Today as we celebrate the lives of the holy men and women of God is not the time to think about what made them holy. That’s easy - God. On this All Saints Sunday we should dwell more of what makes them and each of us human.
What are the universal human traits? Robert Peston, the BBC business editor reflected on it all recently in an article (you can read it here) he wrote about a year on from the death of his wife Sian Busby.
One of those traits is bravery. He reflects, very movingly, how brave she was in the face of terminal illness,
‘… Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful? … [She] was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know…’
It’s all too easy though to think of the Saints in their humanity as being nice people, people ‘like us’, people who we’d invite for dinner, and yet St Luke’s account of Jesus’ words this morning should bring us up short.
St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you see, contains language that is just familiar enough to us that we can easily read or listen to it without really paying attention. We tend to hear it through Matthew’s better-known version, where the poor are poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst do so for the sake of righteousness. But not so in Luke. In Luke they’re just poor and hungry and hated -- vagrant beggars who can’t sustain themselves, can’t provide for themselves, are hard to look at, and are a drain on the system.
The Greek word that Luke uses to describe the poor is ptochoi. The ‘Pt’ sound should take us back to words like Pterodactyl. It’s not that the poor are dinosaurs or dying out, in these austere days - far from it - rather the poor swirl around the marketplace like birds pecking up stray crumbs or any charity they can.
The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek words for vertigo in the face of falling. It would remind Jesus’ hearers that for the poor, life is risky tightrope walk.
Jesus’ words of blessing are picking up body and character. The people who are blessed are not simply an economic class characterized by their net worth, they are people who must compete against each other, swirling and skittering in the imposed act of begging. They are people who embody signs of how easily any one of us might fall.
The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek word “ptuo,” which means “I am spitting.”
Blessed are the spat-upon. There’s a blessing to stop your heart.
Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are impossibly weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In short, the Saints we remember today, the poor, the broken, the lonely, the insecure, those we’d just rather avoid, are losers. And yet Jesus calls them blessed, holy, favoured by God, Saints. Why? Simply because God always reserves God’s most acute attention for those in need, those left behind by the powers that be, those left out of the lavish bounty of the world’s produce. Sometimes called God’s preferential treatment of the poor, at other places epitomized by recognizing that God is always on the side of the underdog, God’s unfailing and unflagging concern for the losers of this world is etched across the pages of Scripture in letters deep and clear enough for anyone willing to read.
And in case we’re not sure, Jesus goes on not only to uplift the poor and hungry and those hated for his sake, but also to warn those who are rich.
This is, of course, a challenging verse for most of us to hear. For even after a multi-year recession and nearly imperceptible recovery most of us are still far better off than the vast majority of the world’s population.
Is that part of the reason it’s hard for us to identity with the people Jesus lifts up? Have we worked hard enough to attain a measure of security that hearing Jesus affirm what we have tried to avoid is unthinkable? Do we fail to recognize in the face of poverty near and abroad the face of our Lord, beckoning us to do with less that others may have more? Or does the idea of that kind of vulnerability -- the kind imposed, not chosen, by poverty, hunger, and persecution -- simply make us shrink back and fail to recognize our own vulnerability and need.
We need to recognise that we are losers. We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us otherwise. We dress well. We live in nice homes. We work hard to be upwardly mobile. But no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, still find it hard to love ourselves or others, still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground. We, too, are losers, and unless we recognize and confess that -- not as something to be ashamed of, but as one of the defining elements of our existence -- we will have a hard time receiving the mercy and forgiveness, grace and life Jesus offers.
When we consider the lives of those the church traditionally calls Saints, what strikes me first is how very ordinary most of them were ….from that clutch of Galilean fishermen to a consumptive French nun, from a wounded soldier who spent most of his time dreaming of damsels in distress to a forthright Albanian with a genius for spotting Christ in the slums of Calcutta. None of them looked in the least remarkable – they didn't start out as super-holy beings. They were losers for Christ, accepting His gift of grace, and in so doing, they found themselves transformed.
On this All Saints Sunday, we thank God for His transforming grace at work in people past as well as in us today as we seek to follow Him. We pray that we would not squander His grace to us, but rather that we let it transform us with the poor, the hated, the grieving amongst us, to be Saints - fellow losers for Christ.