Benediction Online

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Becoming a Saint

In just seven months Pope Francis has already canonized hundreds of new saints. These include Antonio Primaldo and eight hundred and twelve unnamed companions also known as the Martyrs of Otranto who died in 1480 either because they refused to convert to Islam or because they put up a fierce resistance against the advancing Ottoman army. As you might expect after five hundred years the exact details are a little vague. Another large group the Pope canonized was 512 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, who were killed during the Red Terror in Spain at a time when about 50,000 people were killed by left wing revolutionaries.[1]  It certainly gives the impression that to be a saint one has to die in horrible circumstances –preferably war!

But of course these good people were not canonized because of the way they died but because of the faith and hope that they, their stories and their relics inspire in other Christians. It is said that the bodies of the Martyrs of Otranto were found a year later uncorrupted –in other words they hadn’t decayed – and that many miracles are associated with them.

Today as we celebrate All Saints Day, we are looking backwards and forwards. We look backwards as we remember the people who have gone before and who have made us the people we are today. We are remembering those whose lives have inspired faith and hope in us even though they may have died in quite normal ways. At the same time we are thinking about our own inheritance in the reign of God.
When the word Saint is used in the Bible it refers not to great heroes but to anyone who is enrolled in the reign of God – those we today would call Christians. It was only later that first martyrs and then others who had lived exemplary lives began to be revered and given the title Saint.

To be a saint is to live a saintly life and all of us who are followers of Christ are called to holiness of life. Just as people have made lists of Saints, so people have made lists of things to do or not do in order to be live a holy life. In our Gospel reading we heard in the words of Jesus the key themes of Christian living. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” And then finally, “Do to others as you would have them do to you." That last line, “Do to others as you would have them do to you." Sometimes called the golden rule is not unique in Jesus’ teaching – it can be found in many religions of the world.

But Jesus is unique in his call for us to love our enemies, to return hatred with love, cursing with blessing and not to resist evil with evil. This gospel passage has often been seen as a call for submissive, passive behavior but increasingly Bible scholars are interpreting it as a call to non-violent resistance. Bible scholar Walter Wink explained:
By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand: his nose is in the way… The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship … By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”[2]

So perhaps it’s fitting that hundreds of the new saints who have been canonized by the Roman church this year died in times of war, resisting those who were attacking them. Our non-violent resistance must be of a different nature. We are called to create a world in which the underlying response of violence simply becomes outdated.

A political scientist, Glenn Paige, has had an extraordinary impact with his concept of nonkilling, He describes a "nonkilling world" as one without killing, threats to kill, or conditions conducive to killing – and one in which there is no dependence on killing or the threat of killing to produce change.[3] Paige has encouraged scholars to question the "assumption that killing is an inescapable part of the human condition and must be accepted in theory and practice." In the Congo his ideas have been taught in villages and reduced the level of violence in the area. His book has been translated into five languages.

For us his ideas should be nothing new. Jesus himself declined to fight his captors. He declined to use supernatural powers or earthly powers to defend himself. His resurrection is the ultimate proof that violence does not achieve its intended ends.

Returning again to the gospel reading. It seems to me that in the first section, most of the “blessed” and the “woes” are a statement of the constant changes of our lives. "Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.” then "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” Even for those of us who live in prosperity there are cycles in life, cycles of the good times and cycles of the not-so-good times. But the last woe is a challenge for us, "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

I know I want people to speak well of me. I want to live a quiet life. But at what cost? Am I failing to resist violence because it’s easier and takes less effort? I’m grateful that we don’t live in a community where violence is frequent and obvious, but we live in a nation that considers violence necessary and normal. We live in one of the few western countries that still has the death penalty. We live in a country where gun violence is escalating and the loudest voices call for more guns.

In 1981 the singer Holly Near sang, “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? – what a foolish notion.” It’s still a foolish notion more than thirty years later. And it is up to us, the saints of God to step up to our calling as saints and to think of new creative, non-violent ways to resist the violence in our culture; violence against women, violence against children; violence against gays, lesbians and trans* people; violence against anyone who is different.

It starts in our minds. The UNESCO Charter declaration of 1945, states that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."[4] It begins in our minds but if it goes no further then we are not living up to our calling. We have to start to take action to change the underlying mindset which says that violence and killing are the answer, and to change the social circumstances that lead to violence.

Last week Victoria Fischer spoke to us about the work of the Episcopal Development Fund. I urge you to consider making a donation to their work as one way of building peace, by helping other Anglicans around the world reach into the broken places of the communities they serve. There are some brochures and envelopes on the ushers table or you can simply put ERD on your check and put it in the offering plate.

One way we can work for non-killing is by providing funds for other saints who are on the frontlines. But we must also commit to working in our own community and country to challenge violence and the assumption of violence wherever we find it.

For the work of the saint is to be the bringer and builder of healing and peace.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

All is Well

Medieval Christians took dying very seriously. Probably because death was all around them in an in-your-face kind of way that we can scarcely imagine. It was a time of wars, plagues and famines. Disease was rampant and people died in their homes, in the ditches, in the marketplaces in unpleasant and very public ways. So for them a holy death was as important as a holy life. In the 16th century the Ars Moriendi or art of dying provided a focus for Anglican spiritual writers such as Jeremy Taylor whose classic work Holy Living and Holy Dying is still published today.

Today is the feast of All Souls, celebrated in the Mexican tradition as the Day of the Dead and we are celebrating both All Saints and All Souls; holding together in tension the fact that our mortal bodies wear out and we die, at the same time as the knowledge that we are given eternal life and a future in paradise.

In the 16th century, Jeremy Taylor wrote
God gives us time, by succession, by parts and little periods. For it is very remarkable, that God who giveth plenteously to all creatures, he hath scattered the firmament with stars, as a man sows corn in his fields, in a multitude bigger than the capacities of human order; he hath made so much variety of creatures, and gives us great choice of meats and drinks, although any one of both kinds would have served our needs, and so in all instances of nature; yet in the distribution of our time God seems to be straighthanded, and gives it to us, not as nature gives us rivers, enough to drown us, but drop by drop, minute after minute, so that we never can have two minutes together, but he takes away one when he gives us another. This should teach us to value our time, since God so values it. and, by his so small distribution of it, tells us it is the most precious thing we have. Since, therefore, in the day of our death we can have still but the same little portion of this precious time, let us in every minute of our life, I mean in every discernible portion, lay up such a stock of reason and good works, that they may convey a value to the imperfect and shorter actions of our death-bed, while God rewards the piety of our lives by his gracious acceptation and benediction upon the actions preparatory to our death-bed.[1]

It’s very different language from ours but the message is simple: value the time you have and use it to live the holy life that God is calling you to.

I have a tendency to leave things to the last minute. This All Saints/All Souls combo is a reminder to me that we cannot leave our spiritual lives until tomorrow. Tomorrow may not come. Tomorrow we may need the spiritual practice that we have been putting off. We may need it in order to sustain our hope as everything we hold dear crumbles around us.

The literature that has developed around death and dying in recent years has challenged us to think about what we want to make of our lives and to do it now rather than wait because none of us knows how long we will live. Often the unspoken assumption is that death will come suddenly and swiftly. That happens, but my observation is that for most of us death comes slowly and inexorably and sometimes delays beyond our patience. It is rarely an easy process. Few of us will die quietly sitting in our armchairs watching our favorite football team.

Jeremy Taylor believed that we need to practice holy living so that we might experience holy dying and be resurrected to spend eternity with Christ in glory.  I would suggest that eternity will take care of itself; we need to be walking our talk today, here and now because when things get tough before we die we will need all the resources of character and all the spiritual fruits we can muster. Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem When Death Comes [2]reminds us to live to the fullest – “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. But also in a way that gives us confidence. She writes,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

Meeting death with confidence comes from having developed such a close and loving relationship with our Creator that we know that all is well, today and everyday. Confidence comes from having walked a path of dependence upon God for so many days and years that when illness comes, even when death seems to tarry too long, we will know that all is well.

For the message of the gospel, the message of All Saints and All Souls is just that; all is well.