The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
He speaks of poverty as if it were a key, a key to a door, a door to a room, a room in a house, a house in a kingdom. But what kind of kingdom would be possessed by the poor? And what kind of King would give the kingdom over to poverty?
He speaks of poverty as one who has known her intimately, who understands the kind of vulnerability that breeds perfect trust in God. True poverty is never cheap. It does not come and go with the Dow or the balance of a savings account. Poverty is a brand, a mark – something that never goes away. Like an accent. Like a scar. Poverty finds a way into the soul. Poverty finds a way to break your heart.
Sometimes poverty is a choice. Sometimes poverty is an inheritance. But also poverty is always a destiny, a destination – both internal and external. And in that sense I suppose Jesus on the plain speaks a universal language, speaks to a universal human experience. If you are not poor now, you will be one day. Poverty as gift or sentence. And it is maybe in this sense that death, long defeated but still active, serves the purposes of its Easter morning Conqueror: it finally strips us of the riches to which we cling so selfishly and stubbornly – as if the eye of needle is wide enough only for the impoverished, naked human form.
And for this we have been trained. Poverty, you see, is a necessary condition of the Christian life. The path to sainthood is lined with broken hearts; poverty is our companion on the path of holiness. Poverty is a naked vulnerability; it exposes us to the elements but it also opens us to place our trust in a hidden God.
We used to know this. We used to practice this, in a way that was as literal as it was symbolic. In the ancient days, in the days of the catacombs, those who approached the waters of baptism came naked, stripped of all possessions, of all clothing. Impoverished, vulnerable, and free - of the old life with its old masters and old distractions. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Naked in the darkness, those desiring Christ would step down into the water, immersed, buried, without breath or sight, and would rise to a new name, a new family, a new kingdom, and a new life. But as if to keep the excitement in check, they would then be marked with a cross, marked with a symbol that reminded them that new life only comes after death.
And though we no longer strip naked for the baptismal waters (I think I just heard a huge sigh of relief), those ancient, mystical waters still strip us naked. Just as they are teeming with life, so are they full of death. And these waters hold a terrible promise: they will leave you bare and exposed. The waters of baptism will break you open, will leave you impoverished, will make you vulnerable in a devastating world.
Just as they did to our forebears, the saints whom we remember today. The journey to sainthood, the road to heaven, is nothing less than the way of the Cross; the way to heaven is paved with drops of blood – the lasting evidence of the vulnerable heart of our God. The love Jesus requires, the love he demands – love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you – that love will cost you everything. And after you have lost everything, Jesus will respond: blessed are you who are poor.
Poverty is a brand. It is a mark. Maybe it is a target. It means living with an open heart in a violent world. It will leave you vulnerable. Jesus' love healed the sick; it freed the oppressed; it fed the hungry; it dried the tears; it is beautiful; and it is in you, coursing through your veins; it is the divine power of the universe that is making all things new. But it also felt the hard nails of the cross because this world fears vulnerability and it destroys beautiful things.
The Feast of All Saints', the feast we celebrate today, does not come easy; it does not come cheap. The saints are those who lives are nurtured by the waters of death. The saints are those who bleed from hearts opened too wide. The saints are those who wear poverty like a scar. The saints look into the mirrored surface of the baptismal waters and see the face of the Crucified One staring back at them.
Jesus speaks of poverty as one who knows her intimately because he does. He left paradise to wear our skin, to bear our poverty, to be exposed to our death. And he did so for us and for our salvation. And so He holds us through the pain and joy of life. He holds us through the dark mystery of death. He carries into the hope of eternity. One of our brothers who lived long ago, one of the saints, wrote, “This is why God became human and became poor for our sake: it was to raise up our flesh, to recover the divine image in us, to re-create humankind, so that all of us might become one in Christ....”1
And it is through baptism, by our participation in, not just the death, but also the resurrection of Jesus, that we become one: one family, one body, one communion of saints – citizens in the kingdom of God.
We admire our saints. We hold them up as persons worthy of emulation. We consider them our sisters and our brothers, members of a sacred family into which we have been adopted through the sacrament of new birth. But we should never forget, especially if we are to follow in their footsteps, that the saints were foolish enough to believe in impossible things, things that they could not see or prove, touch or feel, fools who place their hope in a Crucified God, fools who believe that love wins in a world of hatred and prejudice, fools who believe that life will conquer even death. The saints are fools who pledge their allegiance to the King of Fools – the one who left the comforts of paradise for the pain of the cross.
Sam Portaro writes, “It is an embarrassment, to be sure; we have no evidence to produce beyond our stories. It seem frivolous, even dangerous, and marks us as suspect. In a realm that bows to tangible security..., we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven supposition. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as though there were no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as though there is a tomorrow and more – a place within which and a people with whom to share that tomorrow.
That is why we need [this] precious day of...All Saints.... For we know how hard it is. It is hard to look death in the face and say to death, 'I know I shall see you again.' But is harder still to scan the flickering light of life's vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, 'I know I shall see you again.'”2
The waters of baptism hold a terrible promise: they will leave you bare and exposed. The waters of baptism will break you open, will leave you impoverished, will make you vulnerable in a devastating world - just as they did to your forebears, the saints whom we remember today.
See, these waters, they are making you like Jesus.
1Gregory of Nazianzus, Celebrating the Saints, 385.
2Brightest and Best, 200-1