"I sing a song of the saints of God". According to the hymn, saints include doctors, queens, shepherdesses, soldiers, priests, martyrs, school mates and teachers, people on trains, on boats, in shops, at church, or those gathered having tea (so perhaps our local coffee shop)...that list certainly broadens the idea of who or what a saint is. And that's just the point...the hymn concludes with "for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too".
They are folk like me. There's great hope in that. It means I don't have to be perfect. It means that with God's grace and help, I too can be a saint.
The celebration of All Saints Day as we know it now has various beginnings depending on where in the world Christianity had taken root.
In the Catholic Church tradition, the feast day had its first celebration in the year 609 or 610 when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, Later in the 8th century under the guidance of Pope Gregory III, who established an oratory (or prayer space) in St. Peter’s for the relics "of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world".
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the feast day was established in 9th century Byzantium when the emperor’s wife, Theophano died. Theophano had been known for her devotion and faithfulness to the Christian teachings of charity and love for the poor, the widows and orphans, and offering consolation to the sorrowful. Upon her death, Leo wanted to have a church built in her honor, but he was forbidden from doing so because Theophano was not a canonized saint. Instead, Leo dedicated the church to “all saints”, therefore including the pious Theophano among their number.
But Christians aren’t alone in their celebration of their ancestors. For Latinos, today is also connected with the celebration of Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos which traces its roots to Mexico.
The two day celebration honors the dead and “recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.”
But so what? How does the celebration of Christian martyrs, the history of a pious woman in the 9th century and a festival with its origins in Mexico connect with us in this time and place? What are we to do with this day on our liturgical calendar?
In the Forward to Holy Women, Holy Men former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold wrote: …”these courageous souls bore witness to Christ’s death-defying love, in service, in holiness of life, and in challenge to existing practices and perspectives within both the Church and society. The men and women commemorated….are not simply examples of faithfulness to inspire us: they are active in their love and prayer. They are companions in the Spirit able to support and encourage us as we seek to be faithful in our own day.” (vii-viii)
So today is an opportunity for us to re-member, to put back together, our large and ancient family tree. It is a chance for us to reflect on the lives of those who have gone before us be them John the Baptist, Lazarus, Mary of Egypt, or an empress named Theophano.
It is a time set apart to honor the courageous work of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Absalom Jones. On this day we pay attention to the cycles of birth, life and death, knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have inspired and informed our own ministries: Molly Brandt, Vida Dutton Scudder, Oscar Romero, David Duncombe, and Rusty Kimsey.
Yes, we sing a song of the saints of God. And we look to them for inspiration and hope to respond with faith to God’s call to us.
As Robert Ellsberg explained, “No one is called to be another St Francis or St Teresa. But there is a path to holiness that lies within our individual circumstances, that engages our own talents and temperaments, that contends with our own strengths and weaknesses, that responds to the needs of our own neighbors and our particular moment in history” ( All Saints, 475-47).
Take a look around you…there are saints everywhere! Among us are people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to those without a warm, dry place. Among us are people who share a smile and a kind word in our most troubled times. If you look to your right and to your left, I would be willing to bet that these people have done something kind, courageous, loving, and life affirming.
There are saints among us.
Every time I read the story of Blind Bartimaeus, something new comes to my attention. Perhaps that’s why we read scripture over and over again...to listen for new nuggets of wisdom, new glimpses of the holy, new insights into the Kingdom. For me, the Bible is not a static document that was put together centuries ago...it is constantly calling me back to learn again and anew.
When I read through this Sunday’s gospel lesson, I was first struck by the historical context of what was going on at this point in Mark. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for the Passover. He has been healing, teaching and preaching along the way. He has talked about what it means for him to go to Jerusalem--that he will suffer and die at the hands of others. He has admonished those closest to him for not understanding what it means to follow him.
At the same time that Jesus is walking with his friends to Jerusalem, the Roman officials are also preparing for Passover. Pilate has called in extra troops to manage the increasing number of people that will be coming into Jerusalem. There is great anxiety in the air about the possibility of an uprising among the Jewish people. The threat of someone wanting to overthrow the Roman regime is palpable. This is where Jesus is headed. Jerusalem isn’t just the center of his faith tradition, or a place of great celebration and remembering of the liberation from Egypt...it is a place that is occupied by a political and military power that is fraught with tension and fear.
And along the way is this blind beggar--Bartimaeus--calling out to Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David--to heal him.
If I were to stay on the historical and theological trajectory of this story, then the next point of interest is that by calling Jesus “Son of David,” Bartimaeus is publicly identifying Jesus not only as the Messiah, but also a rival king. This identification alone is enough to set off the feared insurrection in Jerusalem...and it will eventually lead to Jesus’ arrest and trial.
But there’s also something much deeper happening than politics here.
In identifying Jesus as “Son of David” Bartimaeus “sees” what the other disciples have not--that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. This moment serves as the culmination of a series of events that have happened in the Gospel of Mark...the restoration of sight to the blind man at Bethsaida in chapter 8, as well as the ongoing wrestling with spiritual blindness about what it means to follow Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God in chapters 9 and 10. Here in this identification of Jesus by the blind Bartimaeus and the subsequent healing of Bartimaeus:
...Jesus confronts not only... physical blindness... but, more significantly, the spiritual blindness of his closest followers who have failed to fully grasp the upside
down Kingdom that Christ has brought near to the world.
(Victor McCracken, Feasting the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Kindle Edition, location 7637)
But this story is not just one of politics and anxiety. And, for me this time, it’s not just a story about miracles and healing. This time, I also noticed that there was a sense of calling, or being called, in this story that is worth paying attention to.
So let’s look again at Mark:
Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out [or call out] and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out [or called out] even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they (the disciples and the crowd) called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
In my notes here, I highlighted every instance of calling (or implied calling) and came up with 5 times in 7 verses. That’s almost one calling a verse. So for me, that’s an indication that it’s worth paying attention to.
Again, here are those 5 times:
--Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus (2xs)
--Jesus tells those who are following him to call Bartimaeus
--The followers call Bartimaeus
--They relay Jesus’ message of calling
And here’s why it’s important...Bartimaeus RESPONDS. The text tells us that he sprang up, threw off his cloak, went to Jesus, was healed and then FOLLOWED HIM.
That’s a 5 point response by the way...for those of you keeping track.
You see, it’s not just that Bartimaeus “saw” Jesus for who and what he really was--a healer, teacher and preacher, the one who invites the outcast in, the Messiah--but he responded. The text says that he threw off his cloak and that he followed Jesus. He left behind his old life as a beggar to follow Jesus. And not just to be a follower, but one who would go into Jerusalem with him.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we “domesticate” the holy in our lives. What I mean by that is how do we experience the Divine in ways that make it easier.
For example...I’ve been reading this book about Marian apparitions that occurred in France from 1667-1871...just a little over 200 years of apparitions. While many people believed what they saw, or the stories they heard, there were also people who didn’t believe because of the messages that came along with the apparitions...messages about repenting from sin, messages to pray more, messages to care for the least of these. The messages that came with these apparitions were “too hard” for some people, and so they chose to ignore or disbelieve the apparitions.
In the same way, many who followed Jesus, including those closest to him, often chose to ignore or not believe in the very hard message he had about discipleship--that it means giving up old ways, giving up old patterns of behavior, being willing to follow Jesus even when it is scary...all the way to Jerusalem. While Bartimaeus certainly gave up his cloak and followed Jesus, we never hear about him again. We never hear what happens when he arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus and the other disciples and followers. Did he still see Jesus as the Messiah, even though he was arrested, tried and crucified? Or did he deny even knowing him the way Peter did? We don’t know.
So for me, this story serves as a reminder that we have a choice. We can cry out to Jesus and then respond to his call, following him even into the hard parts of life, or we can chose to remain spiritually blind, disregarding the grace, healing and love that Jesus so freely gives. The choice is ours.
What must I do to inherit the Kingdom?
This is the question the rich young man asks Jesus. He’d followed all the laws, he’d apparently led an upright life, but there was still a sense of anxiety for this young man--he wasn’t 100% sure that he’d done all that he could to be part of God’s kingdom. We could psychoanalyze the young man to try to figure out the source of his anxiety, but that probably wouldn’t get us very far. We could judge ourselves against the young man--he was righteous and was worried, should I be worried? Have I done all that I can do? Again, questions that might not get us very far.
So what if we took it a step further and looked at Jesus’ response--surely the answer to riddle is there. Jesus says to the young man--he tells him to give away everything he owns to the poor. Well, I don’t know about you, but my response to Jesus may have been much like the young man’s--really, everything? I have to give away EVERYTHING?! Nevermind.
Well, we don’t like that answer. It’s too hard. We enjoy the comforts of our lives--our homes, cars, the food we eat, the clothes we wear. Some of us may have more financial resources than others. Some of us may have experienced times of financial insecurity in our lives. Some of us may be saving our pennies for a rainy day, while others are living paycheck to paycheck. So the idea of giving everything away is scary. We can come up with a million reasons why we shouldn’t give away everything. That’s probably why Jesus told his disciples that he knew that it wasn’t an easy thing to inherit the kingdom.
But what if we thought about this story in a slightly different, more nuanced way?
When the young man asks Jesus about inheriting the kingdom, we assume that he’s coming with pure intentions. The gospel writer gives us no reason to think that the young man is trying to challenge Jesus, so we have to believe that he’s asking out of a place of deep desire to know and relieve his anxiety. And before Jesus responds, the gospel says Jesus looked at him and loved him.
In the original Greek, the phrase “to look at” is really “sees into”. Jesus saw into this young man’s heart. I wonder what he saw? My guess is that this young man is much like many of us here--we intellectually KNOW all the things we’re supposed to do or be--we know that as Christians we’re supposed to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, to feed the homeless and clothe the naked--we KNOW this stuff. But in our hearts---well, how well do we know this stuff? In our hearts are we able to give up our ego, our expectations, our power and status? In our hearts, are we able to truly live as Jesus calls us to? My guess is that when Jesus looked at the young man, he saw that even though he was living righteously, he hadn’t truly changed in his core being. That kind of change--the willingness to give up EVERYTHING--is hard.
About once a year I go back and read passages from a couple of books that have had a big impact on my own change of heart. One of them is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. In her book she explores the myth of scarcity and how much that myth controls our lives. Brown explains that:
Scarcity is the ‘never enough’ problem….Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants. (pg 26)
She goes on to explain that this sense of scarcity doesn’t just happen overnight, but rather there’s a formula to how scarcity develops in a community: it’s based in shame (self-worth is tied to achievement, productivity or compliance), comparison (being held to narrow standards and ideal expectations), and disengagement (being afraid to take risks or try new things).
If we observe the young man, we can see that while he had wealth, he was concerned about what he was lacking--that he was unsure of what he must DO to be part of God’s Kingdom. Most likely he was a successful person and he appears to be knowledgeable about the Torah, but his unwillingness or perhaps inability to engage those unlike himself--to give away everything--was too much. He couldn’t or wasn’t able to let go of who and what he was to try a new way of being in community.
And really, that’s what this whole lesson from Jesus is about. It isn’t about figuring out what you can live without, it isn’t even necessarily about giving away all your possessions and money. It’s about letting go in order to be made new in the kingdom. God doesn’t live in a world of scarcity...everything that God has to give is given abundantly, freely, and without strings attached. That’s part of why it’s so hard for us...we’re not God. We worry about not having or not being enough. Instead of understanding that the kingdom of God is about what you can be, can do or can give, it’s about having faith that God loves us, supports us, and truly wants the best for us. It’s not about us--it’s about God.
So I invite all of us to consider what in our lives we need to let go of so that our hearts can be more open to God’s grace and generosity. I invite us to consider, if Jesus were to see into our hearts, would he see someone who is open, trusting, generous and loving? Would he see someone who cares about their community, not just themselves? Would he see someone who is ready to be transformed? What would Jesus see when he looks into our hearts?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.