November 1, 2020

“Calling All Saints,” Susan Ryder

Micah 6:8 What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Matthew 5:1-10 aka The Beatitudes (New Living Translation)
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them.
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

Marcus Borg considered the Beatitudes to be challenging sayings, both in the first century and now. He wrote, “Prior to Matthew 5, Matthew narrates the stories of Jesus’ birth, his baptism by John, his temptations in the wilderness, his call of the first disciples, and the beginning of his public activity. But in all of Matthew’s first four chapters, we are given only one line of Jesus’ public teaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). It is an important line. Matthew crystallizes the message of Jesus in his first public words as the coming of “the kingdom” and the invitation and imperative to “repent” (whose Greek roots mean “to go beyond the mind that you have”). Note that Matthew’s usage of “kingdom of heaven” does not refer to the afterlife. Rather “the kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s phrase for what Jesus speaks of in Mark and Luke speak as “the kingdom of God.”

Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan says: “According to Jesus, heaven’s in great shape — earth is where the problems are. God’s kingdom is for the earth. Heaven’s kingdom, God’s kingdom, is about this world. It is about what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not; if God were lord on earth and the lords of this world were not. This — the meaning of God’s kingdom on earth — is what Matthew expands in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes. They are the opening words of the inaugural address of the kingdom of God.” (Claiming the Beatitudes, Anne Howard, x-xii)

Having just launched his public ministry, declaring that the “reign of heaven” or “kingdom of God” has come near, Jesus begins to color in what it’s all about. They are powerful words. First and foremost, these are words of consolation and encouragement, good news for the poor, mourning, gentle, etc. – so many of whom were among those initial crowds; and they are words that are still relevant today. But these are also words of declaration, announcing the fact that the dawning “reign of heaven” involves overturning the world’s hierarchies of status and privilege. Some of those typically considered cursed or foolish are actually the ones who are truly blessed, the ones who will be redeemed and restored. The rich, strong, and satisfied are invited to repent, celebrate God’s world-turning salvation, and join the movement of Jesus: seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. (From Salt Project)

The Beatitudes are not imperatives or commandments. They are not “ethics.” They are declarations of divine blessing, and as such are cause for consolation, gratitude, and joy. The time for instruction comes later; in fact, Jesus will turn to instruction for most of the rest of this famous sermon. But blessings come first. Think of it this way: if we turn the beatitudes into duties, or worse, into a supposed method for acquiring divine blessing, we entirely miss Jesus’ point. God’s blessings are already among us, surprising and counterintuitive, gracious and undeserved, world-turning and beautiful, and we’re called to live lives that are responsive to those blessings at every turn. And on this All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that this is what “all saints” do: they live as if the reign of heaven is at hand — because it is! (From Salt Project)

On the eve of this momentous election, it seems fitting to consider a couple of saints we lost this year, and remember how they lived their lives as if the kingdom were already near, as if they were already blessed, as a way of informing how we move forward from here, whatever the election results are. If we accept the premise that justice, freedom and democracy are as much manifestations of the Sacred Mystery as mercy, and charity and kindness, we would be remiss to observe All Saints Day without honoring the likes of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Rep. John Lewis.

The words Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt shared at the memorial for RBG at the Capital were so powerful and moving. “In the chambers of Justice Ginsburg hangs a framed piece of art that reads, ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ – ‘justice, justice you must pursue.’ A command in the 16th chapter of Deuteronomy, the rabbinic tradition assigns meaning to every single word in the Torah, so there must be a reason why tzedek, justice is written twice. The repetition here, teaches Ibn Ezra, a medieval rabbi, that time and time again, all of the days of your life, you must pursue justice. This was how Justice Ginsburg lived her life. Justice did not arrive like a lightning bolt but rather through dogged persistence, all the days of her life. Real change, she said, enduring change, happens one step at a time.… In recent years, Justice Ginsburg became famous for her dissents. Despair was not an option. She said, and I quote, ‘dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way. But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually, over time, their views become the dominant view, so that the dissenters hope that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.’ Justice Ginsburg’s dissents were not cries of defeat, they were blueprints for the future.”

Before his death, Representative John Lewis wrote us a love letter to be read after he passed, reminding us that, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it. You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

The Celtic tradition uses the phrase “thin places” to describe sacred areas of the earth where we can more readily feel the presence of the Divine Soul pouring through. There are many ways of describing “thin places.” Essentially, a thin place is an occasion or a place or a time in which we experience the Sacred more closely. Thomas Merton talks about a “world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time.” But we don’t always notice God shining through the world. In thin places, we manage somehow to catch a glimpse of God. In thin places, the two levels of reality meet or intersect; the veil momentarily lifts, and we experience God “more nearly, more dearly, more clearly.” Samhaim is the Celtic end of harvest feast that became Halloween and is one of those times of “thin places” – between Halloween and All Saints/All Souls observances. In this tradition, it is a time to confront the dark of the world and our psyches and find the light that it contains. This year it seems even more meaningful and sacred – that we confront the darkness of our world and work to find the light contained within it.

Regardless of the outcome of the election on Tuesday, it will signal the continuation of important work rather than its fruition or completion. The stress and anxiety, the bitterness and violence that have emerged in our nation are symptoms of problems much larger than the actions of any individual, administration, or political party. So whatever the results, we must resolve to move ahead with courage and discipline in equal measure. To that end, the Beatitudes can be embraced as Jesus’ manifesto for transformation. They reveal what a new community can and will look like. The Beatitudes address those who experience various kinds of oppression as well as those who have been targeted because of their pursuit of justice, and they promise blessings to both of them, even while that oppression is occurring. However, they also call for human agency — churches as well as the larger community — to help advance the kingdom and its manifesto. Such an emphasis on the human agency suggests that, when we see oppressed people, the question need not, and should not, be: Where is God when people are mourning, sick, hungry, treated brutally by the police and denied mercy in the courtrooms? Instead, the question should be: Where is God’s community and what is it doing to reverse the situation?

May it be so, and may we be blessed. Amen.