All Saints’ Sunday C: Saintly Vulnerability

A quick note: I’ll be reflecting on the Gospel appointed for All Saints’ Sunday but will put links here to a commentary and reflection I’ve written on Luke 20:27-28 (Pentecost 25 C) below.

Luke 6:20-31

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There is a reason that Luke describes Jesus preaching his most famous sermon from a plain rather than a mountain.

Have you ever noticed that? That what we routinely call the “Sermon on the Mount” isn’t delivered from a mountain in Luke’s Gospel? That is what happens in Matthew’s story, but not Luke’s. Jesus does indeed go up a mountain in Luke’s account, but it is in order to pray, and after a night of prayer, Jesus appoints his disciples. Then he comes down to address all the people following him, as Luke describes in verses that might be worth including in this Sunday’s reading:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them (Luke 6:17-19).

What strikes me as interesting in both the narrative movement and description of the listening crowds is the profound act of sheer accommodation we see taking place here. The crowds come to listen; they also come to have their illnesses cured, and demons cast out, and needs met from his abundant power. These people are vulnerable in the extreme, and Jesus knows that. So rather than invite them on a spiritual pilgrimage up the mountain, or beckon his disciples up the mountain to talk about the people, Jesus comes down in their midst to talk to them and to meet them in their vulnerability and need.

And if you are looking for a theme to preach this All Saints’ Sunday, it might just be that: according to God, to recognize your vulnerability is what it means to be a saint. Not to be perfect, or to be different, or to be particularly pious, or to be zealous, but to be vulnerable, and out of that vulnerability to turn to God in need.

I think this also helps me understand Luke’s juxtaposition of blessings and woes. Again, we are probably more familiar with Matthew’s account, where after Jesus proclaims many blessed, he continues his sermon by telling the disciples that they are the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:1-16). But not in Luke. Immediately after pronouncing blessing on the most materially vulnerable (note that Matthew tends to spiritualize some of these folks – not poor, but poor in spirit; not hungry and thirsty, but hungry and thirsty for righteousness), Jesus then follows with words of woe to those who are rich and powerful.

This is not a new theme in Luke – think of the Magnificat! (Luke 1:46-55) – but nevertheless is not easy to preach in congregations where most folks are pretty affluent in comparison with the people of Luke’s day and, for that matter, most of the world in our own time. But as is often the case with Luke, and as we’ve noticed before, I don’t think the issue is simply about money but about the way we use money to safeguard ourselves from our own vulnerability, to create an illusion that we are not dependent on God, to blunt our sense of solidarity with, and responsibility to, the poor, and to isolate ourselves from all others in need.

All of this helps me in turn make the connection between this passage and All Saints’, that day on which we remember those we have loved and who have moved to the nearer presence of God in the past year. Because death and grief are one of those things that reminds us of our vulnerability and solidarity with others. No one is exempt from death, loss, or grief. And so in many ways All Saints’ is the practical and personal enactment of the words we spoke on Ash Wednesday a half year earlier. Yes, we are all dust, and All Saints’ invites us to recognize and give thanks for those who were important to us and who have returned to dust, caught up in the promise of the God who first created humanity from dust and continues to raise the dead to life in Christ.

Vulnerability, I should warn you, is a nice sounding word that names a condition most of us would like to avoid. Vulnerability names the condition of need and dependence that is often not comfortable and that our culture regularly invites us to imagine that we can and should avoid. (Perhaps this explains why “destination funerals” are growing in popularity. Why grieve when you should only celebrate…and have a good time in that person’s memory to boot.)

But while vulnerability is uncomfortable, it is also what makes us human. As Brene Brown remind us – I’ll put her stellar TED Talk below – when we try to numb those things that are uncomfortable or pose a risk – feelings of sadness, grief, and vulnerability – we also numb our capacity to feel joy, satisfaction, and happiness.

Church, at its best, can be a place that reminds us that vulnerability is not something to shun or deny and that God has promised to meet us precisely at our points of vulnerability, our points of need, and our points of brokenness. This is why the Nicene Creed, after testifying to Jesus’ divinity and humanity and relationship to God goes on to assert that, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven….” And this is why Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, comes down off the mountain to bless those who the world and circumstances have conspired to make feel like they are nothing and warn those who believe they are something apart from God.

One final thought: last night at LTSP we held a hymn sing as an All Saints’ service, and those participating were invited not simply to choose a hymn, but to choose a hymn that was important to someone that they have loved and lost, someone for whom they give thanks and now lives in the nearer presence of God. So person after person made a suggestion, shared who it reminded them of and why, and then we sang two or three verses. And what occurred to me in the course of this service is that singing is one of those other and few places where we are all vulnerable and all are in solidarity, as we lift our voice in song not as professional performers but from the joy of singing, and that together we offer a quality of song we could not do individually. I don’t know if you have the space or time to do something similar, but I found it quite moving and was again reminded of the importance of song and of how few are the places in our culture today where we can sing together.

However you may preach this All Saints’ Sunday, Dear Partner (or, for that matter, Pentecost 25), please know that as you do so I am giving thanks for your words, your ministry, and your witness. What you do matters, as you help us recognize the saintly vulnerability in which God regularly meets us. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,