“The Hope of Martyrs”
All Saints’ Day B (tr.) - November 4, 2018
Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda - St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Savannah
This is an icon of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was brutally martyred in Rome (eaten by lions as capital punishment for his faith) in about the year 110 CE. He inspired many to have courage in the face of corrupt power and persecution. He is alluded to near the end of this sermon.
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
1 The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
3 and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
9 Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.
"For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality."
Israel was a blip on the map for most of its history. If you are well-versed in the Bible, you might get the mistaken impression that Israel was much more powerful than it actually was. Since all the stories focus on Israel they sometimes have an inflated sense of importance in our imagination. But the truth is, from a historical and political perspective, Israel was a small, insignificant nation that was constantly pushed around by whoever was the superpower of the day -- Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, or Rome.
This means that our Scriptures are not written by and for the privileged. Rather, the Bible speaks from the perspective of downtrodden, underprivileged, ignored, and persecuted peoples. The Scriptures assume that its audience suffers and hurts most of the time. To ignore this fact is to make a critical mistake in reading the Bible. Arguably, the failure to acknowledge Israel’s geopolitical weakness (and its impact on our understanding of the Bible) is one of the biggest problems in mainstream Western Christianity.
Christians who sit in seats of power and privilege, through wealth, politics, race, or any other identity marker, often misunderstand the Bible’s message because they misunderstand the Bible’s perspective. The Bible is written by and for the oppressed, not the oppressors. The Jews were marginalized and harassed throughout their history, and we who continue to suffer due to racial prejudice, economic hardship, or other social injustices, we connect with their Bible more deeply than do people of privilege. That’s all a long way of saying that if you’re hurt by or angry about the injustice of the world, the Bible is for you and your comfort.
We’re far too aware this week that the descendants of Israel continue to suffer violence and persecution well into the 21st century, even in so-called enlightened nations like the United States. Our country was rocked to the core when we heard the news of 11 Jews who were gunned down during worship at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday morning (not to mention the many others who were injured). A man driven by hate and white supremacy opened fire on this peaceful and unsuspecting congregation when they least expected it. Some of those whom he murdered had survived the Nazi Holocaust only to be killed in America by the same twisted anti-Semitic ideology.
But we know, of course, that this attack was no isolated incident. The massacre in Pittsburgh lies in continuity with the 2015 attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It continues the alarming pattern of violence displayed in the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and countless others. It is the same evil that caused voter suppression, lynching, and other attacks on the lives and well-being of Black Americans. It’s consistent with the massacre of Native Americans by the European invaders who founded this country. It continues the stigmatization, rejection, detention, and internment of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It is part of the wider plague of white supremacy that infects every part of American life and tries to eliminate people of color and other minorities.
There is an ancient Greek myth of a snake-like monster with many heads called the Hydra. It is said that if you cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more will grow back. Similarly, it often seems like evil does not die and never loses, but simply changes forms and grows new, ever-expanding heads in each generation.
And though it appears in each of these cases that evil has won, the Scriptures assert a different truth to us: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.” This text from the Book of Wisdom is written to people who, like us, have suffered the loss of righteous, innocent lives, left and right. We who survive and mourn for the slain often wonder if evil has won. But the Scripture reminds us that God has the final word.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.
It might seem that evil wins over the righteous, but we believe that God is Love and Love wins in the end. God created the universe out of love. Love is woven into the fabric of the cosmos. The hate and the suffering that we endure in this life is temporary, even the hate and suffering that we cause to others. Wisdom 2:23-24 says, “23 for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity,[b] 24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.“
The saints who have gone before us uphold us through their prayers even in the afterlife. They continue to pursue love, peace, and justice as they serve God in the heavens, always with an eye toward earth. This text from Wisdom and our celebration of All Saints’ Day is certainly focused on life after death and our hope for Resurrection with Jesus Christ. It is a comfort to the afflicted who are surrounded by death, destruction, and oppression (often at the hand of the wicked). As Revelation 21 says, there is no more death, mourning, or crying in the new heaven and new earth.
But it also meant to inspire us to change this life and bring it closer to God’s vision for love and justice. Jesus shows us in John 11 that he is the Master of Death not only for himself or in some far-off future, but also in his earthly ministry. He raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. He calls the faithful out of their tombs. He can bring life and hope into lifeless and hopeless situations. The God of Life and Resurrection is working among us now, even if it’s harder to see in between Jesus’ Ascension and his Glorious Return.
Wisdom reminds us also that the saints of God have a socio-political purpose for us. They don’t just sit around in heaven playing harps in the choir stalls waiting for us to join them (whether in dignity or in shame). No, the Scripture says, “8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. 9 Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.”
The saints witness to both faithful lives of prayer and praise and to faithful lives of equity and love for all people. Their suffering should inspire us not to accept suffering lying down. They witness to the absurdity and futility of evil. Through their faithfulness and love, they unmask the wickedness of this world and show it for what it truly is -- something to be rejected completely in the Name of the Lord.
So whether we speak of saints and martyrs from Europe and North Africa in days of old (St. Ignatius of Antioch in Rome, 150, and St. Perpetua and her Companions in Carthage, 202), or contemporary martyrs in Memphis (Martin Luther King, Jr.), El Salvador (Oscar Romero), Charleston, or Pittsburgh, we know that God holds them all in love, and God calls us to walk together in love hoping against hope that their deaths will not be vain. Amen.