October 29, 2017

2017 Oct29

All Saints’ Day

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger

 

The Beatitudes. Sometimes definitions take all the heart, soul and love out of what is being defined:

 

Although "beatitudes" is frequently used as a proper noun to denote a collection of eight dominical logia at the beginning of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount, the term "beatitude" properly designates a whole body of sayings with a similar literary form. Such sayings, found in Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish literature, are technically known as macarisms (from the Greek maknrios, "blessed" or "happy"). Matthew's collection of sayings is nonetheless known as the Beatitudes, a term derived from the Latin benti (similarly, "blessed" or "happy"), the word with which each of the eight sayings begins in the Latin Bible.

 

The pleasant nature of The Beatitudes is lost somewhere in the technical jargon. But nonetheless, The Beatitudes illustrate the blessing that is inherent in those who embody those eight humble characteristics in an exemplary manner. Beatitudes are found in Jewish literature, as well as here in the New Testament.

 

Of the 37 literary beatitudes in the New Testament, 17 of the beatitudes are sayings of Jesus. Of those, scholars are more confident that the four Beatitudes shared by Matthew and Luke are probably proclamations of the historical Jesus:

 

  • M: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • L: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
  •  M: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  •  L: ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  •  M: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  •  L: ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
  • M: ‘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.
  • L: ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

This morning, The Beatitudes provide the scriptural foundation for our celebration of the saints. But what are saints? We often see saints on and in church buildings. St Stephen is in the window behind you. Does an association with a church building make one a saint, or indicate saintly character? One would not be blamed for thinking so.


There is an interesting feature at
Washington National Cathedral
that might challenge our
thoughts about those who are
immortalized by our church
buildings: Darth Vader.

 

The Star Wars villain in a black space suit with a long cape who intimidated people when he was in a good mood, and strangled people simply through mind control when he was in a bad mood is set in stone at our nation’s unofficial spiritual home. Darth Vader is one of the carved grotesques which carry rain water away from the building’s walls.

 

If you have been following the 7 Star Wars films, you will know that Darth Vader’s life was complex and filled with numerous traumas. His parents were killed when he was an infant, and he was raised by his grandparents in the desert. His discovery of his powers as a Jedi were realized accidentally, with no one to guide his training. When he did find someone to guide him, he was torn between those who would guide him on a path of goodness and his impetuous tendency to break the rules. The tipping point came when, as a young adult and fighting for the good of the galaxy, all the known youngling Jedi’s in the galaxy were slaughtered at their school. Instead of taking the high road of forgiveness, the young and impressionable Anakin Skywalker, as he was then known, was goaded into revenge, violently killing the corrupt Jedi responsible for the slaughter of the younglings. [The scenes are reminiscent of the Slaughter of the Innocents after Jesus’ Birth, but so many story lines in Star Wars are parallels of Jesus’ life and ministry]. During that traumatic event, his wife dies in childbirth, the babies are whisked away to the equivalent of the Intergalactic Witness Protection Program, and the Young Anakin takes a lurch to the Dark Side, dons his all-black outfit, and takes on his new identity as Darth Vader.

 

In what is Episode 6 of the series, but the 3rd film to be released, “Return of the Jedi”, Darth Vader has a deathbed conversion moment. He has earlier exposed his true identity to his son, Luke Skywalker, and his twin sister, Princess Leia, both of whom have spent their entire lives fighting the evil realm created by the man they never knew was their father. Realizing his own tumble from power, he repents – of sorts – and turns his back on the Dark Side, exacting revenge on the very person who pushed him to his first vengeful killing all those years ago. As he himself lays dying, he is reconciled with his long-lost son. Then, like other good Jedi Knights, Darth Vader joins the “Company of Saints in Light”, so to speak, semi-transparent visages of their former selves who can fully interact and guide those other Jedi Knights onto paths of virtue and righteousness.

 

How did Darth Vader end up on the wall of Washington National Cathedral? The life of Darth Vader as told through 6 of the 7 Star Wars films is quite far from “blessed” or “happy”. Here is what the Cathedral website writes:

 

“In the 1980s the Cathedral, with National Geographic World magazine, sponsored a competition for children to design decorative sculpture for the Cathedral. The third-place winner was Christopher Rader of Kearney, Nebraska who submitted a drawing of this futuristic representation of evil. Darth Vader was placed on the northwest tower with the other winning designs: a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces and a man with large teeth and an umbrella. The fierce head was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.”

 

The sculpture of Darth Vader at Washington National is functional: It’s a grotesque that serves to deflect rain water away from the stone building, preventing erosion. Perhaps the functionality of grotesques as gargoyles, green men, dragons, lions is a form of Purgatory for the evil lives they lived – to serve the church in subservience for eternity. We don’t believe in Purgatory, and it was redefined by Pope Benedict in 2005. But, that could be one explanation of why to include characters we associate with evil as part of our holy buildings.

 

But of course, the inclusion of Darth Vader, the second most evil being in all of the galaxies, may have a difference significance for us. Relating his work to The Beatitudes, Darth Vader was shown in cinematic fiction to oppress and destroy:

 

  • Those poor in spirit,
  •  those who mourn,
  • the meek,
  • those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
  • the merciful,
  • the pure in heart,
  • the peacemakers, and
  • those who are falsely persecuted.

 

The Communion of Saints can broadly be described as those who have willed that their own life-stories be shaped and transformed by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are common people, yet Holy. These models of perfection should not have to share immortalization in our cathedrals with the likes of a fictional super villain.

 

Bishop Robert Atwell writes in the introduction of his book “Celebrating the Saints”:

 

“…the doctrine of the communion
of saints emerges from the ashes
of human failure as a testament
of glory. It is the theological
counterpoise to the doctrine of
original sin because it articulates
a vision of the ultimate triumph
of grace in a fallen world.”

 

It is through this reflection on sin and grace that we can see in history through the saints, and see now in the cinematic drama of Star Wars: that which attempts to keep us from focusing on God can be overcome, both by outside forces and the forces within us. The death of Darth Vader, like the other Jedi Knights before him, illustrate, in a way, the Anglican approach to the Saints – from the ashes of human failure can come the testament of a bigger glory.

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