October 27, 201
All Saints/All Souls/Day of the Dead
For All the Saints…
Today we are celebrating All Saints Day at Seekers, with a Day of the Dead altar, a burial urn on the bulletin, a tile on the Memory Wall for Emily Gilbert, and the Be-attitudes for a text. It’s quite a mash-up to deal with even before we include surrounding events, like the World Series and the latest presidential plundering of our public life. I’ll skip those for now.
I’m preaching as a member of the Living Water Mission Group. We have responsibility for the Memory Wall in the back stairwell, where you will find a new tile installed to remember Emily, who died this year at the age of 96. Emily was a founding member of Seekers Church, and a member of Living Water until she died. You will find the Memory Book open to her page in the Skylight Room after worship. This service is dedicated to Emily, and to all the departed saints who will be coming closer to us this week.
All Saints/Day of the Dead
Unless we were lucky enough to grow up in a Catholic or Hispanic neighborhood, we probably did not celebrate All Saints Day or bring favorite foods to the cemetery on the Day of the Dead.
Instead of All Hallows Eve, most of us probably dressed up in some homemade costume for Halloween, and went about the neighborhood, making scary sounds, hoping our moms would let us eat some of the Trick-or-Treat candy when we got home. By Junior High, knocking on doors gave way to costume parties and junk food instead, but none of that comes close to the deep spiritual meaning of All Hallows Eve, All Saints or All Souls Day in the early church.
In Western Christianity, All Hallows’ Eve may have grown out of pagan rituals to acknowledge the darkness of winter in Northern Europe. As the Roman Catholic Church incorporated regional holy-days, All Saints began with Vespers on the evening of 31 October, and continued through All Soul’s Day on November 2. In the Eastern Christian tradition, All Saints Day happens on the first Sunday after Pentecost, to celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering earthly followers for a new life in Christ. But in the West, saints were identified by the Catholic Church for their sacrificial lives, and for subsequent miraculous healings which had to be certified by the church. Over time, liturgical churches (Episcopal and Lutherans) celebrated various saints throughout the year, but they were ALL celebrated at this turning point between October and November.
This year, I spent the summer reading letters and sermons of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. She was a 12th century Benedictine nun who lived in a small monastery on the Rhine River in Germany. Hildegard was a truly remarkable woman – a mystic, physician, reformer and composer – who was silenced (at age 80) by the Pope for allowing a man who had been excommunicated to be buried at her monastery – and who argued successfully for that edict to be removed by the Pope before she died at 81. The Catholic Church finally got around to declaring Hildegard a Saint and Doctor of the Church in 2012 – nearly a thousand years after she lived! Before that, many people regarded her as a saint, no matter what the church said – and that’s the practice we will focus on here: recognizing saints among us, no matter what officials say.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico, and in other Latin American countries. It expands the meaning of “all saints” to family and friends who have died. Families often clean the graves, bring fresh flowers and favorite foods for a picnic with their departed “saints.” Day of the Dead can also be a wonderfully garish celebration of mortality and spiritual presence, complete with blinking skulls and rattling skeletons. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie, Coco, you will have a good sense of how important this celebration is — and how healing it might be for our culture, where death is still such a taboo topic. [As an aside, I was glad to see 18 Seekers at our first Death Café yesterday.]
If anybody can be a saint, does that mean everybody is a saint? Our text for today (Luke 6: 20-31) sheds some light on this question. It suggests how saints are formed in daily life. In the preceding chapter of Luke, Jesus has just been to a big party with unsavory people of his day, tax collectors and other disreputable characters. That’s the starting place – eating with “outsiders,” making them “friends.” It created quite a buzz among his critics. Then Jesus irritated law-abiding Pharisees by healing a man on the Sabbath, after which he left town for a much-needed prayer retreat…to reconnect with God and maybe check out his motives before choosing a small group of disciples.
Then, Luke says, Jesus selected 12 men to be his inner circle of followers, and he gave them this description of God’s Realm on earth which begins our text for today:
- Blessed are the outcasts, for they will included;
- Woe to the powerful, for they have already had their rewards.
Following that, Jesus got to his specific instructions “for all who are listening”:
- Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and give to those who ask for help. In short, treat others as you would want to be treated.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is commonly known as the Golden Rule – and there’s nothing unique about it. Some version of The Golden Rule shows up in many different cultures and religions, but there is NOTHING about moving beyond your own circle of relationships. The Golden Rule is simply about giving what you want to get. But Jesus’ version is different. He starts with “Love your enemies.” Right away, we recognize that he’s talking about something more than the Golden Rule. Something bigger. Something greater, and something a lot more demanding!
By prefacing the Golden Rule with blessings for the outcasts and warnings for the rich, Jesus seems to be saying “Stay close of those at the margins, because that’s where YOU will find blessing.” Those be-attitudes stretch the Golden Rule toward justice and mercy.
Here is Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage in The Message. It uses everyday language to describe the everyday saints in our lives:
Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Walter Wink writes about this specific passage – to take a slap in the face – as a practice of shaming a man in public. It is NOT a biblical excuse for spousal abuse.
What Jesus tells “those who are listening” helps us recognize the saints in our midst. They are people who go beyond themselves, beyond family and tribe. They are peacemakers who stand in the breach, who speak with courage and share what they have. They begin as ordinary people, like Elijah Cummings, the U.S. Representative from Baltimore, who waded into a violent crowd after Freddie Gray’s death and called for words and change instead of rocks and bullets. They are people like Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, one of the first African-American students at Duke, who became prominent local lawyer, trustee of UDC and a founder of the Covenant Christian Community, whose memorial will be held here at Seekers this afternoon. These are people who have gone the extra mile and practiced a “servant life” over and over again.
Do you know people like that? People who don’t respond with hate in the face of danger – like the civil-right demonstrators who sat-in at lunch counters, or public school teachers everywhere, or plumbers who come in an emergency?
To celebrate All Saints Day right now, let’s take a few minutes to imagine that we are surrounded by the saints you have known in your life. We’ll begin with some silence, and then I’d like you to name the saints you’ve known, either silently or aloud.
What if we knew those visible and invisible saints were gathered around us, all the time, cheering us on to live more generously, or whispering encouragement when we face a dangerous situation, or simply when we need to apologize for some hasty remark.
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (12:1), we read his declaration that we are indeed surrounded by “ a great cloud of witnesses. Paul writes that the “cloud of witnesses” helps us to “throw off everything that hinders” so we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Paul is suggesting here that we can learn to be saints, that we can let go of old habits of selfishness and self-preservation, and learn to live with more freedom and generosity than we perhaps grew up with. In other words, getting to know Jesus, and paying attention to the saints in our lives, can help us grow spiritually.
One reason that Peter and I came to this church was an article by Elizabeth O’Connor in Faith At Work magazine, titled “What We Need is More Saints.” In it, she wrote about ordinary people (like you and me) who were doing extraordinary things. She described the mission group structure at the newly-opened Potter’s House, saying, “Our primary vocation is to enter into covenant relationships with others who have also met this Christ—to be that new society into which others can be drawn.”
It wasn’t sainthood that attracted me to those words, it was the possibility that there might be others who wanted to make a real difference in the way people treated one another – beginning with allowing themselves to be transformed. The idea that there could be an informal place for people to think and talk about how this city could become a more merciful and just society for ALL people was inspiring. It still is. And in the current political climate, I believe these islands of safety and sanity for people who want to stretch beyond the Golden Rule are needed more than ever. It’s an invitation for us, here at Seekers, to listen more and react less, to take action in the specific places where we are called and network with others who are taking action in other places. It’s a primary goal for our School for Christian Growth.
Listen once more to Eugene Peterson’s description of Jesus’ guidance to his newly chosen disciples. Listen for the words that make you squirm, because that could be an invitation for you to grow, to become an ordinary saint in your workplace or neighborhood.
Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. … If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
I can see Emily Gilbert right here, nodding and smiling her assent. When I first knew her, she was making regular trips to Richmond, to campaign for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. When Virginia became the key state to turn it down, Emily continued to press for legislation that would broaden our understanding of equal protection under the law – for All PEOPLE.
Thank you, Emily, for being one of the saints we celebrate today.