Spooks and Goblins and Saints
Passage: Luke 6:17-31
Date: November 04, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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The lectionary reading for All Saints Day this year is the opening portion of Luke's sermon on the plain. One fourth the length of Matthew's sermon on the mount, much of its material is similar. The section begins with what we call the beatitudes; but Luke balances them with woes, warnings. Then, the last four verses, seemingly addressed to more than the disciples, present an aggressive response to being victimized. In a sense, they instruct people of faith not to fall into the victim mode, but rather to act according to the values of the God they know in Christ Jesus, a God who is generous and kind even to the ungrateful and hostile. Listen:
Spooks and goblins and saints, oh my! Not quite what Dorothy chanted in the Wizard of OZ. But, last Wednesday, they all appeared: the tiny Buzz Lightyear, the Spider men, the princesses. It is great fun: decorating the house, carving pumpkins, and wondering if I'm going to run out of candy before 8:00.
Mingled in with all of that, I've been thinking about saints this last week. The day after Halloween, Nov. 1, is All Saints Day. Saints. Presbyterians aren't much into saints. Of our 125 congregations in western and central Oregon and southwestern Washington, we have only three with saint names: Saint John's in Camas, and St. Andrew's and St. Mark in SW Portland. We have a few named for historic icons: Calvin in Tigard and John Knox in Kaiser. But that is about it. I suspect we threw out the saints when we separated from the Roman church in the 16th century. So, when we not-so-saintly people think of saints, what are our images? What comes to mind? My first picture is someone in a black robe, probably with a hood, walking very piously, hands folded-people much too serious or spiritual to enjoy life, much too controlled to be passionate. Or maybe we turn to Francis of Assisi, desperately poor and happy as a lark. Perhaps we think of Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc or Julian of Norwich, or Pope John XXIII, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu-spiritual giants, celebrities. Surely in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, it is the giants who are beatified, honored as saints. But, since we do not have them, what about us?
Recently, writer Charles Hoffacker helped me think a bit differently about saints. He says that people function as saints when they remind us of our best selves, precious beings made in God's image. That is, gently and not so gently, saints demand that we take them and their lives into account. They force us to address the challenges they represent, not so that we become what they are, but so that we become ever more what God intends for us as individuals in community. So, Hoffacker says: "When religion appears as a hobby without political consequences and spirituality becomes domesticated, the saints of every age shine as torches that provide a public light." They jar us out of our comfort zones. Just through their example, they shame our smallness and stretch us toward fuller lives of faith.
Some of us remember the church bombing in Birmingham years ago, in which several African American children were killed. Traditionally, none would have called them saints. Yet, their deaths exposed to the world, especially to us, the evil of white racism in us. Their unintentional martyrdom opened a door for us to see ourselves in God's light, and gave us a fabulous opportunity to move toward what we might become in God's grace. (Weavings, XX:I, p. 28, 30) So, we remember them on All Saints Day.
Saints do that, through gracious hospitality in the face of conflict, through extraordinary generosity in the presence of want, through powerful hope when it seems quite absent, through against-the-grain witness, through courageous quiet presence, through persistent commitment. Their witness strengthens our recognition of how God is active in quiet and not so quiet ways, mysteriously wooing this planet into life as it was intended to be.
The city of Ramallah lies a short distance north of Jerusalem. Home to the Palestinian Authority, the elected government of the West Bank, it gained international fame as the center for the PLO and Prime Minister Arafat. Two short blocks from the city center, the Society of Friends meeting house resembles an urban oasis. Its low wall surrounds a beautiful garden, and the whole place exudes peace. "You have come to hear the passion of Christ, to hear the cries of prisoners, of oppressed," began Jan Zaru, the Palestinian presiding clerk of the Friends congregation, a lay person. Outgoing, tremendously gracious, she told us that in spite of the horror in which they live, they are not pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. Rather, "we are pro-justice and pro-peace. We are called to resist injustice here non-violently." She described her situation, and a glimpse of the brutal injustice which Palestinians experience every day. She noted that 60% of Palestinians in the occupied territories live on less than $2/day. And the situation is worsening. (By the way, that is one of the reasons we do the Palestinian Craft sale next Sunday.) She observed that it is easy to demonize Palestinians, to call them terrorists, especially in Gaza. But to talk of them as terrorists or the enemy then makes it possible to justify inhumane treatment, like cutting off electricity and water. She admitted that she could leave Ramallah, but actually, she cannot. "There is something more sacred than my comfort, my life," she noted rather matter-of-factly. "God's spirit is something that sustains me. That this is wrong, I must stay and stand....To continue to be here, I have to have a spirituality that sustains me, and I find it here within this Christian community. I'm still staying, still trying to connect with Israelis, still extending hospitality to people like you. What we hope for we have to work for," she observed. "The three faiths-Judaism, Islam and Christianity-all speak of being created in God's image. It withers and dies within us if it is not exercised. The responsibility lies within us. If we do not see the breath of God in others, it means that it is withering in us." A beautiful God-inspired spirit spoke to me that instant: "If I do not see the breath of God in others, any others, it means that God's breath is withering in me." Jan would laugh at the thought of being called a saint. Yet through her, Christ was inviting us to become more than we were.
We had met him the day before, that not-quite-adolescent looking nephew of our bus driver. A woman from California asked this clean cut with-a winsome-smile youth to show her to the place where she had been born in E. Jerusalem. Since it would be 7:30 a.m., she invited me along. Ahmad arrived on time, washed and combed, a bit shy. When she pressed money into his hand as gratitude, he tried to refuse. It was a beautiful morning, with the early sun glinting off the golden dome in Jerusalem's old city. We walked around its ancient walls, and up past Notre Dame conference center, toward the city civic buildings. Much had changed since 1967 when her family fled Jerusalem, and Therese, my friend, was not sure what it would be like to see the place she hardly remembered. Skirting deserted government offices, crossing an empty plaza, we rounded the side of an old Russian Orthodox church. There it was, the place of her birth, now a low, remodeled Israeli police station and prison. Ahmad suddenly became very still. "They torture people there," the young teen whispered. "They use electricity." After taking a few surreptitious pictures, we turned back toward our hotel. We asked Ahmad what it was like to be a Palestinian teen in E. Jerusalem. He told a story about his brother, one year older. One time, some soldiers began hassling a group of kids he was with. Things escalated, and some rocks were thrown at the soldiers. All of the children and youth were arrested, and taken to that jail. Parents were not allowed to visit, even the two children who were only eight years old. They were held four days, and all were badly beaten. They appeared in the courtroom cuffed, and with bruises and cuts. His brother was released after his father paid $650. He was given 60 days house arrest, and if he were found outside his home, the fine would be $1,500. Ahmad told us that a friend of his was shot to death by Israeli soldiers at one of the many checkpoints around the city. Another teen he knows was badgered by a soldier one day, for no reason. The soldier finally hit him, and he hit back. He was taken to the jail we had seen, and was tortured with electricity. Now, unable to function, his parents care for him at home. Ahmad told us he likes to play soccer and basketball and skateboard, but he and his friends always look over their shoulders, always anxious. Ahmad attends a private school, with both Moslem and Christian students. He hopes to become a doctor. He says, "Some of my best friends are Christians. We live in a Christian neighborhood." He speaks with poise and control, with sadness, and with experience far more than a person his age should have to endure. For him, this is normal life in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. I asked him what he wants, what he hops for. He responded quietly, "I want to be left alone. I want to grow up in peace." "I study the Koran every day. I know we worship the same God." In the stillness of that early Saturday morning, I realized that I was deeply privileged. In those moments, was Ahmad a saint to Therese and me, someone in whom we saw God's grace and light? Yes, yes I believe so.
By their commitment, their generosity of spirit, saints stand in judgment on much in our societies and in our lives, on the smallness and self-centeredness of our spirits. In so many ways, they invite us to become more than we are, to embody truly passionate spirituality, God's passion. These very ordinary people insist on God's reality in this life, and God's intention for justice, for wholeness for all God's people, including ourselves. They demonstrate that the gospel is worth living for. They call us to where it is we are created to be. This day, let us pause in humble gratitude for the myriad of saints, many in this very place, the myriad of saints, past and present. We are surrounded by such a magnificent cloud of witnesses. We are so blessed. Thanks be to God. Amen.