All-Saints C: The Past Takes us Forward

 

Gravestone of Owen Shannon (1762-1839), Old Methodist Cemetery, Montgomery, TX (my great-great-great-great grandfather)
Gravestone of Owen Shannon (1762-1839), Old Methodist Cemetery, Montgomery, TX (my great-great-great-great grandfather)

OLD TESTAMENT:  Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Text, click here.

The Book of Daniel is believed by most scholars to be the most recently authored Old Testament book (probably 167-164 bce).  The dating is pretty reliable because it has so many references to specific historical events.  The time was one of intense suffering for the Jewish people under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who attempted to eradicate Judaism and replace it with purely Greek practices.  He eventually committed the “Abomination of Desolation” by sacrificing a pig on the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He was eventually driven out of Judea by the Maccabees, a period that is celebrated by the festival of Hanukah.

The Book of Daniel is set during the time of Antiochus IV and the persecution of the Jewish people and the message essentially is one of hope and belief that this time of crisis will pass, the forces of evil will be overthrown, and God’s kingdom will be established once and for all.  When all this occurs, the righteous will triumph.

In Chapter 7, where our reading is, there is a shift from the King’s dream to Daniel’s dream and this is sometimes looked upon as the heart or center of the entire book.  It recounts a dream of deliverance, which are usually associated with situations of negative political rule, such as the rule of Belshazaar.  Dreams are images of what could be, an act of faith that looks past the world around us.  It is interesting to note here that apparently Daniel is not only capable of interpreting others’ dreams but also his own.

Some scholars suggest that this is the first event in the series that follows, implying that the four winds of heaven are actually the catalyst that brings forth the beasts from the deep and that God initiates that action.  There is no indication that the beasts rise at God’s request, but are simply part of the chaos that ensues.

The sea is a symbol of chaos and the four beasts represent the different world empires that have conquered the Jewish people and other nations.  (Perhaps, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks.)  The ten horns on the fourth beast symbolize the rulers of the Greek empire or provinces and the “little horn” (verse 8) is probably Antiochus himself.

Verse 15-18 is actually a summary of the whole vision that is told in more detail throughout Chapter 7.  Daniel is, of course, confused by his own dream and seeks an interpreter, where he gets a summary of the whole vision:  The worldly powers will arise but God will conquer them all and God’s kingdom will be everlasting.  In essence, the “saints of the Most High”, as many translations read, will eventually emerge victorious and the evil forces threatening Israel will be destroyed.  The conflict and its results are certain.  This promise of the victory of the saints is probably the reason the passage was selected as the first reading for this All Saints Day.

The crucial thing to remember when reading apocalyptic literature is that it is not a prediction about the future but an interpretation of present events written in coded language, which, obviously, would have made more sense in the context in which it was written.  You have to remember that studies of eschatology, or “last things”, for Judaism referred to the coming of the Messiah.  Christianity, on the other hand, sees it as something that has begun but has not yet come to completion.

In an essay entitled “Waltzing with the God of Chaos”, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

 Where is God in this picture?  God is all over the place.  God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out.  God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular and vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.  God is the web, the connection, the glue, the air between the molecules…

            As for God’s plan?  You know, whether God has a file I can break into and find out what I should be doing ten years from now?  The more I learn about chaos theory, the more I favor the concept of life with God as a dance instead of a blueprint.  God makes a move, humankind makes a move, then humankind makes a move based on God’s move…

            In a lot of ways, to read science is to be tempted to become a deist—to believe in a clock-maker God who sets things in motion and wishes the creatures luck.  But I’m a Christian, which means I’m schooled in paradox.  I’m schooled in the opposite of any truth being another great truth.  And so I live in the paradox of this God who seems to have set things in motion and yet is still involved.  There’s some evidence that things are random to a point, and yet, I have experience of some spirit that seems to direct my feet at times.  So I’m stuck with both of these, and I’ve somehow got to live into the paradox of that.  They may not fit together, but I’m stuck with the two. (From “Waltzing With the God of Chaos”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Life of Meaning:  Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, p. 47-50.)

a.      So what, then, does this have to do with us?

b.      What does this speak to you about God’s actions?

c.       What image of God does this reading leave for you?

           

NEW TESTAMENT:  Ephesians 1: 11-23

 

Richard Williams / Carroll Cemetery near Willis, TX. Richard Williams (1808-1876) was my great-great grandfather.  One of the headstones is for his daughter, Lelia Jacinto Williams, and is believed to be the oldest legible headstone in Montgomery County, TX
Richard Williams / Carroll Cemetery near Willis, TX. Richard Williams (1808-1876) was my great-great grandfather. One of the headstones is for his daughter, Lelia Jacinto Williams, and is believed to be the oldest legible headstone in Montgomery County, TX

To read the Epistle text assigned by the Lectionary, click here

Most scholars agree that Ephesians is considered what you could call a “Deutero-Pauline” work, implying that it is “second” or “secondary”.  (This would also refer to 2 Thessalonians and Colossians).  These letters were probably written in the 70’s or 80’s.  Paul more than likely died around 60, sometime around Nero’s reign.  So, rather than being written by Paul himself, Ephesians was more than likely written by a follower of Paul, using the format and even the style that Paul employed in his letters.  This is not plagiarism.  In that society, placing someone else’s name on a work was considered the highest form of compliment.

The main purpose of Ephesians, probably written to a Gentile audience, seems to be to remind the believers of their communal identity in their new status in Christ and to urge them to walk in ways that demonstrate this communal identity and unity.  (When you think of it, this idea of “community” would probably have been more difficult for Gentiles to grasp than for the Jews of that time, who had a sense of community embedded in their very being.)  The church here is understood as a Body of Christ that is exalted, which resonates with our understanding of the community of saints here and forever.

It is important to remember that in the New Testament, “saints” refers to all the people of God, rather than the later understanding of it as specific individuals of invincible faith and heroic nature.  Saints are all believers who have been called and have been sanctified, or made holy, in their new relationship with God.  In verse 11, the term “obtain an inheritance” echoes Israel’s destiny to be God’s “lot” or heritage.  Ephesians makes the risen Christ their basis for obtaining this inheritance.  In verse 18, “the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints” refers to that inheritance that is extended through Christ who God raised from the dead, caused to sit in “heavenly places”, and gave authority over all things.  The reading closes with a reference to the church as the Body of Christ that is triumphant in all things, the point of eschatological fulfillment.  In other words, the Body of Christ is us.

 

a.      What message does this reading hold for you?

b.      What sense of connection to those that have gone before does this give you?

c.       What does it mean for you to have this “inheritance”?

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 6: 20-31

To read the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

Traditionally, the All Saints gospel has been the Beatitudes found in Matthew.  But since we are in Year C of the Lectionary, the Lucan version is the gospel of choice for the year.  There are several differences in the two versions:  In Matthew (the more familiar one), there are nine beatitudes; in Luke, there are four. The Matthean beatitudes are spoken from a mountain, probably since, as one writing to the Jewish community, this would depict that it was something important.  (Reminiscent of Moses on Mt.Sinai.)  The version told by the writer of Luke is spoken from a “level place” (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain).  For Luke, this seems to identify Jesus with the people.  In essence, it gives the impression and sense of Jesus no longer elevated above us but standing here with us.  Matthew’s beatitudes are spoken to a “crowd”.  When Jesus speaks in the Lucan version, he speaks specifically to his disciples, to those who are professing to follow him.  What follows is the standard for which every disciple should strive.  (“You”)

For me, this is very powerful because he’s showing us exactly what to do.  It leaves us no room to morally judge others.  He really wants us to listen to him.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:  Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways.  Jesus knows only one possibility:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it.  That is the only way to hear his word.  He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.

Matthew’s beatitudes have no corresponding “woes”.  But in Luke, there are four “woes” that correspond to four “blessings”.  The main focus of both versions is not the individual petitions but, rather, a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God should be like.  Essentially, the Kingdom of God will bring about a reversal of fortunes.

In first century society, poverty was not just a plight, but a social shame.  These people were believed to have done something wrong in the eyes of God and were shunned and depicted as “dirty” and “unacceptable”.  Jesus reverses that social order.  The first beatitude describes a way of life, and we, who are not poor—not really—often run to Matthew for relief.  Because we are not poor, this beatitude either mystifies us or leaves us feeling guilty rather than joy.  I’m not sure that we should get so wrapped up in the specific language.  For me, it’s a matter of humility, of emptying our lives and opening them to God’s vision of what the world should be.

Once again, it’s about paradox.  We read it and we think we have it figured out.  In this world, “blessed” often means having wealth, or security, or ease of life.  It often means that things are going well.  But “blessedness” for Christ has nothing to do with the quality of this life at all.  It is about being one with God and one with others.  Perhaps being Christian, itself, is about being paradox, about looking at the world in a different way and being open to seeing things one has never seen before.

Does it make more sense like this?:

 “Blessed are the poor for they already know that God is all they need and are open to receive what God offers; blessed are the hungry for they know where to look for sustenance and they are thankful for small but glorious abundance; blessed are those who weep for they know where to look for comfort and they know how to comfort others; and blessed are those who are hated or excluded or shunned for they truly know what it means to be Christian and to reach out in love.”

 I’m sure you remember all of the accounts and the press coverage of the 2006 shooting in the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.  After the community lost five young girls and had five more that were seriously wounded at the hand of a shooter, the world expected the usual—grief, anger, vengeance, and, most of all, justice.  And while the rest of the country, prompted by the press, responded with shock and anger, the Amish community responded with graciousness, patience, and love.  Instead of being consumed with revenge, this community lavished forgiveness on the killer’s widow, her parents, and the killer’s parents.  In subsequent interviews, the Amish community made it clear that it was not a mandate from their church; it was an expression of their faith.  In their understanding, they could only receive what they could give, for that was the only way that they could grasp what they had been given.  In her column in the “National Catholic Reporter”, Sister Joan Chittister suggested that “it was the Christianity we all profess but which the Amish practiced that left us all stunned.”  She concluded that the Nickel Mines Amish surprised our world the same way the earliest Christians astounded the Roman world:  “simply by being Christian”.

“Being Christian”—perhaps that in and of itself is a paradox.  Perhaps rather than being good, we’re meant to be faithful; rather than being godly, we’re meant to show people who God is; and rather than making sure that the world is filled with justice, perhaps we’re meant to fill it with love, and grace, and hope, and forgiveness, and a vision of something that it’s never seen before.

 

a.      What message does this reading hold for you?

b.      Why is this a difficult passage for us?

c.       In these terms, what does it mean to be “Christian”?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 

The saints are those who, in some partial way, embody—literally incarnate—the challenge of faith in their time and place.  In doing so, they open a path that others might follow.  (Robert Ellsberg)

 

The past takes us forward.  (Diana Butler Bass) 

 

 Closing

Think about those who we have lost this year and who we would like to remember.  Think about those with whom you journey.  Think about your own journey.

 For those who walked with us, this is a prayer.

For those who have gone ahead, this is a blessing.

For those who touched and tended us, who lingered with us while they lived, this is a thanksgiving.

For those who journey still with us in the shadows of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams, this is a benediction. (“Feast of All Saints Prayer” from In Wisdom’s Path, by Jan L. Richardson, p. 124)

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