Saturday, October 8, 2011

All Saints Year A

Feast of All Saints Year A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Revelation to John 7: 9-17; Psalm 34: 1-10,22; I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12

Under duress as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire, the writer recalls (from memory ?) fragments from the prophets especially Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah and Psalm 23 and envisions how all this will end. He sees all those "no one can count" who have believed and died, many as martyrs. Robed in white (their baptismal garment ?) and holding palm branches, they join with the angels, the elders and the "four living creatures" around God's throne in worship. Their torment is over "for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd."

The psalmist recalls perilous times from his past when he called on the Lord who answered and saved him. From his personal experience, he extrapolates to all in dire circumstances who look to the Lord and "beam." God sends a "messenger" for protection. Happy is the person who takes shelter in the Lord's protection.

According to this first letter attributed to John, clearly there are some things we know and some things we do not yet know. We know we are God's children, but "what we will be has not been revealed." We do know we will in some fashion be like God, but not exactly how. Until all is clearer, purify yourself as God is pure. We can be certain of one thing: because "the world" does not understand God it will not understand those who follow God's ways.

In Matthew's chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in his actions and teachings as the story continues. Jesus takes his first few disciples aside but crowds follow. What they hear from him is a series of contrasts that are completely counter intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who "hunger for righteousness" and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus' example, will be known as "children of God." However, the same old human story relentlessly continues-- you can expect to be persecuted "in the same way the prophets who were before you."

Fergus Kerr concludes a chapter in Theology after Wittgenstein with his own translation of two famous aphorisms of Wittgenstein: "Language-- I want to say-- is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed'."   (p.120).

An organic distinction of the biblical narratives is that their teachings, commandments, admonitions and invitations get tested in what some real people actually did in response. Their experiences were remembered and eventually became texts gathered together and designated canonical. Reading those texts, we see ourselves in their stories and begin to forge our own unique response.

The biblical texts are based on individual women and men who had an experience of God and reacted in ways that are remembered as positive or negative incidents but unforgettable. The biblical texts would just float above actual human experience as we recognize it were it not for the stories of people who responded as we might. And so in someone like Peter, who runs hot and cold, we can see ourselves. Indeed, we can also see something of ourselves in accomplishments and failures of David or the crankiness and passions of Paul or the earnest but misplaced priorities of  Judas or the unnamed woman who endured twelve years of menstrual pain but finally found peace by acting on the simple faith that if she could just touch Jesus her prayers would be answered. So many, many more stories in the biblical texts that influence each of us in unique ways. And then there are the stories of those over intervening centuries who comprise the tradition of the church. And not to be forgotten are the stories of individuals in your personal history from whom you learned this faith. Faith is communicable. (Now what about those who are learning their faith from you, in particular those children for whom you have responsibility?)

Individual lives-- the decisions and choices made, the actions taken, the anxieties and hopes expressed-- become memories, memories are distilled into stories, stories become texts, and texts become the parameters within which we imagine and live out our lives.

The Feast of All
Saints is not just about a few heroic moments in the lives of a handful of people. It is about all of us --"no one can count" --who share a common memory. We have been told that we should wager on God's wisdom, summarized as fully as anywhere by Jesus right at the beginning of his public life as a series of contrasts, which, although the total opposite of conventional wisdom, will prevail and will lead to the best life has to offer. The stories of those who have tried this way to live a life resonate with us only because we can see ourselves in them. By recalling them, we celebrate on this feast day our shared status as a "child of God forever." For a fleeting moment, we can stand outside history and have a vision similar to John's of all those who have gone before us, whose stories point us in the direction we can write our own stories. What twists and turns will our story take? How will it end?