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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:

All Saints Day (Nov. 1)---Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149:1-9, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

Sunday, Nov. 3---Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 AND Psalm 119:137-144 OR Isaiah 1:10-18 AND Psalm 32:1-7, II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

We are invited to think about sainthood this week---and I’m not talking about the New Orleans Saints football team—although sports figures of all types are sometimes worshipped as if they were the holiest of creatures.  November 1st is All Saints Day and the Sunday following (Nov. 3 this year) is sometimes celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  I’ve listed the lectionary readings for both occasions and have read them all hoping to understand what a saint is.

Before getting to the scriptures, here are some background comments.  All Saints Day originated in the Catholic liturgical system.  There were special days for many specific saints.  All Saints Day became a day to remember and celebrate all saints.  So what is a saint in the Catholic tradition?  It is a formal designation given after much research and examination.  A saint is someone deceased who was deemed to have “lived heroic virtues,” had “personal attributes of charity,” could be credited with one or two (depending upon level of sainthood) miracles because someone interceded in prayer to them, and/or martyrdom.

When we talk about saints we usually think of them as possessing some special and admirable attribute, sometimes thought of as “holiness.”  Saints biblically, in fact, are sometimes spoken of as “holy ones.”  We may say of a person, “Oh, she (or he) is such a saint.”

Saints have traditionally been those who have passed on into another realm.  Sometimes all those who have died “in Christ” are referred to as “saints.”  John Ylvisaker wrote a catchy little tune once about saints (based on the book of Ephesians).  I thought the title was “We Saints Ain’t.”  The internet suggests that it was “One Saint Ain’t,” but gives me no lyrics.  In either case, I remember a line (from this or another of his songs) that says something to this effect.  “It used to be that saints were dead, but now saints can be alive.”  Usually these days when we talk about “The Communion of Saints” we refer to all believers, living and dead.

It’s difficult to move out thinking beyond some sort of elevated notion about sainthood.  They are “special.”  Even in our breakfast discussion this week, when we tried to identify saints we had a difficult time applying the word to “ordinary” people.  Perhaps the closest we came was when several us identified our parents as “saints.”  Again, however, we seemed to be lifting them up to special status.  In Paul’s writing, however, all the Christians in a particular location are referred to as saints.  I Corinthians, for instance, is addressed “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (I Corinthians 1:2)  II Corinthians is "to the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia . . .”  (II Corinthians 1:1) So it is in the greetings in most of his letters with multiple other references to the saints as well.

We are all called to be saints.  Every one of us is special.  When I worked on the national staff of the American Baptist Churches, we once has a program with the theme, “Everybody is Somebody.”  That’s the way it is in God’s reign of Love, revealed in and through Jesus.  It’s not so much that saints are a cut above (to borrow a phrase used by one chain of barber shops).  Saints are ordinary people opening themselves to God’s Spirit, trying their best to pay attention to and follow the leading of that Spirit.

Having said that, people who seek to walk in that way may well have some observable behavior characteristics.  We are all invited daily into the discussion and implementation of what it means to live as faithfully as possible in God’s Spirit.  Rather than examine the various lectionary texts in any detail, I’m going to list phrases from each which have been part of that discussion over the years, perhaps with a comment or two.  I do not offer these as a final word or definition.  They are what various writers have thought about over the years.  They come to us as threads to be considered in our own discussion and definition.

Daniel is a difficult book to interpret with its images of beasts and kings.  I won’t even try today, except to say that it contains a vision of the establishment of God’s final victory and reign.  This week’s selection from Daniel ends with these words, “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever---forever and ever.”  (Daniel 7:18)  “Holy Ones” are saints, and they inherit something.  They are held close to God forever.  The reading from Ephesians also emphasizes “inheritance.”  (See Ephesians 1, verses 11, 14 & 18)  The letter is addressed to people who show their “love toward all the saints.” (vs. 15)  The inheritance is gained by setting one’s hope on Christ and is sealed by the Holy Spirit.  (vss. 12-13)  Saints are those who look with confidence into the future, and live in hope.  What do saints give and receive as inheritance?  What is the basis of hope we find in them, and in our own sainthood?

The reading from Luke contains Luke’s version of the beatitudes, more “earthy” than those in Matthew’s version.  Comparing and contrasting can be a worthy pursuit.  The presence of “woes” in Luke’s version is noteworthy.  For today, it is enough to consider saints as “blessed” people and look to Luke’s words to help define the nature of that blessing.  Perhaps the biggest contribution of this reading to the discussion of sainthood comes in Luke 6:27-30---“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  That goes a long way, for me, toward defining a saint.

The Psalm for All Saints Day has a twist in it I hadn’t noticed before.  It begins as a Psalm of praise and dancing and singing.  (Psalm 149:1-3)  At verse 6, however, the praise is mixed with vengeance in which kings are overthrown and justice achieved.  “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed.  (vss. 6-9)  “This,” the passage concludes, “is glory for all his faithful ones,” i.e., the saints.  As much as we may dislike the images of swords and vengeance, the overthrowing of unjust kings is seen in the Bible as part of God’s agenda, part of the work of the saints, and a blessing for all the saints.

The longing for that justice is there in the reading (for Sunday, Nov. 3) from Habakkuk.  The prophet observes a situation in which “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”  (Habakkuk 1:4)  He climbs into a watchtower to wait.  (Habakkuk 2:1)  He notices that those who are proud do not have a right spirit in them.  (vs. 4)  Sainthood, justice, and humility are all intertwined.

The Sunday reading from Isaiah decries worship without justice.  God cannot endure it.  (Isaiah 1:11-15)  His call to those who would be saints is, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  (vss. 16-17---There’s also much in verse 18, including the invitation to “argue it out,” but I’ll leave that for you to take wherever you want to go with it.)

II Thessalonians, speaking of the Christians in Thessalonica, boasts about “your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (II Thessalonians 1:4), going on to pray for them, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith . . .” (vs. 11)  Sainthood has something to do with keeping the faith through times of hardship and living worthily with good resolve and faith.

The Sunday reading from Luke is the familiar story of Zacchaeus, whose statement, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8), seems to qualify him for sainthood.  Jesus says to him, “Today salvation has come to this house . . .” (vs. 9)

That leaves two Psalms.  Psalm 32 takes us back to the theme of humility, in this case confession and forgiveness. (See especially Psalm 32:1, 3, & 5)  A saint is not one who argues for or claims perfection.  The saint is one who humbly acknowledges his or her shortcomings.

The other Psalm emphasizes God’s commandments and righteousness.  (See Psalm 119:137-138 & 142-144)  One need not subscribe to a rigid legalism to know that there are general standards of right and civil and benevolent behavior that serve society well, make this a better place to live.  Those who we call saints often live by standards that challenge us all.  To be a saint is not necessarily to flaunt all rules.

One of the better ways for us to understand “righteousness” is to think of it as “right living.”  Perhaps it is as simple as the instruction in Isaiah:  “Learn to do good.”  Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems, and “good” seems like such a saccharine word.  Maybe, however, we skip lightly over it too often.  Robert Bellah and his colleagues wrote a book entitled, The Good Society.  Maybe thinking about what it means to be “good”, and acting upon it, isn’t a bad place to start in defining sainthood.  Maybe we should more often be able to say, “He (or she) is truly a good person.”  We’d probably be talking about the potential of sainthood in each on us.

Carry on, all you saints (and sinners)!

 

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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