people, people very different from us, are not strangers, but are saints.

The author Michael Malone writes in his mystery thriller “First Lady” what makes a saint: “If stars are the light, then I'd say saints are people the light shines through. Not just the famous saints, because the famous ones are stars, too. But the everyday saints around us in the world. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light just goes right through them to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don't get in the way because they're looking too." (Michael Malone, First Lady, page 426).

Saints are the people the light shines through.

The saints among us today are the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst, the meek, the peacemakers. Yes, there are some superstar saints in the world, but most of us are not superstar saints. We are those who mourn and weep, who are hungry and thirsty.

The incredible truth of All Saints Day is that every one of us who desire to follow Jesus is a saint in the eyes of God. God chooses us, God claims us, to be vessels through whom the light shines.

Remember Michael Malone's definition: The saints don't get in the way, because they too are looking at what the light is shining on.

The saints I have known, whether poor or rich, weeping or laughing, hungry or full, have somehow pointed me to God in whatever they have been experiencing. They have looked to God, and the light shone right through them. "The light just goes right through them to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don't get in the way, because they're looking, too."

What the saints are looking at is the love of God. Do you see it? Do you see that love through the magnificent communion of saints? Do you see that love through one another?

The saints are those, in every generation, who show us God's love affair with humanity. At some point, each of them has provided a space for us to know God. And by God’s grace we can to. Amen.