By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 29, 2023
Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, 26-31
It is good to be back among you. I got to spend the last week in Brazil getting to know churches there, teaching from what we have to offer from North America. South America has been so fervently Roman Catholic for so long many don't realize how far and how fast Protestant churches have grown. Estimates are that by 2030 evangelicals will have as many members in Brazil as Catholics. So, in just a few years Brazil will be the largest Protestant country in the world. But as the rapper Jay-Z says, mo’ money, mo’ problems. Many of the churches that have grown the fastest are most committed to the prosperity gospel: the false promise that following Jesus Christ will make you rich. Others rushed to support President Jair Bolsonaro as fervently as some churches did Donald Trump in the USA. The future of the church worldwide depends on a healthy and wise church emerging from Latin America in general and Brazil in particular.
I have some hope in that regard. One couple was asking me about coming to Canada for theological study. And they asked, what do you think about Halloween? What? Like, what am I going to dress up as? No, they said, not that. The thing is, here in Brazil, evangelicals don't celebrate Halloween. Why? They think it's demonic. All those witches and ghosts. See? Church is different in different places. I gave them an answer from a more conservative friend in the US whose church worried about this: when else are we warmly invited into our neighbours' homes? What an opportunity to learn names, to grow as neighbours, to eventually share the gospel? They seemed pleased with this, to bring it back to their leadership in Brazil.
It got me thinking about this holiday when we dress up. Most cultures have parties where you get to dress as something you're not. Jewish people dress up on Purim, a festival from the book of Esther, where a would-be murderer named Haman tries to kill the Jews, but Esther and her cousin Mordecai save the people. In fact, whenever the name Haman is said in synagogue, the people boo, hiss, blow whistles, drown it out, let that name be blotted out. It's a way of celebrating: you tried to kill us, but we're still here. In a moment like right now, when it is hard to be Jewish, that´s important to say. Judaism is about joy. Dressing up for fun and making fun of evil. In that way Halloween is also a Christian thing. Imagine the thing that scares you most. Now dress up as it to make fun of it. Jesus Christ has defeated death, plowed up hell, strung up the devil. They still thrash about and try to scare you. But the thing evil can´t stand is to be mocked. G.K. Chesterton said that angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. This is how you can tell a faith is true or anything is true: does it have a sense of humour? If not, be done with it. And Judaism has a great sense of humour. God bless and protect our Jewish neighbours and friends and bring peace to the holy land and even to Toronto.
That's a quick summary of Jewish faith: you tried to kill us, we're still here, let's eat. I've told you before that's not a bad summary of the black church's life in the USA. Our Welsh folks here tell me it's also a good summary of Welsh history: you tried to kill us, we're still here, let's eat. But there are deeper Christian roots to Halloween even than dressing up for fun and candy.
Halloween takes its name from All Saints' Day, November 1, which falls right at the end of the Christian year as we get ready to mark Advent. The idea here is that we remember those whom we've lost in the past year and beyond. In Christian faith those who have died are not simply gone. We are still one with them in the communion of the saints, the body of Christ. Saints are commemorated on the day of their death, which is their birthday into eternal life with God. So, you've heard of St. Valentine, who may never have existed, but never mind. If he existed, he died on February 14, so lovers still exchange chocolate and flowers that day. St. Patrick who very much existed died March 17, not just so we can have green beer, but so we can remember a saint who escaped from slavery and then preached forgiveness to his fellow enslavers who embraced faith in Ireland. But here's the problem with all saints. What if we forget one or more? Last week was the feast day for a St. Tudo. I've never heard of poor St. Tudo. I'm guessing you haven't either. The legend rose up that if a saint is not properly honoured, that one could turn up the night before all saints and take his revenge. St. Tudo might knock at your door and say hey, what am I, chopped liver? St. Valentine didn't even exist, and he gets a day! Okay, okay, St. Tudo, we said, how about we have one day to honour all of them, even the ones we forgot? All Saints Day was born, St. Tudo could calm down, and we could all target the neighbourhoods that give out full size candy bars.
There's another day of the dead around this time from ancient Christianity. All Souls Day, November 2nd, became a day to pray for the souls of those in purgatory. We don't have purgatory on the Protestant map so let me explain. Most of us when we die aren't holy enough to go right to heaven. We need time to become holy or we would be incinerated in God's presence. Purgatory is a hopeful place, unlike hell, because everyone there is getting out eventually, and in the meantime is getting better. Just for the record I like purgatory. I'm going to need some extra help after death, I think. So, if there are souls in purgatory the rest of us can pray for them. And November 2nd we would remember to do that.
With the Protestant Reformation we stopped all this, and some Protestants as I said even find Halloween not silly but objectionable. I disagree, but I respect their view. Being evangelical in Latin America means rejecting the Catholic Church your grandmother came from and what looks like superstition from there. Here's the thing. We confess the Apostles' Creed as a summary of Christian faith. And in the 4th century, 1700 years ago, our ancestors said, "I believe in the communion of the saints." That is, we are one body of Christ with those living and those dead, with those around the world we will never meet and neighbours we don't even know are Christian. One body. And in this one body we pray for one another. You ask my prayers, I ask yours, and praying for one another is a way to love one another. When Pope Francis meets someone new, especially someone he thinks might be an enemy, he always says the same thing: will you pray for me please? I mean, he has a tough job!
We Christians, all of us, of whatever stripe, believe there is traffic between heaven and earth. Angels go back and forth. And Jesus Christ destroys the grave. He goes from death to life and brings us with him. Those who have died are not simply gone, nor, the church has dared to suggest, are they inaccessible. You can ask for their prayers. They're closer to God than we are, so their prayers are especially powerful. And, the church has figured, we can pray for them as well. I've told you before of my mother who had a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Now that she's died, when I think of her, I pray for her. That God would make her holy. She can't sin or hurt others or herself anymore. So instead of feeling mad at her as I did all my life, I can feel a bit of sympathy. And ask her to pray for me. I could be wrong here. Our Protestant forebears would say her life is done at death and things can't be improved before God. I'm not so sure. Anyway, I hope my prayers go somewhere helpful. And if my heart moves from anger to kindness a little, that's a good prayer.
Paul wrote this letter with someone named Sosthenes. We know nothing about this person. It´s a common name in that day and time, so it could be anybody. It´s moving to think our faith depends on countless people whose names we don´t know, without whom we wouldn´t believe or even be here.
Today I want to encourage us to practice All Saints Day just a little. In a little while we'll process forward like we do for communion, but instead of receiving bread and wine we will light a candle. This is a way of remembering someone you love who has died. A sort of prayer for them. Asking them to pray for you and giving God thanks for their life, without which you wouldn't have yours. Let me tell you some of the folks I'll remember. My grandmother was a Catholic who went to mass every day. She got divorced twice, then said she was sick of this, so she tried to become a nun. No more men, just sisters. Then the sisters rejected her too, didn't let her join. Lots of rejection. But all she did was pray, including praying for me. And when she thought my parents wouldn't have me baptized, she took me to the sink, wet my head in the name of the Trinity, and made sure I was safe eternally. She didn't need a priest; she was priest enough. Thank you, God, for her feisty faith, stronger than rejection. I had a PE teacher in elementary school who helped teach me to love basketball. Sometimes when I make a shot, I hear his voice in my head saying, "in your eye." He taught me to talk trash. Can´t play basketball without that. And he was the first person I heard talk about God in public, at our public school. He'd say he loved all of God's children. Some of us would snicker. But he was taking a risk: to say the G word in public, and to say God's love extends to all, even those the church has said are unlovable. On a day like today we say there is no one not prayed for. The church prays for everyone. Jesus Christ prays right now for everyone he ever made. So, we join in.
Our story from today is part of our series on St. Paul this fall. (Ken Shigematsu broke our streak with Matthew last week, I hope someone objected.) One of my hosts in Brazil loves the Sao Paulo soccer team Corinthians. His friend said yeah but in the Bible the Corinthians are terrible! He's right. Most of the book is Paul complaining about their behaviour. But he opens with joy. He loves them. He thanks God for them. They're saints. Now hold on right there. Didn't you say they were poorly behaved? The worst. Read the book for homework and see what I mean. But Paul calls them saints. Why? To be a saint isn't to be perfect or even particularly good. To be a saint is to be someone trying to follow Jesus Christ. The entire church is nothing but saints. Bad saints maybe, compromised saints certainly, but saints, nonetheless. This is one reason we dress up to come to church. We're trying to become holy. To clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ. To be at our best before God. The original dress up day in church isn't Halloween, it's every Sunday. Paul describes being Christian as clothing ourselves with Christ. Dressing up like Jesus. At first, it's a joke, the difference is so great. But the more you dress up as Jesus the more you'll start to act like him. And that's no joke at all.
Remember when you made a face when you were a kid, and your mom or someone else would warn you: if you do that too long your face might stick like that. I still don't cross my eyes because someone convinced me they'd stay like that if I did. There's wisdom here. Spouses after decades start to look like one another. Millions of little gestures of sympathy start to mirror one another. We sometimes look like our dogs too (only the cute ones: don't worry). Well, the more we look at Jesus, the more we start to look like him, and that's our real face, the one we grow into, which is also his.
Paul has an interesting argument in our text. "Consider your own call: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many powerful, not many of noble birth." Corinthians, you guys, were a bunch of losers. This is not a compliment; I don't have to tell you. A cultural commentator named Alain de Botton says the harshest word we have in the English language is "loser." It's worse than a cuss word. The key cultural achievement in our culture is success. Its opposite is worse than hell or purgatory. But Paul takes that word and does something new with it. He says, yeah, you know God called you losers because if God called strong powerful successful people no one would be surprised. But "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." In politics folks often speak of wanting "the best and the brightest." American presidents talk that way about their cabinets. Donald Trump made it less elegant and more thuggish: that he only hires "the best people" (many of whom are now testifying against him in court). In mainline churches already in the 60s folks were worried that the best and the brightest weren't going into ministry anymore. They were still going into law, medicine, business, but not ministry. So, programs were launched to change this trend. They didn't work (present company very much included). Magazines publish lists of the most influential this or that. Paul says, yeah, God chooses differently. God chooses the worst people. The dimmest. A buncha losers. To show how great God is. No one would be surprised if God chose Rome. Or the American empire. Great powers always claim God's favour. But God chooses the least to shame the strong. Friends never worry whether you are good enough for God. God only chooses the worst. He has ridiculously bad taste in friends. The only thing you have to do to get on the Jesus train is to be a loser. Like the guy on the cross. And the world he turns upside down.
I learned a language lesson in Brazil. I studied Spanish for decades only to get invited to the only place in South America where they speak Portuguese. If you want to make God laugh, make a plan, they say. In Portuguese they have two words for our one word "person" in English. The Portuguese persona is someone's exterior projection. We sometimes say this in English too: a person's persona is how they want to be viewed, their resume, reputation. But Portuguese has another word. Pessoa. That's someone's real self. Their identity before God, usually hidden from outsiders, maybe known to close friends and family. When we die, we're tempted to talk about our persona in the obituary: he accomplished this, she built that. And at our death none of that matters. What matters is our pessoa self. How we love and are loved. What we're really like not at work but at our most unguarded moments. At funerals–and I've done a lot lately–folks don't talk about resumes. They talk about the jokes someone would tell, the silly songs they'd sing, that time he knocked off work to go hang out with me and we had the best time ever. You develop your pessoa self by dressing up as someone else really, your persona self by dressing up for work or church or reputation.
God knows our pessoa selves. Our real selves. Our self when no one else is looking. And God sees our pessoa self and says, ooh, I love this person, they're my best. But we don't act like it, we're sinners! I know, God says, but just wait until they dress up like my Son and become like him. I only choose the worst people, to make them like Jesus, and make the world new through them. Amen.