04 November 2007

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday - "Change Is Coming"

I'd like to begin this morning with a piercing statement about the patently obvious: life changes constantly. One minute you're one thing, the next you're someone completely different. For Todd & Kim Lang, the birth of their daughter on Thursday marked the end of their life as just a married couple and the beginning of their life as a family. A year ago, my Kristin was getting really pregnant and we were starting to get really excited about the addition to our own family. Four years ago, Kolten Lee was a pipsqueak in confirmation who got me so frustrated I threw a dry-erase pen at him: now he's a senior planning a transition to college in the spring. Five years ago I was writing papers, finishing applications for my final candidacy meetings and thinking about finally getting out of school and getting a job, not to mention that cute brunette in the Lutheran Confessions course where I was a teaching assistant. Ten years ago I was still in Lincoln, but you all were making plans for an addition to the building and a drastic renovation of the Fellowship Room (I'll bet you don't miss the wood paneling!). Go back even farther in your lives and I’ll bet you can find milestones and moments where everything changed and nothing would ever be the same.

Because of the short history of our nation, we Americans don’t have a long collective memory. We know about Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, the Declaration of Independence and so on, but farther back than that our memory is fragmented. Those of us who descend from Scandinavian bloodlines have even shorter memories and deep ties to the lands from where our great-grandparents emigrated to this country.

Change in Jesus’ time was a much different matter, however. Jesus’ people, the people of Israel, had a collective story over 1,000 years old. They taught their children about the days of Abraham and Sarah, who lived 1,200 years before the days of Jesus and his family. Israelite children learned about Saul, David and Solomon, the three kings who reigned 900 years before Jesus’ time. Israelite children heard stories about Judas Maccabeus and his sons, the last revolutionaries who had fought for Israel’s independence 170 years before Jesus was born. With this deep history came cultural tendencies that kept people where their roots were deep: boys were apprenticed to their fathers, families kept land and trades in the family and the focus of the common people was always on survival. The upper class was firmly entrenched, and the thought of ‘upward mobility’ would not have been likely to occur. People believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty and disease were signs of God’s punishment for sins, known or unknown, things done or left undone. So as the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor, as Israel struggled along to survive after seventy years of Roman rule, a teacher from Nazareth in Galilee called twelve of the men who had been following Him and began to teach them new ideas and different ways of thinking about God’s world. And when Jesus started those twelve, He started changing everything.

What did these words mean to Jesus’ disciples? It’s hard to say. The command to love one another is found in the Old Testament, but was it understood the way Jesus taught it? Probably not. When one of the scribes asked Jesus about the greatest commandments, Jesus rightly answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your heart, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But the scribe replied, “Who is my neighbor?” The scribe’s question wasn’t about the depth of love he ought to show to his neighbor: the scribe asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The way to obey the commandment to love one’s neighbor was to define the neighbor and thus define who ought to be loved. But Jesus taught this commandment differently.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus called the apostles out of a crowd of His disciples, after a night of prayer and meditation. After calling them, Jesus sat down before a great crowd who had come to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed all of them. But as He healed, Jesus began to teach His apostles, and this is the first thing Jesus taught them: “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…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep…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…Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Here’s a change: love is now defined by the giver, not the neighbor. The poor who are entrenched in their poverty will be rescued, while the rich who enjoy their prosperity will lose it all. But most of all, Jesus taught his apostles in ways that confounded and amazed them, and by doing so Jesus changed everything they ever thought about God and righteousness and life and salvation. Jesus taught them that God’s blessings were never reserved for those who were rich, but for those who listen to God’s voice! Notice how Jesus didn’t say if He was talking to the rich or the poor in today’s gospel; he said, “I say to you who listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” If you’ve got ears, you’ve got the chance to receive God’s blessing, and if your ears don’t work, well, perhaps Jesus could do something about that, too.

But what do these words mean to us today? We listen, don’t we? We hear God’s voice, don’t we? Do we really? How are you doing at loving your enemies and doing good for those who hate you? I’ll admit that sometimes I don't much care for what Jesus said about my enemies and those who curse me. I don't react well to being cursed, being abused, being hated – who does? I'd much rather come out swinging and let the chips fall where they may. Others react to anger and abuse differently – some of us do come out swinging, some of us use passive-aggressive tactics (what my Old Testament professor in seminary called "the ice in Minnesota Nice"), and some of us just pretend that the offending behavior never happened and swallow our fear and our anger until it paralyzes our ability to feel any genuine emotion at all. I'll go even farther and tell you that one of the most frustrating aspects of being a pastor is the constant pressure to hold my temper in check. It's not natural for me, and sometimes I wonder if it might not be healthier to let it rip every once in a while rather than bottling it up. But Jesus says otherwise; at least, that's how it appears in the gospel reading for today. If we want to listen and obey what Jesus commands, if we want to be the descendants of the apostles, then loving our enemies is the way of discipleship, no matter how hard that road may seem and how it might change us along the way.

Thomas Nelson Publishers recently published a book by Brian McLaren entitled Everything Must Change. McLaren is also the author of a book I’ve read called A Generous Orthodoxy. One of his main points in all of his writing is that the church has abandoned a self-giving ministry to the world and chosen a self-protecting ministry to itself instead. He insists that we in the church must change and become willing to be changed by the world around us if we are to be authentic servants of God in our present circumstances. Now ask yourself: if you continue to hate your enemies, if you refuse to do good to those who hate you, if you refuse to pray for those who abuse you, is anyone in your situation going to change? You certainly aren’t going to change, and neither is your enemy. But, if you honestly tried to love your enemies, if you prayed for those who abuse you, if you did good to those who hate you, how might that affect you. How might it affect the one who was persecuting you? How might it affect the people around you who watch unseen?

How interesting that Jesus' instruction to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you should come on the festival of All Saints. In the early church, Christians would celebrate the anniversary of a martyr's death by serving an all-night vigil, then celebrating Holy Communion over their tomb or place of martyrdom. Sometimes, several Christians were martyred at once, so a joint remembrance was the natural response. Finally, during the reign of Diocletian, the last great persecutor of Christians, the number of martyrs rose so quickly that the church couldn't remember them all, so it was agreed that one event should be held to commemorate the lives of all the saints, especially those who had been martyred for their faith. It was in these circumstances that the festival of All Saints began to be observed. What, then, shall be the mark of the living saint? "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." This is what it means to be counted among the saints. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

It’s not as though changing and living this way will be easy, mind you. The martyrs for which this festival day is named died horrible deaths, and sometimes those deaths were nothing more than an afterthought for those who watched. Evil remains a power in this world, as banal and petty as ever, and we struggle under its influence even as we seek to change and be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into something closer to what God wills for us. But Jesus knew all of this as He was teaching His apostles. He could see the coming day when He would be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice to show the way of love He was teaching. As one of my seminary professors once wrote, "The Messiah is announcing the Law which He will fulfill."[1] Jesus knew this course would cost Him His life, but Jesus also knew that changing the world was worth the cost. So did the saints who died for their faith. Shall we follow in their footsteps today?

The festival of All Saints is not only a remembrance of those who have died: we pray also for the life we live here and now as God’s baptized saints. We pray for the strength to love our enemies. We ask God for the patience to endure the pain and sorrow of this life. We pray that our vices and our virtues might be burned away until nothing but the fire of God’s Holy Spirit remains. We pray that we might be used to bring comfort to the poor and compassion from the rich, to feed those who are hungry and help those who are full tend to their neighbor’s needs. Jesus says, “To all you who listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Are you listening? Then be ready, for a change is coming. Amen.

[1] Tiede, David. The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. © 19??, Augsburg Publishers, Minneapolis. p. 143.

1 comment:

  1. good sermon - ice in Minnesota nice - hee hee...

    oh but the love your enemies... how hard to do. but i'm a tryin'