I love this feast. I love the grandeur of it, I love wearing our very best clothes, and singing these grand hymns. This week on Facebook I asked people to say their favorite saint. It was great! Francis, Hildegard, Schereschewsky, Teresa of Avila, William Temple, and a whole lot more. Responses included some modern day saints like Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, and Bill Wilson. My very favorite response, though, was this: “maybe our favorite saint should be the one that we’re working on, with God’s help.” Meaning, our own selves. Lest you think considering oneself a saint to be farfetched, today’s reading from Ephesians reminds us that in the early church “the saints” were simply those who made up Christian communities long before they described themselves as Christians. To call oneself a saint, or even a saint-in-formation, is a high bar, and yet that high bar is where we are invited to go.
Today’s gospel sets that bar.
Jesus preached what we call “The sermon on the plain” in a socio-political climate not that different from our own. The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and partisan politics, partisan religion, even, held sway. No one could be trusted, nations and peoples could be wiped out with the stroke of an angry despot’s sword, and the struggle between good and evil was real and was everywhere. The people of God lived under a dark cloud of anxiety and uncertainty. Sound familiar? In this painful, seemingly intractable situation, God takes sides. God sides with the most vulnerable in the on-the-ground local and national politics of the Roman occupied territories in Jesus’ time. And God sides with the most vulnerable in our time.
The temptation, when we hear this morning’s gospel of blessings and woes, is to ask ourselves: are we poor enough to be blessed? Or are are we the ones to whom the “woes” are directed? When I do this, the news is not good. I am not hungry, I am full. I laugh. I like it when people speak well of me.
If God is on the side of the poor, and I am not poor, does that mean that God is not on my side? Wealth or privilege are not in themselves barriers to sainthood. Anything that supplants our total reliance upon God can be a barrier to sainthood. Think about what this might be for you: material ambition, jealousy, pettiness, fear.
Luke’s Jesus speaks of actual, systemic poverty, not voluntary poverty or spiritual poverty. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is not talking to us. It doesn’t mean we cannot receive today’s gospel as invitation to join the blessed.
The invitation of the gospel to those of us who are well-fed is to come alongside those who are not, to feed them, surely, but also to be on their side as God is on their side.To know their stories. To join them in relying solely upon God. The alternative is despair, despair about the lives that some of our neighbors live as well as despair at the specters of racism, xenophobia, and environmental disaster. There is much to despair. But in times of despair and times of gladness, our call as Christians, as “the saints,” does not change. The invitation of the gospel is to channel our anxiety and our uncertainty into doing the work that God would have us do. It’s so simple, it’s so difficult and yet, what else can we do?
This is the primary task of Christians, to come alongside those who suffer, and to suffer with them, or to allow others to come alongside us. This might be sitting with someone in the hospital or the labyrinth, in our family or our workplace. It might be offering to someone who has lost everything, the gift of silence and stillness, in community, that we experience in this place. It might be faithfulness to our own spiritual practice, with an intention for the healing of the world. Coming alongside someone who suffers might look like the audacity of an invitation to share bread and wine broken and poured as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are welcome and all are fed.
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There’s a wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye’s second daughter has just announced she’s marrying for love. This is a foreign concept to Tevye and so he asks his wife: “Do you love me?” Golde, of course has never thought of such a thing and thinks he’s nuts. He asks again:
Golde, I'm asking you a question. Do you love me?
You're a fool! she says
I know. But do you love me?
Do I love you?
For twenty-five years, I've washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals; cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow,
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Golde may not know how to talk about love, but she knows how to practice love.
Both senses of the work practice apply here. We practice something as an expression of who we are and we practice in order to try to get it right. The saints were not perfect. None of us saints-in-formation will ever be perfect. You know t his in the same way that Golde and Tevye know about love.
We’re about to renew our baptismal promises. The fact that we make these baptismal promises over again at least four times a year—that’s part of our practice—is a reminder that these are the things we strive to do, to practice in service to the kingdom of God: prayer, communion, evangelism, justice, peace, respect. Love. As we turn to these promises, let us remember all the saints who have gone before us and practiced their faith, as we practice ours, with God’s help.