here, by the grace of God, are we

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 6.20-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 6, 2016

According to legend, John Bradford,[1] a 16th century English reformer, destined to be imprisoned in the Tower of London and burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, watching a group of prisoners being led to their executions, observed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Thereby, he gave to succeeding generations a succinct statement of righteous recognition that another’s misfortune could be one’s own if not for divine blessing, more particularly, that one’s providence is in God’s hands, and, more generally, that one’s fate is not, is never entirely in one’s control, but alway subject to circumstance and chance.

Growing up, I often heard my father, when speaking of those amidst life’s travails, quietly comment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Later, as a student of scripture, I realized that John Bradford, my father, and countless others had paraphrased Paul’s gratitude for having been called to be an apostle after having persecuted the followers of Jesus: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”[2]

This spirit of righteous recognition is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

all-saints-albrecht-durer-1511

Today, we observe All Saints’ Day;[4] “saint” being a New Testament title for a Christian.[5] Today is our annual reminder that we, throughout the year, are to “sing a song of the saints of God,”[6] commemorating those of bygone days “who from their labors rest…who…by faith before the world confessed th(e) Name (of) Jesus[7] and those who “lived not only in ages past,”[8] including us in our time who follow Jesus and those not yet born who, known only in the mind of God, will proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord in generations to come.

In Christian tradition, our heroines and heroes are those like the first apostles[9] who were martyred, though threatened with death, refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus or like Mother, now St. Teresa of Kolkata who demonstrated an especial degree of holiness of life and kindness for the living and the dying or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died for the cause of justice. Yes, they and more are worthy of honor as saints of God.

Yet we dare stand, do stand with them in saintly light because they, as we, were human. All, as we, flawed. All, as we, falling short of the glory of God.[10] All, as we, poor, impoverished in every way, except being perfect in imperfection. All, as we, Jesus calls blessed!

Let us, included among the saints, pay close attention to Jesus, who speaks to us, saying, “you that listen.” Listening to his declaration of discipleship, let us, on this All Saints’ Day, reenlist as saints, committing ourselves to do as Jesus commands: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…”

This is radical! As in the Latin radix, “root”, in a spiritual sense, meaning a return to the origin of things, going back to the way God intended from the dawn of creation. And, let’s be honest, in an existential sense, radical as in extreme, even crazy; beyond the reach of reason, surpassing any sane expectation!

Yet Jesus’ declaration is a description of who a saint is and what a saint does. Jesus’ declaration is a description of saints who pray and saints who work, here and now, in this life, in this world to fulfill the prayer, “Our Father…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even more, Jesus’ declaration is a description of God’s nature, who God is and, still more, the way God treats us! God loves us, does good to us, blesses us – with the miracle of life, health, and strength; minds to think and dream, hearts to feel and love; the majesty of creation, the earth, our island home set in the ever-expanding sea of infinite galaxies; the marvel of families and friends to share life’s joys and sorrows – even when we are enemies of God, whether in ignorance failing or knowing, yet refusing to do God’s will.

Against a world continually rife with violence, against our American political scene sullied with the vilification of parties and the demonization of persons, Jesus’ declaration of saintly living stands in razor-sharp contrast. On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember those in ages past, we, for here, by the grace of God, are we as God’s saints in our day, are called to do God’s will and thus bequeath a legacy of righteousness for those to come.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] John Bradford (1510–1555)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.10

[3] In the parallel text of Matthew (5.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (my emphasis); being those who know their inherent lack of power to secure their futures, much less save themselves from eternal death and thus who know their daily, constant need for God. Luke refuses to spiritualize our human deficiency, viewing poverty as the scarcity of resources in every dimension of human existence; spiritual, yes, but also physical, intellectual, and material.

[4] Since the 10th century of the Common Era, observed in the western Christian Church on November 1.

[5] For example, see Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2, 2 Corinthians 1.1, Ephesians 1.1, Philippians 1.1, Colossians 1.2.

[6] From the hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), The Hymnal 1982, #293.

[7] Paraphrasing words of William Walsham How (1823-1897), from the hymn, For all the saints, The Hymnal 1982, #287.

[8] Scott, verse 3

[9] See Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7. See also Acts 12.2: King Herod killed the Apostle James with a sword. According to legend, all of the apostles, save John who was exiled, died violently.

[10] Romans 3.23