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All Saints and All Broken

A Sermon on Luke 6:20-31

In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,[1] Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber shares the story of stumbling across a plaque that celebrated the founding of a Denver church in 1901 by a woman named Alma White.

Pastor Nadia was initially thrilled at the discovery of a potential role model, as she herself was in the middle of founding a new church as a female pastor.

She eagerly googled the name Alma White and learned that she was, in-fact, not only the founder of the Pillar of Fire Church… but that in 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States, and that she was noted for her feminism!

But then the other shoe dropped…apparently Alma White was also associated with the Ku Klux Klan and was known for her racism, religious prejudices, and hostility to immigrants. (At this point in her telling of the story, Pastor Nadia drops an F-bomb).

And I can sympathize, because… UGH! Seriously?! A raging racist?! That’s who we get as the first female bishop in our country?! No wonder we don’t teach that story.

I want to be able to celebrate the woman who founded a church more than a century before I graduated seminary (still feeling uncertain that I could ever be a pastor because of the messages I received as a child about being disqualified by my uterus).

I don’t want to be horrified by the example that she set of merging a liberating understanding of God’s presence and work through women with such hateful attitudes towards others of God’s children.

But, thankfully… challengingly, there is more to Pastor Nadia’s story. She continues on to share that she reached out to an Episcopal friend with her lament about the disappointment that was Alma White, and her friend responded with a surprising request:

“E-mail me her name. I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.”

All the other broken people of God…

It’s an echo of one of our Lutheran catch-phrases: simul Justus et piccator… (we are all) both saint and sinner… but Pastor Nadia (and I, and maybe you) sometimes need a reminder.

Because simple all-or-nothing categories of good and bad are so much easier and more satisfying than we are all a bit of both.

We want to think of our saints as people whose shining example will never cause us embarrassment, or concern, or confusion.

We want to see our task as simply following in their footsteps until we join them again.

However, the more complicated version of the story… the reminder of how imperfect real-life saints are… is exactly the reminder that I needed this week as I pondered how in the world to preach on Luke’s very uncomfortable blessings-and-woes text on All Saints Sunday.

On a conceptual level, I can kind of understand picking this gospel for the feast of All Saints. The “great is your reward in heaven” promise in verse 23 offers a neat link to the idea of the afterlife that tends to be on our minds when we remember those whom we have lost.

It’s nice to think of them up there, enjoying their just reward.

But there is a WHOLE LOT more to this reading than a promise of heavenly blessings.

There’s the surprise of how Jesus assigns those blessings to the least expected people,

Which is feel-good enough to jive with the sentimental tone we want for a day like today.

But then there’s also the challenge of the woes.

The warning for some disturbing categories of people that they’ve already got their blessings, so they should prepare to see the flip side.

Categories like the “rich” and “false prophets,” which might not hit too close to home.

But also those who are “full” (like, say, after a good Thanksgiving meal that we will all sit down to in a few weeks?)… and even those who laugh… I mean… that’s ALL of us.

And these categories… especially in these two parallel lists… can push us into an anxious pattern of thinking.

The pattern that sees two groups, side-by-side, and needs to know “which one includes me”? (And is it the right one?)

It’s a universal human instinct.

It’s why we are so drawn to binaries (categorizing ourselves as introverts or extroverts, men or women, gay or straight… as though there were no other options on any of these polarities).

It’s one of the things that gives the two-party-system such a stranglehold on our political landscape, and makes nuanced, thoughtful conversations about policies (rather than party loyalties) so difficult.

It plays out in contexts as diverse as the world series and buzz-feed quizzes... which both leverage the human compulsion to pick-a-side.

And Jesus knows this about us… and he uses it in his teaching to push that anxiety a bit… to force us to question our assumptions about what a blessed life really looks like, so he can call us into the kind of radical enemy-loving discipleship that is his way of changing the world.

But on a day like today, a day when we will read the names of loved ones we lost this year, and light candles for them, and hold this sacred space for both grief and gratitude… I don’t think that anxiety OR binaries are actually what we need.

I think we need space for truth-telling about our grief without needing to pretend like our loved ones were without any faults, or that our pain is never mixed with anger or shame.

And I think we need an invitation to do the hard work of loving our enemies not because we get manipulated into it by suffer-now-or-suffer-later binaries but because we know that kind of love is what will heal OUR hearts.

In other words, I think we need the reminder that ALL of the saints (those we remember and those in this room and watching online) are all included in the one (albeit complicated) category of “the broken people of God.”

Because, the truth is, we all experience unfair deprivation and exclusion sometimes, but unearned benefits and praise at others.

And we all experience both blessings and woes.

We don’t belong on just one list or the other.

And I don’t believe that assigning ourselves to a list was actually Jesus’s point anyway. The lists were just an oratorical tool… a way of getting our attention.

His point was the second part of the reading… the part about what we need to do to fix the conditions that cause the dividing lists in the first place.

By loving those who are hard to love

And doing good to those who haven’t earned it.

And living lives that RESIST the universal human tendency to categorize ourselves into opposing camps.

Because that is the way that we erase the most fundamental divide of the human experience… the divide that makes a day like today so bittersweet: the divide between this life and the next.

Jesus tells us to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And he also tells how to live in a way that makes that true… by loving our enemies, giving freely to those who ask of us, seeing each broken child of God as BOTH sinner and saint… doing to others as you would have them do unto you... because we are all in this together.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Convergent Books, New York (2015).


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