The Sunday within the Octave of All Saints
4 November 2016
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
As a kid especially interested in military history, for a long time I used to think that no one in my family did anything significant during World War Two. To be fair, my grandparents’ generation were all born in the first decade of the twentieth-century and by the time the United States entered the war at the very end of 1941 they were all in their mid to late 30s. My paternal grandfather was a physician with the Selective Service System, working in the Bronx to judge the fitness of young men for service in the military. My maternal grandfather was a newspaper man, and journalists (thought important members of our civil society in that time of crisis), were exempted from military service. I did know somewhere at the back of my mind that my great uncle William was in the army and did something with refugees, but it did not make an impression. Not until this past week.
A little over a week ago a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and attacked the congregation at prayer, killing eleven. He made it clear during his attack, and before in his postings on social media, that he was motivated not only by anti-Semitism, but specifically by anger and resentment at the congregation’s work with refugees, about their association with an organisation called HIAS. That rang a bell. I called my mother. “Didn’t Uncle Billy work with HIAS during the War?” “Yes.” He was a lawyer, and from before the United States entered the war, he travelled to Lisbon for HIAS to help secure the escape and settlement in the United States of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. He stayed with HIAS after the war until he retired in 1975. He worked with individuals and families fleeing oppression and tyranny, including major involvement in the humanitarian efforts to assist displaced persons following the Hungarian uprising of 1956. He also worked systematically on immigration reform, drafting legislation and testifying before congress to help pass several important pieces of immigration reform. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society began in 1881 helping Jewish refugees, and since the 1950s has been a Jewish organisation helping all refugees.
That we live in a moment when a white supremacist, encouraged by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the president and those complicit with him, can feel emboldened to attack people at prayer, a minority that has been subject to oppression for millennia, because they in turn are helping those in need, is a hard reality to swallow. That those who call themselves Christian are lining up against the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, is just wrong. It is sinful.
As we celebrate All Saints Day we are reminded by the Beatitudes of Jesus’ call to us to stand in solidarity with both the vulnerable and those who are called to minister to and with them. Indeed, on any day we might be counted among either group, for the vulnerable are not some “other,” but fellow human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, like you and like me, like each and every one of us. Immigrants, refugees, Jews, Muslims, anyone different from us on account of the colour of their skin, their religion, where they come from, whom they love, enrich our experience with their differences, as we do theirs with ours. We share a common humanity, a common vulnerability. In the terms of Matthew’s Gospel, we are by definition the community of prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.
We are called as Christians to recognise this, see this in others, see the blessedness in those whom the world does not see, in those otherwise invisible to the powerful or those blinded by hate or indifference. As I have said before, although each moment feels as if the world has hit rock bottom, I can say without hesitation that today the world teems with the “poor in spirit, ... those who mourn, ... and the meek.” The world teems with those considered weak by the powerful, but who have experienced and known love. This is the world that requires “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, ... the merciful, ... the pure in heart, ... the peacemakers” who care for others, who act not from self-interest, but from concern for others, who desire to participate in the loving work of God.
This is, of course, the work of the saints, work Jesus knows will be hard and unpopular for he tells us that those who take up this work will be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Yet he tells us, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” for it is indeed on his account we do this work. Those of us who profess the Christian faith, who take on the ministry conferred upon us, authorised, in our Baptism, do this work on Jesus’ account. We do this work on account of him who entered into the flesh to affirm that nothing in creation is itself evil or unredeemed, who suffered at the hand of the powerful who feared his loving project, and who triumphed over that suffering and death, showing us that the love to which we are called defeats that evil, defeats that death every time. In our baptism—the very Baptism into which Henry enters today— we take on the mantle of sainthood. We take on the mantle that protects us so that we might be bearers of divine love into the world and live out the promise of the Beatitudes, live out the life that shows as we helped even the least these of our brothers and sisters, we have done the same for our God.
The promise of sainthood, the promise of the Beatitudes, the promise of the Great Commandment, the life lived on the side of refugees and immigrants, of the stranger and the sojourner, of anyone marginalised in our society, is beautifully and figuratively described in the Revelation to John.
... one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
As hard is this work is, as discouraging as it can seem at times, this is the promise. And you know what? It isn’t even the promise for some far off end-time, it is a promise for us, here and now, in our days. We can do this work, we can gather and be sheltered in the arms of God, of our Church, our community, our lived-out gathering of God’s incarnate love. We can feel and know the presence of that lamb, who paradoxically is also our shepherd. We are guided to the living water that quenches our thirst and we can be comforted, our tears wiped away from our eyes. This is the hope for Christian community, this is the hope for us who do the work we are called to do, not out of fear or coercion, or even out of a desire to one day reach heaven. It is the hope for us now as we cooperate with God in the working out of the Kingdom even in our own day. For in our own day, we can and will see the change for which we long.
We can be discouraged by the events of the past two weeks, of the past two years, but we can gain strength together to face the challenge set before us by Jesus in his preaching from the mountain today. We have it in us to stand with those who need us because Jesus did this first, showed us how, gave us strength, and left us a community to nurture and support us in this work.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 3 November 2018
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume