Lectionary Commentaries for November 6, 2016
All Saints Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 6:20-31

Sarah Henrich

In this year 2016, we are experiencing, perhaps enduring is the better word, one of the surliest presidential races in years.

One of the most painful dynamics of the contest is the near daily barrage of revelations of hostility, cruelty, dismissiveness of “others:” women, Catholics, Mexicans, Asians, losers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Russians, or Syrians.

It is remarkable that we look at Jesus’ inaugural address as the Gospel text for All Saints Sunday. In Jesus’ first sermon (Luke 4:16-21, 23-28), after he had read from Isaiah, he declared that he had been anointed like the prophets before him for specific purposes: to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to prisoners; to cause the blind to see; and to proclaim a “jubilee year,” a year of favor before God.

Jesus’ understanding of his own call, vouchsafed and perhaps revealed by the overwhelming presence of the God’s Holy Spirit at every step along the way (Luke 1:35; 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18) echoes Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) as Mary combs Scripture for an understanding of what it will mean for her son to sit on the throne of David (Luke 1:32). Throne-occupying is for serving God’s purposes of shalom.

As Mary sang it, the song of God’s promise was a song of God’s faithfulness to God’s people Israel. As Jesus presents it in Luke 4, God’s promises of restoration and the creation of wholeness, God’s saving promises, are for Israel AND not-Israel. They are for all God’s people. Yet, such promises of shalom will bring adjustment, changes. And changes so often generate fear; watch Jesus’ fellow villagers react with violence to the changes he promises.

By the time we get to Luke 6:20-31, Jesus has chosen his cabinet (if you will forgive the political analogy), demonstrated God’s commitment to healing, and has begun to gather a reputation that brings folks to him in droves. Like Moses who was Jesus’ forebear in closeness to God, in faith and leadership, Jesus has both gone up the mountain and then come down to deliver a clear statement of God’s will for the people. Jesus describes how the world will look as the world and all God’s creatures are brought around to belong fully to God. It is a moment of faithful imagination of God’s worldwide shalom which has come near in Jesus himself (Exodus 32:15; 34:29).

Luke has skillfully brought us step-by-step to a place where we must take these words of the Jesus’ sermon on the plain with utter seriousness. These are words that describe for Jesus’ followers a different world, a politeuma from heaven, as Paul describes it (Philippians 3:20).

There is, then, a kind of divide between the blessed and the woeful. It is, however, precisely NOT the divide that our world would create between winners and losers, successful and unsuccessful, elites and non-elites. The blessed are those who have caught at least a glimpse of God’s future and trust that it is for them. The blessed may be poor or needy, even weeping in life by the standards we humans have in our very bones, but they are blessed in both trust in God and in God’s future, in their hope of justice. The woeful are those who have forgotten that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The woeful are those who say “yes” to the title question of an old song, “Is that all there is?”

Luke’s text uses direct address (with a plural and perhaps corporate “you”) and doesn’t mince words about being poor, hungry, grief-stricken, and the like. We do not have to work very hard to imagine the lives of 1st century Palestinian Jews as very susceptible to poverty, hunger, and loss. Nor do we have to work very hard to imagine the lives of many of our 21st century sisters and brothers equally beset by harsh realities. As those in need were all around Jesus, having come for both hope and healing, so they continue to need both in our own age.

We come to the real question for ourselves: what does this text heard on All Saints Sunday offer to us? Remembrance, love, and honor for our forebears? Yes, indeed. We are called to remember saints who have gathered around Jesus in every time and place, people with needs and hopes, people who caught at least a glimpse of a world more fully God-shaped than the one they lived in.

We come from a people and from individual persons to whom we owe much of who we are and much of who we long to be. Our history and our imagination of God’s reign look back to the promises of God as Jesus spoke them on a Plain long ago. Our history and imagination look back to our more recent forebears who carried the faith, who taught it to us. These folk gone before remain vital in the great communion of God’s people we celebrate at All Saints.

There is more for us, though, much more. This text points always ahead into God’s coming future, the fullness of which we seek to know. It is for all the saints who gather now to be reminded that the hope of the world is not for the same old thing to continue, not for all of us to become the elites, never to worry about illness or loss. The hope for God’s world is that we lean into God’s future together. Jesus delivers this sermon not as an eschatological guide book, but as a guide for daily life right now — for all the saints.

The message that Jesus brings and is, is a tough one for us humans. It calls for change of vision, change of behavior, change in our very bones. Resistance to and fear of change surely is one of the main drivers in the political world in the autumn of 2016. Fear of how the needy will deprive us of that for which we have worked so hard builds psychological walls between us and them: such fear is symbolized by the yearning to create a physical wall as well.

So many of us yearn to build perfect walls of rigorous vetting for would-be immigrants. We would create various economic strictures that will wall in our profits and protect jobs. There is a clear need in all this for a sense of safety and hope, but the means to such shalom are of this world and must fail. Seeking to protect ourselves and keep what is” ours” will fail: so Jesus warns us in this passage.

In a recent essay Willie James Jennings, reminds us that elections are about our imagination. He calls upon Americans and especially Christians to “claim the power of life together precisely at the site of threat and fear.” This we can do, Jennings insists, because an election is an opportunity to re-imagine a world and seek to set the stage for the world we imagine.

Political elections are about our imagination. They are less about our real life in the world and much more about our perception of our life in the world. In a democracy, they provide astounding moments of creativity that get used in ways both breathtaking and disturbing.1

Jesus is not talking about political elections, of course. He is talking about an astounding time of creativity, both breathtaking and disturbing in the world he occupies with those first century folks, a time of change that draws people to him and terrifies others. Our Christian perception of life in God’s world hews close to Jesus’ words that constitute the inauguration of his dangerous ministry of vision and purpose.

As the saints of the past have glimpsed this truth of life in God’s world and handed it on to us, so we glimpse that same truth and our calling into God’s world, perceiving all people as God’s people. Free to acknowledge that our lives and our needs, our safety and shalom are in God’s hands, we dare to imagine and engage the world in God’s name. Thanks be to God.


 Notes:

1 Willie James Jennings, “Aiming the World Toward Hope,” in Reflections Fall 2016, 11-12.


First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Fred Gaiser

Daniel Chapter 7: four great beasts, resembling a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and a ten-horned and iron-toothed monster.1

No wonder Daniel says, “My spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me.” Who wouldn’t react similarly? What are these creatures, and what are they doing in the Bible?

Well, this is apocalyptic literature, of course. But, then, what is it doing in the Bible? Your teens and young adults may understand if you compare biblical apocalyptic to graphic novels like, perhaps, the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and similar literary expressions of fantasy and science fiction. These books give writers and illustrators free reign to exercise their imagination, sometimes about worlds of demons and evildoers that resemble very much the depictions of the beasts here in Daniel 7. Younger hearers — and their parents! — might understand if you compare these beastly characters to the Death Eaters, Dementors, and other creepy characters in the Harry Potter series.

You will need to help people understand that the comparison is about the genre or literary form of the texts, not about whether they are true or untrue. Just as Jesus can use parables for teaching and truth telling (which are, of course, technically fiction), the Bible can use the fantastic images of apocalyptic to proclaim God’s ultimate victory over evil — and, for Daniel, the coming demise of the Greek tyrant Antiochus Ephiphanes — without thereby requiring or endorsing a vision of this world (or the next) that literally follows the script of these passages.

Writers and graphic illustrators have an “unlimited special-effects budget” (Gaiman)2 to tell the stories they see in their heads — so did the book of Daniel. One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy. The latter genre will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.

But it is not the final point. The final point is that in the midst of this highly troubled and dangerous world, God is present, a God more powerful than all the beasts — a God who loves and nourishes rather than hates and devours. It is in this God we are given hope and meaning, life and salvation “forever and ever,” as the text announces.

What are our devouring beasts? Preachers might want to name these for their particular contexts, recognizing, of course, that such spiritualization of the text moves beyond its historical sense. But since its historical sense names it as “a dream and visions,” flights of homiletical fancy seem particularly warranted. What is it that plagues the people in the time and place of your sermon?

For Daniel, most interpreters agree, the beasts represented the powerful kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, and the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, which had, consecutively, dominated and then literally subjected Israel for some five centuries by the time the book was written. So, what holds us captive? For a more dangerous sermon, you could explore what does it mean that many in the world today, rightly or wrongly, would describe the American “empire” in similar beastly language — even as we sometimes demonize, say, the Islamic world for the attacks of some who claim to represent it? What will Christians do in the face of all this?

Astonishingly, the text omits (as I would not) verses 13-14 that describe the figure that comes after the terrifying beasts, the vision of “one like a human being” (“son of man” in the Aramaic original). These seem to be the heart of the chapter, and we could almost stop with the mere arrival of this person and be comforted already. To see a human figure “coming with the clouds of heaven” is itself a relief, following all those monsters.

Interpreters disagree about whether this figure is meant to be an angel, Israel, the messiah, or someone else, but the key, I think, is that it is human. God deals with us and saves us, even in the midst of beastly terrors, through human means, in human form. Because of this, the New Testament is able to use this passage from Daniel to describe Jesus as the “Son of Man coming in clouds” at the end of time (Mark 13:26; 14:62).

But we do not need to wait until the end of time to “possess the kingdom forever,” as Daniel 7:18 promises. The last line of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” gets it right: “The kingdom’s ours forever” — already — because of the victory over all the beastly powers, including sin, death, and the devil, won by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The interplay between Luther’s hymn and the Lord’s Prayer is intriguing: “The kingdom’s ours,” wrote Luther; “Thine is the kingdom,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Exactly right: the kingdom’s “ours” only because it is “thine” (God’s). The kingdom (this world, the world to come, all that is) belongs to God, not to the beasts and demons. And a gracious God freely gives it to all God’s children. This is what makes us all together the “saints” of God that today’s festival observes, sharing that status with all past, present, and future believers who have been rescued from their personal and cosmic beasts and brought by Jesus into the loving arms of a gracious God.

Given the hope and strength of that safe home, we need not wait either for the end of time to confront the beasts of this world — again, whether personal, political, or mythic. The “Son of Man,” who comes to face down the powers of the world in Daniel, will finally be seen in the Gospels to be our Lord Jesus, but the title applies often in the Bible to all of us — sons of men, daughters of women, human persons, saved and set free by God to make a difference in the world now. That seems to be what “saints” are for.


Notes:

1 This commentary was originally published on the site on November 7, 2010.

2 See the interview online here.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 149

Paul O. Myhre

What is it that gives rise to the formation of a song?

At a fundamental level a song is simply a set of notes strung together in a specific rhythm and melody. A song can be sung acapella (without accompaniment) or with instrumental support. Yet, what is it that causes someone to create a song? What is the stirring in the human spirit that midwife’s a song into the world of the living?

Contemporary songwriters talk about the habitus of songwriting in a host of ways. They speak of it as a muse that whispers to their spirit to bring melody, rhythm, and lyrics forth to live in the light of day and dance in the moonlight. In the book Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo, the author quotes Leonard Cohen, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.”1 Anything that one experiences can give rise to a song. Injustice in any form will cause songs to be written and sung to address the injustice and call for justice to reign. Patriotic fervor can lift a song from the dust into the hearts of those struck by national emotions and convictions. Emotions can stir songwriters to write about the full range of them and zero in on specific ones to speak truth to experience.

The Psalms in some ways can be regarded as songs that were sung by the people of God or to the people of God. They served as a means of reaffirming, reigniting, regenerating, and renewing not only allegiance to God, but also as a way to speak aloud specific convictions about who God is and emotions about how one was in relationship to that God. The songs or psalms were centered on the reality of the living God who existed in the midst of the people and who had aided them from the beginning to be able to move through the trials of life with a degree of strength and hope.

Psalm 149 tends to run in two directions down the same mountain. The song starts on a lofty summit with an invocation to praise the Lord and sing a new song. From there the psalm splits into two streams that intersect each other in a braided dance that courses down the mountain until they eventually come together again at the mountain’s base to flow together once more. In one stream, the brook calls for singing a new song, praising God for being creator and king, praising God with bodily movements and musical instruments – dancing, timbrel, and harp. In the other stream, there is a roaring cascade that speaks about violence or righteous vengeance presumably against injustice wrought by unnamed nations, people, kings, and nobles who have somehow caused the people of God to be harmed in some way. It is a dangerous stream that can be used to justify dangerous and violent actions.

Both streams touch the source from which they were born. They sing of a God who is involved with everything from start to finish. The streams course down well-worn valleys of human experience toward a plain where the water flows together in a meandering caress of the land that falls beneath its weight. Each verse bends and moves as it travels toward the ocean and by which these poetically infused waters will again rise to fall as snow on the mountain so that the cycle might be repeated once more. Joy for the people of God and the wrath of God for those who oppose God flow together. Joy rises from creation as it sings songs of praise for existence and invites a new song to be sung.

Psalm 149 can be a difficult psalm for contemporary readers. Some commentators assert that these verses breathe an air of privileging certain people over other people. For them this psalm strongly suggests that the people of God are more favored by God over all others and those who are not among them as insiders are regarded as recipients of God’s vengeance. In these nine verses the people of God are regarded as the people of Israel who are chosen by God. They are the ones separated out from the rest to obtain a special place in the order of things. There is a marked dualism between insiders and outsiders.

But what might this psalm say to those interested in interreligious and interfaith dialogue? On one level the psalm is problematic for anyone who lives outside of a special relationship with God. Yet it seems there is a way forward by which there could be resonance across religious and faith traditions. The psalm offers a word of hope and encouragement. Those who refrain from engaging in oppression, seek justice, and strive to live lives that honor the God who created the world and the human beings who populate it share something in common.

Praising God for the ability to breathe, eat, sleep, love, weep, worship, and so on can be understood as a commonly shared possibility. The capacity to reflect on shared values and hopes can give rise to a new song. The desire and will to engage in actions to do that which strives for justice in all arenas of life and the cessation of all that would denude or diminish God’s creation is something that the people of the planet earth might share in common. In that common bond there seems to be a shared capacity for crafting a new song that might be brought forth. It could be a melody that sweeps across dividing lines to bring once divided rivers into a braided dance together that flows toward that which brings flourishing in all of its dimensions.

Psalm 149 can be read as a poetic justification for the rending of relationships and self-justification for singing songs of praise to God for special treatment. It can also be read as a poetic flourish to stretch the hearers imaginations about what praise entails and how one might join a song already being sung by the created order as it lifts sonnets of praise for existence. Praise flows from recognizing the activity of the living God and to delight in the presence of God.


Notes:

1 Songwriters on Songwriting. Paul Zollo. Da Capo Press Edition. 1997.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

Sammy Alfaro

A quick overview of the letter to the Ephesians reveals an overarching focus on the church: the saints who are the body of Christ.

. From the opening greeting identifying the addressees as the saints (Ephesians 1:1-2) and the lofty opening sentences outlining the rich spiritual blessings the saints have in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-10), the letter seeks to inform its readership of the purpose for life, the promises of a new life, and the power for living believers have in Christ. Having been chosen and adopted in the Elect (1:4-5), believers now share in the privileges (chapters 1-3) and responsibilities (chapters 4-6) they have on account of being spiritually positioned in the heavenly places in Christ (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12). In light of this heavenly foothold in Christ, and despite their earthly reality, the saints are reminded their inheritance has a purpose (1:11-12) and a seal of promise (1:13-14), and it rests in the power of Christ (1:15-23).

At a time when our country is facing division in light of the presidential elections and when the world increasingly lives in fear of terrorist threat, we are exhorted that our inheritance ultimately resides in Christ who has called us with a purpose (Ephesians 1:11). And, yet, God’s divine purpose for us who are saints comes with a charge to “live for the praise of his glory” (1:12, New Revised Standard Version). Although our life is hidden in Christ in the heavenly places, as saints we are called to live in this earthly habitat with the purpose of giving him praise! But, instead of thinking of this phrase merely in terms of a call to liturgical praise or a passive internal holiness, throughout this letter the Apostle Paul has in mind a life of love and unity (4:1-3): a Christ-like life of love lived for others (5:1:2). More than ever as the church, we need to strive to live as agents of reconciliation in a world filled with hate and division.

As daunting as this task might seem for us who are called to be saints, we are also reminded that this calling is an accomplishable mission because we “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:14). This seal of the Spirit upon the life of believers, however, should not be seen merely in terms of a marked for future delivery stamp. If Christians have been sealed from the moment of conversion, it is not to be shelved away in a storage unit until their eschatological pick-up date. This is why in the letter to the Ephesians, as well as in other epistles of the Pauline corpus, the Christian life is represented in pneumatological terms as living in the Spirit (Romans 8:4-6; Galatians 5:16; 22-25; Ephesians 5:18). In the interim period as we await our redemption, the Spirit guides us to produce fruits of justice and righteousness, which are the marks of a true Christian. It is the Spirit’s work in the believer, which marks them as “God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14).

Shifting toward testimony and intercession on behalf of the Ephesians, the rest of the chapter praises them and lifts a prayer for their continuance in the hope of their calling. In Paul’s mind, what makes this group of believers stand out is their faith in Jesus demonstrated by their love for all the saints (Ephesians 1:15). Indeed, the two actions go hand in hand. Linking these two verbs in a manner reminiscent of James and John the Beloved’s teachings, Paul hints love is only genuine when it is accompanied by loving actions for others. In light of this, Paul prays for God to continue giving them wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17) so that they may truly come to know their hope and inheritance (verse 18). Reflecting on this, Paul is moved by wonder over God’s great power to save (verse 19) ending his prayer in a doxology, which centers on Christ’s place at the Father’s right hand (verse 20), his authority (verse 21), and relationship to the church (verses 22-23).

In the power hungry world we live in, Christ’s use and reach of his great power and authority serves as an example for the church. Although his power by far exceeds “all rule and authority and power and dominion” and his authority extends “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21), the purpose of his great power is not self-serving. Christ’s cosmic Lordship over all is not a reference to complete dominance, but rather a position of authority in the service of others. Christ has been “appointed head over all things for the church” (verse 22) indicating His great power serves the best interests of the church, which is his body. This foreshadows how later Christ’s headship over the church will be described as the love between a husband and his bride (Ephesians 5:22-33). Last, being filled by his fullness (for example his presence) the church as the body of Christ comes to participate in his position and power (verse 23). For a community in search of new identity, the Ephesian church is reminded that their place in the heavenly places ultimately rests in the power of Christ, and not their own.

Today as we remember the saints who have lived and hear the challenge to live like saints, the words of the Apostles’ Creed ring true: we believe “in the communion of the saints.” As the church of Christ, we have a purpose in this world to live for others with Christ-like love. As Christ’s bride, we have a seal of promise to be reunited with the saints of old in Christ’s eschatological reign. As the body of Christ, we are called to seek the establishment of his reign having entered it collectively through his presence in us. May God help us follow the example of Christ, modeled by the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), as we strive to live in unity and love through the power of the Spirit.