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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A cloud of surprise witnesses (All Saints)

The pictures in this post are details of the "Communion
of Saints" tapestries in the Cathedral of Los Angeles,
created by John Nava
After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.

Nadia Bolz-Weber's latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, is an unpredictable tour of the liturgical year that begins and ends with celebrations of All Saints' day at her Denver ELCA church called "House for All Sinners and Saints." What is immensely refreshing about her take on holiness and being church is just how rough-around-the-edges it is, in fact, to many people, I suspect it would be unrecognizable as holy. She sees relentlessly through the hard work churches do to appear holy, to do good things, all the while avoiding the very people whom Jesus names in the beatitudes and with whom Jesus, as best we know, used to hang out. In fact, as best we know, the ones with whom he still hangs out.

For me, she hits almost every nail right on the head, and doesn't really seem to care how much noise her hammer makes. She's as rough on herself, rougher maybe, than she is on any other ecclesial hypocrisy she nails, and she does find God in what seems to me are all the right places, like, for instance, "when I am confronted by the beauty of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies," and "when I am forgiven by someone even though I don't deserve it, and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel. (pp. 8-9). In fact, she writes,
And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of   God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones  —   people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile. Bolz-Weber, Nadia (2015-09-08). Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (p. 7). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
This was my thought exactly when reading about beatifications and canonizations of this one or that one who seemed to be a poster child of reactionaries in the church, and a way I have of forcing myself to remember that no one ever "earns" sainthood. It is God who makes saints, sometimes in spite of, but often actually by means of the very weaknesses and sinfulness to which I or others might take exception. Which, of course, is very good news. Especially to me. It's not a ledger-based accounting system. God is not in competition or rivalry with evil. God is utterly good, and cannot be marred by our sin, and so is completely present to us even in our sin. We're slow to recognize God's goodness, wary about it, lest we seem to recognize the unworthy as saints of God. So it's good for us to remember that naming someone a "saint" does nothing for them that God hasn't already done for them, and for ours, and for us long before, loving us into "blessedness," and laying on our unmeriting hearts the names "saint" and "child" and "beloved of God."


Looking back over all my old stuff, I've never actually written about All Saints before, not that I can find, anyway. What I see in the scriptures of today, wonderfully available to us to ponder and celebrate on a Sunday, is a triptych of texts in the two NT readings and psalm that are lit up by the gospel. In Revelation, we see the political cost, that is, the cross, paid by so many who have followed the gospel way, not just in the persecutions of the second century of the Common Era, but in every age up until the present day. Many are not given the option to negotiate with the violent gods who demand tribute and participation in their bloody sacrifices to oppression, war, and the marginalization of the weak. Many have simply been sacrificed themselves, made victims to appease the murderous need of civilization to have its scapegoats. Like their master, Jesus, they went to their death perhaps in terror and abandonment, but they discovered that God did not abandon them, but "sealed them with the sign of the servants of God," and made them part of the new world.

"This is the people that longs to see your face," we sing in the psalm, and following the wisdom of the Torah, proclaim that "One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain" receives blessing from God, "reward from God his savior." But with Israel, we have also learned that not even Torah is salvation; we are able to follow the law of God and act with integrity and justice only because God's love enables us to do so before we act. In covenant with the ever-faithful God, we are able to be like God, and act with love and justice, because of a response to God who loved us first. Thus we are called, in 1 John, "children of God." Implied in that epithet, and spelled out in I John and elsewhere, are the identity-shaping fatherhood of God, who loves us in Christ into a new way of being together, and the family identity we share with one another. As children of God, the implied ethic is that we love one another as God in Christ has loved us, and with the agape love that the indwelling of their Spirit makes possible.

Crowning the liturgy of the word on this day is the proclamation of the Beatitudes, which, I think, is too often mistaken for an ethical blueprint and not seen for what it is: a manifesto to the powerless that God is already with and in them. The beatitudes are less "you will be blessed if you are poor/merciful/peacemakers/persecuted" than the more radical idea that "no matter how it appears, you are blessed if you are poor/blessed/peacemakers/persecuted." "Blessed" (Gk. makarioi, i.e., fortunate) means "blessed because God is with you, present to you, now," which is the only blessedness that means anything. As I wrote in a previous post about the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus "thinks of his audience, and that is us, as 'blessed,' that is, makarioi or full up with the good fortune of being loved by God who is right here with us in the trenches when we're poor, lowly, thirsty for justice, merciful, peacemakers, single-hearted, and put down because we try to be on God's side."

So while Revelation looks forward, in a sense, out of a chaotic present to an end-time when God will straighten out all injustice and make the world right, 1 John and the beatitudes teach us that the project of the divine clean-up has already started and is active in the present, and that it comes about by our participation in this project which God dreamed up in Christ in the first place. "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed," says the author of I John. Being God's children, we can look for the particular blessedness, the experience of divine presence, in those times when we experience our own poverty, efforts at giving or receiving mercy and peacemaking, in the thirst for justice, the experience of persecution, and when we try to live in solidarity with those who are already clearly living in those places.

In the eschatological parable of Matthew 25 (31-46), when the last day comes and the world is gathered in front of the king, divided in two by a blur of remembered lifetimes, everybody, everybody, is surprised. "Good heavens! When did we see you hungry or thirsty?" "What the hell? When did we see you naked, or sick, or in prison?" We are, like people have always been when confronted by the gospel, by the real presence, amazed to be among neighbors we imagined would be in the other pile of humanity. On that day it will be God's job to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" in a way that right now is unimaginable. Maybe the last boundary, confronted by indefatigable love and relentless desire for unity, will evaporate before the One who is in rivalry with nothing and who has no equal among all who live. We have no idea. But pleading the case for the "ones on his left," I imagine, may be the cloud of surprise witnesses and accidental saints, with the experience of forgiveness and mercy burning in their hearts like a first love taken to an irrational exponent, taking up across the universe the song we start Sunday, moving through and embracing as sisters and brothers the crowd across the aisle: "Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face."

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
Psalm 24 (Kevin Keil)
Presentation of Gifts: New Jerusalem
Communion: I Will Live On (Haas)
Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny