All Saints Sunday
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Luke 6:20-31
Rev. Peter Faass
In your experience, how many of you believe that the forces between good and evil, love and hatred, and justice and injustice, have never been so clearly and intransigently lined up as in the past few years?
Yeah, me too!
I will tell you, some of the events we have experienced in our society recently have set my teeth on edge, raised the short hairs on the back of neck and caused me to have some thoughts that, as Robert Louis Stevenson once allegedly stated “would shame hell.”
I fear that this state of affairs isn’t about to change any time soon.
In the Book of Daniel, we hear of a vision Daniel has of “four great beasts [that] came up out of the sea” and turn into kings. These creatures represent the four great empires – Babylon, Assyria, Persia and finally, the Seleucids, who occupied and degraded the Hebrew people; the worst being the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, who hated the Jews so much that he sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar, set a statue of himself upon it and tortured and murdered Jews who would not convert to his religion, his way of life.
As I said in my Evensong sermon this past Thursday, an ugly, ferocious monster – a beast, if you will – that incarnates this kind of abject hatred for those who are different has been uncovered and unleashed in our nation. We have every reason to be alarmed. The existence of so much evil and hatred in such a large percentage of our population threatens our bodies and souls no less than those four empires did to Israel.
And then comes Jesus preaching today’s Sermon on the Plain.
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Oy Vey! Seriously Jesus? You want me to love my enemies? To do good to those who hate me? Like those White Supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK folks? Or those racists, who firebomb churches or attend a Bible Study, pull out a gun and murder all those in attendance? How about those folks who mock and bully the weak and vulnerable? Or those avaricious money grabbers who rip the sick, the elderly, orphans and widows. You want me to love those people? And as if that’s not enough to ask, you throw in the command to do to others as I would want done to me. I know on this celebration of All Saints we are reminded of our own saintliness, but under the circumstances I’m not sure I can polish my halo to that degree.
Truth be told, I don’t want to do those things. I’d rather see things done to them as they have done to others. You know, that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth law. Now that’s the ticket. That’s what feels good.
But no Jesus, you need to lob these Kingdom of God rhetorical bombshells into our lives. You have to go and challenge us to examine the values of the world, versus the values of God. I guess you must have read my mind and seen those thoughts that would shame hell.
There is no commandment of Jesus, which has caused so much discussion and debate, nor evoked so much adverse resistance than the call to love our enemies and to be good to those who hate us.
What does it entail to love like that?
Well, for certain Jesus does not mean eros, or erotic, passionate love between two people. And he also doesn’t mean philo, or brotherly/sisterly love that we have for our nearest and dearest friends. What Jesus is speaking of here is agape love. Agape love is a love that sees every person as being created in the image of a loving God, despite how much evil has infected their lives and made them behave in a hateful manner. It is a love that is benevolent: a love that is intentional and causes us to be deliberate in going out of our way to be kind to those who hate us. It is not a love that comes from the heart, but rather a love that is of the will. It is a love that we can only do by the grace of Christ, which empowers us to offer it. But why do it? Why will it in our selves?
In my senior year of seminary I was required to take Canonical Exams so that my Bishop and the Council of Examining Chaplains in the Diocese of Connecticut could determine if I had been adequately prepared in the six major disciplines of theological education. Passing grades were required before I could be approved for ordination. Canonicals were ten straight days of writing and research from 6:00 in the morning until late at night. Section III, Theology Question B. 3. asked this: “If ‘rain falls on the just and unjust alike,’ what necessity is there for being obedient to God?” This scriptural quote finds it origins in Jesus saying that “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I responded by referring to the Genesis story of creation where on the sixth day, “God declares everything that [God] had made . . . to very good.” So from the very beginning all things God made were declared good. Therefore goodness is the natural state of the creation and it is God’s desire to restore all creation to that original state. Our tradition tells us that evil came into being through human disobedience toward God. But regardless of its origins, evil exists and can be best understood as a disorder and imbalance of human existence (and thereby creation) causing alienation from God.
In order for us to restore the balance and right order of human existence we must respond to God’s deepest desire to renew the original goodness of Creation. And we do this by being obedient and faithful to God’s desires for us, which is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to do to others, as we desire to have done to us. These are part and parcel of restoring the good creation.
My sisters and brothers, these commands are the hard work of obedience and being faithful. No one ever said being a follower of Jesus was easy. But we do it because these commands are compelling reasons to turn all creation away from evil and sinful behaviors. We do it because they are the only way to break the bonds of evil that desires to shackle us and keep the world from God’s intended state. That is why we offer agape love to the most vile of people. The good and the just see that the rain falls upon them and know from whence it comes, and they are nourished by it to continue forward on the road to restoration of God’s good creation. And they pray that in so doing the evil and the unjust will turn toward the good as well.
Ultimately we cannot move toward the fulfillment of justice and righteousness without being obedient to God’s commands.
After Daniel’s horrific visions of the brutality wrought by those four kings upon his people, God reveals to him that the evil times will not endure. “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever,” he is told. (Dan. 7:18) In other words God encourages Daniel and the Jewish people to persevere, assuring them that all will – in God’s time - be well. God does the same for us today. God in Jesus assures us that even in the darkest times, light and love will prevail. Evil can never, ever trump God’s desire for the righteous and all of creation.
In a few moments we will baptize Cecelia Jo, our newest saint in the church. In the Baptismal Covenant her parents and godparents will be asked if they will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” And they will reply – hopefully! – “I will, with God’s help.” We should hear that question being asked of all of us.
What is critical to remember as we respond in the affirmative is that we renounce those evil powers by loving them, loving them as we want to be loved, loving them as Jesus loves us. In so doing evil is diminished and transformed; and as that happens we draw closer to that time when the rain and the sun fall only on the good and the righteous, because the Creation has been restored to its original goodness. And love wins.
Rev. Peter Faass
This evening we honor Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Now while the term Anglican Divines may conjure up images of a 1960’s singing trio, "ala Diana Ross and the Supremes," they were actually a group of extraordinary theologians who helped develop Church of England doctrine and polity in those tumultuous years following the Protestant Reformation –whose 500 anniversary is next year – and Henry VIII’s schism from Rome.
Along with Hooker, the Divines included such lofty thinkers as John Donne, George Herbert, and William Laud. If I were ever asked that classic question of “Who in history would you invite to a dinner party if you could only ask four people, these guys would be my “A” list!
Hooker was especially influential during the reign of Elizabeth I, a woman one of my Church History professors at General Seminary fondly referred to as “our foundress.”
Elizabeth came to the English throne after her two half siblings, Edward VI and Mary Tudor’s brief but violent reigns on the throne. Their common father Henry had been little interested in the details of the Church other than who was in charge of it so that he could obtain a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn, and who had control of the Church’s considerable wealth, especially that of the monasteries. His son Edward on the other hand was strongly influenced by the Continental Protestant reformers. When he came to the throne at Henry’s death, Edward and his court advisors clearly steered the English Church in a decidedly Protestant direction. Because he was sickly, Edward’s reign was short. At his death the throne went to Mary, a devout and ardent Roman Catholic. She steered the Church back to Rome, but not without some considerable conflict and bloodshed. Edward’s and Mary’s were a bloody period in English history between the Protestant and Roman factions. Mary was ruthless and hung and burned at the stake hundreds of Protestants. We have her to thank for that adult beverage known as the Bloody Mary; something to chat about the next time you’re at brunch.
Mary too reigned briefly. No one is quite sure why she died, although court intrigue through history would have us believe that her Protestant detractors slowly poisoned her with a touch of arsenic in her afternoon tea.
When Elizabeth gets to the throne, England is in chaos, threatened to be rent asunder by religious conflict. By then, it had grown worse as not only was it between Protestants and Catholics but between the extreme Puritan sect who loathed Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church of that day, and between the Roman Catholics who loathed that same Anglican Church as well as the Puritans.
Elizabeth – an astute leader – realized that in order to save the nation she needed to quell this religious dissent. So she charged her Divines, primarily Hooker, to come up with a theology, doctrines and polity that would subdue the dissent. What Hooker and his associates came up with was something called The Elizabethan Settlement, which was really the document and act of Parliament that established the Church of England as we have received it in our day.
There are two important components of this new doctrine that are specific to Hooker. One is the understanding that Anglicans would make decisions about their faith based on scripture, tradition and reason. This is the famous three-legged stool of Anglicanism still used to determine how we will live as a Communion to this day. The second was the doctrine of the via media, Latin for middle way. Via media is a term of apologetics or theological reasoning. The idea of a middle way, was a brilliant concept developed by Hooker to forge a way forward between the papalist Roman Catholics and the radical reformers who threatened to destroy England in Elizabeth’s time. And it worked. Through Elizabeth’s leadership ad force of will and Hooker’s finding a theological methodology to bring the dissenting parties together, England’s religious wars subsided and the nation came to be one of the great powers and empires of the world.
Now the via media is not just some sort of process of compromise. It is not a wimpy, milquetoast dilution of one’s passions or beliefs. Ideally via media is a process of deep listening to and caring about what those you differ with are about. It is about more than just arbitration or negotiation; it is about hearing how God’s voice is present in even the most fractious of debates; religious and otherwise. It is also about mutual respect and a desire to move forward together discerning how God may be at work creating a new thing that will bring us together and not divide us. Which is the whole point about God’s work in Jesus among us, I would observe. Via media is finding the way between extremes. Yes, it may be a letting go of something, but that is done for the greater good. With the understanding that we are stronger and better as a person, a people, a religious faith, a nation and a culture when we can stand united and not in enmity or worse, bloodshed. As a priest I know once described it, via media is not some narrow path, it is a broad highway of multiple lanes embracing as many people in it as it can as it moves forward together.
Just as in Edward, Mary and Elizabeth’s time, we live in a time of great chaos and enmity; a period of horrific divisions and the fear of violence in our nation. Fear and hatred of others is rife. An ugly and frightening monster has been awakened and unleashed in this nation, most especially in this presidential election cycle. The threat of civil unrest is a real one and it is an unrest that could destroy our precious values and us as a people of liberty and justice for all. Early 21st century America is feeling a lot like sixteenth century England.
We would be wise to see Richard Hooker’s great doctrine of the via media as a way to help us address the situation we find ourselves in today. Patient listening, mutual respect for the other, a willingness to let go so we can find something new and better and a desire to move forward in unity is the only way we will heal the divisions that threaten us. And in so doing we will become that great, multi-lane highway, embracing all nations, peoples, creeds and races, which is not only an American ideal, but God’s as well.