Sunday, November 6, 2016

For All The Saints!

Today I am filling in at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton. Today is the Sunday after the Feast of All Saints, and the readings being used today are those appointed for November 1. They can be found here.

While there are older oral and written traditions behind the final copy of what we now call the Book of Daniel, this “final draft” that has made it into our Bibles is most likely the newest document in the Old Testament, probably coming from a time less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ. To use a rough American analogy: if Jesus was born today in Clinton, Daniel takes us back to a time when James and Dolly Madison were in the White House, give or take.

It’s a rather strange book that wrestles with a very serious question: how can God’s people survive as a religious minority living under foreign rule? The narrator knows that there will be trials and tribulations when living in dangerous times, that there will be “costs of discipleship.” It includes the humor of a folktale set in a much earlier time period with the strange challenges of apocalyptic literature like John’s Revelation on Patmos.  

So even though we heard today that Daniel has these dreams and visions in his head during the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, we are not getting a contemporaneous report. The narrator is asking new questions by using old stories. It’s sort of like Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible;” set in the time of the Salem witch trials, but written in the 1950s as a commentary on the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s play, of course, meant to suggest that Senator Joseph McCarthy was on a witch-hunt. The Book of Daniel functions in a similar kind of way: seeing hints and clues taken from a more distant past of the Babylonian exile as a way to reflect upon and interpret the challenges that God’s people were facing in a new time and place.

Are you with me? Like anyone who lives in fearful times, Daniel is trying to sift through both his dreams and his nightmares. On the one hand, always there is the lure of God’s lasting vision of shalom: peace on earth, swords beaten into plowshares, the fatted calf killed and the wine poured and the table set, a table where all are welcome and where the lion and the lamb lie down together. On the other hand are the recurring nightmares that the beasts of imperial power leave us with and those demons that come out to haunt us late at night, manifested in opioid addictions and racial violence and the hurt and destruction that continues to unfold even on God’s holy mountain.

The insight that Daniel gets is that those “four beasts shall arise out of the earth, but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—for ever and ever.” The “but” is significant. There is no immunization from the nightmare that this world sometimes is. But in the end, “all shall be well.” Eventually. The point is not to make some distant future prediction. Nor is very helpful to try to match up these “beasts” with the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany or Russia or Iran or China. The point here is hope. The point is that Daniel is learning to trust God’s dream and not to let his nightmares undo him. The point is that he (and sometimes we) can vacillate between despair and hope. But the message that God gives to Daniel and to the Jewish people (including Jesus of Nazareth and therefore ultimately through him to us gathered here today) is this: hang in there. Keep the faith. Take the long-view by choosing hope, because in the end, the holy ones of the Most High shall inherit the Kingdom of God forever—for ever and ever.” (Daniel 7:18) In the meantime, you do the best you can, one day at a time.

Three times in my life now, I have stood on the Mount of the Beatitudes looking down toward the Sea of Galilee. The first time I was a twenty-one year old student studying abroad during my junior year of college and I was there on spring break. The second time was in 2006, through St. George’s College. Most recently, I travelled there again about a year ago with the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Each time I have wandered the beautiful gardens kept by the Franciscans, and I’ve sat and read the words of Jesus that we heard in today’s gospel reading. Some of us were taught from a young age to bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray, in order to try to “see” with the eyes of our heart. But in that holy place I wanted my eyes as wide-open as possible. I wanted to soak it all in: the sounds of the birds of the air and the sight of flowers and the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The smells and sights and sounds all made it clear to me that I was on “holy ground.” And whether or not it was the holy place where Jesus himself had stood, it was without doubt a holy place where his disciples continue to come in order to “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” And so I did that too. And there I sat and read these same words we heard from today’s gospel reading:

          Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
          Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
          Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…

At first hearing, Jesus’ words in that pastoral setting may sound light years away from the political musings of the Book of Daniel. But I want to suggest to you on this All Saints Sunday that they are cut from the same cloth. Jesus, too, was living in difficult times and trying to help the people of his own time come to grips with what it means to be faithful in the midst of Roman imperial power. What does it mean to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what belongs to God? Which is which? It turns out that isn’t at all an easy question to answer, then or now. As Jesus speaks on that Galilean hillside, his words reverberate into that larger world of Roman domination. Like Daniel, Jesus is teaching his disciples to put their trust in the dream of God rather than the nightmare of the Roman “beast.” He is calling them from the world in order to teach them how to live in the world as salt and light and yeast. He is offering them an alternative “narrative” by which to orient their lives.

Rome says that whoever has the most toys when he dies wins. Jesus says that the holy ones of God know that the poor are blessed, and that we are blessed when we accompany them. Rome teaches the love of power; Jesus preaches the power of love. Jesus asks us to view Roman imperial power – the pax Romana—from a Galilean hillside on the edges of imperial power and then to ask, “at what cost? At whose expense?” For whom is it peace?

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about this alternative script, this way of living in the world but not of it, began to spread around the Mediterranean Sea to places like Corinth and Galatia and even the belly of the beast, Rome itself. Paul captures that vision after a life-changing experience on the Road to Damascus, writing in the middle of the first century to the Church in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, those extraordinary words we heard today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart   enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

That dream eventually spread beyond Rome to the rest of Europe, and to Britain, and to the shores of this new world to this very Commonwealth at Plymouth Rock—and to this town of Clinton and to the first Episcopal missionaries riding on horseback across this Commonwealth and to this parish, the Church of the Good Shepherd. On this great feast of All Saints, we remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: that the “good news” we proclaim here today was passed on to us by apostles and saints and martyrs and that even now we are surrounded by these holy ones of God who have, down through the centuries, put their trust in God and hoped in a brighter future and listened to their better angels. Even as we vaguely struggle; they in glory shine. Yet all are one…

This great cloud of witnesses continues to cheer us on. Has there ever been an eve of a national election in your lifetimes when we needed this reminder more? Don’t worry – I’m not about to go all political on you. But here is the deal: next weekend across this diocese and this great nation, as we pray for our Presiding Bishop, Michael, and our own Bishop, Doug, and for our President, Barack in the final months of his time in office, we’ll also add a prayer for our president-elect. Whichever one it is. And we’ll pray for a peaceful transition, perhaps more fully aware than ever before that this is not a given. There is a lot of work to be done by whoever wins, and graciousness required of whoever loses. There is a lot of fear on all sides, and like Daniel and Jesus and Paul and Julian of Norwich and all the saints, we are called to speak a word of hope into that mix; not as an act of denial, but as a sign of our hope that all will be well. Are we up to the task?

Walter Brueggemann has suggested that Holy Baptism is about re-branding us for this work that God has given us to do. Holy Baptism makes a claim on us that is forever. It puts a mark on us that begins the process of transformation and renewal that with God’s help leads us toward the full stature of Christ. It leads us toward becoming “more fully who we are marked and hoped to be.” Each of us have been branded and welcomed into this “communion of saints” – this beloved community. We are called to be witnesses for others as we live into the promises of the Covenant that has been made, turning away daily from all that seeks to destroy the creatures of God and cause us nightmares, and to turn to the One who is worthy of our trust and praise and to live out of that new narrative, that “script” of God’s love and purpose.

We gather here today to remember and to give thanks, and to renew our own promises of Baptism. We do that even on the brink of a presidential election that has raised anxiety on all sides. Especially now, because we know that this is not the first time in human history that God’s people have faced big challenges. We gather here to confront our nightmares and to re-open ourselves to God’s dream, knowing that by God’s grace and in God’s own good time, “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—for ever and ever.” In the meantime, like the saints who have gone before us, we live by faith, hope, and love.

Let us then pray:

          You mark us with your water. You scar us with your name.
          You brand us with your vision, and we ponder our baptism, your water
                   your name. your vision.
          While we ponder, we are otherwise branded.
          Our imagination is consumed by other brands:
winning with Nike, pausing with Coca-Cola, knowing and controlling with Microsoft.
Rebrand us,
transform our minds, renew our imagination that we may be more fully who we are marked and hoped to be.
            We pray with candor and courage. Amen.[i]

[i] From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.

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