Plain Speaking

October 31, 2010

Clay Nelson

All Saints’ Sunday     Luke 6:20-31


The challenge of preaching on All Saints Sunday is that there are so many sermons that could be preached. What does it mean to be a saint? What’s it take to be one? Why do we celebrate All Saints and Protestant denominations celebrate Reformation Day? Why is the Gospel for All Saints Day the Beatitudes from either Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain? I wonder: Did Jesus ever angst over what sermon to preach? Of course, to some degree it doesn’t matter. Whatever sermon I preach each of you will hear the one you need to hear or tune out completely using the time constructively to make out your grocery list.


While I decide what to preach on let me share some background. There is a reason All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday are held in opposition. All Saints Day was one major church feast that never fully caught on. It was intended to be up there in importance with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, but people weren’t showing up for church. This was bad for business. Selling the relics of the saints, promoting pilgrimages to holy sites of the saints and asking for saintly intercession were important sources of income to the church in the Middle Ages. All Saints Day was important to marketing them. To encourage attendance free indulgences were granted to those who came to Mass on All Saints. Indulgences are literally a “Get out of Jail” free card; only in this case it was to get out of Purgatory. The indulgence granted would assure that a loved one’s time awaiting to get into heaven was either shortened or eliminated. Free indulgences proved to be very popular, for normally one had to pay the church for them in this era. But on All Saints Day people only had to show up to make the afterlife a little less punishing for Uncle Bill or Aunt Sadie. Some would attend Mass several times on the day depending on how many relatives they thought might need a little help getting through the Pearly Gates.


By the early 16th century All Saints Day had become a symbol of a corrupt and immoral church to the reformers. Dissatisfaction with the Church could be found at all levels of society. The papacy lost much of its spiritual influence over its people because of the increasing tendency toward secularization. Popes and bishops acting more like kings and princes than spiritual guides fuelled people’s disdain. And as so many people were now crowding into cities, more and more people from all walks of life noticed the lavish homes and palaces of the Church. The poor resented the wealth of the papacy and the very rich were jealous of that wealth. At the same time, the popes bought and sold high offices, along with selling indulgences. All of this led to the increasing wealth of the Church – and this created new paths for abuses of every sort. Something was dreadfully wrong.


On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517 the dam broke when tradition says Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. As the town was crowded with pilgrims for All Saints Day word spread quickly and what was later known as the Reformation was ignited.


While much of the debate that followed would be about whether salvation was achieved through grace or good works and whether the church or scripture had more authority, I believe Martin Luther’s 86th Thesis captured the heart of the church’s need for reformation. In it he asks this very important question: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of Crassus (the richest man in ancient Rome), build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers (buying indulgences) rather than with his own money?"


It is this question that leads to what I’ve decided finally to preach on. 


I’m not sure when the Beatitudes that highlight the blessedness of the poor were decided on as the best Gospel for All Saints Day. If it was before the Reformation it was an ironic choice. If afterwards, it was a choice born of repentance. I choose to think it was the latter.


Luke’s Sermon on the Plain captures best the sense of repentance. Unlike in Matthew’s more spiritual Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not talking about the blessings and curses that will come some day, but the way the world is now and is calling for a new ethic; a new way of living in it now. And unlike on the mount, Jesus is only addressing his disciples. He is not blessing his own folk and cursing those who are not yet following in his Way. Amongst his followers in the Lukan community the rich and poor are both represented as are those who hunger and those who are well fed, those who mourn and those who laugh, those who are reviled and those who are pillars of society. Jesus could’ve been warning the pre-Reformation church. He could be warning the church today.


As we listen to Jesus we must remove any notes of judgment from his remarks. His only inflection is love and concern. When he speaks of the poor being blessed he is not saying abject poverty is a good thing. He isn’t saying the life of the poor isn’t unspeakably harsh. When he speaks to the rich he is not saying being rich is bad in itself. He is cautioning them that being rich has some dangers. He is saying the poor have an important advantage.


We might ask how is that? If we have never been in a place where we didn’t have a roof over our head or know where our next meal is coming from we are blind to certain realities. The poor don’t have to be told that life is fragile and full of injustice. They know existentially how vulnerable we all are to the vicissitudes of life. The poor do not have to be told what it is like to be a victim. The rich have no frame of reference for being solely dependent on the God we know as love or on the kindness of others. They live in a world of illusion that lets them think they are in control of their lives and that the transitory things they can and do have will give meaning to their lives. They are comfortable in their self-sufficiency and accept it all with a sense of entitlement.


Before you say to yourself, “No worries. I’m not rich,” let me suggest you may be richer than you think. There is a website called the Global Rich List where you can calculate how wealthy you are compared to everyone else on the planet. I put in my stipend as a priest and learned that there are only 307,011,494 people richer than I am. While that won’t get me onto the Forbes Fortune 500 wealthiest list, it does mean over five billion 700 thousand others suffer less woe than I do. What woe is that?


Not seeing the world like the poor makes it more difficult to find the compassion, love and forgiveness, which I would describe as the God within us and between us. The richer we are the less likely we will experience our oneness with creation and the divine. Without that experience there is only emptiness; emptiness we are tempted to fill with more possessions and wealth. 


Ultimately the rich find it more difficult to live out the new ethic that prevails in God’s realm. If that were not true, why does it feel like a loss and not a gain to do to others, as we would have them do to us? Why is it something we are more apt to do reluctantly than eagerly and joyfully? Consider these questions to be your indulgences for coming to church on All Saints Sunday. Your answers to them may lead to this life being a little less punishing for yourselves and the poor.

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