Sermon for October 30 – The Feast of All Saints’ – on Luke 6:20-31
Tonight we mark the Feast of All Saints’, and as part of that we are celebrating the baptism of three people: Annaliese, Noah, and Dennis. Noah and Dennis have made this decision for themselves, while Annaliese’s parents, Bryan and Kyla, are making these baptismal commitments on her behalf; commitments that she will one day need to lay hold of for herself. Regardless, what we are doing is naming these three people as numbered amongst the saints. That’s a rather bold thing to be doing, isn’t it?
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As I say pretty much every year, the Feast of All Saint’s isn’t about having one big festal day for all of the well-known, big league saints, but rather celebrates the lives of all of God’s saints, known and unknown. The Greek word in the New Testament that we translate as “saint” is hagios, or “holy one,” and Paul uses it for all of the members of the Body of Christ. In this evening’s reading from Ephesians, for instance, he writes that that he has heard of that community’s “love for all the saints,” and by that he means their love for all people who dare to call themselves Christians. Same with his instruction to the Christians in Rome that they “Contribute to the needs of the saints.” (Romans 12:13) Take care of the needs of others who are walking this path, wherever they might be. To this Paul adds, “extend hospitality to strangers,” which is a reminder that it isn’t quite enough to just take care of our own!
Saint. Holy One. Daunting words, really. Who me? And then this year the lectionary lands this section from the Gospel according to Luke on our laps, and you think, “Wow, that bar is raised pretty high.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And even before Jesus goes there, he talks about how blessed you are “when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” Why am I signing up for this?
That might be what the disciples were thinking when Jesus first spoke these words. In Luke’s narrative, this follows right on the heels of the calling of the twelve, and these words seem to be particularly meant for them: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said…” And in he goes. Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep, you who are excluded and reviled. Not the ones you conventionally think of as being “blessed”. And then come four corresponding “woes”—woe to you who are rich, have full stomachs, are laughing, and have people always speaking well of you. But aren’t these the very people that would conventionally be thought of as being blessed? This is all upside down, Jesus.
Precisely. Or maybe more accurately, it is the world that is upside down, and he is showing something of it being put right side up. In this, he stands very much in line with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. There is something amiss, there is a kind of cancer that has set in, when you look around and see on the one hand poverty, hunger, tears of sorrow, and on the other people who are rich, full, and laughing, in utter indifference. People slapping them on the back, congratulating them for their successes and for how well they’re doing, thinking them blessed in their comfortable lives. This is where the prophets—and Jesus too—would say that such indifference is actually a violation of what God calls people to be. It is a powerful theme throughout Luke’s gospel, starting with the Magnificat or Mary’s song, in which she sings that through Jesus God has already, “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Yet these strange blessings in this gospel are, as G.B. Caird puts it, “not merely a promise but an invitation.” An invitation to dare to see the world as God wishes it to be. But what does that look like, in real terms? How do you live that? And now Jesus goes to absolutely practical matters.
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Dennis, Noah, right now you might be thinking, “I don’t know that I can do all that… the standard is just too high…” Actually, maybe many of you are thinking the same thing; who can pull that off? St Francis of Assisi? Mother Teresa?
But here I think N.T. Wright offers a crucial insight, when he says that,
Jesus’ point was not to provide his followers with a new rule-book… The point was to inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you. And at the centre of it is the thing that motivates and gives colour to the whole: you are to be like this because that’s what God is like.
These teachings are not meant to be an enormous burden or a set of near crushing demands that must be met in order to satisfy God and earn acceptance. Again from Bishop Wright:
The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for that worst person, and go ahead and do it. Think of what you’d really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead. These instructions have a fresh, spring-like quality.
These instructions have a fresh, spring-like quality. Or they should, so long as they aren’t wielded in a way that turns them into another set of laws. Catch the spirit of what he is calling out of us, catch the possibility, catch the sense of how freeing it can be to live in the light of God’s “glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity.”
Then and only then does it make any sense at all to name Annaliese, Dennis, Noah, me, you, all of us as numbered among the saints, God’s holy ones. It isn’t on account of how well we’ve pulled off holiness, but rather because we’ve been called holy, justified, beloved by God. Every Sunday night when I stand at the communion table and offer the Eucharistic prayer, I say these words:
In fulfilment of your will
he stretched out his hands in suffering,
to bring release to those who place their hope in you;
and so he won for you this holy people.
And as I say “this holy people,” I look up and I see all of you. I know so many of your stories, the burdens you carry, the things you struggle with, the sorrows you bear. I know some struggle with addiction, deep doubt, crippling hurts, failed relationships, lost hopes. And still, I get to name you as this holy people. Because we have been named that, and invited in our oftentimes halting ways to live into that, because God is like that.
Now, lets baptize us some saints.