All Saints A – An ordeal to hope for

Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

I once asked confirmation class what they thought made a person a saint. One astute teen answered: “You have to be dead.”

It’s true that All Saints probably began as a festival honoring Christians who had been martyred for their faith. It grew to include men and women known to have led exemplary faith lives and who were, as the teen pointed out, dead.

Today, the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints includes (by my count) 337 individuals and 13 groups. It is a more diverse list than one might expect. They are not all Episcopalian or Roman Catholic. Not all are men, or ordained. Not all were martyred.

They are writers (Thomas Merton), musicians (Bach), theologians (Karl Barth & John Calvin), architects (Ralph Adams Cram), doctors (William Mayo & Charles Menninger), nurses (Florence Nightingale), scientists (Copernicus & Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), a U.S. Cabinet member (Frances Perkins), environmentalists (John Muir), African Americans (Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass & Sojourner Truth) and even a lawyer (Pauli Murray.) There are people whose names we know (e.g., Deitrich Bonhoeffer & Martin Luther King) and more than a few we probably don’t [1] (e.g., Hiram Hisanori Kano, Episcopal priest and minister to the Japanese-Americans held in American internment camps.)

No one, however, is on this list who has not been dead at least since 1986, proving the savvy teen’s point: To be a saint, you need to be dead.

St. Paul understood the notion of “saint” differently. For him, the word referred to living believers. (Romans 1:7, 1 Cor.1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2.). Only much later did it come to mean “the martyred,” and still later, the exemplary Christians who were dead-but-not-martyred.

The first reading from Revelation, points to one thing that St. Paul, the teen and the contemporary church could probably agree on as being constitutive of sainthood. The Elder says it: the saints are those who have been through the “great ordeal.” The Elder does not describe the great ordeal in detail. Maybe he meant martyrdom. Maybe not. Like the challenges described in the Beatitudes (Matthew) the ordeal is a situation which tests our faith and calls for the practice of saintly virtues.

We ought not to seek out such ordeals. Jesus says to pray that such ordeals not come our way. (Mtt.6:13) Still, sometimes they do.

I hope by this time next week our national election is over and that Biden has won. If that happens, after the Inauguration, we will need to start rebuilding a functioning government with institutions which reject the agendas of white supremacy and misogyny.

In rebuilding, we will not be able to ignore those who were emboldened by Trump’s deplorable rhetoric. Their fear and anger will not go away on its own. It has been baked into American culture and institutions, many of which have served us handsomely. So before we can rebuild in a way that is progressive, equitable and sustainable, we will all need to deeply embrace and articulate some new values.

This may not be the “great ordeal” we usually think of when we read Revelation, but I would argue that it is plenty great, because it is important and it will be very difficult.

It is important because matters of life and death are at stake:

  • affordable healthcare
  • environmental protection
  • the enforcement of laws against discrimination based on skin color, gender or sexual orientation
  • the enforcement of safe labor laws and equal pay legislation
  • a governmental reinvestment in public education, and
  • a national commitment to non-lethal policing.

It will be difficult because we have been pointing fingers and not listening to one another for a long time. It will require us to practice more than a few of the saintly virtues.

Jesus said not to seek out ordeals. But I think this is an exception.

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Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash

[1] A good reason to start constructing litanies from the calendar of saints and then make room for it in the now way-too-crowded All Saints liturgy. Maybe we don’t really need baptisms on All Saints.

Pr25A Decide to hope

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The night of the 2016 election I stayed up until early in the morning hoping that the voting returns would change.  To turn off the TV would amount to admitting that it was over, that there was nothing left to hope for.  Inauguration Day felt worse. As the Obamas left and the Trumps moved into the White House, the nightmare became real. I didn’t know what to hope for. 

There have been so many endings in the last few years, capped by RBG’s death and the sight of Republicans racing not to enact financial relief for those impoverished by Covid, but to tilt the Supreme Court farther to the right. As we await the results of the next election, trustworthy public servants warn that if Trump wins, it could mean the end of our democracy. 

Our hopes have been disappointed, more than once. We’re not sure if we can or should hope again. The times seem apocalyptic. Darkness rises. Things break down. Endings loom. Even the lectionary readings are on tone  —   apocalyptic  —  as they always are on the last few Sundays before Advent.[1]

The first reading (Deuteronomy) tells the story of the death of Moses — the one who led the people out of slavery and into a coherent community. For most, he had been the leader since before they were born. 

The second reading, (1 Thessalonians), tells of Paul’s decision to hope again despite how badly his ministry at Philippi had gone. And in Matthew, Jesus is having a last conversation with the Pharisees. In a day or two the Passover festival will begin. It will be a catastrophic time for Jesus.

Endings. 

Sometimes endings have hope built into them, like the proverbial door which closes, freeing our attention to find the open window.  Perhaps those who mourned Moses saw his successor, Joshua, as an open window and cause for renewed hope. 

But sometimes we see an end coming and there is no window in sight. 

I have never believed that Jesus and the Pharisees were enemies. They were fellow believers who, like Jesus, knew the Law and the Prophets. Like Jesus, they knew that the times were treacherous and there were no easy answers as to how faithful people should live. Knowing that a difficult Passover week was coming for the Pharisees as well as for himself, Jesus first encouraged them to stay focused on what they knew to be the basics. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And then he told them to keep hoping. If it started to look like all doors were closing and that there were no open windows, decide to look again, perhaps in a different place.  If the promise of a “messiah” is what holds your hope, look outside the box of “Son of David.” 

In difficult and dark times when all we can see is trouble and closed doors, we need to be prepared to travel light, morally. We need to know what matters. What principles are dearest and what commitments are non-negotiable. And then, we need to decide to keep hoping. 

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Photo by Jennifer Griffin on Unsplash

[1] The apocalyptic theme climaxes on Advent 1, after which the gospel readings turn towards the birth of Jesus, telling the stories of John the Baptist and Mary.