(Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Pott on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
There are some elements of the Christian faith that are just shocking enough, just absurd enough, just unsettling enough, that I’m regularly surprised that we believe it -- let alone preach it -- at all. The gospel reading chosen for the Festival of All Saints lifts up one of those elements … and then throws it right into our collective face. So what do you think: shall we dare together to believe and preach it?
Of course, first we have to recognize it. St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you see, contains language that is just familiar enough to us that we can easily read or listen to it without really paying attention. We tend to hear it through Matthew’s better-known version, where the poor are poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst do so for the sake of righteousness. But not so in Luke. In Luke they’re just poor and hungry and hated -- vagrant beggars who can’t sustain themselves, can’t provide for themselves or their families, are hard to look at, and are a drain on the system.
In short, they’re losers. And yet Jesus calls them blessed. Why? Simply because God always reserves God’s most acute attention for those in need, those left behind by the powers that be, those left out of the lavish bounty of the world’s produce. Sometimes called God’s preferential treatment of the poor, at other places epitomized by recognizing that God is always on the side of the underdog, God’s unfailing and unflagging concern for the losers of this world is etched across the pages of Scripture in letters deep and clear enough for anyone willing to read.
And in case we’re not sure, Jesus goes on (in Luke’s version, though not Matthew’s) not only to uplift the poor and hungry and those hated for his sake, but also to warn those who are rich.
This is, of course, a challenging, if not problematic verse for most of us in middle class congregations to hear. For even after a multi-year recession and nearly imperceptible recovery most of us are still far better off than the vast majority of the world’s population.
Is that part of the reason it’s hard for us to identity with the folks Jesus lifts up? Have we worked hard enough to attain a measure of security that hearing Jesus affirm what we have tried to avoid is unthinkable? Do we fail to recognize in the face of poverty near and abroad the face of our Lord, beckoning us to do with less that others may have more? Or does the idea of that kind of vulnerability -- the kind imposed, not chosen, by poverty, hunger, and persecution -- simply make us shrink back and fail to recognize our own vulnerability and need.
But no matter how hard we try, this passage -- and all of Luke’s Gospel, for that matter -- makes one thing unavoidably clear: Jesus is for losers. And the kingdom of God he proclaims is populated by losers. And unless we identify as a loser, we’re likely not going to find ourselves anywhere near it…or want to.
All this, you may be wondering, just a week after Reformation Sunday and the declaration that we are not justified by our works or status but rather by faith in Christ alone? What’s happened?
Nothing. Except that in the face of these passages and on All Saints Sunday in particular we are forced to contend with the fact that we, too, are losers. We -- and here I will particularly address those in a similar socio-economic bracket to myself -- we put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us otherwise. We dress well. We live in nice homes. We work hard to be upwardly mobile. But no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, still find it hard to love ourselves or others, still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground. We, too, are losers, and unless we recognize and confess that -- not as something to be ashamed of, mind you, but rather as one of the defining elements of our existence -- we will have a hard time receiving the mercy and forgiveness, grace and life Jesus offers.
For what is the promise of mercy to those who are not weak, forgiveness to those who have not sinned, grace to those who do not need it, or life to those not dead? It is at best meaningless and more likely downright offensive. Only, finally, can losers appreciate the blessing Jesus offers and confers.
Now, even as I say this I worry about spiritualizing the message of our Lord as recorded by St. Luke. Jesus addresses people who were not only existentially or spiritually poor and hungry but actually were suffering those conditions, and I don’t want to make light of that by identifying my condition with theirs superficially.
But knowing this risk, I still take it for two reasons. First, All Saints’ Sunday invites us to recognize and affirm our common bond and union with all Christians of all times: women and men, rich and poor, all ethnicities and races, from all times and places, joined together as one Body not because of who we are, what we have, or what we’ve done, but because in Christ God calls us holy and blessed and has set us apart to be witnesses to God’s grace and goodness.
Second, I think that only as we recognize our own existential and basic poverty of spirit might we grow less afraid of actual poverty and less attached to our own security. Only, that is, as we recognize ourselves as those losers for whom Christ died might we reach out to those the world declares losers and embrace them as brothers and sisters.
I’ll be honest, Working Preacher, I’ve worked hard enough and come far enough that I don’t much like this message. Until, that is, I can’t sleep at night for fear of the future, or struggle to make through the day with a pit in my stomach that comes from deep-seated insecurity, or look around at the world as it is and recognize with the pang of insight that it could and should be better. At those moments, my pretense falls away and I am left aware of my need, one loser and beggar uncomfortably dependent on the compassion and understanding of those around me and utterly in need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. In those moments, I am finally grateful that Jesus seeks out the lost, eats with sinners, and blesses the losers of this world.
So from one loser to another, let me thank you again for your courage to proclaim a message that is at one and the same time unsettling, hard to comprehend, and glorious beyond belief.
Yours in Christ,
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