A Shared Privilege
Grace United Methodist Church
October 31, 2010
All Saints’ Sunday
Luke 6: 20-31 (NIV)
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
27“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Dorothea Hertzberg served a term as a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny, impoverished African country of Burkina Faso. One swelteringly hot day she was riding her bicycle along a cattle trail, when she felt something in the machinery snap. The wheels of the bike still turned, as did the pedals, but pumping the pedals accomplished nothing.
Dorothea resigned herself to pushing her bike the seven miles she had yet to go. The temperature was 115 degrees, and she had only half a bottle of water. It wasn’t long before an elderly man came toward her on his own bike. He asked what was wrong, and when she told him, he stopped and rummaged in his belongings until he found a long rubber strap, the sort of thing that could be used to tie packages onto the back of a bike. He attached one end of the strap to his bike, and the other to Dorothea’s handlebars. Turning around to go back the way he’d come, he began to pull the Peace Corps worker on her bike, toward her destination.
Dorothea described it this way, “It turned out to be one of the most hysterical yet touching moments of my life. What a scene we must have been. This poor man vigorously pedaling and dripping with sweat as he towed the American princess through the barren desert. Every villager we saw along the way shrieked in surprise and called out, ‘Good morning!’ After a while, I began to feel terribly guilty, posed on my bike, waving like a Rose Parade float queen…
An hour later we arrived at my destination. He was exhausted, I was giddy and in awe of his generosity. I took a long look at his face and those kind eyes, and I told myself never to forget it, because this man is the heart of Burkina Faso. This man is not an exception to his culture. He is the very essence of it. Burkina Faso means ‘the land of the upright and courageous people.’ It is one of the poorest countries in the world, but a place where I learned what giving truly means.”
We have heard this morning the stories of saints, stories like Dorothea’s, stories of people who have gone out of their way to teach us, to help us, to change our lives. Just as that elderly man on his bike captured the essence of Burkina Faso, so do the saints in the life of faith capture the essence of Jesus’ words found here in Luke. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” You see, I think we would all agree that one of the admirable qualities of these saints who have meant so much in our lives is not so much that they refrain from doing bad things (at least most of the time), but rather that they go out of their way to do good for others. That’s what “do to others as you would have them do to you” means. It means that no matter what that person does to us we will never allow ourselves to desire anything but his highest good; and that we will deliberately go out of our way to be good and kind to him.
As you think of the saints in your life, is that not the kind of people they are? People who want the best for everyone and deliberately go out of their way to see that it is so! These are the saints we celebrate today! We celebrate martyrs because they die for the faith, we celebrate saints because they live for the faith. Now and then some figure rises on the human scene who does approximate the incredible ideals of Jesus—a Francis of Assisi, going with radiant joy upon God’s way when he left all the cluttering things of this earth behind; a Mahatma Gandhi attaining a peace and power of soul beyond all common measurement, because he had cleansed his heart from hate and from every thought of violence and had committed himself completely to the persuasive power of love. But I’m not just talking about St. John or St. Mary or St. Francis or St. Augustine. I’m talking about Mom and Dad, and Joyce, and Ben; Aunt Sue, and Charles, and Myrtle, and Charlene, and ______. The celebration of All Saints’ Day is not just a celebration of the lives of people who are now gone, it is a celebration of all those people who have walked faithfully with Christ! It is a celebration of all who have experienced poverty, hunger, grief, and hatred because of the gospel. It is a celebration of all who love their enemies in that profound way that Jesus calls us to; modeling the extravagant generosity that we are all to be about as followers of Christ.
The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious and absurd generosity. Think of the very best thing you can do for the worst person and go ahead and do it! That’s basically what’s he’s commanding of us in these words recorded by Luke! Think of what you would really like someone to do for you, and then go and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be mean and nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead. It’s crazy!!! But that’s what this passage in Luke is all about, and these are the things that saints do day after day as they seek to follow Christ. It’s really amazing! To think of loving in this way and treating people, even our worst enemies, with love and generosity; it seems nearly impossible! But Jesus wouldn’t ask it of us if it were not possible, and what we celebrate on All Saints’ Day is all the Christ followers who have done these very things!
How can we do the same? How can we ever move beyond our own selfishness? How can we overcome our quick impulse of resentment, our anger and pride, and the slowness of our sympathy? How can we ever put into practice the actual spirit and conduct which Jesus has put before us in these words to his disciples? Yet even the least of us have glimpses of what this means. And we have such glimpses in great part because of the people in our lives who have walked with us, who have taught us, who have shown us the way by following the example of Christ themselves. And meanwhile, we can trust that Jesus, who set the goal so high and far, will have compassion and understanding for the slow steps of each of us who, though our eyes are tuned to him, are still so distant from his ideal.
There is a children’s book by Shel Silverstein entitled The Giving Tree. Silverstein wrote the book in answer to the question, “How do you understand Jesus?” It is the tale of the relationship between a young boy and a tree in the forest. “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” And so begins this remarkable tale of a the tree that always provides the boy with what he wants; branches on which to swing, shade in which to sit, and apples to eat. But as the boy grows older, so do his demands. He even asks the tree for more apples that he might sell and for branches with which he can build a house. But the tree loves the boy very much and gives him anything he asks for. In the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut her down so that the boy can build a boat in which he can sail. Then the boy leaves the tree, now nothing more than a stump, and he sails off. Many years later, the boy, now an old man returns to the tree. The tree says to the man, “I have nothing left to give you.”
The man replies, “I do not need much now, just a quiet place to sit and rest.”
Then the tree says, “Well, an old tree stump is a good place for sitting and resting. Come boy, sit down and rest.” The man did, and the tree was happy.
Christ calls us to be like to that tree; to give and give and give of ourselves out of love for another. Christ tells us not to hold anything back, to be so extravagantly generous that we offer all of ourselves until there is nothing left to give. Today we celebrate the “giving trees” in our lives. Those people who have freely offered us their fruit because they loved us. Those people who have willingly shaded us in their warm embrace because of their compassion for the lost; those people who have readily given of their whole lives so that Christ’s love might be made known in the lives of others.
Today, we remember and celebrate the saints who were happy to follow Christ in the most extravagant ways. I don’t know about you, but I’d be lost without such people. I’d be wandering along a cattle path in Burkina Faso with a broken bike. I’d be standing in the middle of the forest with the sun beaming down on me, hungry and thirsty with no place to sit in the shade and rest. I wouldn’t be standing here. And so today I lift thanks for Grandmommy and Granddaddy, for Bess and Ben, for Mom and Dad, for Ken, for Lindsay and Jim, for Mr. Pendley, Mr. Wade, Tim, Danny, and Scott; for Dr. Hicken and Dr. Britt, for Maya, and Tony, and Dr. Soulen. You have such a list as well. Today we give our thanks for all the saints who have followed Christ’s command to “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
It is no easy thing to live this way, to seek out the best for others no matter what, to be generous even when that generosity is taken advantage of, to love even in the face of hate. But these are the qualities of saints. And they are the qualities of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
I think any celebration of All Saints’ Day is empty without a recognition that we too are called to be saints. It’s a shared privilege. This world full of selfishness and hate needs to know selfless generosity and true love, and we are to be the people that show it. As disciples of Christ, we should live in such a way that someday people will lift us up as saints; not because we want recognition, and not even because we have died, but because we have lived the way Christ calls us to live, full of generous love for all.