Monday, November 02, 2009

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Giving Thanks: For All The Saints"

Sermon 11/1/09, Mark 12:28-34

Giving Thanks: For All the Saints

All Saints Sunday is not a day I remember celebrating as a child in my congregation. In fact, I really don’t remember celebrating this special until I got into seminary, although I’m sure we did at my childhood church. But I was lucky enough not to have experienced much in the way of loss and death until I was in college, and so I don’t think I was very tuned in to a day to remember those who had passed away. But since seminary, All Saints has become one of my favorite celebrations in the church – a precious day when we remember – remember our loved ones, remember members of our church family, remember so many lives who have shaped us, over the years, through our lifetimes, even through the centuries, through history. To our Protestant ears, perhaps we perk up a little, in confusion, when we hear talk about saints. Do we have Saints?

But, as soon as we ask the question, a million possible responses pop into our heads, as we think about the people who have touched our lives. In a time of pastoral transition, All Saints Sunday is unique – I don’t know – never knew – the people whose names we will read today – I have met family members, and heard stories, but I did not know these people personally. And today, in churches in Franklin Lakes, NJ, and Oneida, NY, people’s names will be read whose funerals I conducted, who I knew well. But in some ways, that hardly matters – because All Saints Sunday is a day when we can enter into the story together. These names here because my names, my people, my loss, and my celebration, just as they become yours, even though you may not know all of these names either. All Saints Sunday is a celebration in the community of faith, of the family of God, as we remember lives that have shaped us in different ways.

Who has shaped you that you are missing today? Probably, we all have that individual who we still miss dearly, who we hold up in our hearts and minds. For me, this person has been my grandfather, Millard Mudge. Grandpa wasn't a leader. He didn't start any great movements, he didn't make headlines very often. But when he died – can it be eleven years ago now? – over 500 people showed up for his calling hours and funeral, a friend of my brother's asked with awe, "Who was your grandfather?" Who he was, to me, anyway, was something like a saint. He was not perfect, certainly. But it’s hard now to remember anything not-wonderful about him. Today, the best compliment I can give anyone is that the person reminds me of my Grandpa Mudge. He simply was a faithful servant, a living witness to the power of God and the love of Christ working in his life. Though he worked most of his life at Rome Cable, when I was little he was retired and working as a gas station attendant, trying to make ends meet financially. And even there, he was a witness, always wearing his "I love Jesus" pin, always trying to share a word of comfort and love, and somehow transforming a job like that into a place where he made people feel loved every day. He loved God, and he truly loved his neighbors, all of his neighbors.

Who is the saint in your life? Who have you looked up to, and what was it that made you admire them? Today we remember our members, the gifts their lives were to their friends, to their families, to this congregation and community. And we also take time to remember those who are connected to this congregation in other ways – those who are sisters and brothers and children and parents and grandparents and loved ones of yours, those whose names you carry in your hearts today and everyday. And we celebrate the lives of those we have lost as a community, as a society. We celebrate those who have gone on before her, working for peace and justice in the world – treasures like Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa. We remember treasures that are lesser known – perhaps someone in the history of your family. And we celebrate and remember the lives of the saints that fill the pages of our church’s history. We remember the first disciples who followed Jesus, and the women whose names are lesser known but who also responded to the call. Today we call to our mind the early church figures who helped Christianity grow from a small sect into a worldwide faith. We remember those who gave their lives to make it so. We remember our Protestant history, and celebrate those who helped reform the church. We celebrate our Methodist heritage – John and Charles Wesley – and our Presbyterian tradition– with names like John Calvin and John Knox as leaders of the church. As we sit in these pews today, we stand on the faith of so many others – those in the long ago past and those in the all too recent past. These are the ones who have shaped our lives. These are the ones who have impacted our faith, whether we recognize it every day or not.

And so as I love to celebrate All Saints Sunday, I also approach it with caution. As soon as we name someone as a saint, we tend to put them into a category other than where we place ourselves. They are saints, so we can expect them to be good, kind, and to change the world. But we’re just regular people. Everyone can’t be Mother Teresa, right? God hopes and expects a lot for us, but we’re not really all meant to be like her are we? We’re not expecting to be put in the history books, are we?

And so we turn to our text for today. In our gospel lesson we hear Jesus reminding us of the greatest commandments, after being questioned by one of the scribes. This time, instead of so many scenes where a religious leader is trying to entrap Jesus in his teaching, the scribe seems sincere in his questioning, and Jesus tells that man that he is not far from God's kingdom. The scribe wants to know which commandment is first of all. Of course, Jesus tells us as he tells the scribe that the commandments we must follow are ones that the whole community in Israel knew by heart, and that most of us Christians today know by heart as well. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself." The scribe responds, “You are right Teacher,” saying that following those commandments are much more important than making the proper sacrifices and appropriate offerings. Jesus sees that he has answered wisely, and says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one else dares to ask Jesus questions, at least not for the time being.

We are commanded, above all, to love. When I think of the lives of the saints – saints of the church or saints in my life – I can see how love was at work in their lives. Mother Teresa loved those others considered untouchable. Gandhi loved those who were oppressing his people, and loved those whose faith and beliefs were completely different than his own. My grandfather, imperfect though he was, loved freely, in spite of the prejudices he was raised with. He always acted in love. Jesus says that following the commandments to love brings us near to God’s kingdom. And to be in God’s kingdom is the best way I can understand sainthood.

That means, though, that we can’t shove sainthood off as a title only for those who have passed away, or as a title we use to get ourselves out of the responsibility God has placed on us in discipleship. Because loving is something we can all do, if we choose to open our hearts. You can bring in a thousand cans for our food drive, but if you do it without love, you’re missing the point. When you speak, do you speak with love? When you see those who don’t look like you, or dress like you, of live like you, do you look with loving eyes? The first commandment tells us that we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Catholic Worker Dorothy Day once said, "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." We can only love God if we love one another. We can love that which God has created, and love God through our actions toward others.

When we talk about saints in the life of the church, we’re not talking about those who have completed some special tasks, or those who have gained world-wide renown. We’re talking about those who leave a legacy of love, those who take Jesus seriously when he reminds us that there’s nothing better we can do in life than loving God, and loving others. If you think about those saints in your own life, or even those saints in the scriptures and beyond, I think you’ll agree that these saints weren’t perfect. St. Peter denied Jesus three times in the hour of Jesus’ greatest need. St. Paul spent years of his life persecuting those who followed Jesus. Much has been made in recent years of letters showing the Mother Teresa had periods of struggle and anguish in her life, as we all do. John Wesley had times of great despair in his faith journey. And so we celebrate on All Saints Day not a class of perfect Christians, unfaltering disciples. To me, a saint is someone where you can tell that their life has been transformed by the love of God they carry with them, and so share freely with others. You can tell that they are living in a new way because of God’s love for them.

Today is All Saints Day. And you are meant to be counted in that number. Don’t count yourself out, and let yourself off the hook. We all know what it means to love. “Hear,” Saints of God, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “you shall love you neighbor as yourself.” Amen.

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