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All Saints Day, November. 6, 2016

Nobody wants to be on the naughty list. In the movie “Elf”, the abandoned human adopted by the citizens of the North Pole is aghast to know that his biological father is on the naughty list. That meant no visit from Santa and no presents. Farrell sets out for New York, to get his father back on the nice list. He goes to his father’s family and they welcome him with open arms, but his father is a real curmudgeon, unmoved by the efforts of his son to help him. Spoiler alert: finally the efforts pay off and he is put on the nice list.

People are surprised to hear that Jesus has a naughty list as well as a nice list and it is a very serious matter. Isn’t Jesus supposed to love everyone? Jesus is giving a lesson in discipleship to his newly picked disciples and the crowd. He covers blessings and woes and behavior suitable to Christian disciples, all of which turn this world’s values upside down. He says the blessings of God are on the poor, the hungry, the mourning and those that are excluded and reviled for the sake of the gospel. Common belief was that these folks were in this shape because they did not deserve to be blessed. But Jesus says no. God has a particular interest in the marginalized. They will be filled and enjoy the riches of the kingdom of heaven. They will be happy and belong to the community of the faithful. They will be saints.

But wait! Is it any consolation to the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the outcast that they will be blessed in the kingdom of heaven? Is it any consolation that they have to stay in the status they are now until the final day when Jesus comes to judge? Did any of them ask to be in this position and aren’t they doing whatever they can to get out. They may be trying, but in Jesus’ day, social position was pretty much forever. What socioeconomic class you were in, how much you made, how you managed to find food to eat for your family, your outcast status, was something you lived with, not expecting things to change. So some hope is granted by the promise of blessing in the kingdom of heaven and blessing now, since the blessing becomes effective as Jesus is offering it (Fred Craddock).

Why are the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the outcast blessed? Because they are empty. No food, no money, loss of loved one, no community. They are utterly dependent on God through the kindness of others to offer them what they need. And utter dependence is trust in God, which causes you to be blessed. Your relationship with God is not in jeopardy (E. Elizabeth Johnson) because as Paul says, God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. God is able to bless you with divine mercy, and that is what God wants to do with all of us.

Now, what about those woes? If we are listening, we should be pretty uncomfortable by now. Most of us are fed, rich compared to the rest of the world, able to be happy and thought pretty well of. We are the very picture of the woes Jesus gives, a continuation of the reversal theme that permeates Luke. It is in the Magnificat, where Mary praises God for reversing the fortunes of the poor. It is in Jesus’ proclamation of the reason he came in the words of Isaiah, that God sent him to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and the year of the Lord’s favor.

Woes are pronounced because we are mostly satisfied with our lives and relatively certain we can get what we need ourselves. It is a temptation not to be dependent on God for all the blessings we have. Can we get out of the woes? It sure doesn’t seem like it. Seems as if we are all condemned to live in a state of hunger, poverty, weeping and exclusion when the kingdom comes. That may be divine judgment but is that divine mercy? It doesn’t look much like God’s gracious love, does it? And we expect God to be merciful – in fact Jesus says God is so at the end of his teaching. Can we expect to be helped in this life to know where our source of fulfillment comes from, so we can repent and be saved, even as we remain relatively full, rich, happy and included?

If we posit a merciful God it seems that we have two ways out of the woes. We need to stop being self-satisfied and dependent on ourselves to maintain our lifestyle. We need to be aware of the risk and insecurity of the world’s ways. Some of us are aware. We are powerless over one thing or another and we are empty – empty of ideas, empty of the ability to act, unable to stave off what we see as a bleak future. We can lose a job, we can lose a loved one, we can be put out of our homes by natural disasters and dependent on others for food, we can be excluded for unpopular opinions, especially Jesus says, those that preach gospel values like he is doing. The other way that perhaps we can avoid the woes is to go where Jesus goes, to help those that are poor, hungry, needy and excluded (E. Elizabeth Johnson). Often we get more out of ministering that those we minister to and being in ministry to and for others should bring a great feeling of blessedness.

Jesus has more to say about the life of a disciple. Their complete dependence on God has to do with how they treat their neighbors as well. They are to love their enemies. What? Enemies are to be fought and retaliated against. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and all that. That is perfectly permissible. But Jesus says no. Even enemies need to be treated with love as are the needy. We are supposed to do good for them. Another reversal that is part of God’s plan because the character of God is to love and our goal is to be in the image of God. We are to bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. That is quite foreign behavior to us, but if we carry bad feelings around in our heads or make plans to retaliate, that separates us from God. We are thinking so much about our resentments that it is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. We can’t focus on others if we are constantly focused on getting back at someone else. Offering the other cheek after the first one has been slapped, giving to everyone who begs and letting people take our stuff (and offering them more) are all part of the hard life of a disciple that Jesus wants to tell his followers and would-be followers about.

It is hard, this loving your enemies. The Christians in Mosul, Iraq, from which ISIS was just ejected, are having a great deal of trouble forgiving. They were victims of violence, fear and hate and ordered to convert to Islam, pay a tax or convert, says the Washington Post. They have lived in chaos for two years. Their lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. Yet forgiveness is what they – and we – are taught, not return violence.

And the violence. It is very hard to counter with non-aggression whether it be against a whole people or a schoolyard bully. I have a hard time believing that God would not want us to take care of ourselves and others as part of being a child of God.

Blessings and woes. Forgiving our enemies. Loving the ones we fear. Strong lessons from Jesus in discipleship. Risky places to be and risky behaviors. But if we depend on Jesus to guide us, we can be sure we will not be on the naughty list and be in the company of all the saints whom we remember today.

Amen

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 485
E. Elizabeth Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 241
Ibid, p. 239