This week my challenge was to weave together the themes of All Saints Sunday and of Reaching out to Welcome the Stranger (part of our fall theme). Here's what I came up with....
A long while ago, I live for a year in a Big White Three-Story House in inner City Denver, along with 10 other people --- none of whom I had ever met before. It was the year I was doing my seminary internship, and I lived in something called a "Community House", along with young people from all over the country, as well as one exchange student from Japan. We were all there to serve, but in different places, and for different reasons. We each had our own space, but we shared meals twice a week, and took turns cooking, and also go together on occasion for other social events. As you can imagine, we had some great times together, and also some times when things didn't go so well.
An then there was this day -- when we got a phone call from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. They wondered if we had space to temporarily house about twelve people who were refugees from Russia. They had just arrived -- and we had this Big White Three-Story House -- what did we think? It wouldn't be for very long----
We said yes.
So they were coming over, and we were going to have dinner together.
It was my night to cook. And I'll tell you a little secret -- I don't cook for 23 -- especially on short notice. So I had to get someone to talk me through the meal preparation for that evening.
Finally everyone arrived. I had managed to get dinner cooked. We found places for everyone to sit and we were just getting ready to eat -- when we found that there was another dilemma. What would we use for a table prayer? We did not speak Russian. They did not speak English. But we had to pray, didn't we?
So today we celebrate All Saints Day. It's a day we remember the saints who have gone before us -- it's the day we remember the saints who have been important in our lives. -- and it's a date when we remember what a saint is: after all, a saint is someone who has lived trusting Jesus, hoping in the life he promises us, and holding on to the vision of his reign. One of the promises that we hold on to, one of the central visions that we see is this one from Isaiah 25: the mountain of the Lord, with all of the people streaming to it, and the great banquet that awaits us there. What is the hope of the saints? It's the banquet table filled to the brim, the feast of victory, the great celebration where we will all be re-united, and where there will be abundance of food, and abundance of fellowship. This is a wonderful image of our hope, and a wonderful vision of the saints -- to imagine those people who we will name shortly sitting around this table together, isn't it? To imagine our friends Chuck and Vernon and Mark and Shane, Jeanette and Clarence and Mae and Harriet --- and well, all of the others, sitting and celebrating at this table together, with Jesus the host.
Except that one thing is missing from this vision -- it is the names of all of the people we don't know, all of the saints who are strangers to us, all of the people who maybe aren't even saints yet, because they haven't heard of known to trust Jesus with their lives. But the vision from Isaiah, if we really hear it and imagine it, is wider than that -- the vision talks about all nations being drawn to the mountain of God, all nations coming together at the banquet -- not just friends, but strangers, too. So we have to adjust our vision, on All Saints Sunday, to see the wideness of God's reach.
Sometimes adjusting means that our vision gets wider, but sometimes it means getting smaller, just for a moment. Like that tiny story from Mark, of Jesus healing the leper. The leper was probably a stranger to Jesus, for many reasons -- probably just because he was a leper, and lepers were supposed to stay far away from everyone else. But he calls out to Jesus, wondering if Jesus wants to heal him, and Jesus reaches out his hand and touches him. This is an amazing action, for many reasons. For Jesus to be close enough to touch a leper -- is to risk being contaminated, to risk being associated with him. But he did it. And the leper was healed, and he could against be a part of a community -- no longer a stranger. Jesus healed him.
We still don't know that leper's name. He's a stranger. But I imagine that he's a saint, too. He's a saint simply because Jesus reached out to him. Even though Jesus told him to be quiet, he went out and told people anyway. Pretty soon, the people were streaming to Jesus. Some of them came for healing. Maybe some of them came just to be touched. And maybe some of them came just because they didn't want to be a stranger, any more.
Father Greg Boyle, a priest who works with gangs in South L.A., slays it this way. He says, "There is no them and us. There is only us." -- In God's eyes anyway. It's not often that we see it. Most of the time we fit ourselves into categories: them and us, friends and strangers, rich and poor, young and old, "good" and "bad." Most of the time we divide ourselves, but to God we are all the same: "There is no them and us. There is only us." We are all beloved, and of infinite value. And we all need to be healed, we all need to be fed, we need someone to know our name.
We don't catch a glimpse of it often, but on this All Saints Sunday, I hope, for a moment, we catch a glimpse -- of the saints and the strangers, standing around the throne of the Lamb, seated at the banquet table. We don't know their names, but we know they are wounded, grieving, hungry, lonely. We know they need someone to reach out to them -- because they are like us, and we need someone to reach out to us, too. They are hungry, too, but maybe we don't speak the same language. How can we pray together? Saints and strangers, this is what unites us: our common hunger, our common value to God
So there we were, all together, waiting to each dinner. Who would pray? What would we say? Whatever it was, we know that half of the room would not understand what the other half was saying, at least not with our minds. After an awkward pause, I asked the Japanese woman, Kayoko, to teach us a prayer in Japanese. Then we would at least be all on the same level: no one but Kayoko would know what it meant. So she taught us this pray, or sang it to us:
"Hibi no kate wo Atetamo
Megumi no Mikami Wa Homu beki kana. A-men.
So, saints and strangers -- today we give thanks for the feast that is being prepared for all people. We give thanks for the God who reaches out to us to heal us and to draw us to him. And we give thanks, because God is teaching all of us a new language, one that none of us is very fluent in yet, but God is teaching us the words, and even singing them, for us, and with us. God is teaching us a new language, a new Word, and the Word is Jesus, and the Word is Love. If you listen hard, you can hear just a piece of it:
"Be present at our tables, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that We
May feast in paradise with Thee. Amen"