Sunday 31 • 30 Oct 2016

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2Thess. 1: 1-4,11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Rev. Chris Udy

Tomorrow evening,
apparently all over the world,
neighbourhoods will be invaded
by children in costumes
begging for lollies - for treats -
and teenagers looking for mischief - doing tricks.
They will supposedly be celebrating
Halloween - all hallows even -
the night before the festival of All Saints on Tuesday -
but they’re probably more interested in sugar.
It’s a bit sad,
that, as with many of our holidays - holy days -
people stay on the surface with the sugar
and miss the nourishing substance -
so today we look a bit deeper.

All Saints - all the saints -
probably makes us think of people
with names like Francis and Mary
and Aidan and Brigid and Valentine and Joan -
and maybe even Christopher! -
although poor Christopher
was removed from the official list in 1969 -
but ‘All Saints’ isn’t really for the famous saints,
who have their own days in the calendar already;
the Festival of All Saints
is for the saints who don’t get a day,
or even a mention in the calendar.
All Saints is for the great crowd of witnesses -
the unnumbered and unnamed multitude
who have lived, and are living,
and will live out their faith, just like us,
in families and communities just like ours.
All Saints Day - and All Soul’s Day -
which is on Wednesday -
were often days on which families
would visit and tend the graves of family members,
and give thanks for those
who were our mothers and fathers in faith,
and remember that we have a place
among angels and archangels,
and all the company of heaven -
as our communion service says -
we have a place - like all the saints -
at the communion table,
which is also the celebration of God’s kingdom.

For most of us,
the idea that we might be numbered among the saints
probably doesn’t sit easily.
We think of saints as different and special -
strangely holy - perhaps a bit fanatical and peculiar -
and that’s also a little bit sad -
because the tradition of remembering saints
and telling stories of the saints
was originally intended to make the life of faith
more relevant and accessible.
Saints were meant to provide a link
between ordinary human life
and the life we have in God.
They were meant to be people
with whom we could identify -
people who would encourage and inspire us -
and most of the early stories of the saints
were exactly that.
The saints were people like Peter -
who was passionate and impulsive
and who failed some significant trials in his life;
and Paul - who was brilliant,
but also stubborn and arrogant …
not an easy man to like …
and was sometimes quite a problem for his peers,
and Matthew and Zacchaeus,
who were thought of as traitors and parasites -
people who had turned on their own
to make a shameful living.
Recently stories about those
who’ve been named as saints,
and the process of canonisation
has tended to focus on piety and miracles -
and that’s a disappointment,
because the saints are meant to be -
and they really are -
people just like us.

The central truth of our identity as Christians
is that we are people loved by God.
We claim that love when we’re baptised,
and we celebrate it in Communion,
and it’s God’s love for us,
not whether we’re good,
or wise, or magical, or powerful,
that makes us saints.
We are all saints - that’s our identity -
it’s who we are.

Defining who we are is a potent and difficult task,
and it’s something we’re engaged in constantly.
We do it through stories:
stories we tell to ourselves and about ourselves;
stories we tell in our families;
stories we share as nations and cultures.
These stories are about defining identity -
who we are, who we belong to,
what we believe in and value.
So politics and religion involve
telling and retelling our collective story
in ways that inspire loyalty and sacrifice – at best –
or at worst, just enlist our bigotry.

Identity is powerful -
we do things that people like us do,
and we avoid doing things
that don't fit with who we are.
Identity sets out options for our lives,
and one Christian writer (Kennon Callahan - Effective Church Leadership)
describes the essential elements of identity
as History, Home, & Hope.

History provides us with culture,
language, symbols of power.
We inherit history
through our families and our communities,
and we make choices within it.
Some parts of our history
we claim as significant and precious,
other chapters we reject as alien and worthless.

Home means family and community -
people who share life with us.
Home is where we do our deepest learning,
from people who tell us the stories of our history,
who judge our work and test our wisdom
and encourage us to live by their values -
to be like them.
We choose either to belong, or to be different -
and either way our choices define us.

Hope defines our future.
We set goals to achieve and traps to avoid,
we choose people who become our examples
and models for living,
and we search for trends and signs
that can tell us what tomorrow will bring.
We make choices
that we hope will lead us to fulfilment.

History gives us roots;
Home gives us companions;
and Hope gives us purpose.
These three together give us identity.

For Zacchaeus, in our reading for today,
identity was a problem.
We don't know too much about his history,
except that at some point
he’d decided to become a tax collector,
and by making that choice
he’d rejected his history
as one of Abraham's children
and identified himself with the Roman invaders.
It isn't clear from the reading,
but he may then have used
the power of his new position
in ways that had made him
even more unpopular with his neighbours -
we do know Zacchaeus had earned the hatred
of the leaders in his community -
so his history had effectively poisoned his home.
As a result of his history,
Zacchaeus was an isolated and lonely man -
people avoided him -
they defined him out of their community.
So when Jesus stopped underneath his tree
and said - "Come down -
I need to come to your home today" -
Zacchaeus was being offered a new life -
a rebirth - a new identity -
one that he accepted with joy and with speed.
He welcomed Jesus into his home,
and during the meal they shared,
among his new companions,
he also discovered a new hope -
to which he pledged his resources.

For many people,
identity is something imposed:
an unchangeable fact of life.
Who they are
is defined by the accident of birth.
History, home and hope
are all set from the moment of conception.
So kids from white, western, and wealthy families
get the best breaks in life,
and those whose family circumstances
are less fortunate
struggle along
with whatever they can find.
But identity defined like that is a trap.
Past failures are dumped on children
who find themselves unable
to escape their cultural and family background.
They grow up with no expectation of change,
locked into class and caste and racial limitations
that have set the course of their lives
before they were born.

More recently, for some people,
identity has become something to construct.
History, home and hope are all adjustable.
They re-invent themselves
trying on new values and new lifestyles
as easily as they change their clothes
and their hair colour,
and the line of their noses -
working constantly, never relaxing,
all day, and every day
at image and presentation.

Identity like that is usually just a lie -
a complicated fabrication -
one that leaves them exhausted and weary,
with nothing reliable to rest in,
nothing secure,
nothing much worth living for,
and certainly nothing worth dying for.

Christian tradition says
identity is neither imposed, nor constructed.
Identity is received - it’s a gift.
We are numbered among the saints,
not by birth, nor by our efforts,
but through God’s love for us.

Right from the beginning,
Christian community
offered people the freedom of a received identity.
People who were relegated
to the scrapheap of their culture and their society
were recognised as having a value
that society did not recognise.
Samaritans, women,
tax collectors, gentiles, slaves,
were all offered an alternative
to the identity that society had imposed on them,
or an identity they had to construct for themselves -
and that new identity was symbolised in Baptism.

Baptism is the sign
of a very simple and a very deep transformation.
The old person - the old identity,
marked and defined by limitation and failure,
is left behind as we die with Christ.
The water we use is a symbol of that death.

Then, having died with Christ, we rise with Christ.
We receive a new life, with a new identity.
In the early church
that was symbolised by taking a new name -
a Christian name -
often the name of someone inspirational -
the name of one of the saints, for example -
because the old person had died,
and a new life had begun.

In Baptism we receive a new history -
and in the Bible
and through the traditions of the Church
we receive that new history as our history.
It’s a history of God's purpose unfolding,
of faithfulness and grace,
of new beginnings
and declarations of God's love for all God’s people.
The people whose stories
are told through the Bible
are our people -
our mothers and fathers in faith -
and part of our responsibility to each other
is to tell each other the stories of faith -
warmly and respectfully -
but also thoughtfully and with honest questioning -
and to discover and interpret what they mean for us.

In Baptism we have a new home.
We find people who remind us who we are - the saints -
who teach us and encourage us,
who become examples and mentors for us,
and there we also find people who need us.
Christian community is not a voluntary society.
We inherit our sisters and brothers in the Church
by our acceptance of God as our Father:
in baptism
we recognise our adoption into the family,
and in communion we share with them at the table.

And in Baptism we also inherit a new hope.
Jesus becomes our model,
his life becomes the pattern for our lives.
Our future is no longer defined
by goals that have to be achieved before dying,
because we know that the purpose and hope of life
continues beyond our death.
Our purpose is no longer limited
by our own vision either -
because we work to the vision of God’s realm -
and God's vision is longer than any single lifetime.
The signs we look for and work for
aren't so much the material indications of success,
but for things that are less tangible -
like growing character in persons -
what the Bible calls ‘fruits of the Spirit’ -
Love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, gentleness and so on -
and in our community life
we look for a sense of shared purpose,
for gifts being used to build up the common life,
and for celebrations
in which we offer each other forgiveness,
encouragement, and grace.

So - every time we celebrate baptism -
as we did with Jack last week,
we identify with the person being baptised,
and we claim our own new life.
And whenever we celebrate communion,
as we will next week,
we remember our history, our home, and our hope.
Those three elements of identity
are there in the liturgy we use -
We remember the night Jesus was betrayed
as our own history.
We recognise each other
as people who belong together -
we share the bread and wine as we would in a home.
And we look forward
to the fulfilment of God's purpose -
to the heavenly banquet,
the feast of the Kingdom,
where all God's people - all the saints -
will be gathered in the glory and grace of God.

Christian identity
is not a facade we construct for ourselves,
nor a trap defined by the world's prejudice;
it’s a gift, to be explored and enjoyed.

You are numbered among the saints:
you have a history, a home and a hope
that is yours because God loves you
and has called and claimed you
as one of God’s own.
So tomorrow, if you see those pumpkins
and kids dressed up like witches or vampires
or whatever else they choose -
remember that there’s more to it all than sugar,
and say a prayer of thanks for all the saints.