Tuesday, November 2, 2010

OMG... the blessings of All Saints' Day for Protestants...

NOTE: So last week was a fascinating experiment in being a faith community as the PEOPLE shared the message. It was beautiful and very, very moving. This week we're back to the older groove where I share my thoughts and invite the community's response. I am working from the texts for All Saints' Day - one of my all time favorites - and have come to this conclusion. I don't pretend to understand the breadth and depth of God's grace, but I count on it and need it every moment of the day. So, if you're around this Sunday at 10:30 am, please join us...

All Saints’ Day is one of my favorite celebrations in the whole liturgical year. It ranks right up there with Advent, Christmas Eve and Easter in my spirituality and I treasure marking its observance.

• For, you see, All Saints’ Day not only marks the beginning of a bold theological crescendo that builds throughout the entire month of November only to explode with the ecstasy of the cymbals and trumpets of heaven on Christ the King Sunday right after Thanksgiving…

• … but it also invites us to quietly and prayerfully recall the blessings of God shared with us through the communion of saints – that great cloud of witnesses as the book of Hebrews puts it – who form a celestial crowd too huge to number from every nation, tribe and race – who are gathered in love before the presence of the Lord to sing praise to God and bring us encouragement and blessing until we are reunited with them in the realm that has no end.

It is one of our most exquisite celebrations – and sadly, most of us in the Reformed tradition don’t really know what to make of this incredible and sweet feast day. The Lutheran scholar, David Lose, has observed that: “All Saints Day is scarcely known and rarely observed. In fact, the secular corruption of the festival, Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, stands as a nearly unrecognizable vestige of the festival and demonstrates the insignificant and even ominous place to which it has been relegated.”

So what I would like to do this morning is simple:

• First, I want to share with you a few brief insights about what it means to be a saint because clearly there is confusion about what this might mean for our generation.

• Second, I hope to take the startling ancient challenge Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount and suggest how we might embrace it for the 21st century.

• And third I want to invite you to dedicate your commitments to God for the new year in the light of Christ Jesus and his love.

In our tradition, most of us aren’t aware that the celebration of All Saints’ Day is almost as old as Christmas. Scholars are certain that believers have been returning thanks to God for their martyred dead since 359 CE in Edessa, Turkey and 411 C in Eastern Syria. And by the 7th century the feast had come to include the faithful non-martyrs, too. That means that the celebration of All Saints Day has been going on for 1300 years.

So what does it mean to honor the saints and mark this day reverently? What’s more, what is the spiritual wisdom of All Saints’ Day all about and why does it matter for you and me? One clue comes in the very word saint… Literally the Greek word we translate as saint – hagios – means the holy ones: those who have dedicated themselves to God – those who are set apart from what is ordinary – those who have claimed God’s blessings in a deep and profound way. That means that the saints are not only those who gave up their lives for the love of God as martyrs, but those who lived their ordinary lives with an extraordinary awareness of God’s grace.

That’s where our Roman sisters and brothers get what they call the Litany of Saints – Mary and Joseph, pray for us; Michael and all angels, pray for us; Anna, Joachim and Elizabeth, pray for us; Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist, pray for us – right? But it is also where we get our sense of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us who continue to share their love with us through the grace of God.

• O Martin Luther King, prophet of racial justice and peace: pray for us. O beloved grandfather – or cherished mother – or adored husband: pray for us.

• Are you with me? First of all saints are not just ancient souls who have made something of God’s light visible in the darkness, they are also those we have known in our own time who have been open and alive to making God’s love real.

A second truth about saints in our tradition is that they are ALL those who have been baptized and declared blessed by God’s grace. Saints are not just those who have climbed the heights of moral and ethical splendor, but also all those who have opened their hearts to God by faith here in the ordinary harshness of real life, ok?

That is why “we now celebrate All Saints not by contrasting the saints over there – those who have died and gone on to glory before us – with the would-be saints still over here. Rather we recognize and celebrate our union with those for whom Christ died in every time and every place, a union secured by Christ's death once and for all, established by our common baptism, nurtured by our life together, and brought to fulfillment in the age to come.” (David Lose)

Sometimes we get confused, thinking that saints are those who have vigorously purified themselves and achieved a unique moral purity. Our Jewish sisters and brothers tell a story about a young man who was fervently committed to God who once visited one of the great rabbis and asked him to make him a equally holy:

It was winter time and the rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the man droned on and on with one glowing account of his piety and learning after another. The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I perform austerities. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. And every day I ask, the "shammes" [the sexton of the synagogue] to give me forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance." Well, as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do. To which the old rabbi said: “Look, look! That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. So, help me: is it or is it a horse?"

Fundamentally, you see, we teach and trust that in addition to sharing God’s light and living by faith, saints are those who have been blessed by God – and this is where today’s gospel becomes important. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said to all of his disciples – in one age as well as our own – when you find yourselves at the end of your rope for with less of you there is more room for God and God’s blessings.” The Beatitudes – the Sermon on the Mount – is the distillation of what it means to be blessed in the Christian tradition.

It is mystical – not linear. It is challenging and demanding – not merely piety carved from the lowest common denominator of our bottom line culture. And it is of the Lord – not you and me – it is from God: it is about God’s compassion, God’s peace, God’s justice – and all we can do is open our hearts and minds and souls to embrace it.

Now Matthew’s version is the best known and probably the most poetic treatment of Christ’s teaching. Many of us know how it starts: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. The gospel of Luke, however, is sharper and what it loses in poetry, it gains in clarity.

You're blessed when you've lost it all. God's kingdom is there for the finding. You're blessed when you're ravenously hungry. Then you're ready for the Messianic meal. You're blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don't like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

And then St. Luke goes for the gold adding these essential truths about living into God’s blessings:

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person... No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. For here is the way to experience God’s blessings: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that's charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You'll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, for even when we're at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting is the way. Generosity begets generosity.

To be blessed by God, seems to me, is to be opened to grace and to respond by giving shape and form to the way of God in our ordinary lives. This is what saints do – and saints are you and you and you and you and all of us. Now sometimes people say to me, “Oh, that is too hard; the way of Jesus is too demanding; the calling of God is too high.”

And that is true: being a saint IS too hard, too demanding, too high – that’s why Jesus told us we cannot become saints – or disciples – or people of faith all by ourselves. We have to open our hearts to God when we are empty. We have name and own our sin when we miss the mark. We have to ask for forgiveness over and over again. And we have to trust that God is God and loves us with a love that never gives up.
And that is why trusting the communion of saints – opening our hearts to their constant prayers for us when we have only sighs too deep for human words – can be so healing. We don’t have to do it all – that great cloud of witnesses is praying for us and encouraging the Lord to meet us where we need God the most.

• Our Roman sisters and brothers find great solace in knowing that when they are exhausted, Mother Mary is still praying for them in love. I find great peace in that trust, too. But not just Mary, right? But Father Abraham – and Mary Magdalene – and St. Paul, too. And let’s not forget Dietrich Bonheoffer and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to say nothing of Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa and St. Francis.

• Now, I don’t pretend to rationally understand this way of God, but I find sweet peace in the promise that when I am at my wit’s end, there is still a loving company gathered in heaven who stand at the throne of the Lord and serve God in prayer both day and night crying: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who has promised that there will be a time within and among us when there will be no more hunger, and no more thirst, and no more sorrow. For the Lord our God will be with us to wipe away every tear from our eyes.

That is what we claim by faith on All Saints’ Day: that God is with us in love in ways that we cannot comprehend. And now it is time for you to consider what I’ve just shared. The old master, Frederick Buechner, once said that all too often preachers are like English-speaking tourists abroad who are inclined to believe that if only they speak louder and more slowly the natives will come know what is being said and understand. But, in reality, the “only language people really understand is their own language.” The language of the heart – the language of our lives meeting God in prayer – which sounds something like this…

For all the saints who’ve shown your love
In how they live and where they move
For mindful women, caring men
Accept our gratitude again

For all the saints who loved your name
Whose faith increased the Savior’s flame
Who sang your songs and shared your word
Accept our gratitude, good Lord

For all the saints who names your will
And showed the kingdom coming still
Through selfless protest, prayer and praise
Accept the gratitude we raise

Bless all whose will or name or love
Reflects the grace of heaven above
Though unacclaimed by earthly powers
Your life through theirs has hallowed ours.

In just a moment I am going to invite you to come forward, beloved saints of God, for Holy Communion and when you do, let me ask you to bring three gifts with you:

An open and humble heart to receive Jesus at his table

• A pledge of how you will faithfully share your gifts with the community in the coming year

• And an offering to keep the ministry of Christ vibrant

You will see where to offer each of these gifts when you come forward. So now in the name of the Lord let me invite you to stand that we might affirm our faith together as the saints of God in this generation.

1) Backyard - James Lumsden
5) Sermon on the mount @ http://www.myspace.com/hullcracktown

1 comment:

Black Pete said...

Yes, the language of the heart, and the sense that we are not trying to be saints alone, but in a great company.

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