Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For All the Saints...

In honor of All Saints' Sunday, we are going partially off lectionary this week. Our Old Testament reading will be Genesis 35:16-21 and our Epistle reading will be 1 Peter 2:4-10; our Gospel Reading is the appointed lectionary text for this special day, Luke 6:20-31.

So, what are Baptists doing talking about saints? All Saints' Day (which technically is November 1, but is celebrated in most traditions on the first Sunday in November) is not a day that has gotten a lot of attention in Baptist circles. In fact, though I've been in a couple of churches that light candles on this day to remember those who have died or maybe sing a few verses of the hymn for which this blog post is named, I don't know that I have ever heard a sermon geared towards this particular day of remembrance, reflection, and celebration in the life of the church. Perhaps this is because the exact meaning of All Saints' is a little ambiguous. This day was originally made part of the life of the early church to remember all the unnamed martyrs who had died for their faith in Christ. Over time, the day expanded to a time to remember all those who have been part of the community of faith but have now passed on to be part of the heavenly "communion of saints" of which many Christian creeds speak.

It is a day, however, that I think has power us in this particular day on several levels, which is why it is a day we will embrace in our worship on Sunday. First, loss is an unavoidable and, in many senses, integral part of human existence. Precious people have been part of our lives on this earth who walk this soil no longer, and their absence radically alters the way we move through this world. How do we find hope and meaning amidst such loss as people who believe in a Christ who even the grave could not keep away from us?

Second, we are not the first generation of Christ-followers to walk this earth, nor (hopefully) will we be the last. We are part of a "communion of saints," a "cloud of witnesses" that was begun long before we took our first breath, that extends beyond our church buildings and communities, beyond even this earth through time and space. We are part of a family that is bigger than we can get our brains around...and this reality should affect how we understand ourselves as a congregation in this day and time.

And third, as we are seeking to live on this earth, we are not having to completely reinvent the wheel. We should and can gain wisdom from those who have gone before us, those who have struggled to live faithfully and in the process become for us models of faith.

In light of these observations about this day, it is interesting that one of the traditional readings for All Saints' Day is the Beatitudes. Since we are spending this year in Luke's gospel, Luke's rendition of the Beatitudes is the one we are given this week rather than Matthew's more well known account. Whereas in Matthew Jesus delivered his description of the blessed life from a mountaintop, here in Luke Jesus preaches on a plain, among the people right where they live. Whereas Matthew's Beatitudes are lengthier, more poetic, and in some senses more "spiritual," Luke's beatitudes are harsh in their contrast and almost uncomfortably direct. A life of holiness--of being a saint blessed in the eyes of God--does not sound like a comfortable one, nor a glamorous one. Rather, it is an uncomfortably embodied one--a life of being poor, hungry, grieved, excluded, hated, and defamed. Such a list of what blessed life on earth could entail should not make us hurry to be among the "saints", for to live a life blessed in the eyes of God is to live on the margins among hardship.

Yet is this not what it is to be a saint, at least in the biblical definition? To be "in Christ," as Paul so often described the saints, is to share in Christ's life and death as well as in Christ's resurrection--to discover that the life we live on this earth will be a trail fraught with hardship, just as Christ's was. Who have the saints been who have modeled such faithful living "in Christ" for us? How could connecting our journeys with theirs help us find a bit more of the blessedness of which Jesus spoke, help us (in the words of Ephesians 3) "have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God?" Join us on Sunday as we celebrate this unique day together and consider its power to shape our lives as a community of faith living among a communion of saints.

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