New York City, New York
November 3, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

I was with a group of friends just before Halloween last week, and one of the younger ones said, let’s find a haunted house to visit!  Another, older, one asked why anyone would pay to let someone scare you.  Yet that does seem to be what Halloween is about in this culture – playing with scary things, testing our fears, as a way of reminding ourselves that fear isn’t the last word.

I’ve also discovered that there are churches that won’t let kids dress up in costumes or have Halloween parties.  Lots of people have forgotten, or maybe never knew, that All Hallows Eve, the night before the Feast of All Saints, is a deeply Christian observance.  It’s not only about celebrating all the saints and [All Souls] those who’ve died in the last year, but it’s about what we do with scary things, including the bad dreams that wake us in the middle of the night or the reality that confronts us outside our front doors.  That what the ancient prayer is about, “and from ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us.”

Daniel’s had a bad dream about sea monsters – were there any sea monsters among your trick or treaters?  We didn’t hear the whole story of Daniel’s dream, but the part we left out describes those monsters, and the fearsome teeth and horns they use to consume their prey.  But Daniel’s dream also had hope and consolation – yes there are tyrants and warmongers are out there, but they won’t have the last word.  When Daniel wakes up and asks for help to understand his bad dream, he gets the same message – your bad dream is not ultimate reality, there is hope – there is always hope.  Haunted houses and Hallowe’en can be a way of practicing that hope.

Daniel’s dream ends by saying that ultimately the saints will inherit the kingdom, not the evil rulers and evildoers of this age.  It’s a reminder that God gets the last word, and it is always filled with hope.

So what sort of kingdom will the saints inherit?  We’re going to make some more saints this morning – Poppy and Emily (and at 11:15, Robert (Buz), Eva, and Charles).  They and we, together with all the other heirs to God’s dream, are meant to help bring that kingdom to reality.  It’s meant to be a home for all humanity, and provide a home for all creation.  It’s meant to be “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”[1]  Or, as another puts it, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”[2]

When Jesus says, “blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he’s talking about that kind of home.  That irrevocable condition, that God-given birthright, is open to all, but we only find it by embracing and yearning for it.  Daniel’s demanding and destroying monsters aren’t likely to find it.  All the blessings Jesus spells out are about the road that takes us homeward, and the woes are about choosing paths that lead only to isolation and self-exclusion, and cutting ourselves off from that blessing.  Those blessings and woes are the story of the prodigal, who leaves home and discovers only mere existence.

Saints are people on that homeward road, who know the promise of the “irrevocable condition” and set out to find it.  Saints go together in company, because we share that dream, and we know that none of us will find it unless we all do.  Baptizing these children is claiming them as fellow dreamers, and promising that we will take the journey together, helping each other stay on the way of blessing.

That blessing way is always about recognizing our connectedness to God and all that is, rather than assuming we only have to worry about ourselves – and there are those monsters again, who insist that only they are of central importance.  The blessing way challenges us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, not more than or less than.  That’s what Jesus is getting at when he says the poor are blessed and the rich should mourn – because the poor know they can’t stand alone, and the rich think they do.  When he says, love your enemies, and be gentle to those who act like they’re lords of the universe, he’s reminding us all that understanding our connectedness becomes evident in how we treat everybody around us.

A small example.  I got on an airplane a few days ago, stowed my bag in the overhead bin, and sat down.  The person seated directly behind me arrived and began trying to jam his stuff into the bin.  Then the person seated next to me arrived.  I had to step out to let her in, and suddenly the overhead bin right next to me was slammed so hard my ear hurt – by the guy behind us.  We all sat down, and began to settle in.  Before too long the other person in the row behind us arrived and the tumult began again – the guy right behind me yanked on the seat to lever himself out, worse than thunderstorm turbulence.  In could have been a Monty Python sketch, but it didn’t feel quite so funny at the time.  I don’t know quite where it came from, but when I turned around to see what was happening, and heard him say, “I’m so tall I can’t get out of the seat without doing that,” I managed to say to him, “You know, we’re actually stronger when we push up on the armrests, rather than pulling on the seat ahead.”  Somehow I managed to say it without any sarcasm.  He had one more retort, but then he settled down in peace for the rest of the trip.

What happens when we’re in the other seat?  I’ve certainly been there, and I know that going through security that day and encountering a profoundly courteous and helpful TSA agent helped me stay a little less reactive.

We all need reminders along the way – people who will confirm to us that we have dignity, that we do reflect the image of God.  Most of us don’t do so well when we miss out on that for a whole day, let alone an entire week.  People are blessed, and indeed happy, when they realize they’re connected to everybody else.  Our ability to bless the disconnected helps everyone realize that they’re loved – maybe not immediately, but eventually.  It’s easy to bless small children – until they cry inconsolably for hours.  Yet most adults can hang in there, continuing to communicate blessing to a helpless infant.  That is how we begin to learn what it is to be loved. 

Jesus is encouraging a slower, more thoughtful, and loving response to the person who’s feeling unloved – to realize that we’re meeting a God-bearer, even if it may be hard to see at first.  Saints are simply students of that truth, willing to keep learning how to recognize potential holiness in the unloving.  Today we’re promising to help these children learn to see Love incarnate in their neighbors and in themselves, and we’re promising to keep on learning alongside them.  That’s what we mean when we say, “I will, with God’s help.”

The whole body of Jesus’ students is connected one to another, and we learn to live that way in communities like this one.  The harder work is to keep moving out on that blessing road, encountering the wounded and the hurtful, who need to be encouraged in blessing themselves and others.  We are meant to expect to find saints everywhere on the way, to share that blessing with those who don’t really know it yet.  When we leave here today, take what you know of blessing and share it.  Spread it abroad – cast it to the winds!  It’s sweeter than shared Halloween chocolate after a house of horrors.  The milk of loving-kindness is filled with hope.

[1] Robert Frost, Death of a Hired Hand.

[2] James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.