All Saints’ Day – Year C
Today is not actually All Saints’ Day; it was Friday. The reason I am especially aware of that is this: I and ten others, including three from this parish, are just back from a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. The food there is excellent – their chefs are trained at the Culinary Institute of America, located just across the Hudson River from the monastery – but the meals include desserts only on major feast days. It was no coincidence, then, that our retreat was scheduled to include November 1, All Saints’ Day. We didn’t want to miss the chance for one of their desserts.
Dessert aside, All Saints’ is important enough that, when, as this year, it falls on a weekday, parishes may celebrate it on the following Sunday. And most --probably nearly all -- do, seeing it as a holiday too important to miss. Why?
Well, first it is a time to remember and honor the saints who have come before us. This includes not only those who the church officially recognizes as saints, like St. Paul, but also all those others, known and unknown, who are now in heaven, and especially the loved ones no longer physically with us here on earth who our faith tells us are there among all the saints.
Second, All Saints’ Day reminds us that heaven awaits all those who accept Jesus as their Lord and savior, and thus of our hope of someday being blissfully reunited with our lost loved ones for all eternity. The All Saints’ Day readings in all three years of the lectionary cycle highlight promises of future heavenly rewards.
These are important reasons for our celebration today. But this day is not just about honoring the saints who have come before us and of assuring us of our hopes of joining them in the afterlife. No, it is also very much about what is available to us in the here and now. Before we get to that, though, let’s look more closely at today’s Gospel reading.
Today’s reading is the core of what is called Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In the portion of this chapter of Luke just before today’s reading begins, Jesus goes to a mountain and spends the night in prayer. When day comes, he calls his disciples, and selects twelve of them to be his apostles. He then descends from the mountain to “a level place” – a plain – where a great crowd has gathered, people from all around who have come to hear him and be healed. There, he reaches down and heals them. That’s where today’s reading begins. Surrounded by a crowd all trying to touch him, Jesus looks up to his disciples and pronounces four blessings – what we call the Beatitudes -- and four corresponding woes. He then instructs his disciples, and therefore us as well, to love our enemies and to do to others as we would have them do to us.
The Beatitudes here in Luke are a subset of those in the more familiar Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, but with differences. Matthew spiritualizes a few of them: In Luke, Jesus addresses the “poor”, but in Matthew, Jesus refers to the “poor in spirit”; In Luke, Jesus speaks to the “hungry”, but in Matthew he talks about those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” One commentator I read said that sometimes it’s nice to spiritualize things because then we don’t have to actually deal with them. But there is none of that in Luke. His four “blesseds” denote real world hardships: poverty, hunger, sorrow and rejection.
Conversely, the four “woes” in Luke (of which there are none in Matthew) denote things that the world, in Jesus’ time and today, tell us we are supposed to want– wealth, abundance, ease and admiration. They are the world’s definition of success. But Jesus turns societal expectations on their head and says those who endure hardships are blessed – in other words, they are the saints -- and those who have material and reputational success are not. How can that be?
I do not think that Jesus is saying that poverty and hunger are actual states of blessedness. Nor is he telling us to try to make ourselves poor, hungry or sorrowful on purpose in order to earn some heavenly reward. What he does recognize is this: it is often out of hardship that we recognize our need for God and for what God has to offer, while those whose circumstances make them feel no need for God miss out.
Author and columnist David Brooks’ new book The Second Mountain describes how this can happen. And it also shows how the blessings and woes of the first part of today’s Gospel reading tie together to Jesus’ somewhat abrupt switch in the second part to talk about loving others.
Brooks’ book is a study of people he has met who he says “radiate joy.” To describe who these people are and how they got there, he uses the analogy of two mountains.
We, all of us he says, grow up and begin our ascent on a first mountain, seeking “to be a success, to be well thought of” and to get “all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.” And then, for many of us, something happens to knock us off our mountain. An intervening event that wasn’t part of our original plan, a life-changing diagnosis, or the death of a child. Or maybe we land in the valley as a result of failures in our career or marriage. Or perhaps disillusionment – we achieve exactly what we set out to achieve but then find ourselves feeling unfulfilled, wondering “Is this all there is?”
When this happens, some people, Brooks says, “shrivel”. They become smaller, fearful, resentful of the raw deal that life has dealt them.
But for others, he says, the “valley is the making of them.” They realize that maybe “that first mountain wasn’t my mountain after all,” and they begin instead a journey on a second mountain, one that becomes for them a more “satisfying phase of life.” One that fills them with joy.
To get there, Brooks says, they stage “two small rebellions. First, they rebel against their ego ideal.” The ego goals that they strove for on the first mountain – “prominence, pleasure, and success” – cease to be important to them. Second, “they rebel against the mainstream culture.” They cease to be interested in what the world tells them they are supposed to want: “money, power, fame.” Instead, “[t]hey want to want the things that are truly worth wanting.”
And, for that, they show themselves to be “brave enough,” he says, “to let parts of their old self die”. They go from being “self-centered to other-centered.” They discover in themselves “a fundamental ability to care, a yearning to transcend the self and care for others.” When that happens, he says, they “are ready to become a whole person, … finally able to love their neighbor as themselves, not as a slogan but [as] a practical reality.”
Are the people Brooks is talking about, these people who “radiate joy” because they have, in Brooks’ words, “given themselves over to lives of deep and loving commitment” among “the saints” we honor today? Of course they are. Brooks does not use the word, but others have defined sainthood in almost exactly the terms that Brooks uses. For example, Episcopal priest Frank Hedegüs writes “We can determine our state of saintliness … by [the extent of] our willingness to be open to the needs of others. Sainthood becomes not so much some unattainable goal of moral excellence,” he says, “as it does a way of life marked by commitment to others and their needs.”
The “two small rebellions” that Brooks says open up the way to the second mountain are precisely what Jesus taught in today’s Gospel: rebellion against one’s ego ideal, and rebellion against the mainstream culture. Our ego ideal tells us that we should want others to think and say nice things about us. Jesus says “woe to you when all speak well of you;” it is, he says, those who have let go of seeking the approval of others who are blessed. Mainstream culture values material success, putting a premium on being wealthy, well fed and comfortable. Jesus rejects this, saying woe to those who put their trust in those things.
And the behaviors that Brooks observes in his “saints” look quite a lot like what Jesus urges for us. Every one of Jesus’s exhortations in the second part of today’s Gospel reading – loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to everyone who begs of us, doing to others as we would have them do to us – exemplify behaviors that could be expected, at least aspirationally, of those who, in Brooks’ words, have “given themselves over to lives of deep and loving commitment.”
Those sorts of lives do not have to involve dropping everything to go do field service work among the needy. Brooks points out, for example, that many of the second mountain people he has met “stay in their same jobs and their same marriages, but are transformed. It’s not about self anymore,” he says, “it’s about a summons. If they are principals, their joy is in seeing their teachers shine. If they work in a company, they no longer see themselves as managers but as mentors; their energies are devoted to helping others get better.” It is not so much, then, what we do, but how we do it: the attitudes we bring, the care we show and the love that permeates our actions. Opportunities that are available to us wherever and whenever.
The end result of what Brooks observed and what Jesus wants for us is the same: Joy. Not happiness, but joy. Whereas happiness is about the self, joy transcends self. “Happiness,” Brooks says, “is what we aim for on the first mountain. Joy is a by-product of living on the second mountain.”
And it is a by-product of a Christian life well lived as well. Saintly living yields joy. Indeed, what we prayed for in today’s Collect are “those ineffable joys” that God prepares for those who, loving God, live saintly lives.
And, as Brooks’ examples emphasize, this is joy that does not have to await the afterlife. As our little gradual hymn today -- one I find much wiser than it usually gets credit for being – celebrates, the world is bright with the joy of the hundreds of thousands of saints who are here in our midst today. And, yes, there’s not any reason, no not the least, why any of us couldn’t be one too.
Which is not to say that it is all up to us. God’s grace is freely on offer to help lift us out of life’s valleys, to give us strength to reorient our priorities away from self and toward others, and thereby lead us to a place where we, too, may find ourselves seized by joy.
It’s an opportunity we won’t want to miss.