This is the blog of the Rev. Rock Higgins: I am the Episcopal Priest to the Center of the Universe. Really. This blog goes from my ordination to the present. Sins of omission and commission are fully my own, and I am leaning on the Grace-upon-Grace in my following of Christ. I serve as the Rector of St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, VA, also known as the Center of the Universe (CotU) to the locals.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Year A All Saints 2017 The Story of Now
Year A All Saints Observed 5 November 2017
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“The Story of Now”
Collect: Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
I John 3:1-3
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
We shape our reality by the stories we tell ourselves. It really is as simple as the glass is half full or the glass is half empty. Now situations and brain chemistry may get in the way of that at times in all our lives, but the reality of our perception is mostly in what we choose to see and what we choose to let go of. Whose story are we going to tell ourselves when it is all said and done?
There is a whole genre of videos on YouTube which are nothing but trailers of movies redone to make them into entirely different tellings of old stories. Jaws becomes a Disney family musical, or The Terminator as a chick flick, or The Shining as a rom-com. Our perception shapes our reality.
I have seen it when people in long term intensive care say that they were gonna get outta that bed and eat a steak. And I have seen people who doctors cannot find anything wrong with say that their time is up, and it suddenly is. We are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. As you have heard me mention before, my first week with you in fact, if we look for the good we give people the benefit of the doubt. If we look for the bad, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, even Casey, mighty Casey, eventually strikes out.
No matter the story, it is how we tell it that creates our understanding. And the stories we tell on All Saints Day says a lot of how we see: the world, ourselves, and what comes after.
All Saints Day reminds us to think not of this world as all there is. We are not talking about “pie in the sky by and by.” But it is a reminder that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. We tend to put the cart before the horse. This plain of existence is our training ground for heaven. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a poem by William Blake, artist and mystic: “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” All Saints tells us that “What we do here today, echoes through eternity.” to quote General Maximus from Gladiator. This world is not our home, and “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in” God. We are tied, along with those that have come before and all those that will come hereafter in the “Great Cloud of Witnesses.” All Saints reminds us of all this.
And like the nature of reality, All Saints reminds us that we are not Saints becoming, we are the Children of God NOW, as the I John passage said. We are the Saints of God. How does that make us act? How does that change the choices we make? It is here and now, not there and then. It is not One Day, it is ToDay.
I used to work at a store in the mall during seminary, the Warner Bros. store where we could fulfill all your Bugs Bunny needs. And one of the tasks, especially during the holidays was to be the Greeter, the person who stands at the front and says Hello and Welcome! One of my managers asked if minded getting stationed up there. I said, “No, happy to do it.” And she said good, and thanked me, and then she said. “You are good at it because you can pretend you actually like people.” And therein lies the difference. My story is I like people, and in my naivete believe other people do as well. And my manager did not, and she assumed the same of me which is why I impressed her doing what I naturally do. All Saints urges us to see each other, ALL OTHERS, as Children of God, and for me, even if they are despicable and maybe hard to love, they could be Saints Becoming. (They just may have longer to go.)
And lastly, All Saints tells us to see what is to come as not something of which we need to be afraid, but another step in our walk with God. Peter and Captain Hook were fighting (in Spielberg’s morality play Hook):
Captain James Hook: Prepare to die, Peter Pan! Peter: To die would be a grand adventure!
Mean old Hook! But think about it, it is the only thing EVERYONE in this room has in common, we are all going to one day “drop this mortal coil.” If you have ever seen still lifes from the Middle Ages, or portraits of Philosophers sitting at their desks, often there will be a skull. It is not to be morbid, in a creepy way, but the memento mori was just that, to be a reminder that our time on earth to do good is limited so we are to seize the day. Not out of fear, but out of the joie de vivre. “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.”
All Saints Day, if we can listen to the stories from I John and the Revelation, we can hear a different way to see the stories that we have been told. Death need not be a fear for us. I John urges us to claim our identity. Instead of being less than others, we are heirs of God’s reward. In Revelation, the ones who suffered the great trial, are the very same ones who are lifted up as the righteous. They may be losers by the world’s standards, nobodies persecuted and crushed under the might of the Empire, but they are the ones God points to as the ideal. The very Saints of God.
Probably the greatest “story” rethink that I am going to toss at you today is how Jesus retells the story of who is blessed in the passage we call the Beatitudes. And this is where SO MANY PEOPLE, in my opinion, have gotten bad theology over the years.
The Beatitudes are not a checklist for holiness. GOD DOES NOT WANT US MISERABLE. And God does not want us to FAKE HAPPINESS. The Beatitudes were Jesus’ way of telling us who can be counted amongst “The Blesseds.”
In Jesus’ day, The Blesseds were seen as the rich, the powerful, and they were seen as being rewarded for GOOD BEHAVIOR. We still have this heresy floating around today in Prosperity Theology often touted by TV preachers. It is an easy and fast way to fill a church, and one’s own pockets. God wants you rich, happy, and comfortable. In fact, what Jesus is saying here reframes the story of rich=blessed in the most stark of ways.
Who wants to be poor in spirit, or to mourn? Or to be called meek, much less be that? Who wants to be persecuted or reviled? NOBODY. Nobody would sign on for these, so how could they be a “holiness checklist?” So what is Jesus saying here?
I believe he is saying (and again I point people to Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracythat really shaped my thinking on this), God meets us wherever we are and whatever we are going through, and even there, even in our own pit of hell (whether of our own making or not) and God can and will meet us there. And he not only meets us, he blesses us. Jesus did not say, you could be blessed, he says that we are. He is reframing our reality, and telling us a story of how God sees us and how we can and should see God. And the word for this reframing is Grace. [Come down out of pulpit]
Picture Jesus on that mountain top, and looking down it is filled with people. He sees them, he loves them. And he starts the Sermon on the Mount by walking among them and redefining reality… the poor in spirit… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake… you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” You. Have you ever noticed You are on that list? And it is the very time when the world is crashing on your head.
People who are doing good things, and people who are at the end of their rope. They are all invited in, and they are all welcome. And they are all BLESSED. This is a radical theology of inconceivable Grace. This story goes against everything that the Pharisees and other teachers of the Law were talking about. They were talking about what it took to receive God’s favor. And they were so busy looking, they missed that they already had it.
A study was done on the psychology of the classroom, and in it teachers were told at the beginning of the school year that one of their class was a genius, a child prodigy of unbelievable potential, but that who could not be shared. So the teachers were on pins and needles trying to figure out which amongst their group was so special. And what the study found was that by treating the class as if it had someone special the entire class’s test scores went up. The story the teacher told themselves is they had to treat every child as a genius, just in case. And every child did better because of it.
Now how would your world be different if everyone you saw, and every stranger you met, was a beloved Child of God? And all of us were Saints Becoming? How would this world be a better place? How would it change how we act towards one another? How would the whole be changed? [Singing] And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love...
Jesus declaring anyone amongst the Blessed is a radical departure back then and now. It is rethinking the story. What seems to be apparent is being turned upside down. We are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, and that is what makes all the difference.
Jesus is telling the story this way. It is not “You are blessed, if…”
And Jesus is not saying, “You are blessed, because…”
Jesus says “You are blessed. Period.”
You are the Children of God, NOW. And that is the Good News. What story are you telling yourself when you see others? What story are you telling yourself when you look in that mirror we blessed last week?
All Saints reminds us of who we are, and whose we are. So be blessed beloved Saints of God. Amen.