- Revelation to John 7: 9-17
Under duress as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire, the writer recalls for the community of followers of Jesus (from memory?) fragments from the prophets, especially Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah as well as Psalm 23, and envisions an ending consistent with the rest of the story of God’s relationship with creation. He sees all those “no one can count” who have believed and died, many as martyrs. Robed in white (their baptismal garment?) and holding palm branches, they join with the angels, the elders and the “four living creatures” around God’s throne in worship. Their torment is over, “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.”
- Psalm 34
The psalmist recalls perilous times from his past when he called on the Lord who answered and saved him. From his personal experience he extrapolates to all in dire circumstances who look to the Lord and “beam.” God sends a “messenger” for protection. Happy is the person who takes shelter in the Lord’s protection.
- I John 3: 1-3
According to this first letter attributed to John, clearly there are some things we know and some things we do not yet know. We know we are God’s children, but “what we will be has not been revealed.” We do know we will in some fashion be like God, but not exactly how. Until all is made clear, purify yourselves as God is pure. We can be certain of one thing: because “the world” does not understand God, it will not understand those who follow God’s ways.
- Matthew 5: 1-12
In Matthew’s chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in the text before he meets his fate. What they hear from Jesus is a series of contrasts that are completely counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who “hunger for righteousness” and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus’ example, will be known as “children of God.” However, the same old human story relentlessly continues: you can expect to be persecuted “in the same way the prophets who were before you.”
Fergus Kerr concludes a chapter in Theology after Wittgenstein with his own translation of two famous aphorisms of Wittgenstein– “Language–I want to say– is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed'” (p. 120)
Biblical narratives, teachings, commandments, admonitions and invitations originated in some concrete deeds or actions or experience in the lives of specific individuals. The experiences of these people were remembered. Those memories eventually became texts, gathered together and designated as canonical. Reading these texts, we see ourselves in their stories as we forge our own story. If biblical texts were not based on the experiences of individual women and men, they would just float above actual human experience somewhere. (Even if they were not recorded as “historical” figures, these lives were presented in fully human terms.) Some individuals, such as Abraham and Sarah or Moses or David or Mary or Mary Magdalene or Peter or Paul are seminal. Over the intervening centuries, others such as Francis of Assisi, or Anselm or Alban have come to comprise the tradition of the church. And not to be forgotten are the people in your personal history from whom you heard about this faith. Faith in communicable. (Now, what about those who are learning about the faith from you, particularly those children for whom you bear responsibility?)
Individual lives– the decisions and choices made, the actions taken, the anxieties and hopes expressed– become memories, memories are distilled into stories, stories become texts, and texts become the parameters within which we imagine and live out our lives. In biblical texts, the stories of individual lives are put into a story of God’s love for all creation from its beginning to its ending.
The Feast of All Saints is not about a few heroic moments in the lives of a handful of people. It is about all of us–“no one can count”– who share a common memory. We have been told that all of us are “children of God;” that we should wager our lives on God’s wisdom, not conventional wisdom, (summarized as fully as anywhere in Matthew’s gospel by Jesus right at the beginning of his public life as a series of contrasts that is today’s appointed gospel), by which we are invited to bet our lives on will prevail and will lead to the best life has to offer. The stories of those who have already tried this way way to live this life resonate with us only because we see ourselves in them. By recalling them, we celebrate on this feast day our shared status as a “child of God forever.” For a fleeting moment, we can stand outside history and glimpse a vision similar to John the Divine of all those who have gone before us in faith, whose stories inspire and expand our horizons as we write our own stories. “In the beginning was the deed;” an experience of God by an individual. Deeds became lives, became stories, became texts which give us the vital clues how to live our lives– if we choose. Lives were changed; lives are changed!