Friday, December 14, 2018

What can we say November 3? All Saints

   Preparing for All Saints, I stumbled across a marvelous passage in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Animal Dreams, which tells how the citizens of a town called Grace observed the Day of the Dead: lavishly decorating the cemetery, nothing solemn, but much laughter, running, and many flowers. "Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.  The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care.  It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead.  In these families you would never stop being loved.."
 Worship idea: we've asked people to bring a small picture of a loved one to hold during the service. In my sermon, I'll play off John O'Donohue's poem about the loss of a child: "No one knows the wonder your child awoke in you, your heart a perfect cradle to hold its presence. Now you sit bereft, your eyes numbed... You will wear this absence like a secret locket... Let the silent tears flow, and when your eyes clear perhaps you'll glimpse how your eternal child... parents your heart and persuades the moon to send new gifts ashore." 

   While in our worship we’ll use the All Saints’ Day lections (see below), the November 3 readings are themselves powerful and sufficient to the day. Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 images a sentinel on a watchtower (I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s, and then Jimi Hendrix’s versions…) – an impeccable image for our longing and patient waiting for the dawning of God’s good kingdom. Near the end of Homecoming, Marilynne Robinson’s best (maybe? my opinion?) novel, we find this reflection on memory and death: “But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.” Not accidentally, this watchtower moment climaxes in Hab. 2:4 – the verse Paul alighted upon when he was figuring out how to explain the way faith in grace is what saves.

   Luke 19:1-10 similarly would work for All Saints. Jesus comes to the home of Zaccheus (“a wee little man was he…”). We are titans, and even the saints weren’t giants. Zaccheus’s smallness is a mirror – or perhaps we ponder Tolkien’s hobbits from the shire as the hope and future of Middle Earth, or that other child’s song, “They are weak, but he is strong.” Luke’s punch line zooms in on what matters: “The Son of man came to seek and save the lost,” not the clever or well-placed or even the church members, Bible readers and believers. Jesus’ intriguing, mystifying use of “Son of man” (as the Ethiopian eunuch asked, “Does he refer to himself or another?”) leads us to the first of our All Saints Lections:

   Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18. The exotic setting and vivid language of verse 1 sets the tone for high drama. It’s just fun in the pulpit to say “Belshazzar,” and perhaps then to image Daniel, in the shadows of such a dreamy place, dreaming – not the kind Freud could explain, but the kind God gives and in which we share. Dreaming still matters – and just as a knot in the gut may turn out to be a malignancy or a pregnancy, the dream may be a nightmare or something glorious. Daniel is terrified – but the monsters haunting him in the dark are nothing more than the temporary, vapid powers of this world about to be defeated by the powers of good, light and love. I wouldn’t squander much time explicating which beast represented Persia and which the Greeks – as later on it’s Antiochus Epiphanes, then Nero or Domitian, and ultimately the Hitlers, Stalins and other arrogant megalomaniacs who strut across the stage of history. They are undone by a humble, unarmed, suffering one.

   Daniel’s dream vision has been made the linchpin in N.T. Wright’s explication of Jesus as Son of Man instigating The Day the Revolution Began. Daniel 7’s “little horn” is silenced, the monsters condemned, God’s kingdom inaugurated – reminding us that All Saints’ Day isn’t merely about eternal life for those who’ve died, but the comprehensive, cosmic dawning of God’s kingdom in its fulness! Again, the new ones who will reign are the little people, the hobbit-like ones, the “saints.” 

   Christians have often been irresponsible hopers in God’s ultimate victory, not engaging in God’s work now. Sib Towner explains why quietism isn’t the interim ethic for those with apocalyptic hope: “The waiting is an active waiting. It includes the maintenance of sharp identity, the heightening of interpretative skills, faithfulness before unjust demands of the foreign rulers, and fidelity to Yahweh in all things.” 

  Before I deal with death and resurrection, I'll focus on holy lives, courageous lives. Hard not to, as I'm just returning from our church's "Deep South Pilgrimage." In Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, we retraced the steps of heroes who shed blood on holy ground. John Lewis, after nearly being killed, crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge - so can I play on "crossing over" as heroic action now and entering eternal life later on? Without diverting into race-as-an-issue, I hope it will play in the background and invite us to ponder how much courage matters - still.

   I’ll allude to Daniel but will preach primarily on Ephesians 1:11-23 (although we’ll sing David Haas’s wonderful “Blest Are They,” and I will allude to the Gospel also). I doubt I’ll do a lot of explaining the text, and I certainly wouldn’t try to make such powerful words “relevant” or any such nonsense. They speak for themselves. Mine will be to relish the words, being personally awed by them, like a docent in a museum, pointing with gawking delight. The luxurious, lavish verbiage had to be mind-boggling to the early Christians, meager as their resources and prospects were. Frank Thielman is right: “Words that emphasize God’s meticulous planning pile up one upon another – purpose, work, counsel, will – how privileged are we!” Heirs, inheritances, riches, glory, destiny... 

   This last word needs a little parenthesis, doesn’t it? The old “God is in control” notion is ridiculous, of course. I love how Markus Barth (Karl’s son!) clarifies how personal this destining is: “It pertains exclusively to the relationship of the Father to his children. If no wise human father would treat his children according to a schedule fixed before their birth, how much less would the Father who is blessed in Ephesians 1:3-14!”

   The responsibilities of even the most fabulous heirs was driven home to me at the World Methodist Council in 1986 when Donald English reported on attending the wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew – and how the couple, immensely wealthy, able to do whatever they might wish, had bowed and pledged fealty to the crown, to the “rights and responsibilities” that went with being a royal couple.

   I love Paul’s “prayer report” here. It’s not so much that What we asked God for was ‘answered.’ What intrigues is the content of his prayer – that the recipients, the objects of his praying, might have a “spirit of wisdom and revelation,” that their “eyes of their hearts might be enlightened” 
(reminding me of St. Francis’s constant prayer during his season of conversion, “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, correct faith, firm hope, perfect charity, wisdom and perception, that I may do what is truly your most holy will.”

   Paul also prays for 3 things (Do you wish people prayed this for you? for one another?): (1) the hope to which he has called you, (2) the God’s glorious inheritance, and (3) the magnitude of God! Do we get such prayer requests? What if we did? The hope business: Emily Dickinson suggested that “Hope is the thing in the soul with feathers…” – but is it in the soul? Or is it more about God? Markus Barth, again: “The emphasis lies not so much on the mood of the person hoping as on the substance or subject matter of expectation.” It’s the thing hoped for. 
Christopher Lasch (in his marvelous The True and Only Heaven) clarified that optimism is the fantasy that all will be better tomorrow, and it depends on us; but hope is the ability to deal with tomorrow if things aren’t better – and it depends not on us but on God.

   Luke 6:20-31 fascinates as the parallel to Matthew 5’s more familiar and beloved “Beatitudes.” Why more beloved? Matthew omits the “Woe” moments in Luke… and Jesus suggests the “poor in spirit” are blessed – instead of merely the “poor.” 
Clarence Jordan shrewdly pointed out that the poor prefer Luke, while the rest of us delight in Matthew! Jesus spoke to the poor, the nobodies – and blessed them. They were accustomed to being cursed, ignored or blamed – as we see in our world today. How amazing was Jesus? For All Saints’ Day, it’s hard not to hear the line “Blessed are those who mourn.” We come mourning, indeed – but we grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Again, I trust the reading of the names in God’s holy place more than I trust my frail words to express the hope of the Gospel!

   Robert Schuller tried to modernize the text with the rubric “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” But Jesus isn’t issuing commandments, much less doling out advice for a chipper life. He blesses, he embraces, loves, knows, recognizes, and gives hope to the hopeless, to the people nobody else wants – and then he brings down a Woe! on the big dogs, those who think they’re somebody, and especially the self-righteous. Jesus’ words are light years from the conventional wisdom of our day. He doesn’t say Blessed are the good-looking, the successful, the well-connected, the white Americans, and he doesn’t say Woe to the immigrant, the unemployed, the lonely or the homeless. The preacher has one more chance just now to chip away at the façade of thin, culturally-mashed-down thinking, and open the window into Jesus’ revolutionary worldview.

 You might appreciate my Advent book picking up on phrases and themes in various Christmas carols: Why This Jubilee? Useful for church people - and for preachers.

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