All Saints Day
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
All Saints Day is the church’s Veteran’s Day, a time for honoring the memory of all whose lives have illuminated for us the way of the cross and the shape of faithful discipleship in every age. Special attention is given to the martyrs, those whose witness to Jesus required the loss of their lives. The first of these known to us was the deacon, Stephen, who died at the hands of an angry mob. His story is recounted in the Book of Acts. Acts 6-7. One thing always puzzled me about that story. Stephen was one of seven disciples elected to oversee food assistance to destitute widows. How did he go from running a soup kitchen to being at the epicenter of a violent controversy?
I don’t think becoming the first Christian martyr was Stephen’s goal in life. I suspect he would have been perfectly happy to spend his life in anonymity caring for the poor. But caring for the poor can get you into deep trouble. St. Lawrence of Rome, another deacon charged with care of the poor in his city, caught the attention of a Roman prefect. Having witnessed the very generous giving by the church to the poor in Rome, the prefect imagined that the church must have in its possession a huge store of wealth. He ordered Lawrence to turn over to him the treasures of the church. Lawrence promised to do just that within three days. He gathered together a large crowd of the poor, crippled and destitute people under the church’s care and presented them to the prefect three days later declaring, “Behold the treasure of the church!” The prefect was not amused. He had Lawrence burned alive.
This is no coincidence. Hatred of the poor is endemic to most cultures. In our own country we try to pretend that the poor don’t exist. We shut them out of our gated communities, we put impassible distances between them and our suburbs and we employ vagrancy laws enabling the police to clear them out of places where their presence might disturb shoppers, theater patrons and tourists. The poor are unwelcome reminders of our nation’s failures, a challenge to the “American Dream” in which we want so desperately to believe. Because the presence of the poor challenges all that we would like to believe about ourselves, we react to them with hostility. We blame them for their predicament. They are lazy, shiftless, dishonest and unmotivated. The benefits that keep them alive are a burden on the rest of us honest, hardworking citizens. That’s not fair! Besides, helping the poor only destroys what little incentive they might still have to better themselves. Charity is “toxic.” The kindest thing you can do for the poor is to take them off the dole and force them to fend for themselves.
There is some truth to that notion of “toxic charity” as I noted in my post for Sunday, February 21, 2016. My concern there, however, had less to do with destroying the incentive of poor people to better themselves and more with how misguided efforts to help them reinforce our stereotypes of poor people and cause those we help to feel judged rather than loved and valued. Such charity is indeed toxic, both for the church and those we seek to help. Yet when I hear the well-heeled beneficiaries of white privilege complain about toxic charity, it sounds a lot more like a rationale for selfishness, self-righteousness and greed than a serious response to poverty. It also demonstrates a glaring ignorance of poverty and its causes. Though I have worked all my adult life and put in far more than a forty-hour week more than half that time, I have never worked as hard as the homeless people I have met over the years in their struggle to survive day by day. I have thankfully never suffered from addiction, depression or chronic illness. If I had, however, I would have been surrounded by family and friends who would have been there to see that I got the treatment I needed and the care I required. Without that network, you are always just one stroke, one drink, one bad decision, one accident away from poverty and perhaps homelessness.
Are there poor people who game the system? Sure. But are they gamming the system any more than corporations that get huge tax breaks, ostensibly to invest in American production and generate American jobs, but invest their savings in foreign stocks instead? Are the poor gamming the system any more than real estate tycoons who repeatedly use bankruptcy laws to escape their contractual obligations, avoid their just debts and stiff their workers? Are the poor gamming the system any more than the vast majority of us who are willing to let a sub-class of warriors die fighting wars we have nearly forgotten about? If we cannot see these great logs of selfish exploitation in our own eyes, how dare we presume to take the speck out of the eye of one who is merely trying to get through another day?
In our gospel lesson Jesus proclaims that the poor are blessed. He is speaking, of course, to his disciples. Jesus presumes that his followers, if they are not poor themselves, are nevertheless solidly aligned with the poor. Jesus does not glorify poverty. The poor are not blessed because they are poor, but because the kingdom of God belongs to them. To be on the side of the poor is to be on the side of God. To oppose the poor is to war against God. It’s as simple as that. The saints of God know that the poor are on the winning side of history. We ignore their cries for justice at our peril
Here’s a poem by Robert Southey reflecting those plaintive cries to a society that has nearly lost its ability to hear.
The Complaints of the Poor
And wherefore do the Poor complain?
The rich man asked of me,—
Come walk abroad with me, I said
And I will answer thee.
Twas evening and the frozen streets
Were cheerless to behold,
And we were wrapt and coated well,
And yet we were a-cold.
We met an old bare-headed man,
His locks were few and white,
I ask’d him what he did abroad
In that cold winter’s night:
‘Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,
But at home no fire had he,
And therefore, he had come abroad
To ask for charity.
We met a young bare-footed child,
And she begg’d loud and bold,
I ask’d her what she did abroad
When the wind it blew so cold;
She said her father was at home
And he lay sick a-bed,
And therefore was it she was sent
Abroad to beg for bread.
We saw a woman sitting down
Upon a stone to rest,
She had a baby at her back
And another at her breast;
I ask’d her why she loiter’d there
When the wind it was so chill;
She turn’d her head and bade the child
That scream’d behind be still.
She told us that her husband served
A soldier, far away,
And therefore to her parish she
Was begging back her way.
We met a girl; her dress was loose
And sunken was her eye,
Who with the wanton’s hollow voice
Address’d the passers by;
I ask’d her what there was in guilt
That could her heart allure
To shame, disease, and late remorse?
She answer’d, she was poor.
I turn’d me to the rich man then
For silently stood he,
You ask’d me why the Poor complain,
And these have answer’d thee.
Source: this poem is in the public domain. Robert Southey (1774–1843) was born in Bristol, England. He spent much of his childhood living under the watchful discipline of a stern aunt and in boarding schools that were hardly less vigorous in their enforcement of discipline. He was an avid reader of classic poets like Shakespeare and Milton. While at Westminster public school he wrote a satirical article on corporal punishment. The administration was not amused. He was promptly expelled. This anti-authoritarian streak continued into his adult life as he became an avid supporter of the French Revolution. In addition to his many poems, Southey produced plays, essays and historical sagas. You can find out more about Robert Southey and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctively Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. Stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar and later under the Persian rulers are retold in the new context in order to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.” The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the very beginning of the apocalyptic section of the book. Daniel is visited by “visions in the night” during which he observes four great beasts coming up out of the sea. At this juncture, the lectionary takes a flying leap over the graphic descriptions of each of the beasts. That is unfortunate because we need to meet them in order to understand the promises made to Daniel at the end of our reading. I therefore invite you to read verses 4-14 before proceeding any further. The first beast is described as a lion with eagles’ wings and is identified by most Hebrew Scripture scholars with the Babylonian Empire which destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the Jews into exile in 587 B.C.E. Vs. 4 The second beast, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, is identified with the empire of the Medes. Vs. 5 The third beast is a winged leopard corresponding to the Persian Empire under Cyrus who, as you may recall, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. Vs. 6 The fourth beast is nothing like any living animal. More vicious and destructive than the beasts before it, this animal has iron teeth and ten horns. Vs. 7. It represents the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The ten horns represent ten rulers who succeeded Alexander, ruling various parts of his empire. The little horn speaking “great things” is our friend Antiochus.
Also omitted from our reading are the “planting of thrones” and the descent of the “Ancient of Days” and his host of thousands. Before him “books” are opened and judgment is passed upon the nations. The fourth beast is destroyed and consigned to flames, but the remaining kingdoms are merely deprived of their jurisdiction. At this point “one like a son of man” is given dominion over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom, we are told, will not pass away. Now we are finally in a position to understand the full import of the words spoken to Daniel by one of the heavenly host: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Vss 17-18. It might now appear that the “saints” or faithful Jews are helpless pawns in the struggle between these great empires. But appearances can be deceiving. In the end, it is not any one of the kingdoms asserting power over the earth that will prevail. The kingdom of the Most High will finally rule the peoples of all nations and tongues through the agency of his messiah.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: Who determines the outcome of history? From a modernist point of view, history is the confluence of innumerable currents that can be influenced for better or worse by human activity. The Book of Daniel offers us a radically different outlook. According to Daniel, history is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom of God comes in its own good time without any help from us, thanks just the same. The people of God can live an anticipatory counter-cultural existence of humble obedience under that reign even now and so bear witness to it. But they cannot hasten its coming anymore than the kingdom’s adversaries can prevent it.
That said, witness is important and faithfulness invariably leads to conflict with the surrounding culture. The fiery ordeal faced by the people addressed in the Book of Daniel is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. Even in a society where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross. The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile gestures of faithfulness in a wicked and ruthless world. So too, our gospel lesson points out that lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted.
Most biblical scholars date this psalm on the later side, most likely during the period of Greek dominance over Palestine discussed under the reading from Daniel. The psalm is distinct from most other psalms in one important respect. Although many psalms cry out to God for vengeance against enemies, the psalmists do not undertake vengeance on their own or seek to execute retributive justice on God’s behalf. Psalm 149, however, prays concerning the faithful, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisement on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written decreed.” Vss. 6-9. There is no question here that the people of Israel are being called to take part in executing God’s judgment against the nations of the world that do not acknowledge him. More troubling still is the interpretive history of this psalm. It was used as a battle cry by Roman Catholic princes during the Thirty-Years War and also by the radical Anabaptist, Thomas Munzer, in his violent crusades.
What then can we say about this psalm? First, the psalm is entirely consistent with Israel’s conviction (and that of the church as well) that God is one and admits of no rival. Judgment is always the flip side of salvation, but only God is competent to judge. With this the psalmist is in agreement. Although Israel is called upon to execute judgment, the judgment to be enforced is that which is “decreed.” Vs. 9. Until such time as God makes clear to his people precisely what is just and how his justice is to be implemented, Israel must refrain from taking action against those “judged.”
Second, as the First Letter of Peter reminds us, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…” I Peter 4:17. Just as the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, so every heart must undergo judgment. No one can claim to be entirely on the side of God such that there need be no reckoning with sin. It appears, then, that the execution of judgment to which Israel is summoned in Psalm 149is an eschatological event, that is to say, it points to a time when righteousness, wickedness and justice are made to stand out in unmistakable clarity. For disciples of Jesus, such a time cannot come until the revealing of the Son of Man.
Third, disciples of Jesus read this psalm the way they read all of Scripture: through the lens of Jesus. After all, we are not baptized into the name of Joshua son of Nun but into the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was never shy about telling his disciples when to go beyond the written word in obedience to God. Thus, the Scriptures limit retribution to exacting from the wrongdoer only the price of his wrong. If someone knocks out your tooth, you don’t chop off his heard or burn down his house or murder his family. You get the value of a tooth, no more and no less. But Jesus tells his disciples that they must go further than the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not to seek retribution of any kind. They are to turn the other cheek when stricken and forgive up to seventy times seventy in any given day.
Finally, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s judgment comes chiefly through God’s word. When the prophet describes the reign of God’s messianic king, he declares that he “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:4. When John of Patmos describes how Christ appears to exercise his reign at the close of the age, he tells us that “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations…” Revelation 19:15. In short, God does not employ violence to implement his reign. He speaks his Incarnate Word and sends fourth his Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. Thus, however Israel may have once interpreted the injunctions in Psalm 149, disciples of Jesus must interpret them consistent with Jesus’ call to confront an evil and unbelieving world with God’s offer of compassion, forgiveness and the promise of a new creation. The two edge sword we wield must be the sword of the Spirit.
The problematic sections of this psalm should not obscure the overall theme which is a call to praise God with melody, musical instruments and even dancing. Worship is supposed to be joyful, exuberant and strenuous. We Lutherans could use more than a little of that in our worship practices!
For an excellent summary of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, see the article of Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org.
Verses 15-23 constitute one very long sentence in the original Greek text. The old RSV preserves that sentence structure in its translation to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to unpack these important passages. Thankfully for this Sunday’s readers, the New RSV has broken the reading down into several sentences. For all who have the patience to work through them, these verses provide a beautiful articulation of the Christian hope encompassing life here and now in the Body of Christ and life as it is folded into the “glorious inheritance of the saints” with Christ in the “heavenly places.”
There are more sermons in these verses than any preacher could exhaust in a lifetime. The particular verses that caught my eye this time around are the last two, vss. 22-23, pointing out that the church, Christ’s Body, is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is mindboggling, albeit true, that each little congregation gathered around the Word and Sacrament is the fullness of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer that his hearers will come to understand the hope to which they have been called and the wealth of their inheritance. Though it does not appear that Paul himself was the author of this epistle* and we know little about the congregation or congregations to which it is addressed, it seems evident that the audience is predominantly gentile. Thus, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers the deep and profound treasures of the covenant into which they have been brought by invitation through Christ Jesus.
Although Paul makes only scant use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Ephesians (another reason why most scholars tend to think the target audience was principally gentile), there are many echoes of Old Testament texts throughout the letter and in Sunday’s reading in particular. Verse 22, where Paul remarks that God has “put all things under his [Christ’s) feet,” reflects the language of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6. Thielman, Frank S., Ephesians published in Beale, G.K. & Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (c. 2007 G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Baker Press) p 815. Psalm 110 is likely a coronation hymn for Judean kings and so it is not surprising that Paul should allude to it in speaking of Jesus’ elevation to God’s right hand. That Jews in the first century gave the psalm a messianic interpretation is suggested by the use Jesus made of it in his disputation with his adversaries. See, e.g., Mark 12:35-37. Clearly, early Christians interpreted the psalm in this way. Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (c. 1989 Yale Press) 163-66. Similarly, Psalm 8 speaks in poetic terms of human domination over creation. Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple period believed that Adam’s right to rule the world had been transferred to Israel and that God would one day give to the righteous remnant of his people the glory of Adam. Thielman, supra, p 816. Paul also spoke of Christ as a “new” Adam in his letter to the Romans. Romans 5:12-21. As such, Christ is entitled to reign not merely over the earth, but may properly be placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Vs. 21.
*I will nevertheless continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” Though perhaps not the actual author, his thought pervades the letter. Besides, it is a lot less awkward than referring repeatedly to “the author.”
This excerpt from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” has some striking similarities to the “Sermon on the Mount” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. See Matthew 5-7. It is generally accepted that both sermons are drawn from the same basic written tradition commonly called “Q.” But there are also significant differences and it is not clear whether these differences stem from variations in the source material or the editing of the gospel writers. In my own opinion, it is likely a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Clearly, some editing on the part of the gospel writers is at work. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from the mountain top evoking the image of Moses while going beyond Moses in many of his teachings. Luke’s Sermon is spoken on level ground. There appear to be three groups present: The twelve apostles Jesus selected just previously in vss. 12-16; “a great crowd of his disciples;” and “a great multitude of people.” In both cases, Jesus’ teachings are directed specifically at his disciples-not to the general public. Whereas Matthew contains more “beatitudes” than does Luke (Matthew 5:3-11), Luke includes four “Woes” not found in Matthew. Vss. 24-26.
It is important to emphasize that Jesus is speaking chiefly to his disciples here. Jesus does not make a virtue of poverty. There is no blessing in starvation. But for all who become impoverished for the sake of following Jesus and living for God’s reign, there are blessings that outweigh the woes of poverty. Similarly, weeping induced by suffering for the sake of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will likewise be outshone by the joy of experiencing God’s reign. So too, all who prefer wealth, comfort and security over Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God will someday understand the opportunity they threw away. They will have good reason to weep and hunger for that precious lost chance.
New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias argues forcefully that the Sermon on the Plain/Mount was the body of an early catechism for Christian ethical training. Jeremias, J., The Sermon on the Mount, (c. London, 1961) pp 30-35 cited in Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 111. The commands given in the sermon presuppose an understanding of the gospel and merely spell out the shape obedience to that gospel must take. The kingdom’s coming is God’s doing and, as such, an act of sheer grace. The challenge for the children of the kingdom is to live now under that gentle reign. By so doing, they ensure that when the kingdom comes it will be welcomed joyfully as salvation rather than met with fear as judgment. As another commentator puts it:
“The sermon [on the Plain] is a description of the life of the new Israel, which is also life in the kingdom of God. In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God’s purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the future. But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin to enter into ultimate blessedness. Thus the Beatitudes were not merely a promise but an invitation.” Caird, G.B. Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird 1963 pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 102.
The call to love enemies, throw blessings at curses and forswear all resort to violence and coercion form the radical core of discipleship. These words are not meant to apply only to folks with nothing between them but white picket fences. These are not ethics only for church picnics and potluck suppers. The enemies Jesus calls us to love are not simply obnoxious neighbors, rude checkout clerks or inconsiderate drivers. Enemies are people that hate us and would kill us if they could. Jesus’ enemies tortured him to death. He died praying for their forgiveness-just as he teaches us to do here. Never does Jesus act violently, teach violence or condone violence under any circumstance. Over the last several years I have become convinced that non-violence is at the core of the gospel and that Christian support for state sponsored killing (euphemistically called “military action”) and the mainline church’s reluctance to condemn it constitutes a stark betrayal of the gospel. I think it is high time that my own denomination in particular take a serious look at the faithful and courageous Anabaptist witness to peace throughout the ages. It is time to re-evaluate our centuries old adherence to “just war” doctrines.