Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What Saints Look Like

This is the adapted sermon I preached on Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Kearny, New Jersey, for All Saints' Day on October 31. As both my partner Aaron and my friend Rev. Nancy Webb said, it sounds just like my mother's sermons. Ha. Anyway, I have preached before multiple times, but never have I designed the service in its entirety, printed the bulletins, and then served as the leader of the congregation by myself. This congregation is the smallest in the Gateway North District--- 6 to 15 people on a Sunday, 7 this Sunday--- but one that is entirely committed to the work of the church.

It was such a blessing to be with these welcoming people, but I was nervous about leading. First, I was in this tiny chapel with only seven others, but I was expected to be behind the pulpit. It felt like forced formality. Then, I had printed out the scripture using the NRSV translation, so when they found it in their NIV bibles, they were really confused. I spoke too fast when preaching, and the hymns I picked were only three verses each (I don't know what hymns the congregation is used to, and there is nothing worse than being asked to sing seven verses of a song you don't know when there is no strong musical voice to follow!), so the service only ended up being forty minutes. Still, the passing of the peace was one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced because everyone hugged and kissed me and I could really feel the love of Christ in everyone in that room.The sermon that follows has been edited.

...Tomorrow is All Saints' Day, a day typically celebrated more in the Catholic tradition than Protestant tradition. When we think of saints, we often think of martyrdon and that process of canonization that is usually associated with saints in Catholic traditions. But my mom always used the holiday to explain to us that our church believed that we could all be saints. She used to say during the church service, "Let me show you what a saint looks like." And then she would hold up a mirror, so we could see our own reflections.

All saints aren't dead saints,1 she was saying. But if, for us, to be a saint you don't have to go through a process of beautification as in the Catholic Church, and if saints don't have to be dead to be saints, than what is a saint? I have heard many a time from folks that my father must be a saint after they meet me and my two younger sisters together. I think those people are insinuating that us three girls are a bit of a handful, which is untrue because we are angels, so I don't think that accurately captures the meaning of sainthood either. This is where our gospel lesson for this morning comes in.

When I saw that the gospel lesson we read this morning came from Luke's version of the Beatitudes, I was a bit perplexed and asked myself what this had to do with saints. But in reading a bit more, I saw that this passage is describing what a saint is. Jesus says:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Jesus is saying that the poor are saints, the hungry are saints. Those who weep are saints, and those who are hated and reviled are saints. It's hard for some of us to think of those living on the streets as saints. It's hard for some of us to think of Muslims and gay people as saints, though they are often reviled and excluded from our very churches. And it's hard to think of ourselves as saints when we weep over the loss of loved ones. After all, those pictures of saints we see with the halos and stuff show them smiling and peaceful looking, right?

But the description of sainthood does not end there. At the end of the passage we read today, Jesus moves from a picture of what a saint is to how we can all become saints.
...Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Here we see that to be a saint is not just to be poor and in mourning, but it is also to make a personal decision day after day to live in a way that brings to life this Sermon on the Plain. Great. Ok. So now what? I mean, these are not some easy how to's that we can all just start doing right now no problem, right? Loving your enemies? Turning the other cheek? If someone takes our stuff, don't ask for it back? It is when we read things like this that I really agree with one of my professors who referred to Jesus as "that crazy bird Jesus." Jesus must be one crazy bird to think that we can really live this way.

I want to paint a picture for you about just how crazy this work of the saints is. This is a story about Bishop Peter Storey, a Methodist bishop and ecumenical leader during apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a violent legal system of racial segregation--- much like the system of segregation and Jim Crow here in our country before the Civil Rights Act was passed--- in South Africa in which the white minority called Afrikaners ran the country and committed horrible acts against the black African population. The system was put in place in the 1940s and was not overturned until 1994. This story is in Bishop Storey's words and for me it really illustrates the work of the saints:

A young Peter Storey

"I once received a phone call," Bishop Storey writes, "in the early hours of the morning telling me that one of my black clergy in a very racist town sixty miles from Johannesburg had been arrested by the secret police. I got up and drove out there, picked up another minister and then went looking for him. When we found the prison where he was and demanded to see him, we were accompanied by a large white Afrikaner guard to a little room where we found Ike Moloabi sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit and looking quite terrified. He had been pulled out of bed in the small hours of a freezing winter morning, and dragged off like that. I said to the guard, 'We are going to have Communion,' and I took out of my pocket a little chalice and a tiny little bottle of Communion wine and some bread in a plastic sachet. I spread my pocket handkerchief on the bench between us and made the table ready, and we began the Liturgy. When it was time to give the invitation, I said to the guard, 'This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.' This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike because one always gives the Sacrament first to the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters— the ones that are hurting the most— and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, 'In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,' and very stiffly, the guard reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.'"2

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Here is a man who is doing the saintly work of that crazy bird Jesus, who is

Loving his enemies, doing good to those who hate him, blessing those who curse him, and praying for those who abuse him and his friends.

His friend Ike has been taken violently from his home for no other reason than the color of his skin. And yet, he with the smile of assent of Ike, takes the moment to offer grace to the guard who represents the system of oppression they live under. And he shows that to do this work, he isn't becoming some sickly sweet spineless guy, not like that picture of the saint with the halo, but someone filled with the Holy Spirit to stand up for the least of these. This is how to become a saint.

Luckily for us, we are a people who believe in the work of the Holy Spirit. The text from Ephesians reminds us this morning that we

were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

Marked. That is such a strong word to me, reminding us of the power that is in our baptism as Christians. It reminds us that whether or not we think we can do it, the Holy Spirit moves among us and within each of us to make us holy, to make us even love our enemies, as Bishop Storey did.

So let's look again into that mirror that shows us what a saint in our own community looks like. What are ways that we can be saints together? So many of you already do saintly work each and every day. Think of your Vacation Bible School work! This is a true example of what Jesus ends his how-to of sainthood:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Here you are, reaching out to the community around you to bring a little light into children's lives, to give to these children what we all hope to give to our own: the love of Christ. It is also standing up, I think. Standing up to the culture of disconnect that we live in. Do you know what I mean? We live in a culture where no one knows our neighbors. Where one of the richest counties in the nation where I am living while I go to school is only sixteen miles from Newark where one in three children live in poverty. To open your church doors to the children in the community is such a gift. It is acting as Bishop Storey did in a way of standing up to the culture to be that picture of saints that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Plain. It is living into, as is written in Ephesians,

the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.

I don't know how many of you attended the District's Vacation Bible School Celebration several weeks ago. It was a powerful moment of communion with the saints in this area. One thousand children participated in the Vacation Bible school programs across the district, making the connectional church a reality. Here there were churches from across the district sharing resources to make real ministry and real sainthood possible. I saw the face of God in those children singing their bible school songs to us at this celebration service.

Too often, we think that Saints can only be perfect people that we have only seen in pictures. But we know that there is another image of a saint that we can look at in our own mirrors. And remember, as we celebrate this All Saints' Day, saints don’t always know they’re saints, or feel saintly all the time.

My prayer for each of you this day, is that you allow those holy things to happen in your lives. Be a saint. Allow the Holy Spirit to use you.

Thanks be to God.

Faithful God, Our True Witness,
Give us the strength and wisdom to live lives
of love, peace and acceptance
in a world fraught with hatred, dissension and exclusion.
Help us to reach out and love
both those who are oppressed and those who oppress.
Guide our journey
that we may live as saints
in remembrance of those saints who have lived before,
those saints who live among us, and those who are to come.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.3
All Saints Day I (1911) by Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky


1Taken from the "Who's out in the conversation?" lectionary series for All Saints' Day.

2Peter Storey, "Table Manners for Peacebuilders: Holy Communion in the Life of Peacemaking," Conflict and Communion: Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ's Table, ed. Tom Porter (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 61-62.

3Prayerfully Out in Scripture, from All Saints Aren't Dead Saints,

Biblical quotations are from The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

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