All Sinners and Saints - Luke 6:20-31
All Saint's Sunday - Nov. 6, 2016
Then [Jesus] 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.”
In her book, Accidental Saints, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of an uncomfortable encounter with just what it means to celebrate ALL Saints Day: The story unfolded not long after Pastor Nadia had founded a new congregation in Denver, CO. She was feeling overwhelmed and unsure of herself, and she felt the need for someone to look to for inspiration – a strong woman of faith who had walked the road of church planting before her. Temporarily, Nadia thought that she had found such a woman in Alma White, the first woman bishop of the United States…
But then she learned more. As it turns out, Alma White had been known, among other things, for her anti-Semitism, hostility to immigrants, and association with the Klu Klux Klan.
Nadia was so disgusted by this discovery that she told the story to a friend, and this is where the discomfort comes in. The friend suggested adding Alma White’s name to the Litany of Saints “along with all the other broken people of God.”
That suggestion forced Nadia to confront the Lutheran understanding of what it means to call people saints. In her own words “I didn’t want Alma White on the Litany of Saints…. I want racists to stay in the ‘racist’ box. When they start sneaking into the ‘saint’ box, it makes me nervous. But that’s how it works. On All Saints’ Sunday, I am faced with the sticky ambiguities around saints who were bad and sinners who were good.”
We all have those boxes, don’t we? It is just human nature to draw lines. To define our own criteria for “bad” and “good” for “sinner” and “saint.” It makes us feel safe to be able categorize people, so that we know how to feel about them, and how we should act toward them. We don’t like ambiguity.
But that compulsion to categorize makes life harder when reality IS ambiguous. We have certainly seen that this election season – with the centrifugal pull of voices on the right and the left, both demonizing the other side and refusing to ask any of the hard questions about their own candidates. Perhaps this election season, and the prospect facing our country in two more days, would be a little less filled with fear if we were all better at dealing with ambiguities.
Perhaps less obviously, we also see this discomfort in our personal relationships, especially in loss. We memorialize our saints today, because that is what they are - they are saints - but also because it’s easier to grieve a fully sanctified version of our loved ones. We want to remember only the good qualities – the love they showed us, or the lessons they taught us, or the positive impact they had on the world. It is right to remember them this way, because those things are true – but those memories are not complete. None of the departed saints are without their blemishes, and if we fail to acknowledge this, then their examples become unattainable, and their reality fades away.
The fact is – we need some “sticky ambiguity” on this All Saints Sunday.
Thankfully, our gospel lesson today confronts us, if we will listen, with the “ambiguity” of apparently clear moral categories that won’t quite stay put.
Now, ambiguity might not be the first word most people would choose to describe this particular sermon from Jesus. On the contrary, the proclamations of blessings and woes seem to be offering us a quite clear pair of contrasting lists that define opposing categories of people.
First come the four blessings: for those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted for Christ.
Then come the four woes: for those who are rich, full, laughing, and well-spoken of.
Two lists – perfectly balanced. Those who will be blessed; those who are doomed to woe. Those on whom God apparently looks with favor; and those on whom God frowns. Or, using the categories of this day, those who are saints; and those who are sinners.
It looks like a system of division into clear, mutually exclusive groups.
But it’s not a comfortable division, because we don’t want to have to be poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted in order to be saints. We also don’t want to be condemned as sinners if we are rich, full, happy, or accepted. If we read this text as a description of two alternatives between which we must chose, it’s a pretty disturbing task.
But, the thing is, Jesus isn’t proposing a choice between two options. He’s describing ONE reality.
Jesus addressed each blessing and woe to the same audience: “you.” “Blessed are you….” “Woe to you….” These are not abstract proclamations on a theoretical level, they are personal, and they are all directed to his disciples. He is looking into the same sets of eyes to announce both the blessings and the woes, as actual descriptions of their reality – a reality where both blessings and woes can face the same person – a reality not of clear categories, but of blurred lines.
We see this blurring in how some of the categories flow into one another. The promise for the hungry is that they will be filled; the woe to the full is that they will be hungry. Likewise the promise for the weeping is that they will laugh, whereas the laughing will mourn and weep. But if those predictions are to be fulfilled, then the positions will switch, won’t they? The formerly hungry will be full and the weeping will be laughing– and thus subject to the woe. The formerly full will be hungry and the laughing will be weeping – and thus subject to the blessing.
It’s a perpetual circle, not a static position.
And that intermixing might be frustrating from a systematic point of view – but it is so much more realistic than neat categories, isn’t it? “This too shall pass” applies equally to the good and the bad moments.
This is the “sticky ambiguity” of All Saint’s Sunday. This is the truth that we can’t just put people into categories and be done with it. And that’s actually really good news – because it’s our only shot at being saints.
I don’t have to tell you that you are sinners. You already know. You know the little pricks of conscience that that bubble to the surface when we join in the prayer of confession at the start of each worship service.
I don’t imagine that I have to tell you I am a sinner, too. I need the words of absolution just as much as anyone else in this room. That’s why my voice sometimes shakes as I speak them. Because it is an awesome thing to stand together with a room of sinner and to say God has called us saints.
Martin Luther described our complicated, mixed reality with the latin phrase “simul justus et peccator” – simultaneously righteous and sinful. We are both: saint and sinner.
We are JUSTIFIED by Christ – and nothing can erase that. We are all saints because Christ has made us so – made us so notwithstanding that we are all also SINNERS.
At one time or another we will be on the bad side of the list, and we will be subject to woes, and that is just true… but it is not all of the truth. Because, like those who have gone before us, we are all also Saints – not out of our own goodness, but out of the blessing of God’s grace, through faith in Jesus.
I think that standing in that understanding of sainthood is the only way in which to follow Jesus’s exhortation that follows the blessings and woes:
“Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray from those who abuse you…”
Those are impossible commands. At least, it is impossible to stand on one side of a moral line – to define another person as my enemy, and then to love them anyway.
But the ambiguity of being both sinners and saints, means that the line isn’t real. Because no matter how different our opinions, or goals, or actions might be, we all have the same fundamental identity.
We are all sinners in the brokenness of our souls, and we can all only be made saints through the gift of Jesus.
Now, it’s really important to say that this common identity, and Jesus’ call to live in light of it, should NEVER be heard as an excuse for abuse. Turning the other cheek does not mean passive victimhood, and prayers for an abuser should be offered at a safe distance. Doing good to those who hate us is actually the opposite of letting the hatred go unchallenged.
We are to be about the work of love, and that means calling for love to drive out hate, and fear.
But we don’t do that by defining others as bad compared to our good. We do it, by witnessing to the hope of saints that don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God. That is the gift of All Saint’s Day in Christ’s church.
Today is not a day to memorialize sanitized versions of saints old or new. It’s a day to celebrate their identity as claimed by God – in all of their messy humanity.
They don’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s better when we know how they’re not perfect…because then they can actually be those who walk the road before us. They can shows us how it is possible to be both sinners AND saints. Because that is what we are.
And once we believe that – believe that about ourselves, and also about our enemies, even about the Alma White’s of the world – then we can start to really love.