November 1, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18||Psalm 149||Ephesians 1:11-23||Luke 6:20-31|
by David Grant Smith
Exploring the Feast Day
Often in many denominations there are specific prayers which are used to summarize the themes of the day — themes which are found in the scriptures, the liturgy, and the traditions of the day being celebrated. In my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have a large corpus of such prayers, which we call the Collect of the Day, because these prayers collect the themes of the day and the intentional prayers of those who are gathered, and which help to set the tone for the liturgy. Our Collect of the Day for All Saints’ Day is this:
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 245]
My own adaptation of the prayer is as follows:
Most Holy God, you have knit together your Church in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we might live into those inexpressible joys to which you call all of us who strive to love you deeply and our neighbors as ourselves; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
All Saints’ Day is, in many ways, a Festival that seems to have been made for process theology. One of the foundational principles of Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysic is “The many become one, and are increased by one,” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21); this is also a central theme of All Saints’ Day as expressed in the prayer above: “knit together… in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body…” Throughout the history of Christian history, there have been many individual saints days added to the calendar of the Church Year. But All Saints’ Day is a day given to the notion that all who embrace the Christian faith (or, more generally, all who live loving and faithful lives) are considered to be one community. It is a celebration of faithful people past, present, and even future. It is recognition of how the many have, by virtue of the choices they made and make in life, have been made one; and because the communion of many saints — past, present, and future — they form a new entity, making their number to be increased by one.
Much can also be said about how All Saints’ Day is a celebration of how wonderfully enriched the world becomes when people of any faith tradition (or even none at all) respond to the divine lure of God’s initial aim. Process theologians often articulate this in terms of how God is luring all of creation towards best possible outcomes in all moments of life. When creation responds favorably to this lure, there is an increase of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice in the world. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of how, throughout all time, people have lived into that vision, and the lives of many (both human and nonhuman) have been enriched by this communion of people of diverse cultures, faiths, backgrounds, and stories have helped to make the world a better place. A fine illustration of this communion of folk who have responded favorably to the divine lure can be found in the so-called “Dancing Saints Icon” [see video] which adorns the inside of the rotunda at the Church of St. Gregory Nyssa in San Francisco.
In the collect/prayer shared above, there is reference to “the mystical body” as being a metaphor for the Church. The image of the Body of Christ is found throughout the New Testament as well as throughout much of Church history. But the notion of that being a “mystical” communion is often glossed over. All Saints’ Day, like process theology, celebrates the experience of mysticism as being part and parcel of life. As process theologian Bruce Epperly observes in his Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed [p. 20], “Whitehead goes so far as to say that the mystical experiences and moments of transcendence from which religious traditions emerge, rare as they are, are not aberrations but provide insight into the nature of reality. [Whitehead, Religion in the Making, p. 30-33]” All Saints’ Day recognizes and give thanks for those whose mystical experiences have helped to shape and inspire the faith of countless others through the centuries, and can be a platform from which to encourage being open to them in the lives of ordinary people like those with whom we rub elbows daily.
All Saints’ Day, along with its companion Feast Day of All Souls’ Day, is often an opportunity for us to give thanks for “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light… with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one” [The Book of Occasional Services, p. 39]. Remembering dead loved ones in these Feast Days is a time-honored tradition, and can be an incredibly tangible way of nourishing a healthy grieving process, by which we give thanks for the way key people in our lives have helped to shape us and our faith. There are many ways to do this which range from the somewhat elegant but cautious Anglican tradition of honoring in the Liturgy a book of remembrance in which the names of deceased parishioners and their loved ones have been written all the way to the lavish, colorful, and lively Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Latin American churches and communities.
All Saints’ Day remembrances of the dead can be framed in process terms by affirming the many ways in which we acknowledge how the past is always with us, and that we have the choice in each moment how we will weave our past into the present moment as we look towards an open future. Process theology also affirms the notion of perpetual perishing — the idea that, as each moment brings together the many into one — there are aspects of every moment which perish and are never present with us again. This can be a helpful way of acknowledging the fleeting and fragile nature of life, in that there are no guarantees of tomorrow, which also can be an invitation to increase our resolve to be more intentional in how we live in the present moment.
Now having explored some of the main themes of All Saints’ Day, and how they can be linked to various concepts within and around process theology, let’s turn our attention to the scripture readings of the day. This commentary is utilizing the readings as found in the Revised Common Lectionary, recognizing that this may not fully reflect the lectionary of particular denominations.
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
“In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon . . . .” Process thought understands reality to be composed of events, rather than of matter or substance. So when biblical authors situate their writing into the context of time, we know that there has been a many which have come together to create the one, whatever it is that is being written about. In this case, it was more events that took place at that point in time — “Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream.”
When I was in seminary some twenty years ago, in my first semester I took an elective course for fun, Medieval Mystics for Moderns. Our beloved professor, Richard Henshaw, once asserted to us that the “main difference between the great mystics and us is that they actually wrote it down.” Dr. Henshaw, much like Whitehead, had a worldview in which it was normative to have mystical experiences, but that most people don’t write them down or speak openly about them because they fear how others will perceive them. The prophet Daniel’s “dream and visions of his head” have inspired people for well over two thousand years simply because he (or someone who knew his story) wrote it down. The mystical visions and dreams were made normative because they were shared with successive generations.
Although mystical experiences can be understood to be part of reality, and are quite normal, they don’t tend to happen very often for most of us. Often, the challenge with such experiences is determining what the experiences mean, and/or discerning whether they are an invitation or lure toward some kind of action, or if was simply a strange dream because we ate something too spicy before going to bed. For Daniel, the interpretation was part of the vision itself, which was very helpful indeed: “four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever — for ever and ever.” The vision was about persevering in the midst of evil and oppression.
Linking this to the celebration of All Saints’ Day, this reading from Daniel could serve as a launching pad for a sermon on how people can find inspiration to persist in living lives of holiness, responding favorably to God’s lure toward beauty, truth, adventure, peace, love, etc., even when the imperial powers seem to thrive around us (and there are more than just a few examples of those to be found in our contemporary context).
The psalmist’s cry, “Sing to the Holy One a new song,” is a call for creativity and an open invitation for novelty. Creativity and novelty are foundational in the process metaphysic. In fact, for Whitehead, creativity is the ultimate! All Saints’ Day is a celebration of the novelty and creativity which so many have already brought into the world and into God; and it is a day which can inspire us to nurture our own sense of creativity and potential for bringing a “new song” to birth. The psalmist makes sure that the creative and new things don’t need to be limited to singing. The author goes on to suggest that we can rejoice, be joyful, praise, dance, and play tambourines and harps (or any other instrument).
Psalm 149:5 finds a great variety of translations for the Hebrew word [מִשְׁכְּבוֹתָֽם]. Some translations say “couches” while others offer “beds.” While the former gives the connotation of being joyful in one’s living room, the other offers the notion of being joyful in some particularly intimate (dare we say “sensual?”) ways. Would it be daring to suggest that saints are people with joyful sex lives? Are procreation, sexual expression, and physical intimacy appropriate ways for offering praise to the Divine? The saints of old, just like the saints of today, were ordinary people who had physical bodies; and this was as much a part of their lives as anything else was.
While all this may be the case, it’s more likely, though, that the original poet of this psalm had something else in mind other than sex when writing about the beds/couches. In a discussion with my dear friend and colleague Meir Bargeron (a Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles) shared with me that the Talmud, a post-Biblical compendium of Jewish tradition and law, suggests that Psalm 149:5 (and the verses which follow) is about the recitation of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”):
The Gemara continues its treatment of the recitation of Shema upon one’s bed. Rabbi Yitzḥak said: Anyone who recites Shema on his bed, it is as if he holds a double-edged sword, guarding him from all evil, as it is stated: “High praises of God in their mouths, and a double-edged sword in their hands” (Psalms 149:6). The Gemara asks: From where is it inferred that this verse from Psalms refers to the recitation of Shema? Mar Zutra, and some say Rav Ashi, said: We derive it from the preceding verse, as it is written: “Let the pious exult in glory; let them joyously sing upon their beds.” The praise of God from one’s bed is the recitation of Shema. And it is written thereafter: “High praises of God in their mouths, and a double-edged sword in their hands.” [Babylonian Talmud, Berekhot 5a ]
My friend Meir then went on to say, “The Shema is recited at bedtime. The Talmud seems to be connecting the recitation of bedtime Shema to engaging in holy battle.” The second half of this psalm (vs. 6-9) does indeed have the imagery of battle within it. But the battle imagery woven into these verses isn’t so much an ode to blood shed in battle as it is about the empowerment of those who (in v. 5) are so safe in their beds that they can sing, sleep, and make love, rather than stay awake for fear of being attacked by their oppressors. Linking back to the themes of All Saints’ Day, this Feast is a celebration for the ways that faithful people through the ages have fought for the equality, empowerment, and safety of oppressed peoples. The vengeance, punishment, fetters, chains, and judgment alluded to in the final verses of the psalm aren’t so much literal as they are metaphoric tools used by faithful people to help bring God’s vision of the world into reality. [See Rabbi Richard Levy, Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary, (CCAR Press, 15th Edition, 2018) Vol. 2, p. 558-559.]
In the opening lines of this reading, there are some troublesome words which, if left unaddressed, may confuse people, especially in congregations that are familiar with the process assertion that the future is open and not predetermined — those tricky words are: destined, purpose, and will. Often, when these words pop up in scripture, they have been framed as a way of understanding how God “controls” the future. A process reading of this passage, however, lands in a different place altogether. In a process perspective, we understand that God’s purpose and will is to be “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his [sic] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 346]. God doesn’t impose God’s vision onto the world through coercive power; God lures the world with persuasion toward beauty and creative transformation in every moment. The future is open and unknown to both the world and God. The “purpose of [God]” — along with God’s “counsel and will” referred to in the opening section of this week’s Epistle is the Divine vision of what the world can become, the goal toward which God is forever luring us as co-creators to help bring that vision to fruition.
The author of Ephesians (whether it was Paul or someone in the Pauline tradition) asserts at the outset of this passage that “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.” This inheritance isn’t a false reality that God has control of the future and orders our destinies according to the Divine will. Rather, the inheritance which we have in Christ is the trajectory of our redeemed past continually being flung toward an open future. The inheritance which we receive isn’t a “one and done” proposition, but an ongoing reality of process — the reality that, in every moment, we are receiving (as an inheritance) the lure of God toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, art, peace, love, and justice. We are not inheriting a fait accompli, but rather the ongoing lure to work with God for the creative transformation of the world.
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians goes on to express gratitude for them, and prays for them regularly that they might have “wisdom and revelation,” “hope,” a “glorious inheritance,” and “power” — the same power which God put “to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead…” It’s important to note that the power which is referenced here isn’t coercive, but persuasive; and that this power isn’t static, but dynamic. The power of God in Christ is a power which is realized through vulnerability, service, and transparency, not through domination, subjugation, or exploitation. In our contemporary context it is difficult to not understand power as being related to gaining something — be it material goods, political clout, financial prowess, or people beholding to us. But the power of the Gospels and the Christian faith is, instead, defined in terms of its ability to transform the world for the common good. Related to that, the author’s claim in the final verse of this passage that Christ is “the head over all things for the church, which is his body,” is not a credal statement that Jesus is the head over the body which subjugated the other members of the body; but rather, this head is one which is intimately interdependent with the other members of the the body, and is leading the body by both persuasive lure and humble example. The saints whom we celebrate this day are those who have lived their lives similarly, willingly and favorably responding to the Divine lure to transform the world, moment by moment.
When approaching the synoptic Gospels, I often find myself looking to what I like to call the implicit theology of the bookends. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I have found key verses near the beginning and the end which seems to really state what the thesis statement (and the tone) is for that gospel’s author, and what falls between those statements is a detailed unpacking of that assertion. For Luke, I find the bookends in the Magnificat and toward the end of the Passion narrative. Both of these scenarios provide an insight into what I consider to be the theological thrust of the Gospel of Luke — that God’s vision of the world looks to us like an upside-down vision of reality, when in fact it is actually a right-side upping of all that is presently wrong in it. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary the mother of Jesus sings a hymn about how God’s justice has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” and has “filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” Then, toward the end of the Passion narrative, Jesus has a brief pastoral conversation with one of the others being crucified with him (23:39-43), in which Jesus assures him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” These bookends which surround the story of the life of Jesus give us insight into Luke’s theological perspective for the whole gospel — that only when the world is turned over will it be healed and whole. Only when the powerful are unseated and the vulnerable are exalted is the world set right; only when condemned enemies of imperial domination meet in heaven is the God’s vision brought to fruition. The latter bookend, of course, is followed by a whole chapter of resurrection stories which only add to the notion that the reversal of the present way of seeing things will do for God — because when that reversal takes place, death is conquered and humanity is transformed by the power of resurrection.
With these bookends in mind, today’s gospel reading bears the fruit of this right-side-upping of the world which Jesus proclaims. This passage falls in the center of the section of Luke which finds Jesus conducting his ministry in the region of Galilee (4:14–9:50). A common theme of Jesus’ teaching in his ministry is that he longs for Israel to return to the ancient ways of living into God’s purposes [cf. 5:36-39, esp. his preference for “old wine”]. Jesus’ message of returning to the ancient ways reaches a climactic point later on during his journey to Jerusalem (9:51–19:48), when he teaches the parable of the Good Samaritan as a way of demonstrating the “greatest commandment” to love God throughly and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (10:25-37). This parable also holds up the “bookends theology” in that it is a Samaritan (a despised outsider) who is the one who embodies God’s vision of love and justice for the world.
The passage before us for All Saints’ Day (6:20-31) is also found in Matthew (5:1-11, 39-40, 44, 42; 7:12), scattered throughout what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke, these teachings are given on a plain. The Lucan theology of turning the world over to make it right is central to today’s passage, and is quite fitting for celebrating a day dedicated to remembering and celebrating the countless saints who have lived their lives trying to live into this right-side-up vision toward which God, in Christ, is forever luring us. It’s critical to recall that “Jesus cultivates a new way of making sense of the world in which salvation is characterized as a reversal of fortunes. [Joel B. Green, New Interpreter’s Study Bible, note on Luke 6:20-26]”
There are quite a few process themes which can be explored through this passage. One approach would be to acknowledge that, though it need not be deterministic of our future, the past is always with us. But in this case, Jesus is trying to urge his disciples to let that collective past become a lure towards the ongoing transformation of the world; there are certainly some things in our past which are worthy of continuing to be carried forward.
Another potential theme to explore in a sermon might be to compare and contrast the positive and negative “blessed” and “woe” descriptions given by Jesus. It can be important, from time to time, for us to be reminded that, whether we are experiencing positive or negative prehensions, we can know that the omnipresence of God is something on which we can rely. But related to this, too, is the reality that there are those around us who are hurting and suffering in ways which we cannot begin to comprehend, and that God needs us to be present with them just as much as God does — we can show up, we can share of our abundance, we can stand in solidarity, we can advocate for the vulnerable, and so much more. God’s vision of how the world could be is dependent on our stepping up and working with God in the here and now to help transform it for the benefit of the common good. This, in short, is the work of being one of the saints of God whose we pause to celebrate this day.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the Process & Faith Coordinator at the Center for Process Studies. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.