Subversive saints

5 November 2017
All Saints’ Day, Observed (RCL)
Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

First, a translation issue. The word the NRSV (following right from the KJV) translates ‘Blessed’ in the Beatitudes (from which they get their name) doesn’t really mean blessed in either of the sense of that word in English, either ‘well spoken of’ or ‘fortunate.’ The word ‘makarios‘ means something like ‘How honorable!’ The Beatitudes are not telling us about the future state of those mentioned, but instead, holding them up for emulation. If you want to be invited to anybody’s party, its these folks’!

Every culture has its mythology, the story of those who embody the values to be emulated. Empires tend to honor the successful — usually militarily and/or in terms of wealth. For us, it is the American Dream; work hard, and anything is possible. There is also a certain military myth; we are the defenders of freedom. Rome had its myths; Rome enjoyed Empire because Romans were the most pious people. The underside of any such myth is the people it throws away; the conquered and the poor.

The Beatitudes hold these people up for honor. We are to honor precisely the people the Empire crushes. How honorable the broken in spirit! How honorable those who hunger and thirst for justice! How honorable those who mourn! How honorable the meek! Not for anything they have done, but for what will be theirs. To be invited to the table of those who were honored was to be honored yourself. But these people wouldn’t be able to set much of a table. To invited the honored to your table was to be honored. Invite them to your table.

The passage in Revelation describes the worship in heaven. At the center of the worshiping community are those who have been killed by Empire. They stand, holding palm branches in their hand, around the throne. The seer has certainly seen imperial worship. This looks just like an imperial triumph, only it is those who have been slain who are worshiping the God for whose loyalty they have been slain. This inverts the values of Empire.

When the Church gets it right, we eat with those whom Empire has pushed aside. When we get it wrong, we accept the mythology of Empire. The saints serve as constant reminders of who should be at the table.

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