All Saints’ Day 2019: For All the Saints and Everyone Else

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combatientes del erp en el norte de morazan en Perquin jul 90

I read those dog-eared and familiar old words
from the Gospel of Luke
and started laughing.

As if my preacher-life was passing before my eyes,
thirty-nine years of varied and contradictory commentary
on Jesus’ beatitudes,
started jawing at me from every direction.

It suddenly occurred to me
that ever since those words were recorded
everyone has been trying to make sense of them
AND trying to make them affirm or reinforce
the particular point of view
the reader brought to them in the first place.

The contortions,
tangled yoga postures,
and theological Jujitsu
performed on these words
are hilarious
when observing them from a neutral space
unconcerned about proclaiming or justifying.

These words from Jesus,
filtered through the generation after him playing Post Office
with his stories and parables,
are absolutely lunatic.
They make perfect sense
and they make no sense whatsoever.
“Blessed are the poor
and woe to the rich.”

No one wants to be poor,
and given the choice,
almost everyone would choose to be rich.

The wicked rich
do not get their comeuppance in life,
except by misfortune or stupidity.
It is just the opposite most of the time,
the rich get richer
and we would rather be one of them
than the poor that get poorer.

But the punchline is the most shocking,
difficult, and absurd:
“DO to others as you would have them DO to you.”

Everything in the first part of that paragraph
is an example of DOING something
we would like to have done for us
in a particular circumstance – even though
it would be as unlikely as a dog not chasing a squirrel.

  • We want our enemies to DO love for us more than anything they might prefer to DO to us. So, please enemies, in spite of hating us, DO something good. Make us a nice dinner, why don’t you?
  • What we want from the people who curse us, is for them to bless us.
  • What we really want from those we abuse, is a nice gentle prayer on our behalf – please.
  • If we were to hit someone, rather than punching us back, what we would really prefer
    is for them to give us a little hug.
  • And, don’t you know, if we wanted to take a coat we really liked from someone, rather than get reported to the police it would be much better if they just gave us a shirt we thought was cool too.
  • We know that if we were ever in a situation that we had to beg for a living,
    we would want every passerby to cheerfully give us some green. So, of course, we will do that any and every time someone asks something from us.

You see, this is crazy-talk.
It is not about refraining from bad behavior
or even holding back on justifiable retribution.
Rather, it is DOING something positive,
DOING something we would like done for us
to people we can’t stand
or feel bitter toward.

Rabbi Hillel, who as far as we can tell,
was the original author of the Golden Rule
from whom Jesus would have learned it,
taught just the opposite.
Hillel said,
“Do NOT do to others,
what you would NOT have them do to you.”

It is all about restraint.
Don’t do the bad that has been done to you.

Hillel calls for a strategy of disciplined detachment,
so that we don’t get ourselves in trouble
by returning violence for violence,
bigotry for bigotry,
dishonor for dishonor.
Hillel’s advice is doable –
we have all practiced it at one time or another.
But Jesus’ thing is not about restraint,
it is about proactive DOING
for people we would just as soon fell in a ditch.
Lunatic Jesus says we should DO something nice,
something we think is beneficial
for those who have done us badly or wrong.

This raised profound memories for me.
It conjured up stories I heard firsthand
about the situation in El Salvador
in the late 1970’s as it was building toward civil war.

Archbishop Oscar Romero argued
with some of his closest colleagues among the clergy,
those who were helping the leftist soldiers
in their fight against the fourteen families
that owned all the land and resources,
and whom the military protected.
Rightwing para-military death squads
were torturing, assassinating, and disappearing
civilians by the hundreds and thousands.
Something like 75,000 non-combatants disappeared.

Some clergy took up arms when nothing else
seemed to stop the brutality waged against poor people.
Oscar Romero reportedly pleaded with them not to,
citing Jesus’ sermon on the mount among other things.
Instead of violence, Romero commanded
those in the military – almost all Roman Catholics –
to refuse to fire upon or do any violence
against fellow Salvadorans.

What happened as a result of his calling on soldiers like that,
was that Romero was assassinated
by one of the death squads.
Civil war broke out in full force
and we are still living with the consequences today –
even here in the United States.

And by the way, we funded the repression
by those fourteen families
to the tune of a million dollars a day for years.

I sat in community with mother’s who saw
their children massacred, beheaded even.
I listened to former soldiers,
some of them mothers,
talk about why they did not turn the other cheek.
I celebrated Eucharist with a nun
who was one of Romero’s secretaries
and who helped document the disappeared.

I marvel at the bravery of Oscar Romero
and his radical holding-onto Jesus’ lunacy,
but I am not so sure
which lunacy I would embrace
in the same circumstance.

I am not so certain as to what I would preach, even now.

When I think of another one of my personal saints,
Jonathan Daniels, it feels a little clearer.

I have spoken of him before, the Episcopal seminarian
and civil rights worker who was murdered
in Alabama in 1965.
He made himself a shield
against a deputy sheriff’s shotgun blast
in order to protect an African-American teenage girl.
That is a DOING for someone
that you would want them to DO for you,
and it seems a little less lunatic.
It is the kind of knee-jerk reaction
I would hope to have in such a circumstance –
an act of character
performed by bedrock instinct
rather than thought and analysis.
From the standpoint of Natural Selection,
or so-called survival of the fittest,
it is still lunatic –
but it is a lunacy that makes more sense
and is somehow easier for me to embrace
than willfully standing by and not taking up arms
against cruel and brutal repression.

In the case of El Salvador,
the DOING of good
that I would want others to DO for me,
was standing on both sides
right next to the DOING of bad
I would not want someone to do for me.
Jesus’ lunacy
is not always so clear or obvious,
in fact most often it is not so blatant –
and absolutes seem hard to come by in this world.

So, I comfort myself today, with that song.
“For all the saints
who from their labors rest
who thee by faith
before the world confessed
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia.”

This All Saints’ hymn,
sung at both my mother’s and father’s funeral,
for me brings forward the presence
of so many who have died –
and who did for me what they would want done for them,
as well as sacrificed for me
what they would surely have preferred not to.

All of us are surrounded by such a cloud of saints
who did for us, even when truly difficult,
what they would have wanted done for them.

And also, did for us
what they would have preferred not to,
but because they loved or cared about us,
they did it anyway.

You see, the problem
with picking out a saying or parable or story
and plopping it down
as if it is the last word on anything,
is that it is static
and contextual
and never the whole story.

Whatever Jesus was telling us
from that mount on that day,
it is not the only thing he told us
nor is it the last word he would have given us.
Had he not died on the cross
there may have been a lot more words
he would have offered on a lot of other subjects
that would have given us more to go on.

Whatever words we have from him,
they are a start not an end –
they begin to frame the conversation
but they do not define or limit it
once and for all time.
The sermon on the mount,
or the Prodigal Son, or the Widow’s might
should not be used as a cudgel
or an unamendable constitution
or a map of the world that is flat with a definitive edge.
Unfortunately, we often use them that way.
What would Jesus do? Honestly, we’ll never know.
What did Jesus say? Whatever it was, it is not
the alpha and omega.

Just because they are dead and sainted in our memories,
does not mean that the cloud of witnesses
has the last word in our world.
They are there
gathered at the table of our love,
to be in conversation with us
and offer us wisdom.
They are not to be forgotten
or neglected
because what they have given
and what they have taught
is sacrificial and courageous.

But neither is it to be a dictation
and final sentence for all time.
It is kind of funny,
in a sort of unnerving way,
what the presence of all those saints in my life
reminds me.
When they are present,
as they become when I sing that old hymn,
I realize how much there was and is
that I do not agree with them about –
in terms of ideas and beliefs and even values.
But what I can see so clearly
on days like today,
is how much they did for me
that they would have hoped I would do for them,
or for those with whom I live.

“DO to others what you would have them DO to you,”
is not always clear and obvious,
and may in fact,
have contradictory actions
depending upon who “the other” is
and which “other” we choose to DO for.

But it is a lunacy
that I can see in the lives of saints
who have come before,
many of whom I have known,
that looks to me a lot like love.

It is a lunacy
that may take you and me in different directions
from one another,
but it is a lunacy
worth following.

“And when the strife
is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear
the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave
again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Thank you, saints,
for doing for us what you would have liked us
to do for you…
and that you hoped
we would do for others.