Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints Day

Preached @ Mary Magdalene Church, Silver Spring, MD, 11/7/10 Luke 6:20-31

We celebrate All Saints’ Day today. Our prayers, the lessons and the Gospel, (the music), all reflect this feast day’s importance to the Church. Who are these saints we honor today? This feast day goes back to the late 300s AD. Yes, that is 1700 years ago and it was established to celebrate all the Christian saints, known and unknown. What exactly does a person have to do to become a saint, known or unknown?

Honoring saints is a great thing, and the Episcopal Church does this all the time. There is a new book that replaces Lesser Feasts and Fasts that is called Holy Women, Holy Men, Celebrating the Saints. This book is most often used as a resource for weekday Mass. All these folks in these books are “known saints”.

The words we have from Jesus today let us know whom Jesus identifies as saints. Jesus runs the gamut in this portion of the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus tells people they will be blessed when they: hunger; are weeping, are hated, excluded, cursed; are struck, stolen from, abused. Each one of Jesus’ challenges today seemingly takes us away from normal societal constructs of how we act and asks us to act in a different way. Jesus is picking up on a familiar theme, namely if we bend our heart and our will to gain worldly things, we will probably receive worldly things, but we will not receive those things eternal. Jesus is asking us whether or not we are choosing the easy path or a path of sacrifice. An easy path, Jesus is saying, can yield immediate profit and fleeting joy by the world’s standards; while a life of sacrifice will yield a greater common good, and a delayed and different kind of joy. Most of the known saints took themselves out of the cultural milieu that surrounded them and took this path of sacrifice Jesus espouses. Our hope, faith and belief is that their lives of sacrifice yielded a greater common good not only to those who lived with them but to all of us who have followed them in the faith. Our hope, faith and belief is also that they not only experienced a different kind of joy during their life but are also now experiencing that final joy to which we are all headed.

Yet when Jesus finishes telling us about these blessings and woes, when he is done listing them, he immediately follows with a command that we are to love our enemies. Jesus is striking at a base human condition, a base human response with this instruction. It is very hard to love those who hate us, dislike us for whatever reason. Perhaps these folks don’t like us because of the pigment of our skin, or our religious beliefs, or to whom we are married or partnered. It is hard to love someone who is cursing at you, or who castigates you for simply being who you are. I think this is a natural human response…. not to love someone who curses you. But simply because something is a natural human response does not mean that we should blindly follow that impulse….The interesting thing about this demand by Jesus, “to love our enemies”, is the choice of words utilized in the original writing of this Gospel.

In ancient Greek, there are three words used for love: eros, phileo, and agape. Eros is a passionate love while phileo is love for family, friends. Neither of these words were chosen by Luke for this passage. Instead Luke has Jesus use agape, which of course is more complicated to define either eros or phileo. Agape is seen as an unselfish love, a spiritual love, as opposed to one of passion. William Barclay defined agape as “an active feeling of benevolence towards other people. Agape means that no matter what others do to us, we will never allow ourselves to desire anything but their highest good and we will with all deliberation go out of our way to be good and kind to them.” In early translations of the Bible, this word agape was often translated as “charity”. I think in our current understanding of the word charity, the true meaning of agape is distorted; we should not think of agape as charity. It seems to me that agape is an unselfish love, modeled for us by Jesus. Agape is actively and willfully working for the betterment of others, no matter whom they are. Whether they are striking out against us, or robbing us or hating us, Jesus is commanding us to seek some way to reach them, to change them, to allow them to see the world through different lenses. {This very peculiar kind of Christian love, this agape, is referred to by St Paul in Corinthians and Colossians as the greatest of all theological virtues.}

This agape is a matter of will. It is an active state of being, demanding we do something. Agape is not a matter of emotions, but is a matter of our willing to be benevolent, and trying to bring about the highest good for all we meet, including our enemy: we are called upon to be “good and kind to them”. And Jesus makes that clear by the last line of the Gospel we hear today where he sums up all that he has said before by saying: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Here we have an ancient “golden rule”: do to others as you would have them do to you. A form of this saying can be found in pre-Christian writing: in Homer, Seneca, Tobit, Philo and many other places. That does not mean Jesus didn’t say it or co-opt it. Simply because this life rule existed before Jesus, does not mean by his utilizing it that it is anything less then “Gospel” in importance. By living into this golden rule, we are being imitators of God’s kindness to the world, God’s love, God’s agape, God’s benevolence to the world. Jesus is demanding that we will ourselves to do good: that we do not return in kind treatment that is offensive. Jesus is demanding that we do what we are called to do: live into an agape relationship with everyone. Although this is an act of will, we require God’s help to turn against our nature and live into this way of agape. With God’s help, with that benevolent grace we can will ourselves to do this. Prayer helps here and so does being open to that little nudge inside of ourselves that let’s us know, when we are acting out against someone, that perhaps we are doing something we should not. Perhaps that is God’s voice pushing us to our better selves…. to our agape life.

And I think this is where we find our unknown saints on this feast of All Saints’. We celebrate saints, known and unknown today. I think the unknown saints can be, and are us: when we live into the agape life, into that life where we show our true and better selves to others. That is partly what we hear in Ephesians today when we are reminded that we have “set our hope on Christ.” The author of Ephesians reminds the reader that we already have “love towards all the saints.” Agape is used here for the word love and this phrase is said in the present tense, thereby referring to saints surrounding us, the Body of Christ in the world today.

We celebrate today those known saints who modeled a life for us based on Jesus’ teachings. We also celebrate all those unknown saints who lived and live an anonymous agape life…. and we also celebrate ourselves as we struggle to be our better selves. We celebrate God’s agape love for us, and our efforts to be better individuals, by our own act of a grace-inspired will to live into the agape love we have for each other and even for our enemies. We are not perfect, but God is saying to us today that we are perfectible. Through the grace of God and our own will, we can be in an agape relationship with the world allowing ourselves, willing ourselves, to be that unselfish, benevolent presence in the world….modeling Christ for all to see.


Copyright 2o1o, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

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