07 November 2010

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints - "Winners and Losers"

Before reading this sermon, you should know I'm a Nebraska alum (though you probably already knew that) and the ELCA campus pastor at Iowa State, where this happened yesterday:

            When I was 9 years old, a football game made me cry.  I have a feeling there were some young Cyclone fans who felt the same way last night.  The 1984 Orange Bowl.  Nebraska was down 31-30, back in the days before overtime in college football.  They went for two and didn’t get it.  I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

            That seemed to be the story for Nebraska fans in the 1980s and early 1990s.  It seemed like the Huskers were always one game away.  Oh, I don’t expect any sympathy from Iowa State students about struggling football teams – I’m telling this story to make a point, and the point is this:  we don’t commemorate losers, even the glorious ones.  As great as that game was yesterday, it won’t get celebrated nearly as much as last year’s slapstick in Lincoln, even though both teams played much, much better yesterday.  Why?  Because ISU won in Lincoln last year.  Winners get celebrated.  The 1983 Cornhuskers don’t get reunions, but the 1994 Cornhuskers do, because they won a national championship.  People will remember ISU beating Texas this year a lot longer than they’ll remember losing to Nebraska.  If you win, you get trophies, placques, and reunions.  Lose, even gloriously, you get a rueful shake of the head, but that’s about it.
            So, on the surface, it might appear that Jesus is just trying to even out the balance when he teaches in our reading from the gospel of Luke this morning.  We might think, “Oh, there goes Jesus:  he’s such a good one for making the losers feel good about themselves.”  Meanwhile, we’re either trying to find a way to avoid being lumped in with the poor, the hungry, the crybabies and the religious nutcases, or you’re trying to figure out if you’re poor, hungry, sad or crazy enough to be blessed without too much more inconvenience.  After all, when it comes to Jesus, up is down, left is right, rich is poor, poor is rich and humility is the best way to make a name for yourself in the kingdom of God, am I right?
            Back to football for a minute.  When I was growing up, people would complain about Nebraska never winning enough games.  You heard me right.  Tom Osborne once said, “My hardest job is to convince the people of Nebraska that 10-1 is not a losing season.”  When I would join the critics while I was growing up, my Mom would try to set me straight.  “You just wait,” she said, “someday we’ll know what it’s really like to have a terrible football team.”  I’m most proud of her for never once saying “I told you so” from 2002-2007.  But my point is this:  perspective has a tendency to get skewed no matter where we are in life.  When you’re up, you think you’re going to be up for the rest of your life.  When you’re down, you think that you’ll be down for the rest of your life.  Either way, you adjust your expectations accordingly and go on living the best that you know how to live.  At least, that’s what you do if you’re not a saint.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  Traditionally, today is the day we remember those who have died in the past year, and we’ll do just that later in our service.  But right now, I want to talk a bit more about living saints, and what it means to live as God’s saints now, in this life, and why I think Jesus is talking about sainthood when he teaches his disciples like he does in this morning’s Gospel text. 
            Let’s make sure we understand what it is we’re talking about when Jesus says “Blessed are you” and “Woe unto you.”  It’s easy to think that, because Jesus says “yours is the kingdom of God,” that he’s talking about salvation and damnation.  Jesus is telling the people listening to him how to live in this life, not how to get into the next.  This is not advice given for the best way to score points with God:  this is God himself defining reality for people who don’t have the ability to see it.  Jesus is the living hope of God revealing the truth to those who haven’t seen it yet:  what we see on the surface is not the reality God knows down to the core.  Poverty is not always marked by misery.  Wealth does not always guarantee unlimited happiness.  Hunger and sadness have their seasons, as do satisfaction and joy.  Most of all, we who believe in what God is up to in the world are called to trust in God no matter how much ridicule the world might heap upon us.  This is what Jesus is calling ALL of his followers to understand, rich and poor, hungry and fed, weeping and rejoicing, losers and winners alike.  THESE ARE ALL SAINTS:  it’s just that these are saints in all their different places in life, but still called to worship and serve the same living, loving God who welcomes them all.
            Don’t believe me?  Look at the last few verses of our reading today.  “I say to you that listen…”  Not “I say to you poor.”  Not “I say to you joyful.”  Not “I say to you who’ve gone and made somebody mad for my sake.”  “I say to you that listen…”  Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, in whatever circumstances you may find yourself, here is how you follow me:  “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 one of God’s saints.  Jesus calls us to open our eyes, to see with perspective and understand that life is constantly changing.  If he’d been talking in political terms this past week, he might have said, “Blessed are you Democrats, for yours is the Senate Majority.  But woe to you Republicans, for you have received your reward.”  Six years ago he might have said the exact opposite.  Either way, Jesus would have said to BOTH parties:  “Love your enemies.  Reach across the aisle.  Don’t make that commercial and call your opponent names.  Do unto your opponent and you would have them do unto you.” 
            I’ve been haunted by a song this week.  

            If you look at the face of Johnny Cash in that video, you look at the face of a man who’s known both blessings and woes.  He was rich, and he was poor.  He laughed, and he wept.  Most importantly, Johnny Cash did some wonderful things for a lot of people, but he also did some terrible things to his family and friends over the years.  You see in this song a man who knows the core of his life, its depths and its heights.  I call Johnny Cash a saint, not because he’s dead, and not because he was a vision of perfection in life, but because you get the sense that he knew the whole story of human sinfulness and yet trusted in God to overcome the hurt he himself had caused to others and himself. 
            Paul says in our Ephesians text today, “I pray that…God may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints.”  This is the life of a saint: eyes wide open, with perspective and wisdom enough to see life in its totality.  This is the life of a saint:  understanding that circumstances are constantly changing.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in these constantly changing circumstances, one thing that is guaranteed is that we will make mistakes in the midst of everything.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in the midst of everything, whether it’s poverty or riches, hunger or fullness, sorrow or joy, God is bigger than our hopes and our fears and we are called to trust in God come what may. 
            Open your eyes, you saints of God.  Understand that wins and losses are part of what it is to be human.  Believe that God knows the depth of who you are and how you’ve struggled, and loves you with all your faults and virtues intact.  This is a day to celebrate, but not because you’re rich or poor, hungry or full, weeping or rejoicing.  This isn’t even a day to celebrate a Husker win or mourn a Cyclone loss!  This is a day to celebrate because the God the Father is your Creator, Jesus Christ is your Savior, the Holy Spirit is moving within you, and this company of saints is here to journey with you.  The life of a saint awaits you:  now is the first step, and may God bless all the ones that follow.  Amen.

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