Sermon: Sunday, November 6, 2016: All Saints Sunday

Texts: Daniel 7:1-3,13-18  +  Psalm 149  +  Ephesians 1:11-23  +  Luke 6:20-31

12522068044_b73c88f4e9_zI had a horrible nightmare last night. In it, two giant beasts lumbered ashore, different from one another and visible to the eye, though they appeared at a distance it would take two full days to walk. From the waters to my left arose a fearsome donkey with the head of a hawk, clothed in tailored pantsuits, red as blood, white as bone, and blue as the bruises that covered her body. From the waters to my right lumbered a trumpeting elephant with sharpened tusks and the head of an orangutan “and a mouth speaking arrogantly,” (Dan. 7:8c) its limbs like tree trunks smashing to bits everything and everyone in its path.

“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took the throne whose clothing was white as snow, and whose hair was like pure wool; whose throne was fiery flames with wheels of burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out of the Ancient One’s presence. A thousand thousands served this One, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending this One. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:9-10)

“I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the [beast] was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the other beast, its dominion was taken away, but its life was preserved for a season and a time.” (Adapted from Dan. 7:11-12)

We don’t need Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, to interpret this dream, do we? Its meaning is plain to those with ears to hear. The same is true for the apocalyptic literature we find in the passage from Daniel this morning, which paints the picture of “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” to whom dominion and glory and kingship are given. Look closely, and you’ll see that ten verses were omitted from our reading. Those verses contain descriptions of the “four great beasts, four kings [that] shall arise out of the earth,” (Dan. 7:17) every bit as weird and shady as the beasts that rose up from the waters of my dream.

In Daniel’s case, the four beasts represented the conquering empires of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece which had each taken turns conquering and occupying Israel for five hundred years. Daniel’s literature is written in the kind of code speech employed by subversives speaking out against the powers that be. It’s not that he couldn’t simply call the beasts what they were — their descriptions did that as effectively as my own. It’s that in describing them as something other than nations or rulers he pointed out their cosmological, archetypical quality. It’s as if to say, these beasts are always with us. Or, in our own symbolic language, there are always elephants and donkeys charging at one another, trampling the bodies of human beings on the battlefield.

Into this zoological game of thrones another figure arrives, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” Christian ears are tuned to hear this as the arrival of Jesus into this mad story, though Daniel’s vision predates the birth of Jesus by centuries. It was the gospel of Mark that cribbed from the prophet Daniel in describing Jesus as the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” (Mark 13:26; 14:62) as a way of reading his presence back into history. I’m less concerned with the identity of the human being than its symbolic meaning. Into an arena dominated by beasts displaying the most violent and fearsome qualities comes the human being, and it is this human being who is given dominion by the one seated upon the throne, flanked by ten thousand upon ten thousand souls.

Now this is a dream. Let me ask you, dreamers, what would it look like if the lives of human beings, real human beings, all human beings, were at the center of every contest of power? What would have to change if the needs of human beings took precedence over the needs of corporations, who have been awarded human rights even though they have no bodies, no blood, no tears, no children, no dreams, other than the profit motives that extract wealth from the many and concentrate it into the hands of a few? What would you be willing to give, of your own time, of your own wealth, to make that dream reality? Who would you give it to? How would you want it to be used?

Yesterday morning fourteen of us gathered here for the second installment of the three-part series of workshops hosted by our social justice committee and presented by Center for Changing Lives, whom we are supporting with special offerings taken up each month from July through December. While the first session helped us begin to examine the values and ideals that shape our use of money, this second session introduced biblical values connected to labor, wealth, and justice. By the end of the session, we’d been asked to get together in small groups and begin to dream about what it would look like if the world was organized around the vision of humanity we hear echoed throughout scripture. Together we wrestled with how we would enthrone ideals of mercy, grace, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and accountability while also grappling with the question of human nature. Can we be trusted to set aside self-interest to care for our neighbor? Are we willing to work hard if we suspect others are working less hard? Would we share the goods of production on the basis of need rather than desire? Are we willing to decide together how much is too much and how much is enough — or will we always allow the market to make those decisions for us?

What would it look like to put human beings, real human beings, all human beings, at the center of every decision we make about power, about wealth, about industry, about war?

This is what Jesus does when he delivers his great sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel, in which we hear his vision for humanity at the center, now known as the Beatitudes. In the reign of God, it is the poor who are blessed, the hungry, the mourners, the hated and the reviled. It is those whose lives have not seemed to matter at all that are placed in the center. But the rich and the satiated, the self-satisfied and the self-righteous, they are to be pitied, because their woeful lack of concern for their neighbor has turned them into beasts who have lost their humanity. They cannot be in the center, in the circle of beloved community, because they have excluded themselves, loving privilege more than people. So they trumpet and bray all the more, demanding from us loyalty and allegiance that can only belong to the Ancient One, the divine unity within whom rests the souls of our ancestors, the source and end of all life, the one who took on human flesh so that we might take on divine nature. The One who cannot be named, whom we call God, which is still a name too small for the one who cast the heavens and formed the earth and breathed life into us as the first act of an unending love.

It is because we know this God as love that we “live for the praise of [God’s] glory” as Paul puts it (Eph. 1:12). Because, if it were not for love, we would despair that our lives are too short and too fragile to matter. But, because of love, we know that we will work harder than we thought possible to care for those we love. We will fight for a better future than we have ever seen for those we love. We will make sacrifices we cannot imagine for those we love. We will even gladly die and take our place among the saints of every time and place to make way for the generations we will never see, but nevertheless love, because they are the home where our hope resides, the world we have longed for and still believe in.

Therefore, we do not fear the beasts that haunt our dreams with their ceaseless conflict. Instead, we rejoice in our maker, we are joyful in our ruler, who takes pleasure in us, in our humanity, in our poverty (Ps. 149), in our hunger, in our sorrow, in our despair.

You saints of God, now is the beginning of the end. The long epoch of waiting is over. A new sovereign has arrived who does not need our vote, only our lives, only our love, only our dreams of a world with human beings at the center. Wake up, your God is already here, now — forever and ever.



Sermon: Sunday, November 2, 2014: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17  +  Psalm 34:1-10, 22  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

I keep icons in my office of the saints that inspire me. I have one of RLHENHenri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who wrote beautifully about the connection between spirituality and social justice and who lived in community with adults with developmental delays. I have one of RLSTBSteve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who said “Black is beautiful” and who reminded all of us who live with oppression on a daily basis that the first step to liberation is to “begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” I have one of RLHRMHarvey Milk, the gay activist and San Francisco politician who didn’t enter the public arena until after he’d turned forty, and who paved the way for wider social acceptance of LGBTQ people long before anything like the modern movement existed by speaking into the enforced silence of the closet and insisting that “you gotta give them hope.”

These particular icons were painted by robertRobert Lentz, a Franciscan friar who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metro area who studied traditional Byzantine iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery, but whose own passion is depicting the ordinary and unacknowledged saints whose lives are not always recognized as holy. In his collection of saints there are images of RLCCZCesar Chavez and RLDRDDorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mother Jones, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. None of these people have ever been “canonized,” or recognized RLECSRLMOJas saints, by the Roman Catholic church to which Lentz belongs, not all of them are even Christians, but taken together they help me imagine the “great multitude that no one could RLABERLMOGcount, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” described in the passage we heard read from Revelation this morning (7:9).

I also keep photographs in my office of Kerry, and my parents and sister, and close friends who have accompanied me through life. These are my personal saints on my private altar, my reminder that all life is holy and that my life is holy too. I’m sure you do the same, whether they be school photos stuck to your refrigerator with magnets, framed portraits hung on your walls, old prints organized into albums, or pictures taken with your phone and posted to Facebook. It’s almost instinctive how we surround ourselves with images of the people, past and present, who remind us of who we are and who we want to become.Christmas, 2009 014

In a world before smartphones and Polaroids, before even photography, the most accessible way to preserve an image of a person wasn’t with a camera but with words. Families passed favorite stories, paradigmatic tales, of one another down through the generations as they gathered around tables for sumptuous meals, or as they worked side by side in the fields. Just as with photographs, we could see our family resemblance to one another in the attitudes and actions taken by our ancestors in similar situations.

It’s interesting to think about the Beatitudes as photographs of a kind, word pictures crafted so succinctly that you could memorize them like a poem and carry them with you the way I used to keep senior pictures taken in high school in my wallet to keep faraway friends near to me, the way we whip out our phones to share pictures of our children, or nieces and nephews, or students.

To the crowds of people who’d followed him, hoping for a word of teaching that would put his acts of healing and liberation into a form they could carry with them wherever they went, Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the names of those Jesus calls blessed?

Is there a face from your past or present that represents “the poor in spirit”?

Who in your life is the one who mourns?

Do you have a picture in your mind of “the meek”?

Do you keep company with “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?

Do you have a story to tell about the person in your life who has shown mercy?

Do you know anyone who is “pure of heart”?

Is there a name or a face that defines for you what it means to be a peacemaker?

Can you identify with those who are persecuted for their attempts to live a righteous life?

Do you have a story from your own life when your commitment to a life of discipleship has evoked harsh words and condemnation?

We surround ourselves with these images from our past and our present, names and faces of people who have lived by faith in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, of a resurrected life, where the blessings of God would be shared equitably among all people. They sit not only on our desks, but next to us in these pews, all around us in this neighborhood. We have welcomed them into our congregation at the font, as we did this past year with Deacon Adams and Isaiah Swanson. We have given thanks for the witness of their lives at the time of their death, as we have this past year with Ramon Nieves, Lila Voss, Louise Ambuel, Andy Miller, Ernesto Garcia, and now our brother ST_LUKES_PORTRAIT_Select-0144Eugene Walawski. We have shared dinner with them, family style, around tables blessed by homemade food. We have met them at the Logan Square monument to cry out for peace, to mourn the murder of a homeless man, to march for affordable housing. We have danced with them on the Boulevard under late summer skies, and we will celebrate with them once again on that final day when we all gather before the throne worshipping God and giving thanks for the blessings of this life, “singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12)

Brothers and sisters, we are all saints of God, we are all wearing the white robes of our baptism, we are all inheritors of God’s vision where the people of God are a blessing to those who are poor in body or spirit, those who are meek or who mourn; where the promises made at this font to work for justice and peace throughout the world are honored together so that the peacemakers and the activists and the persecuted and the outcasts are never alone, but always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of saints and martyrs of every time and place and also by us, here and now.

We, who are still in the middle of the great ordeal, have been given to each other as a blessing. Look at each other. Memorize the faces you see here. Learn to look upon the face of your neighbor as though you were seeing their image through the light of these votives, as though each person you encountered was among God’s elect. Carry these faces with you wherever you go, knowing that God’s face is revealed among us.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)



Sermon: Sunday, November 4, 2012: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24  •  Revelation 21:1-6a  •   John 11:32-44

Forty years ago this month, Marlo Thomas and “friends” released an illustrated book and album titled, “Free to be… You and Me.”  Aimed at reinforcing children’s beliefs that each can become most fully themselves, whoever they are, no matter their gender, ethnicity or background, it’s exactly the kind of book I would’ve expected my parents to read to me.  Astonishingly, I arrived at college in the early-90s having never heard of it.

It wasn’t until I joined the men’s a cappella ensemble on campus and we learned the song sung by Rosey Grier, “It’s Alright to Cry.”  Grier, who’d been a defensive tackle for the LA Rams and the New York Giants was something of a giant himself at 6’5”.  After leaving professional sports he was, briefly, a body guard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 Presidential campaign and was present on the day of his assassination, wresting the gun from the shooter.  A big part of Grier’s public persona, however, derived from the way he played against the stereotypes of what a large, athletic, black athlete ought to be.  Around the same time he recorded “It’s Alright to Cry” he also published a book, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.”  His autobiography was titled, “Rosey, an Autobiography: The Gentle Giant.”

Forty years later, on the other side of “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” and other cultural responses to increasing flexibility in gender roles, we might suspect that telling men, or women for that matter, that it’s alright to cry would be no big deal.  Surely, in our therapeutic, talk-show saturated, catharsis-oriented media culture we’ve all figured out that it’s alright to cry.  We cry at Hallmark commercials.  We cry at romantic comedies.  We cry all the time, right?

Then there’s a week like this last one, when life’s storms break along the coastline of our lives, leaving us powerless.  When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore just  south of Atlantic City and blew up through New York City and the five boroughs, it brought ample opportunities for tears as it claimed the lives of over a hundred people in the United States alone and left an estimated $50 billion in damages.  Yet, in our shock, it wasn’t immediately clear that we knew how to feel.  For days, Mayor Bloomberg reassured registrants for the New York City Marathon that the race would go on, that things would be restored to normal.

In the privacy of our homes, in darkened movie theaters, we know it’s alright to cry.  In public, however, we still too often treat death as something to be hidden and grief as something to be managed.  Life, like the race, goes on regardless of the emotions swelling subcutaneously, crashing against our hearts and flooding our throats.

The gospel reading assigned for All Saints Sunday is drenched with emotions.  Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeps.   Jesus, despite the best efforts of translators to deny it, is angry.  Like many English translations of the scriptures, the one we read this morning translates the Greek embrimaomai as “greatly disturbed.”  “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed.”  And later, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.”  Embrimaomai, which the translators have rendered “greatly disturbed,” literally translates as “to be moved with anger” or even, “to snort with anger.”  As it turns out, we are just as uncomfortable with Jesus anger as we are with our own tears.  So, translators and friends and coworkers try to help us out by covering those feelings up, by giving us “space” to grieve in private, by glossing over our anger at the power of death to disrupt life.

One of the reasons I think we cover Jesus’ anger up with the euphemism “greatly disturbed” is that we’re unsure who he’s angry at.  Some translators have suggested that he is angry at Mary and Martha’s disbelief.  Others have wondered if he’s angry that this intensely private moment has been made public.  Still others have suggested that Jesus’ anger is at those who are already preparing to hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If any of these are the best reading, then it easier to understand why we’d want to downgrade Jesus’ anger to a deep disturbance, because if Jesus’ anger is reserved for people’s ordinary and predictable responses to death, then we have to wonder if Jesus would be angry with us.  If Mary and Martha’s understandable grief at the loss of their third sibling was cause for Jesus’ anger, then what room is there for us to grieve the death of our own sisters and brothers?  If the natural desire to have this private grief acknowledged in public is the cause of Jesus anger, then how can we even gather on a day like today, All Saints Day, to mourn our dead even as we give thanks for their lives?

The reading I find most compelling is that Jesus is angry with death itself.  Read in the context of the verses that precede the ones we read this morning, it is clear that Jesus has delayed coming to Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, precisely so that he could demonstrate his power over death.  For him to be angry at the very people who are suffering on account of his delay would be a cruel judgement.  Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus has no difficulty naming a lack of faith when it occurs, so the fact that he says nothing to condemn the onlookers for faithlessness might suggest that this was not his concern.

Instead, everything about this scene reads like a showdown, like a boxing match between opponents.  On the one side, a death so complete the body has already begun to decay.  On the other side, a contender against the powers of death.  The match looks unbalanced, surely this is not a fair fight.  Like a boxer in the ring, Jesus is not simply greatly disturbed, he is moved, his is snorting with anger at death, the foe.

This makes more sense to me, especially in light of the passage from Revelation and the one from Isaiah, passages that reassure me that God is not waiting to gather us up and away from this earth, but that the new heaven and the new earth are coming down to meet us where we are.  That God comes to us in the midst of our suffering, and grief, and tears, and does not shame us but, instead, sets a table before us overflowing with rich foods and choice wines, and consoles us.  Wipes away our tears, but not our feelings.

Of course, All Saints Sunday is about more than our feelings, more than our tears.  It is about the promise that when God enters the ring in the form of Jesus, that death is defeated and resurrected life is won for all of creation.  There are big truths and big doctrines to be named and proclaimed: that we are all saints; that the candle lit at our baptism and the candles that will one day be lit in our memories and placed on altars such as these cast the same light; that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, who call to us across time and space encouraging us as we run this race.  But many of those doctrines and themes and big ideas arise from other scriptures read in other years.  The scriptures assigned for this year’s All Saints Sunday are filled with tears, they affirm the grief-drenched cries of sisters and brothers and the snorting anger of family and friends — and they promise us that death does not have the final word.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming to meet us, here, in this life and in whatever lies beyond this life.

So, in the spirit of Jesus, who did not cover over his anger; and Rosey, who was man enough to cry; I want to share with you the song I learned back in college:

It’s All Right to Cry (from Free to Be… You and Me; as sung by Rosey Grier)

It’s all right to cry / crying gets the sad out of you / It’s all right to cry / it might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

Raindrops from your eyes / Washing all the mad out of you / Raindrops from your eyes / It’s gonna make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)

It’s all right to feel things / though the feelings may be strange / feelings are such real things / and they change and change and change. (Am – Em / F – C / Am – Em / F – F – G)

It’s all right to know / feelings come and feelings go / It’s all right to cry / It might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)