a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year C]
Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23
Children’s literature often has a way of taking complex topics and presenting them in a way I can understand with as few words as possible. About fifteen years ago actress Jamie Lee Curtis came out with a children’s book that was given as a gift to our oldest daughter by someone in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. Our daughter, Clare, was only two at the time, and we had fun reading it to her. When Laura came along not too long afterwards we read it to her, and the other night I dusted it off to read to our 6-year-old as I tucked him into bed. The illustrations are as colorful as they are entertaining, but the rhyming text of the book is really what stands out.
The name of the book is Is There Really A Human Race? a question that perhaps we all wonder at some point along the way, what with all of our competing and our resume-building jumping through the hoops of life. The text, together with the pictures, illustrate humans racing against each other, breathless and exhausted, as if we’re all on a lifelong wild goose chase:
Is there really a human race?
Is it going on now all over the place?
When did it start?
Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?
Did it start on my birthday? I really must know.
Do I warm up and stretch?
Do I practice and train?
Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane?
Do I race in the snow? Do I race in a twister?
Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?
If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team?
And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean.
Is the race like a loop or an obstacle course?
Am I a jockey, or am I a horse?
Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?
If the race is unfair will I succeed?
Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?
Is winning or losing something I choose?
Why am I racing? What am I winning?
Does all of my running keep the world spinning?
With question after rapid question the book continues, wondering aloud with the reader what is this world really all about, what is the goal and how do we achieve it?
Today we gather to be reminded once again, thank God, that Jesus narrates and illustrates a completely different world from that. Today the church is gathered—just as Jesus gathered the large crowd on the Plain in Galilee one day when he spoke to his disciples—to hear once again that Jesus has come in order to bring an end to a world where everyone races against one another, a world of pushing and shoving, a world where we believe our progress is somehow what keeps the world spinning.
Today, All Saints Day, we recall the lives of those who have gone before us, but not in a race, but in grace. They have lived lives that touched us with compassion, selflessness, and joy. And each of them bore through the course of all their years that tension that exists between the world we feel we live in, where we’re constantly in a competition, and that eternal world that Jesus has given us, where community is built on forgiveness and love even of the enemy. We give thanks for them and for the ways they demonstrated in their own ways their trust in that new and coming world, which the apostle calls our inheritance.
I think at some point each of us has probably received something from a loved one who has gone before us. We’ve inherited something that that person intends for us to cherish and use. That’s the point of an inheritance—it is something we did not earn but which we deeply value because it points to a relationship. I remember when my great-grandmother died in 1996 she left me a big silver punch bowl. I was twenty-two at the time, still in college, living in my fraternity house, with nowhere to put the punch bowl and no one to serve punch to. I didn’t know how to value it, how to care for it, what its story even was. But Grammy wanted that bowl, for whatever reason, to fall into my hands.
Through Jesus Christ this pledge of a world redeemed and whole has been placed into our hands, and like the saints before us, we work to learn about it, treasure it, and serve the world from it. On the cross, Jesus has handed over all that he is so that we might have all the life that God gives. Our task, as we serve from this priceless bowl of grace and mercy, is to seek out and find those who right now seem to be the losers in the race of life.
And if it happens we have a hard time remembering who they are, Jesus names them for his disciples this morning. The poor seem to be the losers, especially if you listen to the news and the way we talk about them as people who haven’t worked hard enough or who have been born in the wrong neighborhoods, or who haven’t taken the chance to better themselves. The hungry are definitely losers, and their ranks are growing as grocery prices rise and supply chains are blocked. Those who are weeping often feel like losers, finding it difficult to get beyond their grief, which sneaks up and grabs them when they least expect it. And then there are those who are rejected and reviled for exemplifying Jesus in their actions and words. But Jesus calls them blessed, not losers.
In his new kingdom all these are the ones who get preference. The poor, for example, have been promised the kingdom of God. Because they have nothing else to rely on, no power that comes through wealth or privilege, they are bound to fulfilling experience of relying on God before anything else. We find the poor and learn what they have to teach us. We find the hungry and we give them reason to trust that in Jesus’ kingdom they are filled. We collect bags of Thanksgiving food, we serve at the pantry, we work for just and equitable distribution of resources. We come alongside the mourning and the weeping, singing the hymns for them at the funerals (because the words catch in their throat), and volunteering at the receptions in the fellowship all afterwards—all as an assurance of the laughing that will one day come. And learning from them the value of being vulnerable, ourselves.
Jesus continues with even more instructions for living this new world he has created by his death and resurrection we give generously, bless those who persecute, respond with nonviolence, and do to others as we’d have them do to us.
And I have to be honest and say that these are things that are difficult. They do not come naturally for me, not in the slightest. It is hard to trust this way of Jesus. It is hard to believe in this inheritance we’ve received when the world is so harsh and hard. It takes courage to inhabit this way of Jesus when we can’t fully see it implemented just yet. We see glimpses every now and then, but the full glory is still hidden.
The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lays out in a chronological format the history of the bus boycott that kickstarted the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The bravery and ingenuity of the people of color in Montgomery is on full display as you wind your way around the different exhibits. It becomes clear that Ms. Parks and her community were reviled for working for justice and peace to overturn the system of domination and racial oppression.
One sign in the museum asks the question: “Do you have the courage to treat people fairly?” What a pointed question—like a rephrasing of the Golden Rule Jesus tells his disciples. Living in the world Jesus dies to create is not just a matter of education or wokeness or cleverness. It is courage that we need for that, for our default setting is mistrust and prejudice. It is courage that allows us to view this world not as the rat race of competition it appears to be but according to the upside-down values Jesus names in his vision. It is courage and faith—and Jesus gives us both, over and over again, flowing from the waterfall of our baptism our whole life long. And we know so many examples of this courage from the lives of those who’ve gone before us and in the lives of those who are sitting next to us today.
It was about two years ago, in the height of the COVID pandemic, when I spoke with Sonya Fluckiger on the phone instead of going to her house for her Christmas visit. She was just a few months shy at that point of her 100th birthday. The news was out that the first COVID vaccines were going to being distributed to senior citizens and people who worked in health care Sonya assured me in no uncertain terms that she was going to direct that her vaccine dose be given to a young woman or man with a family. “I understand that what they’re doing,” she said, “is the Christian way, but they’re wasting it on us old people.” I assured her there would be plenty to go around, but then I paused. It took me a second to recover once I remembered that I was a young person with a family: Sonya, age 99 ¾ trying to remind of the world Jesus empowers me to live in.
It is courage we give thanks for in the lives of the saints, in the lives of all us sinners, living and dead, who have been claimed by the grace of Jesus. It is their courage we praise as they and we turn this world of self-proclaiming on its head. Courage and faith to receive the inheritance that Jesus has bestowed upon us that we may know the hope of the calling to which he has called us.
So that night when I was I reading this book to Jasper, I remembered the ending sounds a lot like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:
Sometimes it’s better not to go fast.
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.
Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend?
So take what’s inside you and make big, bold choices,
And for those who can’t speak for themselves, use BOLD voices.
And make friends and love well, bring art to this place
And make the world better for the whole human race. (“Is There Really A Human Race?”)
What a goal to tuck someone to bed with: Wake up tomorrow, little kiddo, and live into that inheritance that Jesus has given us. Life is no wild goose chase!
And so now we’ve tuck our departed loved ones for their final sleep with the hope they will soon open their eyes to the full inheritance prepared for them.
Rejoice in that day and leap for great joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.