The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 06, 2016

We need some saints


**NOTE:  I'm trying something new this week - an audio recording.
I hope you like it!  I'm also including an alternate audio source, as the YouTube embed may not work on all operating systems.



All Saints' Sunday, Year C


In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

I feel like it’s almost out of the “golden oldies” at this point when I tell you about my travels in my sermons, and particularly about my trips to Africa.  But the fact is, I learned so much on those trips, and broadened my world view so much, that they keep falling into my reflections and revelations, even these years later.  So, I hope you’ll indulge me again this time.

As I was reflecting on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days this week, my mind wandered back again to my first trip abroad, when I studied in Ghana several years ago.  We were studying the links between African American spirituality and indigenous African spirituality.  One of the truths of religious practice is that it is a study in evolution.  As we grow, as we gain new experiences, and we hurt in new ways and celebrate new things, our spirituality also grows and matures.  And this isn’t just a process that happens in the course of our lives, but over generations.

Christianity was born as an Eastern religion – more similar to what we think of as Asian religious practices in its beginning days than to our more familiar Western practices that we associate with the church today.  But as the first Christians carried our faith around the world – both through benign migration, and even sometimes through aggressive enculturation – our faith changed.  And these changes in faith are never just a one-way street.  Even if one culture “wins” the culture wars, both – or even all – of the cultures that are involved rub off on one another.

So our faith became a “Western” practice as it moved into Europe – taking on the cultural tones of each culture that it encountered.  We can see that even in our own parish logo.  The symbol for the Trinity that we use is influenced largely by Celtic tradition.  That symbol existed in Europe before it was appropriated by Christianity, but Christians found something of value in it, and ascribed to it the symbolism that it now holds for us.  This is a normal, and beneficial part of the migration of any faith, and certainly is a huge aspect of our own Christian faith.

The same is true of the interactions between Christianity and African cultures.  As African descended people began spreading around the world – most notably through the transatlantic slave trade – Christianity influenced Africans, but the indigenous spiritual practices that they held also influenced Christianity.

On my course in Ghana, we were studying these roots.  Native African spiritual practices are deeply rooted in some of the earliest and oldest spiritual practices found in all of humanity.  Because, for so much of history, much of Africa remained significantly isolated from much of the rest of the world, their practices remained relatively stable and unchanged by outside cultural influences.  They held on, even after Western religious traditions had largely complicated their own earliest influences.

One of the key features of indigenous African spirituality that we studied had to do with ancestor veneration – the practice of revering and even worshipping an individual’s or community’s ancestors.  That’s a spiritual practice that is key to most religions – certainly in their earliest days – but that becomes more complicated, and less observable as a religion develops.

In our faith, that practice can be seen in what we honor today: All Saints and All Souls.  We honor and revere those examples of the ages, whom we call saints, who have paved the way for us to be the Christians that we aspire to be today.  Even beyond that, we honor and revere all those souls who have gone before.  We pray for them, we remember the ones we can, and we honor the reality that they had a hand in bringing the faith of the ages down to this present time and to us.

We’ve complicated the system, and applied our own theology to it, but it’s really no different in its essence from the same sort of spirituality practiced by our African brothers and sisters through the ages and even today.  We do it differently.  We explain it differently.  But we believe many of the the same things.  And our prayers today, on this All Saints’ Day, represent one of the closest points of contact between all of the religions of the world.  They are prayers that attempt to connect us with the ones who have gone before and led us to this present age.

Part of why I’ve been thinking about this is because of this tense election season we’re in.  Among my friends and family members that I’ve spoken with (and I’ve even seen it in myself), emotions are running hot.  People’s feelings are being described in terms of anger…  Fear…  Anxiety…  Not the kinds of emotions that we would hope would guide us in our decision-making or our national life.

Thank God we’re coming to the end of it, but I fear that its influences on our national psyche will remain long after Tuesday, no matter who wins.  Our collective conscience has been hurt, and we could use the guidance of the ancestors.  We need a few saints to show us the way.

That’s where Jesus comes in – himself more than a saint, more than an ancestor, but one whose words are handed down to us through those saints and souls who never fail us.  Listen to what they tell us he 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… 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.”

They’re telling us how to live.  They’re telling us how to keep the faith.  They’re telling us not to be weighed down by the worries of the world, because the hope we have in Christ is that more is beyond the horizon.  They’re reminding us to honor the blessings of those less fortunate, when we encounter them, and even when we are them.  Because blessing doesn’t always look the ways that we had hoped or expected that it would.

And finally, “Love your enemies”.  That’s the last word.  That’s what it means to be blessed, and also what it means to be a blessing.

In a season in our common life when enemies seem more obvious than not, remember the words of the ancestors.  Remember the wisdom of the saints.  Remember the commandment of our God.  Love your enemies.

We need some saints and ancestors to guide us, and by the grace of God, they are here.  We have some apt guidance from them right here.

As you prepare to vote, let the words of this Gospel lesson be your prayer.  Read them as you stand in line at the polls.  Remember what it means to be blessed, and what it means to be a blessing.

And remember them again as the next days and weeks unfold.  We’ll need a lot of reminding.  There’s a lot of healing left to be done.  But we’re not doing it alone.  We have the saints of the ages, our ancestors, showing us the way.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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