The Feast of All Saints, 1 November 2020
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Background: The Treaty of Kadesh
For many Christians we only know of Kadesh from the verses of Psalm 29, and from other references in Genesis, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, and Ezekiel. But what is important about Kadesh is its influence on covenantal theology. A battle was fought at Kadesh at the Orontes River in 1274 BCE as Egypt, under Ramesses II, and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II, sought to limit the influence of the other in the lands of the Levant. The losses on both sides were huge, and the battle for the most part was inconclusive. Nonetheless, fifteen years later, in 1258 BCE a treaty was signed between the two powers, signaling a period of relative peace.
“As for these words which are on this tablet of silver of the land of Hatti and of the land of Egypt--as for him who shall not keep them, a thousand gods of the land of Hatti, together with a thousand gods of the land of Egypt, shall destroy his house, his land, and his servants. But, as for him who shall keep these words which are this tablet of silver, whether they are Hatti or whether they are Egyptians, and they are not neglectful of them, a thousand gods of the land of Hatti, together with a thousand gods of the land of Egypt, shall cause that he be well, shall cause that he live, together with his houses and his (land) and his servants.”
In the paragraph that precedes these blessings and curses, the heavens, the mountains and rivers of the earth, the great sea, and the winds and clouds, and all the gods are called upon to witness the enacting of this treaty between the two great powers. This pattern of blessings and curses and the style of the treaty itself becomes a template for a lot of what is known in the covenants between YHWH and the people of Israel in the Bible. In numerous instances, blessings and curses are announced, the hills and valleys are called upon to witness the covenant between the God of Israel, and the people of Israel.
You may be wondering why I am writing this as a background piece to this commentary on the Lectionary for the Feast of All Saints. In the Gospel from Matthew we have his softened version of Jesus’ beatitudes. Matthew includes only the blessings from this covenantal piece. However, if we look at them in Luke (6:20ff.) in the “Sermon on the Plain”, we will see that Luke includes both blessings, “Blessed are you who are poor…”, and curses, “But woe to you who are rich…”. It is a healthy reminder to all the saints that life contains both, and that the saints of today and those of the past have had to contend with both.
First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
"For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
The focal point of this pericope is the question posed by one of the elders, “Who are these?” In her controversial commentary on the Book of Revelation, Josephine Massyngberde Ford gives us an interesting answer. “The Hebrew word “ś’erit” expresses the idea of those ‘left,’ ‘delivered,’ or ‘escaped.’ …the notion of ‘remnant’ is often used in an eschatological context, which involves salvation and judgment.” After detailing the destruction that is promised with the breaking of the first six seals, (this pericope is seen as a pause before the breaking of the seventh), the prophet notes a great crowd of people, “who have survived the time of great distress.” This seems to be not only a theological sense of salvation, saved by the blood of the Lamb, but also is seen in a real sense, salvation from the oppressor. We know this idea of the remnant from both Isaiah and Jeremiah and have seen it in the history of Israel in the remnant that returns from exile to the land of their fathers and mothers. We also know this idea in the Essenes who left the city to live in the wilderness and to form a remnant of the righteous.
We might want to ask ourselves, as we celebrate this day and the righteous ones of holy memory, how we or they are a part of the remnant, what their salvation was from and who their oppressor might have been. This is the under the radar theme of revelation, and it might be a question we might want to wrestle with either as preachers or students of the Bible. Who are these? What was God’s judgment of them? How did they know of their salvation?
Breaking open Revelation:
1. In what ways are you one who is a remnant?
2. In what ways do you understand yourself to be saved?
3. In what ways do you recognize others who are in your holy company?
Psalm 34:1-10,22 Benedicam Dominum
1 I will bless the Lord at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.
2 I will glory in the Lord; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.
3 Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; *
let us exalt his Name together.
4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.
5 Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.
6 I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.
7 The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.
8 Taste and see that the Lord is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!
9 Fear the Lord, you that are his saints, *
for those who fear him lack nothing.
10 The young lions lack and suffer hunger, *
but those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good.
22 The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.
This is an acrostic psalm with one missing letter, and an additional pe. It is divided into two sections, verses 2-11, and verses 12-22. Verse 1 is an ascription, “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him out and he went away.” The first section, which is our reading for today, is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, while the second section, which will not be read today is a wisdom psalm. Verse 3 is sung or said in the Synagogue when the Torah scroll is brought out of the ark, where it is seen as a representation of God. The psalm rejoices in what God has done for the needy and the lowly, seen in the presence of the “angel of the Lord”, a remembrance from the Exodus story. Verse 8 has been seen by Christian readers of this psalm as a vision of the Eucharist.
Breaking open Psalm 34:
1. Where do you recognize God in the Bible?
2. Where do you recognize the needy and lowly in your world?
3. Who is the “angel of the Lord” for you?
Second Reading: I John 3:1-3
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
This pericope is inspired by verse 29 of the previous chapter: “If you consider that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him.” The author wants us to wrestle with what it means to be begotten by God. Rudolf Bultmann, in his commentary on the Johannine Epistles, says this – and it can be the focal point for our meditation on this text – “it means being a child of God and thus the gift of God’s love.” This thought is grist for the preacher’s mill, on what it might be to be the sign of God’s love to others. The next phrase in the text, however, gives us pause. The world might not recognize our deeds of love because it does not recognize or see in us the God of love. Human language will have to intervene.
There are also ideas of promise in the text, but the promise is hidden, yet to be revealed. Only the outcome is known, namely “being like him.” Bultmann saw all of this as being literally out of the world, unknown by the world, totally related to God. That is both our heritage and our promise. The hope that this represents makes for our righteousness, and, as the author says, our purity.
Breaking open I John:
1. Who have served as “parents” to you?
2. How do you see yourself as a child of God?
3. What do others see in you?
The Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
I always like Pasolini’s vision of this event. Rather than picturing it as a pleasant picnic in the meadow with a seated Jesus, and a comfortable audience, he sees a Jesus rushing along over the hillside, disciples and audience struggling to keep up with him. That vision adds an edge to Matthew’s account which sorely needs something to spice up the vision that Jesus is dishing out in this sermon. I like Luke’s better – he makes it a radical vision. For Luke it is “Blessed are the poor.” For Matthew, it’s softened, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke follows his blessings with the curses that always accompany a covenant agreement.
The first verse here is very important because it clues us in as to what is really going on here. It’s no gentle mount that Jesus ascends, but rather “the mountain.” And what might that mountain be other than a figurative Sinai, where the new Moses goes to gather the Law, and to expound on it to the people. They are comforting words, but they – if we really look at them – are challenging as well. The first and eighth beatitudes form a parenthesis into which the others fall – “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is the final “happiness” in verse 11 that gives us a clue as to how these might be challenging behaviors. The words “revile” and “persecute” jolt us back into the real world of Matthew’s readers and community. Despite all of the happiness, and blessedness that Jesus assigns to those who follow him, the reality is, such as we saw in the second reading from I John, that the world will not see and will revile and persecute.
Ulrich Luz, in his commentary on the Beatitudes, helps us to see this beyond the idea of blessing into the notion of exhortation. “In the Jewish context beatitudes were used above all in the wisdom parenesis as an expression of the connection between a person’s deeds and what happens to the person.” These are blessings of consequence and expectation. I think of them in the same vein as the Magnificat, in Luke. There is social consequence and expectation that come from these blessings, and from her hymn. The question for us is, how will our communities be blessed by our presence and our meekness, poverty, mercy, etc.?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. How are happiness and blessedness the same?
2. With which of the beatitudes do you identify the most?
3. Read Luke’s curses. Which convict portions of your life?
General idea: Discovering holiness in Community
Example 1: The holiness and righteousness of those who have been left, redeemed, and delivered (First Reading)
Example 2: Who are the children of God – where do you find them and what are the signs of their being? (Second Reading)
Example 3: How can we live in holiness, that the community might be both blessed and happy? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Ford, J. (1975), The Anchor Bible, Revelation, Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, page 120.
 Bultmann, R. (1973). The Johannine Epistles, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, page 47.
 Luz, U. (2007), Matthew 1-7, A Commentary, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, page 187.