Eve of All Saints
Sirach 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
October 31, 2013
All Saints Chapel
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17)
The liturgical celebration of All Saints has always been dear to me.
I am a historian after all; and not just that but someone who studies Christian saints.
I also was raised by a mother who passed on to me many stories about my family, and she often folded into those stories tales of people’s faith.
And so, the stories of the saints that have gone before has always fascinated me.
But as I have read and prayed with the readings for tonight these past few weeks, my attention has been drawn to a particular group in the holy people of God – those who endure persecution for the name of Jesus Christ.
These past few months, my heart has ached as I have read about Christians being harassed, persecuted, and even murdered around the globe.
If you have paid attention, you would have read reports about Coptic Christians having their churches attacked during the recent unrest in Egypt.
Just the other week, four Coptic Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting as they left their church.
In Syria, ancient Christian communities find themselves caught in the crossfire in the midst of a civil war.
In early September, rebels assaulted the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, on whose outskirts sits the venerable Mar Thekla (Saint Thecla) monastery.
For me, the reality of the persecution of Christians came home with the news of the suicide bombing at All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 127 Christians and wounding 170.
I noticed the news because the principal of Edwardes College, the Anglican school in Peshawar, is the Rev. Titus Pressler, someone I knew when we were both active in the Diocese of Massachusetts.
Although Titus Pressler was not harmed, many from the Edwardes College community were killed and wounded.
It is easy to label this violence as simply another chapter in a violent history of Muslim-Christian relations.
And it should be said that this violence does not represent all Muslims.
The perpetrators are extremists and radicals whom many Islamic leaders have condemned.
And we also can’t ignore that many Christians have become targets because of western, especially US, foreign policy that has become in some twisted way associated with Christianity.
The persecution of Christians is not in the end simply part of an inexorable conflict between religions or a clash of civilizations.
On a deeper level, it is a sign of the sinful, unjust nature of the world around us.
The sin of this world will always be with us as Christians.
Indeed, Jesus teaches that those who follow him in this world will constantly be exposed to sin and injustice, even to the point of death.
We hear this in the Beatitudes.
Recently, scholars have argued that the first four beatitudes should not be understood as qualities to aspire to.
The poor in spirit are not just the poor, but those so deprived that they are on the point of giving up.
It is among the utterly disposed that the kingdom of God will arrive; among them will God’s will be fully expressed.
Those who mourn are those who have no reason for rejoicing in this life; only God now can offer them comfort.
The word that we have as meek in the third beatitude is best translated as the humiliated, the oppressed, the powerless.
And to inherit the earth here means that when God establishes his reign, the powerless will get what they have not had all along – the land, resources, abundance.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who long for God to set things right; to reverse all the injustice of this world.
These are people who despair, who have no joy, who have no resources.
They wait for God to set things right; to act justly.
In looking at these four beatitudes, it should be clear that no one wants to live like this.
These are not virtues to aspire to.
People who live like this wait upon God’s kingdom to come and reverse the way of this world.
No one want to live like this, but Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan do.
The acts of violence that these Christians endure are a sign of sin in this world; a sign of the sin that the powerful allow.
Their hope is that God will reverse this suffering.
But not all have lived to see this reversal.
Indeed many have been martyred.
But to intentionally follow the way of Christ is to expose yourself to injustice, persecution, even death as a martyr.
This is what Jesus is getting at in the second half of the Beatitudes when he blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.
Those who posses the qualities of mercy, purity, and peace making are those committed to the justice of God that Christ proclaimed.
But the logic of pursuing the way of God’s justice for the disciple of Jesus, for the heirs of the prophets, can only lead to injustice.
“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.” (Matt. 5:11-12)
If anything, to stand for the way of Jesus, to be his disciple, is to stand for God’s justice that will reverse all the perversions of the powerful in this world.
It is to stand against the sin that robs us of our humanity and that turns neighbors into enemies.
But, be ready.
For the powerful will not give up their power.
To follow the way of Jesus will expose you to harm.
And, so what about Christians that are being persecuted today?
This persecution is part of a conflict between western powers and some aspects of the Islamic world.
I think it is rooted in foreign policy and is a way of lashing out at the west.
There is sin and evil on all sides of that conflict and no party can claim absolute innocence.
And yet, Christians are dying in the very act of going to church.
In their home countries, they might be identified with the powerful west, but, what an irony, they themselves are powerless and vulnerable.
And in their vulnerability, they are like those gathered under the altar of the Lamb, like ones who have passed through the slaughter.
And in their suffering, those who survive are growing in faith.
A Roman Catholic nun has said this about the Syrian Christians who have had to flee their homes: “among the Syrian Christians, who are more and more vulnerable, there is a spiritual awakening, a renewed impetus in faith, prayer and interfaith closeness . . .we are finding a more dense, deep and unitive faith.”
Even in suffering, some Christians still pursue interfaith closeness, the hope of being reconciled to those that could easily be labeled an enemy.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.
Imagine those who have been killed for the name of Jesus Christ in the past year gathered now in this chapel.
Imagine them sitting in the pew next to you; imagine them in the aisles and in the back; imagine them gathered around this altar.
You can see their scars, but they are also robed in white.
They hold palms in their hands; their tears have been wiped away.
Imagine them speaking.
What do they say?
What will you say to them?
These are saints; these are the people of God.
These are the ones who are poor in spirit; who might have nothing left to offer God but their hopelessness.
These are the ones who mourn and have no one to comfort them.
These are the meek; who are utterly powerless.
These are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who have found no justice in this world.
And Jesus says, the Lamb says, if you will be my disciple, you will enter in this way.
You will be with them.
If you will stand for justice, you will find no justice.
Yet you will stand with them; enduring injustice.
If you stand with them, you will not only stand with those caught in what could be labeled religious conflict.
If you stand with them, you will stand for a type of justice that will demand that violence, violence on all sides, ends.
This is what our own baptismal covenant means for us.
When we promise to be a disciple of Jesus Christ with the help of God, we are called to this kind of life.
If you stand with the persecuted, you will stand for God’s justice that demands the fair sharing of resources that the powerful around the world and in our own lands refuse to share.
You will stand for God’s justice that demands that no one dies by drone strikes, by gun shots on dark corners, by the slow grinding down of poverty.
If you walk in this way of God’s justice, you will find no justice, even as you demand it, until that day when God will wipe away the tears from the eyes of the faithful.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward, for their reward, is great in heaven, in that place where justice reigns; where no one is ever harmed; where no one makes war anymore.