20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
It’s All Saints Sunday today. I know this might not ever be a popular idea but I am officially suggesting we re-name this ancient feast of the church All Sinners and Saints Day. And here’s why:
Because a couple months ago Amy Clifford and I were walking down Sherman between 13th & 14th when we noticed a large memorial in the courtyard of that weird Pillar of Fire church across from the capital…you know, the one with big pink call letters KPOF on roof…anyhow…so this memorial said “Alma White, founder of the Pillar of Fire church 1901” I totally freaked. Turning to ACliff I said “Alma…that’s a woman’s name isn’t it? Did a woman plant a church in urban Denver in 1901????” Desperate for someone I can place in the category “hero” or “role model” it took me about 2 seconds to pull out my iphone and look up information on Alma White. My excitement about discovering a new hero only built as I read her Wikepedia entry…and I quote “Alma Bridwell White (born 1862 – died 1946) was the founder, and a 'bishop,' of the Pillar of Fire Church. In 1918, she became the first 'woman bishop' in the United States. She was noted for her feminism, ......and her association with the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey, .....her anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, racism, and..... hostility to immigrants”
The next day I called my friend Sara to tell her the story of how I thought I had a hero but it ends up she’s just a lousy racist… and her response was “email me her name…I’ll add her to the litany of saints along with all the other broken people of God”
I don’t want Alma White on the litany of saints. It messes with my categories…I want racists to stay in the ‘racist’ box. When they start sneaking into the ‘saint’ box it, you know, makes me nervous.
But on this day when we remember the dead I wonder if examining how we use categories and boxes might be useful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we can avoid using them all together…What ways do we have of understanding the world around us if not through the use of category? Early in human development putting things in proper categories allowed for our survival… knowing whether a certain plant, for instance, fell in the category “dinner” or the category “poison”. So while they are inevitable, categories and our use of them can also be a window into our desires…especially when it comes to our need for purity.. wanting the good people to be all good and the bad people to be all bad.
So in Luke’s Beatitudes we heard earlier you know the “blessed are”s the and “woe to”s…well it feels like Jesus has a few things to say about our reliance on categories. He comes and says you know your category “blessed” the big box in which you conceptually place all the good things and the lucky people? Well, Jesus says, just watch as I slip some unsettling things into your box labled “blessed” And out of the corner of our eye we see Jesus put the poor, the hungry, the reviled into the blessed box, and do it with impunity.
Then he turns and puts all the wrong people in the ‘woe to you’ box: the wealthy, those with full bellies along with people who laugh.
And that’s what Jesus does with our categories, our precious ways if being so sure about everything: who is good who is bad who is blessed who is cursed who is right who is wrong. Maybe Jesus is telling us that our categories and need for purity aren’t actually going to help us understand God at all.
I, for one, think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kinda important. But when Jesus again and again says that last shall be first and the first shall be last and the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed and that prostitutes make great dinner guests then it makes me wonder if our need for pure black and white categories is maybe not true religion at all but is actually sin. Bonhoeffer said the original sin in the garden of Eden was choosing knowledge of good and evil over the knowledge of God. We’d rather know what categories we fit in and more importantly what categories others fit in rather than know God and I think on some level what that ends up meaning is that we can either try and be God, or we can know God. It’s kinda hard to pull off both.
So when Jesus messes with all our categories it’s not a call to get better categories, maybe it’s a call to subvert them all together. Because what we are dealing with here is not so much an either/or God but a both/and God. And in a culture that thinks the purpose of religion is the proper application of categories: right from wrong, good from bad, sinner from saint, pure from impure this can be a problem. Yet suspending the categories for a minute might just allow us to sit in what the mystics called the great cloud of unknowing.
And where are we the closest to the great unknowing but when we touch the mystery of death. Death, the ultimate impurity.
It is finally only a God who does not adhere to our categories who can enter into death itself and say even here…even here on the cross I will be found. I will be with my broken saints and forgiven sinners not just in times of full bellies and laughter but in times of suffering and despair. And in this both/and God in whom we live and move and have our being that we are connected to all who were and all who are and all who will be. So that even the categories of time and space are suspended, supplanted, subverted. This is what it is to be sainted – it is to be entirely human and bound to the broken reality of life yet somehow free from all of it at the same time. This freedom, this unknowing in the face of God is the key to sainthood that is, to understanding all our lives as belonging to, coming from, going to God.
For it is not our ability to be saintly but God’s ability to work through sinners that makes us and those who have gone before us the saints of God. It is not our ability to choose good over evil which makes us pure – it’s God’s ability to forever name us as God’s own which makes us saints. The title is always conferred…it’s never earned.
I mean, Alma White was a stone-cold racist who also paved the way for women become leaders in the church. To say a racist can be a saint is not the same as saying that being a racist is saintly. Martin Luther reformed the church, translated the Bible into the vernacular so that for the first time in history regular people could read it and then toward the end of his life he wrote horrible anti-semetic rants. Martin Luther King Jr sparked a non-violent revolution in America insisting on the freedom and dignity of all God’s children and he cheated on his wife.
The point being lets call a sin a sin by all means but if we want purity in our Saints or in our selves we are going to be disappointed.
So on the Feast of All Saints and Sinners let us celebrate not the myth of saintly purity but the God who manages to get all kinds of redemptive beautiful things done through broken saints and redeemed sinners. And let us sit in the great cloud of unknowing with the communion of saints being certain of nothing but the mystery of it all…and that somehow in this both/and God all of what we see as good and bad and pure and impure…the saints and the racists all of it is held together. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. Alleluia. Amen