All Saints Day
Baptism Sunday and Communion Sunday
Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18 Luke 6: 20-36
This is a particularly poignant section of Luke’s gospel. There’s nothing confusing or difficult to get our minds around. Following a night of prayer with his disciples and chosen apostles, Jesus came down from the mountain, stood on the plain with the crowd, and began to challenge them all. It was a pithy message much abbreviated from the beatitudes we read in Matthew’s gospel: Blessed are those in three particular states: the poor, the hungry and the saddened. Blessed are those who are categorically persecuted for Jesus. Jesus has good news! You will be lifted up. But woe to you who are wealthy, full and happy. A reversal of fortune is coming your way.
Jesus’ message is so direct that there is no room for misinterpretation. There is no metaphor. He tells it like it is with the starkness of a prophet; the words are clear, exposing a problem for every day Christians like you and me. We find ourselves caught in the middle between the poor in body and the poor in spirit. It’s a raw feeling, leaving us to ask ourselves, “What can we do about the gross imbalance between abject poverties? What is our role among God’s people – Christians who complete the triad between the rich and the poor, or the hungry and the filled, or the sad and the happy?”
A lot can happen when Jesus looks us squarely in the eye. I suppose that we have at least four choices. The first is to stand firmly where we are and refuse to engage the conversation. What would bring us to this point of avoidance? Could it be paralysis from the starkness of Jesus’ judgment? Could it be anger toward the systems of injustice that overwhelm us every day? A second choice might be to move to the margins and work for the empowerment of people who have been themselves marginalized. This is a radical choice that seems daunting to most of us but has been done by folks like Jim Schwaninger who became by his own decision an outcast among the homeless over 30 years ago. A third choice could be to identify with those in power, emulate the dominant group and become part of the widening gap that breaks God’s heart. Sometimes, this comes through raw evil that creeps through the contours of our hearts. Most often, this follows a feeling of one not being loved, manifesting in a poverty of spirit Jesus warned against that day. This leads me to offer a fourth choice, and that is for each one of us to claim to be agents of God’s love. Let me suggest that this is the very reason this gospel reading is before us today: to remind us of God’s claim on our lives, sealed by our baptisms and made complete when God claims us in death, that we blur the lines between the brokenness in the world with our love.
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who dedicated his life to the values of community and spiritual communion, says it to us this way, “If you dare to believe that you are beloved before you are born, you may suddenly realize that your life is very, very special. You become conscious that you were sent here for such a short time, for 20, 40, or 80 years, to discover and believe that you are a beloved child of God. The length of time doesn’t matter. You were sent into the world to believe in yourself as God’s chosen one, and then help your brothers and sisters know that they are also beloved sons and daughters of God who belong together. You’re sent into this world to be a people of reconciliation. You are sent to heal, to break down the walls between you and your neighbors… Before all the distinctions, the separations, and the walls build on foundations of fear, there was unity in the mind and the heart of God. Out of that unity, you were sent into this world for a little while to claim that you and every other being belong to that same God of love who lives from eternity to eternity.”[i]
This is the claim God made on our lives before the foundations of the earth were drawn – a sign of which we witness through a baptism like Roya’s. This is the claim God makes on the church of Jesus Christ, gathered around this font and table, to gather the people on the margins of society – those people in the world whose situations of poverty, injustice, and suffering make God weep. Letty Russell, a feminist theologian we’ve talked about before, reminds us that these men, women, boys and girls “are not strangers to God, for God has already reached out to care for them. Yet they are strangers in the world who need to know God cares through the witness of a church that practices …justice on their behalf.”[ii]
As we consider who is seated around the table with us today, we are called as the body of Christ to stretch our arms wide around the poor and the wealthy, the hungry and the filled, the weeping and the glad and draw all into the embrace of the church. Then, through a great reversal of fortune that Jesus was proclaiming on the plain that day, those farthest margins of society will become locations of connection where the distinctions between all God’s chosen begin to blur. This is, in large part, the result of our election by God to be the radical people of God, ordained into the ministries of Jesus Christ to close the great divides in our world.
We can’t let this notion of radicality upend us. Shane Claiborne, a contemporary author who has the gift of connecting with Christians on the theological right and the left and seekers at every point along the great divides of life, tells us that radical Christianity is “not something reserved for the saints and martyrs.” In the truest sense of the word, radical Christians are simply those who want to get at the root of what it means to love – radical, etymologically meaning root.[iii]
In his book, Irresistible Revolution, Shane talks about the New Jerusalem Church in Philadelphia. New Jerusalem is a congregation entirely comprised of formerly drug addicts and alcoholics. They teach one another that we can’t fully solve the problems of addiction until the society has been cured of the disease. They remind us “when we see so many of our friends wasting away from drug addiction, we have to ask ourselves where the drugs are coming from – and they’re not coming from the kid around the corner. When we are staring in the face of the largest prison buildup in the history of civilization, with two million citizens in prison and one in every three black men under judicial restraint, we have to wonder what good the 13th Amendment is if slavery is illegal unless the person is convicted of a crime. When we are trying to teach kids not to hit each other and they see a government use violence to bring about change, we start to consider what it means to give witness to a peace that is not like the world gives. …Shane reminds us of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who put it like this, “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…but one day we must come to see the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that a system that produces beggars must be repaved…and after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, “maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”[iv]
Layers of insulation keep the rich from encountering the poor. Even well intentioned exercises like short term mission trips and purchases of merchandise that are intended to deliver a portion of the proceeds to those who need it most can function as outlets that help us to appease our consciences. Often, they do little to ameliorate the plight of anyone while they keep us a safe distance from the ones who need us most.[v] It is much more comfortable to depersonalize the poor rather than act as conduits of love that intimately connect us with them all. Our task is not to act like another layer of insulation between the poverties of body and spirit. Our task is to become agents of radical Christian love to ameliorate the sorrowful chasm between the richest to the poorest of every kind and become conduits of healing for the sadness of the world, enjoining poverty through generosity of heart. This is the task of the baptized. This is the result of our election – the labor of all the saints gathered here and those who’ve gone before us – who are called to effect a great reversal of fortune through our rootedness in Christian love.
Today, we celebrate the sacrament of baptism and are reminded that God claims each one of us and calls each one of us as one of God’s own. This is a mark of our ordination among God’s children into the great community of saints. As we continue to gather as Western Presbyterian Church, we celebrate our election by God to serve the people of God by acting as conduits of God’s love who blur the lines between the impoverished of every kind and affect a great unity in the spirit of the saints. We celebrate our oneness as body of Christians around the feast that has been prepared as we celebrate our oneness with the great saints who have gone before us. May the results of our election be lasting and our love to the world be profound until the day when we take our place with all the saints of future, present and past who’ve responded to God’s claim. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Nouwen, Henri, Finding My Way Home (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001). P. 105.
[ii] Russell, Letty, Just Hospitality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). p. 18-19.
[iii] Claiborne, Shane and Jim Wallis, Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). p. 20.
[iv] Claiborne, especially 158-160.