All Saints Sunday (November 6, 2016)

For All Saints Sunday Jesus sure gets political. These texts are all about the transfer of power to God, and Jesus’ economic policy. What the heck? Doesn’t Jesus know what day it is? It’s tempting to say, “Well, we might want to celebrate All Saints, but God wants to talk about politics.” But we’re only reading these texts because they were appointed by the Consultation on Common Texts. I know some of the people on that team; they’re not God! They are, however, being faithful to the tradition of All Saints. From its inception, All Saints was both a commemoration of those who had died and a proclamation of Christ’s triumph. One of the earliest stories around All Saints comes from 610 CE when Boniface IV, Bishop of Rome, took the Pantheon, dedicated in 27 BCE to all the gods of Rome, and rededicated it to the Christian martyrs of Rome. The festival enacted Christ’s triumph over false gods as well as a memorial of those who died. And so today, All Saints is a remembrance of those who died and a proclamation that Christ will reign.

It is Christ’s political reign that properly commemorates the dead, by raising them. We often lose sight of Jesus’ radical claim to be ushering in a kingdom in tension with earthly authority. Yes, God appoints earthly powers to protect us from sin and evil. They are temporary; Christ is forever, and in his days on earth he directly opposed the Roman Empire and those Israelites who cozied up to it. The resurrection of the dead promises to overturn political order. When the dead are back and the Creator is here to judge everyone, it is the end of the old order. Just days from the election it bears mentioning: Jesus’ words repeatedly warn us not to mistake his kingdom for a path to glory for any of us. I cannot position myself to win a down ballot election in Jesus’ kingdom. Nor should I mistake any non-Jesus human for being God’s political representative. The Messiah is not on the ballot. History has shown us that if we act like the Messiah is on the ballot, the best case scenario is that we will be deeply disappointed. German Lutherans have a special insight into worst case scenarios. In any case, Jesus isn’t talking about this, here. Jesus is talking about the establishment of a community that follows him and embodies him: reversal on a cosmic scale.

Reversal has been at the heart of Jesus’ mission in the Gospel of Luke. Even before Christ was born he was heralded as a great political reversal. In his first sermon—his “inaugural address,” if you will—he announces God’s focus will be on helping the poor, the broken, the captive, and the oppressed. Today’s sermon by Jesus is, in a sense, a follow-up policy speech. He is recapping his goals and explaining how they can be followed. His preference for the poor is hard for middle class Americans to understand. Trinity has a strong social justice focus, so this isn’t entirely foreign to us. But it still is jarring at times, and it can become difficult to explain to others. The world expects God to make things comfortable and easy. You try to tell someone you believe in a God who liberates the oppressed, and if God’s liberating grace doesn’t confound us, it often confounds those to whom we try to explain it. I find helpful the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

It’s not that the poor are “better” people than we are; it’s that they’re poor, and God says they shouldn’t be. So God sides with them, and God calls us to work for them. The poor live in an inhuman situation. It is never about money in and of itself. Money represents possibility. For me, at least, it is about my access to things. In our world, it is mostly access to consumer goods and services, though there are bare necessities that come first (and consumer culture tempts us to flip those priorities). In Jesus’ world money represented access to honor. I’ve mentioned before—and it is crucial to understanding the New Testament—that the world was driven by honor and shame. Money gave you access to an honorable, decent life. Poverty was shameful, and not just for the impoverished but also for anyone responsible for them. There was a kind of collective, “You’re their patron! How could you let this happen?” The poor had either a failed patron or no patron.

Throughout the Bible, God says that God is the patron of the poor. God establishes a Jubilee Year, every fiftieth year, in which all wealth is reset, and everyone gets a full amount of honor and zero shame. Great idea, no one ever does it. (Of course not.) In Jesus’ inaugural sermon he proclaimed that he was the Jubilee, the restoration of honor to those shamed by the world. In today’s sermon, the “Sermon on the Plain,” he announces that his disciples are going to embody this restoration of honor. Our work, whether we’re a corporate executive, a baker, a teacher, a nurse, a factory worker, is to bring dignity to those who have none.

It is work we cannot do without God and without each other, so God gives us the Church. In the Church we hear the Word and celebrate the sacraments. God shapes us to work for God. Moreover we embody for the world what basic dignity looks like. In his Large Catechism, Luther calls the Church, “a community on earth, through which [the Holy Spirit] speaks and does all his work.” That work comes in the form of the baptismal bath, the simple bread and wine which become the lavish body and blood, the preaching of the gospel. Sins are confessed and sent away. People are raised up instead of cut down. That’s what we do. This basic human dignity is too good and too strong to stay bottled up inside our buildings, so the Spirit propels us into the world to speak and do the work of the Spirit, to bring dignity to those whom the world shames. And in that life together, we become terrifyingly close to one another. The loss of a sister or brother in Christ hurts. They were fellow disciples, part of our community which is now smaller and sadder for losing them. But at their death we proclaim the resurrection, that resurrection in which Jesus overturns the powers. We talk about how Christ used our fellow disciple to overturn the powers, and we point to them and say, “Here is yet another person whom Jesus will raise when he comes to take complete control.”

We need the reminder that Christ did his liberating work through them, because it is easy to think of Christ’s work as having stopped before we showed up. The people whose names we’ll speak today are those who lived within living memory. It can be harder to talk about them than it is to talk about those who died before living memory. The passage of time produces safety. You can talk about people none of us knew, because no one who knew them can contradict you. Talking about those within living memory is controversial.

They might not be controversial in the sense of hot button political issues, but speaking about them can seem dangerous. When I try to talk about my Uncle Chip I don’t want to have something I say or write about him become the Last Word on him, and sort of hem in his memory. But this is the Church and the Church cannot faithfully avoid controversy. When your God kicks off his career with the announcement that he’s on the side of the poor in the great political struggle, you’re going to have to talk about controversial things. You have to talk about those in living memory. I cannot say for certain how much of what my Uncle did in life was the work God wanted from him. I do know that as a young man he risked his life to register black voters in Mississippi; that after he retired he took a job as an inclusion helper so that severely disabled kids could attend public school and have friends and a social life. And I know that in those things and probably in others I don’t know about, Christ was using him to stand with the weak, the broken, the poor. Christ worked through my Uncle, while I knew him, in my lifetime. Christ’s work is not confined to the past that we can only know in writing and storytelling. We saw it. God gave basic dignity to the shamed and used people we knew to do it. God’s grace is real. Liberation is real. It happened in the people we’ve lost, and it happens in us.

So on All Saints Sunday, Christ calls us to risk seeing and saying how Christ used those we loved to give dignity to those in inhuman situations: to bring honor where there was shame; riches to the poor; food to the hungry; laughter to the weeping; joy to the suffering. Christ calls us to see and say how Christ was using our loved ones to usher in a kingdom in radical tension with our world, to risk being that kingdom in the absence of our loved ones, and to look for their resurrection as a sign that Christ’s work is complete.