This sermon was preached on All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, All Saints: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
[Note: The Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament reading for All Saints in Year C is an edited pericope; I had the reader at Mass read the entire thing, verses 1 through 18.]
Today is the first Sunday in November which means that instead of the normal sequence of lessons for Ordinary Time, we are given the option of reading the lessons for All Saints Day, which falls every year on November 1. So today we heard a very strange reading from the Book of Daniel, a to-my-ear very troubling gradual psalm (in which we sing of wreaking vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, of binding king in chains, and of inflicting judgment on the nobles bound in iron), a bit of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus extolling the riches of the inheritance of the saints, and to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in which Jesus not only blesses the poor, the hungry, and the weeping, he sighs woefully over the future plight people like ourselves – the comparatively wealthy, those whose bellies are full, and those in relatively good state of mind.
I asked our Old Testament reader this morning to read a somewhat longer lesson from Daniel than you find in your bulletin insert because the edited (or, more accurately, gutted) version there (which are the verses required for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary) includes only the introduction of a dream or vision experienced by Daniel and then skips immediately to the interpretation. We would have heard none of the apocalyptic imagery of the dream, but I think it important that we listen to and consider Daniel’s troubling vision of four strange beasts and the coming of one “like a son of man,” else how are we to understand the interpretation given by the “attendant.”
Early in my meditations and study for preaching today, I thought I would explore with you the meaning of the beasts and so on, but the more I thought about that, and especially as I began actually organizing my thoughts and writing out my sermon, I decided against doing so. It would I think be a distraction from the focus of the day. I was thinking that the reading as edited in the Lectionary presents us with a passage that makes little sense, but after reading and hearing again the full Daniel’s story of seeing a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and a ten-horned and iron-toothed monster, I guess that’s what we have in the longer reading, too! A lesson that distracts us, as so much in the Bible can do; so many people focus on these arcane details that they miss the bigger picture the Bible tries to show. As result, we get such non-Biblical nonsense as the various forms of “tribulationism” and the story of “the Rapture;” we get “one-issue Christians” who refuse to recognize as members of the same faith Christians who disagree with them. We get exactly the opposite of what the Feast of All the Saints is supposed to underscore.
So, instead of dealing with this troubling bit of the Bible right now, what I’d like you to do is come with me for a drive. Let’s just set the Bible aside and go get in our car and head off down the road. It’s a country road, a hard-pack dirt country road out in the farm country. We’re taking a country drive on a fine, beautiful spring day. It’s been raining, but it’s not raining now. Now the sun is shining and the birds are singing and insects of all sorts are buzzing and humming and chirping. In fact, there are loads of insects. It’s one of those days when the damsel flies are swarming, doing their brief romantic aerial ballets to attract mates and perpetuate their species. It’s one of those days when the grasshoppers are doing their best to eat everything in sight. It’s one of those days with yellow swallow-tails and monarchs and viceroys and white cabbage butterflies are flittering all over the place.
As we drive along, we’re traveling at a pretty good clip and, as you might expect with all those bugs around, the windshield is getting pretty messy. And since it just stopped raining and the dirt road is still a bit muddy, a lot of that has splashed up onto the windows and the windshield, as well. In fact, we can barely see through the windshield! We put the wipers on and twist the knob so the washer fluid sprays onto the glass, but the bug juice is sticky and there’s a lot of mud, so the washers only clear a little of the muck away, and the windshield is now not only covered with dead bugs and muck, it’s streaky, too!
Still, we peer through the streaks of bug blood and mud, and keep our eyes on the road ahead. Eventually we come to a filling station and we pull in. In a bygone era, a man in coveralls with a greasy rag tucked in his pocket would have run out and begun filling our tank with gas, and he would have checked under the hood, and he would have carried out a bucket of soapy water with a large sponge and a squee-gee, and he would have washed our bug-be-splattered, mud-streaked windshield and cleaned away all that distracting muck that was keeping us from seeing our way ahead.
A few days ago, I was reviewing a Vacation Bible School curriculum based on the story of Jonah and in the sales literature the publisher had written these words: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart. In the stories, in the writings, and in the Gospels we see what God is like. The Bible reveals God to us, just like the windows in a car or in a building reveal what is going on outside.”
Isn’t that a great image for Holy Scripture: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I am driving in a car on a day like I described to you, a day when the windshield gets are splattered and messy with dead bugs and mud, I have a hard time looking beyond that cloudy window in front of me. I get distracted by the details on the window; I focus on them and not on the road out in front of me.
But so long as I focus on the window, the window is not serving its purpose. The window is not there to be the object of my attention; it is there to let me see what is happening on the other side. So it is with the Bible.
The Education for Ministry group that I have the privilege to mentor in this parish is made up of all first year students, so everyone in the group is working through study of the Old Testament. We are about six weeks into reading Genesis and Exodus now, and one of the things we’ve noticed is that the stories of the Patriarchs and the first Hebrews are not very pretty: Abraham is a liar; Jacob is a cheat; Joseph’s brothers are petulant bullies who nearly kill him; Moses whines a lot; and Aaron (Moses’ brother), although he is the first high priest, is the one who turns the people away from God and fashions the golden calf for them to worship! We are all, I think, finding it difficult to look past the peccadillos of the Patriarchs in order to see the God who is behind the stories; just like its difficult to look past the bugs and the mud on the windscreen!
And then today, along comes Daniel with his weird vision, the Palmist with his bloodthirsty delight in vengeance and revenge, and Jesus telling us that those of us who are fairly well off are destined to be hungry and in mourning! It’s hard to look past all of that understand where God is. As one commentator on Daniel noted, we who read this story in the Bible are “in the midst of bewildering events that affright and confuse.”
We find this all hard to accept and difficult to look through because we want the Bible to be clear! We want the Bible to be the answer book, to lay it all out for us in simple and easy-to-follow instructions; we want to be able to say, as our Sunday School children sang last week, “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” We just want it to be clear! But the Bible doesn’t exist to be the object of our devotion; the Bible doesn’t exist to be regarded on its own and for itself. The Bible is a window through which God is reveals Godself to us and, like any window, its got some distracting stuff we have to look past.
It does so because it is book (several books, actually) full of human stories, and human stories are messy. So we end up with stories of people who are sometimes liars and cheaters; people who can sometimes whine and be unfaithful. We end up with stories of weird hallucinations and frightful dreams. We end up with poetry by someone who’s been hurt so badly that vengeance and revenge can look like a gift of God. We end up with troubling warnings that we might, probably will, face hunger and grief. How do we look past that to see, as Paul encouraged the Ephesians, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us?
Well, when we were on our drive through the countryside with our windshield spatted with bug goo and mud, we pulled into a gas station, and a mechanic came out and washed all of that away. Remember? Today is the day that we remember those who help clean away all of the distractions, the filling station attendants of the faith. Today we remember the saints who help to clear our vision of God. Broadly speaking, of course, the saints are all those who are baptized, who follow Jesus Christ, and who live their lives according to his teaching, which would include all of us here today. Church tradition, however, also uses the term more narrowly to refer to especially holy women and holy men who are heroes of the faith, who through lives of extraordinary virtue reveal the Presence of God to us, who clean that window through which we all look.
The saints whom we celebrate on this day (and the many who are given special days of individual recognition) were people who tried to live according to the Bible as they understood its teachings. Like us, they read it and encountered those troubling visions, those petulant patriarchs, those bloodthirsty psalms, and somehow looked past them and through them to see the God of faith, the God who Incarnate in Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We extoll the virtues of those saint and we celebrate their lives and their witness because they help us to do the same. By their lives and their examples, they clean the windshield for us; they clean away the bug blood and the mud, so that we no longer focus on the window, but on the God the window shows us.
This is not to suggest that we should not study nor seek to understand the murkiness and cloudiness that we find on the window, the questionable and troublesome visions of Daniel, the lying and cheating of the Patriarchs, the bloodthirstiness of the Psalmist, or the petulant pettiness of the Prophets. Certainly, we should for we can learn thereby of the graciousness of the God who overlooked and overcame those faults, who regarded and redeemed those men and women! But following the example of the saints before us, we should not let ourselves be distracted by them so that we fail to see and appreciate that same God.
Today we give thanks for the saints, the filling station attendants of the faith, who help us clean our windshields.
O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, Burial of the Dead, page 504)
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.