Lectionary Commentaries for November 7, 2010
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 6:20-31

David Tiede

Saints are “holy ones” (Greek: hagioi), the “blessed of God” (Greek: makarioi: Luke 6:20-22). But who are they really?

Most traditions have their spiritual icons and martyrs, and reverence is paid to many larger-than-life heroes, even those who were emphatically not “holy ones.” For centuries after his death, the followers of Epicurus gathered for a feast on his birthday, celebrating the simple joys of living and protesting the oppression of all official forms of religion. And what about the hordes filing past Elvis’ grave at Graceland on the anniversary of his death? Or the outpouring at Michael Jackson’s funeral? Popular icons carry emotional meanings. When speaking of the departed, Working Preachers will be wise to avoid arguments about who isn’t “blessed of God.”

It is probably also imprudent to invest energy critiquing the official lists of the saints. The Roman Catholic Church has long exercised legal diligence in who meets their canonical standards for sainthood. Although their list is somewhat institutionally self-serving, who would argue with placing Mother Theresa on the fast track for canonization? On the other hand, non-Roman traditions will protest some worship practices of “saints days” and calling on the saints for intercession or benefits. More significantly, has an ecclesiastical election process presumed to identify who God includes and excludes as the blessed and holy ones?

In the Gospel reading from Luke 6 for All Saints Day, Jesus identifies the blessed in stunning particularity.  Jesus’ words stand at the beginning of his “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew (5:1-7:29) and his “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke (6:17-49). Luke’s version of the address is briefer, more sharply stated, marked by contrasts between “you” who are blessed and “you” who are judged. In Luke, Jesus spoke directly to his followers. Matthew’s version is preferred for its poetic elegance. In Luke’s account, this is Jesus’ second major policy statement of his reign (see also Luke 4:14-30) in the force of prophetic address.

Jesus’ direct speech is disquieting, compelling the listener to ask, “Who me?” Jesus focuses first on his disciples (6:20) within “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17). With the crowds, we overhear his words, wondering if he means it only for the twelve. Then we find ourselves specifically included in verse 27 among “you that listen.” Jesus is not delivering an abstract definition of discipleship or sainthood. He is not listing the qualifications to “get into heaven.” He is calling all to hear to become faithful and effective agents of God’s reign here and now.

The problem for the hearer is not that Jesus’ words are hard to understand but that their clear meaning is so challenging. The “rules of engagement” of Jesus’ reign stand in sharp contrast to the presumed rights of the prosperous to wealth, abundant food, and good times, “because I earned it!” In their practice of non-violence, Tolstoy, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. enacted Jesus’ words as a social critique and strategy for change. Ghandi admired Jesus, but when asked his opinion of Christianity, he reportedly said, “Oh, it would be wonderful!” In hearing Jesus’ words, rich and poor alike glimpse a realm at odds with the way things are.

All Saints Day is a witness to God’s way of blessing the world, not simply reinforcing the entitlement of the privileged to the way things are, but revealing God’s justice fulfilled in mercy.  As in his kingdom prayer (Luke 11:2-4; Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus brought God’s way of ruling the world down to earth and invited his disciples into this holy venture. This is not an ideological agenda or a political platform, but a vision of God’s reign which he embodied. Jesus knew that people are possessed by their possessions. He lamented “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But he also concluded that “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:24, 27).

That is the first miracle of All Saints Day! As the people of God pray in thanksgiving for the saints or light candles in remembrance of those who have died, Jesus has shown how his reign works. It’s not about how a few achieved perfection as the “holy ones” who are “blessed of God.” When we die, the prayer is the same for the most pious and those regarded as rascals, including us. Trusting in God’s love in Jesus Christ, we are all commended to God as “lambs of your own flock and sinners of your own redeeming.”

Biblical realism about sinners who are saints means no one needs to pretend perfection. Jesus knew his disciples were about to get it wrong by putting themselves in the way, and God knows that we mere mortals all have the same predicament. But as we remember the saints who have gone, our thanksgiving is also aware sometimes they got it right and the living Christ was at work in them. Through Christ, and that is the miracle, God’s reign of mercy showed through their lives. It is also true that those with little claim to privilege have often blessed us and the world with their Christ-like kindness. The car that stopped to help us when we broke down was not a fancy model, but the old heap driven by a rough looking character. She is gone now, and we thank God for how holy mercy shone through her just when we needed it.

Make sure your observance of All Saints Day celebrates the times when ordinary sinners conveyed God’s holy love to you and to the world, probably in unexpected times and places. The first miracle of All Saints Day is about God whose holy reign is still at work in the lives of the likes of us.

And the second miracle of All Saints Day is about us and how our lives are transformed. We forgiven sinners are called and sent to be ordinary saints in God’s world, enacting God’s love and justice.!” “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The saints, “the holy ones” who are “beloved of God” are, by God’s grace, mere mortals like us. The old Anglican children’s hymn has it right: “I sing a song of the saints of God … and I want to be one too.” Indeed, by the Spirit of the living Christ, we get to be saints too!

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.

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)1 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.

1See the interview online here.


Commentary on Psalm 149

Hans Wiersma

This is a great psalm to preach on when you want to exhort your flock to (a) give praise to the Lord, (b) to sing a new song, and/or (c) to take up the sword in order to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment upon the peoples.

In regard to that third option, there will likely not be too much interest on the part of preachers–especially the more pacifistic ones. However, the first two options are not bad, even for the All Saints feast.

The exhortation to “Sing to the Lord a new song” kicks off three of the 150 Psalms. Psalm 96:1 clarifies that the “whole earth” is exhorted to sing a new song. Psalm 98:1 states the reason why a new song is to be sung: because the Lord “has done marvelous things.” While here in Psalm 146, it is the locale of the new song that receives initial emphasis: “in the assembly of the faithful.” On All Saints Day–the feast that gives “The Communion of Saints” it is due–it is good to draw attention to the new song being sung by the full “assembly of the faithful.”

The book of Revelation envisions the full company of Christian faithful singing a number of new songs, including: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This new song is sung by “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white” (Revelations 7:9, 10). Image that. All Christians — no matter their race, class, or culture; no matter the language, worship style, or music preference — united in one voice, one verse, one lyric. All the conflicts and controversies, divisions and denominations are a thing of the past. That would be a new song indeed.

The exhortation to “sing to the Lord a new song” appears in one other place in scripture, this time in the book of Isaiah. Here’s the passage (Isaiah 42:8-10):

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.

Isaiah 42 begins with the introduction of an anointed servant: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Christians have long understood these words in light of Christ Jesus. In Jesus, the Lord God has indeed done — and continues to do — new things: finding the lost, redeeming the worthless, forgiving the sinner, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the bound, raising the dead. Such new things deserve a new song. That is why, on All Saints Day, it is good for all of the saints to be exhorted to sing to the Lord a new song. Praise the Lord.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

Sally A. Brown

The final phrases of a Jewish-styled opening berakah prayer of blessing join in this text to a Christocentric thanksgiving in “prayer report” form.

The writer (likely not Paul, but someone greatly influenced by him) does not list, as we might, the addressees’ troubles, promising prayer. Instead, he lets these humble believers know who they truly are by celebrating the ongoing, world-changing redemptive action of God in which they are caught up. Scholars debate whether verses 20-23 include fragments of an early Christian hymn; but hymnic or not, these exultant lines heap one upon the next like breakers rolling ashore.

Two stories nest one inside the other in these verses. The “big” story, couched in the lyric prose of verses 17 through 23, unfolds like a grand-scale landscape. Active verbs convey what God has done for Christ and through Christ, raised and reigning. This divine story surrounds and sustains a human story that turns on two pronouns, “we” (referring to the first, Jewish believers) and “you” (the new Gentile siblings in the faith family). Repeated references to “hope,” “inheritance,” and “glory” connect divine action and Christian experience.

Several homiletical clues are worth noting.

First, the structure of Ephesians as a whole reminds us of a principle my preaching students hear constantly: “Indicative before imperative!” What this means, of course, is the paraenetic material in the New Testament, frequently expressed in imperatives, depends theologically upon material expressed in the indicative mood. Indicative statements declare what is (now) the case. Our Christian experience, difficult though it may sometimes be, is “reframed” within God’s already-established future embodied in the risen Jesus Christ.

Although the prayer report includes a petition that “God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation … so that … you may know … the hope … his glorious inheritance [and] … his great power,” this is not a homiletical prompt to scold the congregation for failing to recognize and use its gifts. An approach in line with the text will motivate the congregation by giving thanks for them. Congregations hear far too little about what they are getting right. We can help them sense how God’s future rushes forward, even now, to meet us, reclaiming and realigning every present joy or sorrow, failure or achievement, within God’s glorious intent.

Second, the question of power informs this text. The Christians of Asia Minor felt vulnerable. They constituted a religious minority in their towns–probably not dissimilar to the status of Muslim worshipers in many North American settings. They worshiped and behaved differently. Rumors circulated they were a simmering threat to the stability of culture and state since they claimed as their ultimate Lord not Caesar, but one Jesus Christ, crucified at the hands of Rome but (so they claimed) raised to life by God. Christians were shunned and sometimes persecuted.

The question, “Who really has the power in this world?” remains a live one for Christians today. As I write, the disastrous oil well leak in the Gulf continues spewing life-threatening crude up from the ocean floor unabated. The “powers that be” fumble. Whether it is a matter of lack of will or lack of skill is hotly debated. Meanwhile, fishermen’s livelihoods are in ruin, and many predict the coastline will not recover for a dozen years or more. Amid waste and tragedy, who, indeed, has the power?

The Ephesians writer answers that human struggle in all its strutting power and stumbling failure plays out within a vast landscape lit by the eschatological hope of God’s future. The reign of Christ is not a future “maybe” but already begun. The realized eschatology of Ephesians declares Christ reigns not “when” all enemies are put under his feet, but “until” the day when all creation acknowledges his rule. God works, and Christ reigns even now; our part is to discern how we are summoned to participate.

Making too much of the four Greek words for “power” in verses 19 and 20 would be a homiletical misstep, however; these terms carry different shades of meaning, but the intent is rhetorical. A preacher too focused on parsing fine the differences may not reap a sufficient theological harvest to sustain a hungry crowd.

A sermon might explore what it looks like on individual, ecclesial, and social planes to live the present moment as one already claimed by God’s future. Here, concrete examples and stories will be essential. It can be all too easy in a text of such grand theological proportions to produce a sermon that deals in impressive but remote abstractions. A helpful sermon will interface the sweeping divine landscape this text paints with features of local geography. The preacher must ask, “What difference do these profound theological claims make in the lives of Jane, Ralph, and Melanie?” (or whomever comes to mind as she mentally scans the pews and community). The point for us, as for the Ephesians writer, is the difference this makes in our present struggle to live faithfully.

The preacher may, in fact, choose to “reframe” a particular challenge facing the congregation within the text’s vision of “what is really going on.” Some particular situation may leave the congregation feeling impotent and overwhelmed, their lives determined by forces beyond their control. A plant closing may have cost lost jobs and homes and a drastically reduced church budget. Natural disaster may be impacting the congregation and community profoundly; or it may simply be that a confluence of forces has led to dwindling church membership and flagging zeal for ministries long central to congregational life. Such a congregation needs help reframe their experience within God’s future in the making. Congregational ministry, however modest its scale, is active participation in all God is doing, here and now, to defy the destructive forces of death and dissolution until all things shall be made new.