Sunday, November 6, 2016

Claiming LIfe

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, 
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, 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. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:20-31 NRSV.)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past summer, as I was nearing the end of my internship and the end of my studies at Luther Seminary, I took a break from reading non-fiction. For nearly five years, it has seemed to me that the only books I’ve read have been those related to school, whether they were about theology, faith formation, church administration, missional leadership, or pastoral care--or any other topic a seminary student needs to know about in order to be a pastor. Or at least to be a beginning pastor.

So, I decided to read through the entire Harry Potter series.

Now I’m sure that I’m probably the only person alive in our world today who, by 2016, had not read any of these remarkable books by author J. K. Rowling. Unless, of course, some of you choose to admit that, too. 

So, over about 6 weeks, I delved into the world of wizardry and Harry Potter. 

The books were fascinating and magical. Frightening, at times. Funny, at others. It was completely worth it and, if you haven’t read them, I really encourage you to do so.

Now, I’m not going to preach on Harry Potter today. But, as I read through our lessons today and, particularly, the lesson from Daniel, about his vision of the four beasts, I couldn't help but think of the Dementors, those foul creatures from the Potter series. They are described as infesting the darkest, filthiest places; glorying in decay and despair; draining peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near one and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.

No wonder Daniel’s spirit was troubled within him. And the vision in his head terrified him. 

This seems like a bizarre text for today, doesn’t it?  On this All Saints Day, a day when we remember all those in the faith who have gone before us, who have moved from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant, those whom we have loved and who have loved us and who, most importantly, have been examples of faith for us, examples of believing in God and trusting in God’s faithfulness. On this All Saints Sunday, this Daniel text just doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Oh, but it is!

In order to understand why it is so appropriate for us today, we have to understand the nature of this text. This portion of Daniel, along with the book of Revelation, is what we call apocalyptic literature. If you’ve ever read any part of Revelation, it can be a terrifying book. I had a parishioner last year who asked me why this book was in the Bible, sharing that it terrified her so much she never read it. 

The function of this type of literature may be unfamiliar to us. It is crisis literature. It is literature written to encourage, to give hope and support in a time of crisis. In Jesus’ day, these passages from Daniel 7 were so widely read at the time, that there grew to be what we might call a Daniel 7 cult. It is from this text that we first hear the term “son of Man.” It is also one of the first anti-empire texts in scripture. 

The beasts in this text represent empires. Empires that, like the Dementors, are sub-human. That drain the life out of our world. They seek to amass great wealth and power and, in the process, destroy our planet, destroy the poor, destroy peace.

It is in response to these destructive, Dementor-like empires that the “son of Man” comes. Here, in Daniel 7 we first hear that term--son of Man. Here in Daniel 7 we also hear the first anti-empire texts in scripture.  Read Daniel 7:13b-14. 

Daniel, troubled and terrified, seeks to understand his vision. In the interpretation, beginning with v. 17, notice that singular son of Man becomes plural. Look at verse 18. No longer does it read the “holy one of the Most High,” but the “holy ones of the Most High.” The saints of the Most High.

One individual sent by God stands up to the powers of empire. In Christ, God breaks into these destructive empires to establish God’s kingdom--a kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom of love and forgiveness, a kingdom of hope and healing, a kingdom in the fullness of God in Christ.

The inbreaking begins with Christ’s coming. It continues through the work of the holy ones of the Most High--the saints we honor and remember here today. Some of them we read about in Scripture. Some became known across the world. But most, like the saints we remember today, were those who were not famous, not known. But they carried on the work of God’s kingdom. They shared their faith and gave us a glimpse of God’s kingdom so that we, too, might be called the saints of God, members of the body of Christ, the holy ones of the Most High.

We, saints, are citizens of a different kingdom than that of the empires of the world. It is this kingdom that Jesus describes today in our Gospel text. 

It is a kingdom where true power is not shown in dominance, but in service to others. It is a kingdom that calculates worth based on a different standard. Where those with wealth stop working for the systems--the empires--that exploit the poor, instead of continuing to build more wealth. Where those with power, turn away from amassing more of that power to stand in solidarity with the poor and powerless and to seek to change the systems that continue to oppress them.  Where God continues to lift up people who, under the world’s standards, have no business being lifted up. In this kingdom, God continues to lift them up--the poor, the hungry, the grief-stricken--and says to them, “These are the ones who are blessed. These are my people.” 

It’s been a difficult election year in our nation, hasn’t it? It seems as though we have experienced--endured might be a better word--endured one of the ugliest elections in years. One of the most painful parts for me especially has been the insults and recriminations that have flown back and forth between political candidates and their followers, the daily barrage of hostility, cruelty, dismissiveness of “others”, whether women, Catholics, Mexicans, Asians, losers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Russians, or Syrians. I have to admit that I, too, have gotten caught up in the back and forth, in the ugliness of this election.

All of this--the insults, the recriminations, the name-calling, the hatred--all of it comes out of fear. It is the same fear that drives us to build walls to keep immigrants out. The same fear that drives us to create economic structures to wall in our profits and project our jobs. The same fear that causes us to protect ourselves and to keep what is ours. It is a fear that divides us and keeps us from experiencing the fullness of life in God’s kingdom and with each other. It is this division that Jesus warns us against in our text today. A division that, like the Dementors, destroys life and sucks away every happy memory, every shred of hope.

In a recent essay, Willie James Jennings, a theologian who graduated from my alma mater, Fuller Seminary, calls on all Americans and, particularly, Christians to “claim the power of life together precisely at the site of threat and fear. Our faith places us inside the actions of a God who faces our dangers and yet refuses to yield to fear. God offers life and invites us to gather courage there, making it a place where God creates community.”

Yielding to fear destroys community. Our Christian faith claims the power of life together precisely at the site of threat and fear.

This is exactly what Jesus’ disciples did in the first century. In the midst of a Roman empire that sought to destroy them, they claimed life right at the point of threat and fear, spreading the Good News throughout the Roman empire and beyond. 

In the same way, Luther claimed life at the point of threat and fear as he stood up to challenge the authority of an empirical church that had lost its way, spreading the Good News throughout the Western world.  

Over and over and over again, we have story after story of saints, known and unknown, who, in the midst of threat and fear, stood up and claimed life--showing the world and us how to imagine better, how to hope once again, and how to acknowledge that our lives and our needs, our safety and shalom are all in God’s hands.

So stand with this whole communion of saints today and claim life. Claim the gift of life that is yours through the death of our Savior Jesus Christ. And then dare to imagine and to engage the world in God’s name. Amen.

Preached on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bastrop, TX.
Texts: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31.
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