November 1, 2013
Since the earliest days of Christendom, the faithful have gathered to give thanks for the life and ministry of the saints – women and men whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a blessing in every generation.
The witness of many of these blessed women and men – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa of Avila or Saint Augustine of Hippo – are well known. Many of their writings have become popular, their deeds inspire us to name hospitals and schools and churches for them, and their service to the Church is taught to the faithful in every generation. Yet, for others – such as Saint Simon or Saint Jude – little is known beyond their names.
But regardless of how much or how little we know about these faithful witnesses, one thing is certain: Their life and ministry has richly blessed the church. And as we gather to celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we are called to give thanks to God for the blessings that the saints have bestowed upon the church, as well as the many blessings God has bestowed upon us.
Of course, by worldly standards, it would appear that the saints didn’t know very much about blessings. Most of them didn’t know the first thing about wealth, and many lived all or part of their lives in poverty. Status and the power that comes with it was a foreign concept, as many of the saints never knew high-paying or revered jobs, choosing instead to work for little or no money at all, serving the poor and the helpless. And far from inspiring fear or subordination, many of the saints were hated and met their untimely death precisely because of the faith they so boldly proclaimed.
But worldly standards weren’t how the saints patterned their lives. They lived by Jesus’ standards. And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus’ standard for what constituted a blessing is radically different from the standards that the rest of the world is accustomed to:
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “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 on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
Poverty, hunger, mourning, hatred, exclusion, revilement and defamation – these things certainly don’t seem like blessings!
But Jesus is convinced that they are. And most shocking of all, Jesus says that these are the sorts of people to whom the Kingdom of God is entrusted.
Of course, some will raise their hands in objection and say, “We can’t possibly entrust the Kingdom of God to a bunch of poor folks. They don’t know the first thing about business or what it takes to run a kingdom.”
Others may say, “The Kingdom of God is just a fancy term tossed around by theologians. It isn’t possible on Earth. There’s just too much violence and oppression and chaos.”
Or worst of all, some will hear the words of Jesus and say, “See there? Jesus will take care of the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated in heaven. Who am I to get in the way of God’s will?”
Yet, with piercing clarity, Jesus looks the opponents of the Kingdom of the God in the eye and pronounces a stern warning: “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!”
In other words, woe to you who don’t know what poverty looks like, or what hunger feels like. Woe to you who have never known an occasion for mourning. And woe to you who manage to tell everyone what they want to hear instead of the truth they so desperately need to hear.
And so, we gather here on this Feast of All Saints with words of blessing and words of woe ringing in our ears, amidst beautiful trappings and festive liturgies and memorial celebrations. But let us not lose sight of the fact that today, God is calling us to action – God is calling us to bear witness to the Kingdom of God!
And the Kingdom of God witnessed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not some abstract theological term about a time and place the world has never known. In fact, the Kingdom of God can be a place that all of us can come to know.
The Kingdom of God breaks through when we love our enemies. It takes hold when we do good to those who hate us. It comes alive when we bless those who curse us. It shines brightly when we pray for those who abuse or mistreat us. It shows up when we honor the request of beggars.
And when we live our lives by the principle of “do to others as you would have them do to you,” we become citizens of the Kingdom.
Of course, the work of building the Kingdom is not easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us here in Luke’s gospel, life with God isn’t easy, either. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful and cursed.
Life with God means that we will know what it is to be unpopular – to be discounted and overlooked.
And life with God means that we will know what it is to be hated.
But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is built – brick by brick, stone by stone – by people such as these: people who know what poverty and hunger and sorrow and being cursed looks like. People who know how it feels to be overlooked and discounted. People who know what being hated feels like.
So today, on this Feast of All Saints, let us begin to live by a different set of standards. Instead of worldly standards, let us begin to live by the standards of the Kingdom.
It starts today. It starts by loving our enemies. It starts by showing kindness to people who don’t deserve it. It grows into the ability to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who mistreat and take advantage of us. It manifests itself in the ability to listen and show honor to those who are forced to beg.
It is lived out, not in the comfort of our homes or our churches or our offices, but among the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated; because, after all, the Kingdom of God belongs to them.
And when we do that – when we exchange our worldly standards for Kingdom standards – the blessed communion of saints cries out, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”
— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Kentucky (Diocese of Lexington). He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.