11/03/13 – PASSING THE FIRE by Lynn Naeckel


Daniel 7:1-3, 13-18 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31

What in the world do these readings have to do with All Saints Day? I’ve stewed over it all week. Then I listened to a podcast from Working Preacher.org and Eureka! The light bulbs came on. Let me see if I can connect the dots for you.

As you know, Daniel is an apocalyptic book, meaning that it was written to give hope to people who were suffering. It is written in a kind of code so that the people being persecuted can understand it, but the powers that be think it’s just gibberish. It usually contains dreams and visions.

Daniel was written around 167-164 BC when the Hebrews were suffering persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, who had desecrated the temple. Today we heard about Daniel’s vision of the “four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea. . .’.

The four beasts represent imperial kingdoms. They are shown in sub-human form, awful creatures that destroy the peace, the planet, and create the poor.

Unfortunately, the lectionary left off two critical verses for understanding Daniels vision, verses 13 and 14, which say:

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

In the King James Version of the Bible, it says, “I saw one like a son of Man. . .” And you know that this is a term often applied to Jesus. The central point is that this “one like a human being” stands in opposition to the imperial powers and in the end will win dominion over all people. Remember the unarmed Chinese student who blocked the way of a tank in Taeinimin Square? That is the ultimate image in our day of one human being standing up to the power of empire. Jesus did so in his time; picture him driving the money changers out of the temple.

Now consider the explanation given to Daniel in his vision. The interpreter says, “As for these great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever.”

Aha! Could these holy ones be the saints of God? Isn’t the central message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God? That it’s coming, that it’s here, and all those parables trying to explain what it is like. If we look at all of those, it’s clear that the Kingdom of God is not like the imperial kingdoms. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite.

In the reading from Ephesians Paul speaks of an inheritance that we have obtained in Christ, through our baptism. He echoes the passage from Daniel too. “God put his power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at this right hand in the heavenly paces, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

We’ve been hearing week after week from Luke that Jesus is turning the structures of imperial hierarchy upside down. The great General Naaman will be humbled. The humble shall be exalted. Lazarus, the poor man will live with his ancestors, while the rich man burns in eternal fire.

And now in Luke’s version of the beatitudes that we heard today, there’s more of the same. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” God is filling his kingdom with the poor, the marginalized, the beggars, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lowest levels of society and warning the upper levels to beware of their fate. Warning, but not excluding.

This reading ends with Jesus telling the crowd how people should behave in the Kingdom of God: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

It seems to me that the signs of the Kingdom of God are peace, love, generosity, forgiveness, and non-violence. All of these are the results of the behaviors that Jesus calls for. This Kingdom stands in opposition to all imperial powers and keeps alive in each generation the possibility of forming a beloved community. We are the inheritors of this Kingdom, passed on to us by the saints who have gone before us.

As members of a Total Ministry church, we know that each of us is a minister, that all of us have gifts for doing ministry, and that indeed we are all saints. And I trust that we are all aware of the great cloud of saints who have preceded us, some of whom are famous, but most of whom were just folks like us.

Among the earliest hunter-gatherers, including both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals, one of the most important people in the band was the person who carried the fire. When the group prepared to move, the fire-carrier would use an animal horn to scoop up an ember from the communal fire to carry it carefully on their trek to their next campsite, where it would be used to light the next communal fire.

Think of the fire as the Kingdom of God, that each generation is entrusted to carry forward, keeping it alive and well, embodying the Kingdom in their lives and communities, expanding the Kingdom in good times, nurturing it through bad times. That is essentially what the saints of God have done throughout history. Now it is our turn to carry the fire, to protect it in harsh weather, and to light the new fire at each resting place.

Thank God, we don’t have to be perfect to carry the fire. Like the rich young man, I still can’t give everything I have to the poor, but I can give generously; I can stand with the poor; I can vote for the poor by voting for candidates who care more about the common good than about lining pockets; I can say no to violence and work to promote understanding between people of different cultures.

There are these and a hundred other ways we all work to bring the kingdom into being: visiting the sick and shut-in, staffing the clothes closet and community café, being kind to one another, including everyone in our circle. And so we continue the work of the saints in the communion of saints, and then pass the fire to those who come after us.

That’s what we celebrate on All Saints Day. AMEN

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