Saturday, November 05, 2011

All Saints Sunday

First. Class. Doormat. That’s what I said to myself as a little boy and heard this passage from Matthew for the first time.

And I’m not alone. American civil rights activist, Malcolm X once noted that oppressed people will continue to be oppressed if they follow this teaching. And US comedian Bill Maher likes to make fun of this “crazy” teaching that sets people up for abuse.

Those of us who’ve been around the church for a while might find Malcolm’s and Bill’s comments offensive. After all, they’re the words of Jesus, and their sharp edge might have dulled in our ears from years of hearing them.

But to fresh ears, Jesus’ words can sound astonishingly naive. Or even dangerous to our well being.

Blessed our the poor in spirit....blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.

Most of these are parts of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden, aren’t they? These are human attributes that we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want to be on the same city block of mourning, or of meekness, or even of peacemaking.

We spend more time and energy trying to look strong. We put on brave faces to share with others, so we won’t look weak.

And this week, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why these readings have been assigned to All Saints Sunday.

To me it seems that we’re being asked to celebrate those who’ve lived according to Jesus’ impossible standard in this passage if finding blessing in tragedy. We’re supposed to remember with thanks those who have succeeded in the Christian life and are now gathered around the throne singing praises to God. We’re supposed to want to emulate the heroic faith of Saints past, who joyfully divested themselves of worldly pain and now reap the rewards of heavenly peace.

But that’s not something I want to do. Because if we spend our time looking at other peoples’ spiritual “successes,” our faith lives can look small. And we learn the wrong lessons.

I think the Christian life isn’t measured by our successes, but by our scars. It’s our weaknesses and failures that make us strong. It’s in our crosses that we find resurrection.

I stopped regularly wearing a clerical collar because I found that it ceased doing what it was supposed to do. I found that the clerical collar wasn’t a way INTO peoples’ lives, but was keeping me out. I noticed that people were talking to the ring around my neck rather than to me. And they were parsing their words.

And because of that, I saw that people were hiding information from me. They were afraid that I’d judge them for their mistakes and hurts. They were afraid that my uniform meant that I was in the business of condemning them for their failures rather than being an agent of God’s mercy and forgiveness. My job was getting in the way of doing my job.

The phone rang and I recognized the number on the call display and wasn’t going to answer it. But the guilt-ridden sucker in me wouldn’t let me ignore someone who I knew needed my help.

“Hi pastor, I need you to pick up my daughter’s prescription and take it to her apartment...” said the voice on the other end of the line.

I sighed.

What was I, a delivery service? Why does she assume that I have time to drop everything to pick up some pills, then drive across town to drop them off?

But rather than get into a heated argument with this particular person, like I so often did before, I decided I’d help her and her daughter.

“Where can I pick them up?” I asked.

I was still grumbling when I drove across the city to the outskirts where she lived. I put my “Clergy Parking -Emergency” sign on my windshield hoping that it might discourage vandals or thieves, since she was living in a drug-addled neighbourhood.

She buzzed me in and I and made my way through the haze of marijuana smoke that loitered in the air. I was worried about the smell sticking to my clothes and having to answer some uncomfortable questions when I got home.

I knocked on her door. When she opened it and saw me in my work clothes, it looked like her eyes were going to pop out of her sockets. She wasn’t expecting - for what she knew - a priest to deliver her medication.

She invited me in and told me her story. She’d been arrested for stealing a car. She had a history of drug abuse, and so the judge put her under house arrest.

She sat up straight in her chair with her hands folded on her lap as we talked. She was choosing her words carefully. It was clear that she didn’t trust me.

“Thank you for picking up my pills, pastor” she said. “They keep the demons in their cages.”

“What demons?” I asked.

“Depression,” she said, examining my face for a reaction.

“How are you finding the medicine? Is it helping?” I asked.

“Sort of,” she answered. “They keep me functioning. But they make me feel like I’m just going through the motions. I have no highs or lows. They steal the flavour from life.”

“Yeah,” I noticed the same thing when I was on them.

Her eyes widened.

“YOU!?” she shouted? “Why would a pastor need pills for depression!?”

“We all need help from time to time,” I said.

Her shoulders relaxed and the muscles on her face softened. Then the REAL conversation began. She talked about her bully of an ex-husband, the impossible expectations of a perfectionist mom, and the life she dreamed of having.

I realized that she was sharing so openly with me, NOT because I had a collar around my neck and the word “reverend” in front of my name. In fact those things kept us at a distance.

She shared so openly because I shared her brokenness. I wasn’t preaching from a mountain top as one with all the spiritual answers.

But we communed as two children of God bound by our frail humanity. And I think that could be the blessing that Jesus talked about when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

That phrase, “Kingdom of heaven” isn’t describing a disembodied existence of heavenly bliss far away from the dirt and pain of earthly life.

But the kingdom of heaven is wherever God is healing the sick and raising the dead. The kingdom of heaven is wherever God is working within our lives and the world that God so loves. The kingdom of heaven is wherever two or more people gather to share their common frail humanity, trusting that God can use them for God’s resurrection purposes.

As we begin our ministry together, it is my greatest hope and most heartfelt prayer that this community will be marked with God’s healing power in the brokenness of our lives. That our mission is to serve each other and the world God loves through our common human frailty rather than worldly strength and power. Because it’s in the midst of weakness and pain - the crosses of our lives - that God’s resurrection work is done.

It is your wounds that give you power. It is your scars that give you strength. It is your tears that give you wisdom. It is your weakness that gives you authority to minister to others in Jesus’ name.

And together, as we join the saints of every time and every place, joined together in our common need for a saviour, we will sing with one voice, Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!

May this be so among us! Amen!

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Blogger Norman Gunness said...

WOW!!! You do Great work, Friend!

10:09 AM  

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