Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints Sunday, Year C, 7 November 2010

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

From the letter of Paul to the Romans:
“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7)

From the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians:
“To the church of God that is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

From the letter to the Philippians:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and the helpers: Grace to you and peace…”(Phil. 1:1-2)

Anyone notice a theme going on here?

All these letters and many others in the Christian scriptures open with a greeting directed to “The saints who are at…” this or that place. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints, one of the principal feast days of the Church—a day that is so important that it can “take over” the Sunday following its proper date of November 1st.

All of which raises a question. What does it mean, to be a saint? Who gets the title?

As shown above, it’s a common form of address in Paul’s writing. The phrase is literally “The holy ones”, and is related to the same root word from which we get words like sanctify and sanctity. All of which point back to the original meaning, which has nothing to do with morality or a particular sort of behavior as such, but rather with being set apart. Chosen and designated for a particular purpose by God—and decidedly “different” in many cases. To be holy is to be distinctly Other-than-ordinary. Unusual. Even a bit odd. Or a lot.

The truth shall make you free, one of my professors used to say, paraphrasing the gospel of John. But first it shall make you STRANGE.

In a few moments we will sing the song of ultimate strangeness, ultimate otherness, ultimate out-of-the-ordinary. Not once, but three times: “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord, the God of hosts.” We might well rethink those words: Other! Other! Other! Not like this, not like that, not like anything we can imagine or envision. God is always and forever, More Than.

God’s chosen ones, God’s set-apart-for-a-purpose ones, God’s particular, peculiar ones: The saints.

I grew up in the evangelical Bible-belt culture of southeast Texas. The saints, insofar as I ever gave them much thought at all, were long ago and far away in Bible times, or they were a somewhat dubious devotional practice of my Roman Catholic neighbors and school friends. Kind of like Mary—who got unwrapped, along with the strings of lights and glass baubles and green scratchy garlands around the first of December—and then around the first of January disappeared again for the rest of the year. I had to discover a little more about life, and about the mystery of God active in my own life, before I could reimagine what a saint might look like.

A story is told of a Sunday School class where the teacher asked “Who is a saint?” One of the children, remembering the stained glass windows in the church, replied “A saint is a person with the light shining through them.”

A person with the light shining through them. The colored glass of the image itself may be dusty, or cracked, or flawed in all sorts of ways; but the light shines through anyway.

The second letter to Timothy says that “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary use.” (2 Tim. 2:20) Some vessels of gold or silver, or pottery or glass, or wood…all with a purpose, all with a designated use.

Who are your saints? Who have been the people in your life “through whom the light has shined?” Who have been the vessels of God’s grace and love and mercy to you, when you were in need of those gifts?

We have built a place of remembrance for those people, an All Souls altar, in the narthex of the church this morning. You have brought pictures and objects of remembrance to share those stories, and I hope that you will take time during coffee hour to tell each other about our own saints.

Many years ago, a young mother wanted to teach her children about the saints. So she began to think of some of the big names: St. Luke the physician, the writer of the Gospel; Margaret of Scotland, who built hospitals and churches and encouraged the clergy to preach better sermons; Joan of Arc, who left her farm and village and challenged the crown prince of France to drive the English soldiers out of his country. And that young mother sat down and wrote a poem about the saints. She never intended to publish that poem, or that anyone outside of her family would ever hear it. These are the words she wrote:

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true;
Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

We’ll sing those words in a few minutes. They have become one of the most beloved hymn texts in the Episcopal Church, and with good reason. Lesbia Scott wrote them to be easily understood, an explanation of the words of the Creed: “I believe…in the communion of the saints.” The words of the last verse move the singers out of the long-ago and far-away, into here and now:

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, out at sea;
In church, on the bus, at the store, on TV;
(Okay, yes, I changed those last two lines up a bit…)
For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

The saints—the holy ones, the set-apart ones who have been God’s vessels of grace and mercy—the sometimes cracked, dingy, spider-web-covered ones through whom the light has shone in spite of their flaws—are all around us. What we look for, we will see; what we seek, we will find.

And so my dears, this week look for the light shining around you. Look for the light of God in the world, even and especially in the most unlikely people and places. And when you find it, put yourself in front of it. Open up to let it shine in, and through, you.


Monday, November 1, 2010

23 Pentecost, Year C, October 31, 2010

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12;
Luke 19:1-10
Today, Salvation Has Come preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Much of my ministry so far has been some form of “talking people down out of trees.” You know what I mean? Someone will come into my office or call me on the phone and be completely in a fizz about something or another—maybe they’ve gotten really bad news that day. Or maybe they’re angry with someone else, so angry that they can’t speak to that person without yelling and ranting and raving. Maybe they’re sad and upset about a situation they can’t control or fix or influence…the reasons are infinite. I find myself with them, sitting and listening as hard as I can. Just being with them—sitting and hearing what they need to say.

Eventually the flood of words slows down to a stream…then a trickle…then finally silence. And then—only then—I look over and ask, “Would you like to come down out of the tree now?”

Nothing outwardly has changed, the situation is still whatever it was in the first place. But inwardly they have already “come down out of the tree” and are perhaps ready to get back on the road. Maybe they remembered there is something they can do, some word they can say, some gift they can bring. But in any case, they’ve discovered that they themselves have changed in the encounter, in the conversation.

Conversation—talking—and conversion—turning around—are from the same root word, which has to do with change. See the thing anew; change your mind; go in another direction; remember what you are intending and pursue it. Come down from there, get your feet on the ground again.

Zacchaeus is, literally and figuratively, up a tree this morning. He’s worked himself into quite a fizz indeed trying to see Jesus, “to see who Jesus was.” We know that Zaccheus is a chief tax collector, and that he was rich. We heard last week about another tax collector, or as I described him: Extortionist Goon. The neighbors feared him and hid their children when he passed by; he was in cahoots with the occupying Roman military and political system, he could get away with almost anything. Clearly one of the bad guys, outside all bounds of decency and acceptable social acquaintance.

And he wants to see who Jesus is. I wonder…how did he know about Jesus in the first place?

Maybe there had been a conversation. Maybe Zacchaeus overheard someone else—some of his own servants or entourage—talking about this rabbi from Nazareth who healed the sick and fed the hungry, who had a reputation for hanging out with the wrong kind of people and telling wild upside-down stories about tax collectors and Pharisees. Clearly the word had gotten around, because this crowd has gathered to meet Jesus on his way through town, and Zacchaeus can’t see what’s going on.

He could have easily gotten one of his entourage to break through the crowd for him. Sent one of the under-goons to knock some people out of the way—but he does not do that. Instead he does something altogether different, something humiliating to his own dignity, something a child would do. He runs ahead of the parade, and climbs a tree at the side of the road.

Jesus comes along, surrounded by the crowd, everyone talking at once. He looks up, and sees—and everyone else in the crowd sees as well—Zacchaeus hanging from a branch over the roadway.

I mean, really!

Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of the district, the baddest bad guy in town, hanging over the path, with his robe hitched up around his knees, hat knocked half-off to one side…they could hardly stifle the giggles, not daring to openly guffaw, but what else could you do?

And in the midst of all this commotion, Jesus stands looking up. Gazing at a man hanging from a tree, the object of laughter and derision by the crowd. He sees Zaccheus there, really sees him. He stands, not saying one single word. And when the laughter stops, he speaks so that everyone can hear.

Zacchaeus—come down ! Hurry, do not delay, for I must stay at your house today.

What did he say? He’s going to stay at HIS house? Surely not—of all people, can you imagine, I never heard of such a thing, what could he be thinking…chatter chatter chatter, pick-a-little-talk-a-little, cheep cheep cheep…

And so they arrive—Jesus, Zacchaeus and this entire entourage of people, sweeping up to Zacchaeus’ front gate. Poor Mrs. Zacchaeus, whose daily routine has just completely been thrown for a loop, looks with dismay at this enormous lunch crowd. Signaling the cook to put some more water in the soup and mentally counting the extra vessels of wine in the storeroom, she comes to greet the guests.

Zacchaeus stands there, and says to Jesus—with everyone in the crowd overhearing every word—“Look, half of everything I own, I will give away; if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

“IF I have defrauded” indeed! They all know who he is. Everyone within earshot has been affected, one way or another, by his defrauding others—the neighbors who were victimized; the members of his own household, servants and syncophants and all who benefitted from his shady doings.

It’s not just Zacchaeus’ own decision, you see. Everyone else has a stake in this too. What he does, or does not do, affects many people besides himself. Some who had been struggling and suffering will be relieved; others who have been important and well-off because of his patronage will have to adjust their own expectations. We heard this all the way back at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, in the song of Mary:

God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

The grammar of the statement is worth noting. Our translation renders it as a future action: “I WILL give back, I WILL repay four-fold.” But it’s actually not even that far in the future—it might be rendered just as rightly “Even now, see, I am giving back…I am repaying even now…” Did he take out his moneybag and start handing out funds right then and there? Can’t tell…the story doesn’t say.

Jesus approves Zacchaeus’ action, but more than that, he approves Zacchaeus. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Today salvation has come--not in some distant, future, life-after-death understanding, but now, even now, this day, this moment—the mysterious power of God arrives, to take and bless and gather and restore a broken life into something new, something it had not been before.

For the writer of Luke’s gospel, the use of possessions—wealth—the Stuff, matters enormously. As does the gathering in of those who were outsiders and strangers, the feared and mistrusted ones. Them People.

We’re on the verge of election day, as you have perhaps noticed. The ads are flying thick and fast, with seemingly little regard on either side for careful thought or conversation. The general intention is to get as many voters as possible well and truly “in a fizz, up in a tree.” One of the favorite tools toward this end is fear—fear of “them people”, whether that means out-of-touch leaders in the state house or out-of-sight strangers who want to take over and ruin everything for “US.” Whoever “US” might be imagined to include—it certainly requires someone to be “not US.” Them people, again.

Jesus confronts this notion this morning. In the presence of people on both sides—those who have been victims of an deeply unjust system, and those who have benefitted from it—he welcomes even the man who stood at the heart of it all. He tells him who he is—a son of Abraham, one of the people of God, no questions asked. And Zacchaeus, for his part, begins something new altogether. His hands and heart are open to give; in the same instant, they are open to receive.

Today salvation has come, because today he gives and shares?
Or, today he gives and shares, because today salvation has come?

Yes. Exactly. That’s just it.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.