Monday, December 26, 2016

For All the Saints, a sermon on Luke 6:20-31

A.Kumm-Hanson, 2016 Iceland
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the God of all the Saints. Amen.

Today we celebrate the festival of All Saints.  This feast day in the church year has historically been the time in which the unnamed Christian martyrs were remembered for their contributions to the faith.  Different Christian traditions have varied criteria for sainthood. In the Roman Catholic church, there are prescribed standards for becoming a saint, including miracles performed and observed by others. In our Lutheran tradition, we celebrate the lives of all of God’s beloved as saints, recognizing that we are all both saint and sinner. On this day, we remember the lives of those who have helped us to grow in faith, touched our lives, and helped us to more clearly see the face of God. 

On All Saints Day, we remember that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses, part of a river of humanity, intricate parts of a greater whole of creation, that testify to the Living God through both our living and our dying. We are saints not because of what we do or what we believe, but rather, because of who created us. At the beginning of liturgy today, when the names of our beloved saints were read aloud, we remembered and gave thanks for their lives.  On that list are many loved ones. Parents, grandparents, children, friends. People who rest in glory after long lives and people who lost their lives far too soon.  On this day of honoring our saints, it is impossible to forget the sting of death. For even as we know that our beloveds reside with God, we feel the pain of their loss here and now.  We might see far off glimpses of a future with God in glory, but we acutely feel the burden of death now. It is a moment of “now and not yet.”  On this day when we remember our saints and the ways that they have blessed our lives, we also feel woe because these loved ones are no longer with us. Love is both joy and pain, because when you love someone, that love is always accompanied by the pain of their potential loss. To be human is to fear death. And to be human is to be deeply in need of healing by a merciful God.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus has gathered his disciples and a crowd who have come to him for healing. He is going to preach what is called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel. It has similar words to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, but this sermon is not for an elite few on top of a mountain. It is for anyone who “has ears to listen” as we hear Jesus say to the crowd.  We have all most likely heard a few sermons on these beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be fed. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. What makes Luke’s account so compelling for me, is that the sermon does not just stop with blessings. It includes woes also. There is something more here for us to dig into.  Who is woeful? Is it us? Is it our neighbors?  Is it The Other?

Woe to you who are rich, because you have received comfort in this life. Woe to you who are full now, for the day is coming when you will have a hunger that cannot be filled by food. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when you are publically acclaimed and well-liked, because that is what your ancestors did to the false prophets.

We don’t get to hear what the disciples or the crowd think about these pronouncements that Jesus makes. But it is likely that they react similarly to us. Our temptation as humans is to place ourselves (and others) into one of these two categories, either blessed or cursed.  And we definitely want to be blessed. This division feels particularly acute with Tuesday’s impending election.  We want to see ourselves as blessed and others as cursed. We want to place ourselves into the sainted positions of righteous and holy and upstanding, and cast others as ignorant or deplorable. We are blessed because of where we have located ourselves, or where society has placed us by virtue of our skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, and others are cursed because they are not in that same place of privilege. Or maybe we are so broken by systems and systemic oppression that we feel cursed. That the world has broken us to the point where we only see woe. That all the blessings belong to someone else.  Sometimes we cannot see ourselves as saints who are blessed, because the world tells us otherwise. Over and over again.  

What does it mean to be a saint?  Must we have miracles attributed to us?  Must we be perfectly pious?  Must we know what it is to follow Jesus? What if we have no idea, just that we are drawn to this Jesus guy, seeking to be healed?  Like those who followed Jesus in this Gospel story, who came to hear the Sermon on the Plain, wishing to be in his presence and hear a word of healing. We don’t know why we are called there, just that we need to hear the word that makes us whole.

What if being blessed as saints means catching a glimpse of God’s world and trusting that we are a part of it? Blessing comes through trust in God and God’s future, in the hope of justice that this world cannot give. The woeful are those who answer “yes” to the question, “Is this all there is?” 

This Gospel points to God’s future for us all. A time and place in which we gather with the saints by the river in God’s presence. And it is a reminder that our hope is that the same old thing will not continue. That we lean into God’s promise and God’s future together.

However it is not enough to passively sit back and look towards the future. Part of our role as saints is to work towards God’s justice and God’s kingdom now. Some years ago, some clergy friends and I decided to call out on social media all the things that provided us hope, provided us with a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  I have found that this practice of recognition is the only antidote to the brokenness and death of this world. The kingdom of God looks water protectors gathered in a fierce prairie wind to protect the river for future generations. It looks like my good friend Lauren’s friends attending her funeral this week dressed as Comic Con characters to honor her memory and her spirit of joy. It looks like children who invite lonely classmates to sit with them at lunch or on the playground.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are.  We are both fully saint and sinner. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses seen and beloved by God. It is our identity as God’s beloved that has freed us to walk humbly and with justice now, and trust that we will rest with God eternal as we pass from this world to the next with all the saints.

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