Sunday, November 6, 2016

Phil Kniss: Three All Saints Day Poems

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149:1-9; Luke 6:20-31; Ephesians 1:11-23

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On All Saints Sunday 12 years ago, 2004, a week after the Boston Red Sox broke their curse and won the World Series for the first time since 1918, and a couple days before one of the closest presidential races in history, between George W. Bush and John Kerry, I composed three poems inspired by the four scriptures for the day, and shared them here as my sermon.

I looked at them again recently and thought, with some revising and updating they could have a second life, and we have the same scriptures today.

I don’t fancy myself a poet. But I like using language imaginatively. It helps me enter into the text in a different way. Maybe you’ll hear the text differently as well.

We will sing a refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest), hear a scripture reading, then I will share some poetic reflections on the reading. We begin with song.

Putting Powers in Their Place
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149:1-9

Daniel 7, Psalm 149.
Who would have guessed
This awkward pairing of text
For All Saints Day sacred reading?

Juxtaposed, I suppose, by
Learned lectionary selectors
Thinking apocalyptic scenes of Babylon
And Belshazzar and beasts in the sea

Would inspire preachers like me.
They did not know I was Mennonite.
In psalms, the 149th is no 23rd.
And that sixth verse–could there be worse?

I quote, “Let the high praises of God
Be in their throats and
two-edged swords in their hands.“
Must I preach this?

“Sing praise to God and
Slay the enemy”? or
“Praise the Lord and
Pass the ammunition”?

Do I tell these in Park View’s pews,
First sing, ‘Gloria
In excelsis Deo.’ Then
Execute vengeance on the nations.

Is there no other way to see this decree?
Are worship and war in such unholy alliance?
So let us see what the seer Daniel saw,
Lying in bed, visions in his head?

Did he dream a scheme to bump off
Belshazzar, for crimes against humanity?
No, the seer saw the Most High God
Put powers in their place.

Four winds of heaven, chapter seven,
Stirred up four beasts,
Four cold-blooded kings
Rising from the sea.

Yet take heart, have no fear,
to the holy ones of God Most High
God gives the kingdom in the end.
The Kingdom without end. Forever, amen.

Those kings get their due.
And we’re off the hook. But look, today,
The nations still wield awful powers.
Even ours, we deny our Ordainer’s aims.

Two days hence, November Eight,
Ballots cast will designate
Who will be the next appointed king.
Can hardly wait, but here’s the thing:

Regardless who we make our king—
Clinton, Trump, or Bruce Springsteen—
We must admit all kings that we esteem,
Emerge from earth, as in the seer’s dream.

Like us, they yield to force of gravity,
Pulled down by earth and our depravity.
Their might will melt before the kneeling throngs,
Someday, sometime…  but we can hurry it along.

Take heed to Psalm one-forty-nine.
You heard me right. The praise of God
In mouth, and sword in hand. No, I don’t infer
We stoop to use the weapons they prefer.

Listen carefully, I say
We do the deed another way.
We just refuse to bow to claims put forth
By any king that rises from the earth.

And by that brazen act of radical refusal
We rob our kings of what they’re used to.
Without our acquiescence, they’ve lost the essence
Of what they need to rule us.

Without a trace of violence, we drain the lifeblood
From powers of evil. The kings are bound
With fetters, every bit as much and more,
As if we’d taken them by force.

More awesome, more shocking than bombs
That shock and awe, and leave wicked ones
And innocent alike, to die or writhe in pain.
The way to gain the upper hand, is just to name

Whose power we choose to use.
I suggest that we consider the Most High God,
Whose kingdom matters more than any other,
And will last long past the term of our next president.

And as for All Saints Day, you get it now?
We who, past or present, bow to God Almighty,
Place our loyalty, identity with One who reigns
On High. And everyone who’s gone before—

Viola, Martha, Lois, Robert, Ruth,
Anita, Alice, Anna Kathryn—gone, but not
So far removed as not to claim them as our own.
We’re all part of one offbeat community

That worries kings in power,
Since we don’t bow to those who claim a place
reserved for God Most High, who named us saints.
Alive or dead, all kneel at God’s high throne together.

Now I’m glad those strange and awful verses
Were put together in just that way. It forces
Preachers such as me to see a deeper truth.
This sleeping text has blessed me, and I pray you.

So let us now commence to give allegiance
to the only One whose Reign will last.
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

A Glorious Inheritance
Ephesians 1:11-23

Addressed to Asian churches, Ephesus especially,
It’s just a simple letter, nothing more, from Paul.
“Dear saints,” he starts the missive, “Grace to you
and peace.” Of course, that’s how he starts them all.

But reading chapter one again I’m struck full face
In every place how much Paul treats the church
As one whole entity. Community. Humanity in
Unity of faith. It never seems to dawn on him

When speaking of theology, to talk of God
And us in private terminology. In Greek,
The second person pronoun—“you”—
Shows up in plural only. Never singly.

Not “you,” but if you’ll pardon me, it’s “ya’ll.”
I can say that. We are southern, after all.
But not to take it lightly, grammar here is
Crucial to our understanding rightly, that the

Good news of salvation never was a private gift
For me and you and you and you and you.
God marked us all, by Spirit sealed (in v. thirteen)
God’s own people set apart (that’s fourteen)

To be redeemed, a new community
Of saints, recipients of glorious inheritance.
A whole society that, marching to a different beat,
Is bound to meet resistance, and generate some heat

Out in the world where thrones compete.
Which makes the church, it stands to reason,
Guilty of committing treason against the
Powers of this world, such as they are.

So do not tremble, Saints of Ephesus,
And Antioch, and Philippi, and north Park View.
Your saintly church is overseen by Christ its Head,
Seated on a throne that overshadows every other.

At God’s right hand, our Lord is in position
Above all rulers, powers, and dominions.
Resurrection power put Christ there, but
God will share, with us, the new community.

So saints of old, who’ve gone before us,
And all saints here, let’s join the chorus,
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Reverse of a Curse
Luke 6:20-31

Jesus gave a sermon once, that I, the seasoned
Preacher that I am, doubt I would have the
Nerve to give. Or, truth be told, would want to.
He gave it not on mountaintop, but level place.

This sermon on the plain, is plainly ill-advised,
You see. It makes no sense to gather ’round you
Massive crowds enthusiastic, then to get bombastic,
Cursing them who came to hear you. Make them fear you.

“Woe to you who have enough! And curses, you who
Laugh with stomachs full! A curse to everyone of you
Who neighbors think the best of, and assume are blessed of
God!” I think it odd, to preach to folks in such a way.

And then to say, to those who lack in every way, the things
That everyone agrees you need—some food, some cash,
Some happiness, respect, and honor—to say to those
Who stand far off, beyond the borders of the crowd,

Eyes averted, heads just tilted slightly, toes that
Dig into the dirt, who know where they belong—
To say to those—“You over there, you’re blessed.
Yes you! Beyond the rest, you’re blessed if you are

Poor and hungry, weeping, or excluded,
Hated or defamed because of me.
Rejoice and leap though now you creep
Along not knowing that God holds you dear.”

The lowest ones who loiter, linger at the edge,
Long lived thinking they’ve been cursed, and
Destined to be losers, now discover that they
Won the only trophy worth its weight in love.

A simple sermon on a plain, reversed a curse,
Worse than any curse against the Cubbies,
This curse held them in a death grip, nothing they
Could see to free them. Until the day that Jesus said,

“Just don’t look at it that way. Be glad you
Don’t have what they do. Their stuff owns them,
So pity them, the self-incarcerated. You are free, indeed,
To let God do his thing and give you what you really need.”

Now today, this All Saints text, in context with the rest,
Doesn’t tell us what to do, but where to be. It shows us
Where to set our hope and home. Situated in that same,
Trouble-making, power-breaking, slightly offbeat . . . community

Of saints both past and present, who together chose another
Road to greatness. So let us once again confess and sing,
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

—Phil Kniss, November 6, 2016

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