Building on a Firm Foundation: Sermon for November 5, 2017

There’s a story about a woman whose life was going all wrong. She was in her late 20’s. Her short first marriage had just failed. She had a small child to care for. She was out of a job. She was relying on government benefits to survive, and feared that she would soon be homeless. And she was depressed; the kind of depression that makes you wonder whether life is really worth living.

She had always been scared to death of failing and now, that one thing she had always been terrified would happen had indeed happened. She was, in her own eyes and she believed in everyone else’s, a complete failure. To put it another way, she had hit rock bottom.

I’ll come back to her, but think for a minute about that phrase: rock bottom. When we use it we are often talking about the absolute nadir of our lives. You may have heard it said of someone who is going through some struggle that they just have to hit rock bottom on their own before they will get better. I believe that’s true.

I believe that because I’ve had my own rock bottom moments and so, probably, have many of you. These are the times when nothing has gone the way I’ve planned, or I’ve failed in some spectacular way, or something has happened that has felt so devastating that I haven’t been sure how to get back back up again. That’s rock bottom, and it hurts just as surely as falling on rock.

It’s hard not to think of “rock bottom” when we hear today’s Scripture. Jesus is telling a parable, a story, about two men: one wise, and one foolish, who are both building houses. One man gets everything he needs to build his house, but then he picks out where to put it, and he chooses to build it on sand. It’s fine for a little while but then the rains come, and the wind and floods, and the whole house is washed away.

The wise man does something different. He gets all of his materials, and he chooses to build his house on rock. So the rain and winds come, even the floods, but nothing is able to touch his house. It’s built on rock, and that means it is built to last.

If that story sounds familiar to you it’s probably because we all heard a similar story as kids. It’s the story of the three little pigs. One big builds with straw, one sticks, and the last bricks. When the big bad wolf comes around, the first two houses fall apart, the the brick house does not. Both stories have the same message: build well, build solidly, and you will withstand whatever comes next.

This is what we teach our kids. But this is what, so often, we forget as adults.

So what does any of this have to do with rock bottom? Well, as it turns out, we’re teaching your kids about rock bottom in Sunday school class today. All the parents are second-guessing their decision to come to church right now. But really, it’s okay. We’re teaching your kids the story of the house built on the rock, and we’re teaching them about where to build their spiritual homes, and by extension, where to build their whole lives.

Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about the value of making something solid your bedrock. This passage comes at the end of his sermon on the mount, when he was trying to teach the crowds what it meant to follow him, and to live a holy life. And he was trying to show them how our foundation matters.

If we have a sandy foundation, one that is always shifting on us, one that is not stable, then our spiritual lives are about as stable as a house of cards. And let’s be clear…there is a lot of sand out there. There are a lot of things that tell you they are important, but are not. At the end of the day, they are as worthless as quicksand. But if we have one that is as solid as rock, as steady as can possibly be, then even when the winds and rains and even the floods come, we will survive.

And here’s what’s important to remember: the winds and rains will come. Jesus did not say that the man who built on rock would have good weather. He was going to face all of the same storms. So will we. And yet, the man who built on the rock, he would make it through.

So here’s the tough question: how do we get that firm foundation?

I’d like to tell you that it’s easy. Just trust in God and do the right things, like what Jesus taught the crowd. I’d like to tell you that if you raise your kids that way they’ll build their houses on rocks, and they will never fall. But the world doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that all of us have to learn this the hard way. Each one of us is human, and that means that each one of us has a foundation that could use a little work. We build up our hopes and our dreams, and then a storm comes, and we find that our foundations were more sand than rock. That’s when we have to get out our hard hats, dig deep, and lay a new foundation, one that allows us to truly be embedded in the love and grace of God.

Sometimes we get a little warning, and we’re able to do some quick emergency repairs. But sometimes, the house comes crashing down, and we have to rebuild once again.

The woman at the beginning of this story, the one who had lost everything and hit rock bottom, she knew what that was like. And her story has come to inspire me. And so I want to tell you a little more about her.

The woman’s name is JK Rowling. She is arguably the most successful writer of the last 25 years. And she told this story in a commencement address that she gave to Harvard students several years ago. She told them about how she was by every measure an abysmal failure before the age of 30, and about how she had absolutely hit her rock bottom.

And then she something that I’ve come back to again and again. “Rock bottom,” Rowling said, “became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

At rock bottom she began to write a story about a young wizard named Harry Potter and his friends. She didn’t know what would happen with that story. She submitted it to publishers and it was rejected time after time. It ended up in the slush pile of a publishing house, a place manuscripts go to die, and an editor just happened to pick it up and decided to take a chance on it. And the rest is history.

I don’t tell you that story to say “go and write a bestseller”. I mean, if that’s your thing, go for it. I tell it because it shows an incredible truth: hitting rock bottom is not the worst thing that can happen. Indeed, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. Solid rock, no matter how we get there, is the only place from which we can hope to build something that will truly last.

Over the next three weeks, from now to thanksgiving, I’m going to be preaching on what it means to invest our lives well. During this same time we are conducting our stewardship campaign, so I’ll be talking about what it means to be good stewards, good investors, of our whole lives and all we have been given.

Each one of us has been given exactly one life to invest. Today we start this series by talking about the foundation we choose to build our lives upon. It could be that your spiritual life is rooted in the solid foundation of rock bottom. Or, it could be that you feel the sand shifting below your house as we speak. Here’s the good news. Even if that’s true, God’s love and grace are the rock upon which you can rebuild. And unlike any other kind of real estate, that love and grace know no limits…there’s plenty of land for all of us.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, I’ll close with this. I know this is true, because others have helped me to find a good foundation upon which to build my life. They’ve shown me where to set up my spiritual house, and they’ve taught me how to survive the winds and rains.

Maybe that’s true for you too. Maybe there has been someone who has been with you at rock bottom, and helped you to look around, and to find hope there. Maybe they’ve laid that solid foundation with you on that rock. God knows I have had those people. My guess is you have too.

The beauty of the Christian life is that we all get second chances at solid foundations. And the obligation of this life is that, once we have, it’s our job to help others to have the same. In large part, the measure of our lives will have nothing to do with how big we build our own houses, but in what we do to provide solid foundations to all we know, and especially to the next generation.

We do this, because God has worked through so many others in order to do it for us. And so, on this All Saints’ Sunday, let us speak the names of the ones who have gone before us, in the sure hope of God’s rock solid love…


The Gift of Our Lives: Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2016

Note: This is the third in a three-week series on stewardship. For the previous sermon please click here:

Over the past three weeks I’ve been preaching a sermon series on stewardship. The first week we talked specifically about financial giving and this church. And last week we talked more broadly about the good seeds that God has given us to plant and how it’s our job to find good soil.

All through it I’ve been stressing the point that stewardship is about more than money. Instead, stewardship is about life, and it’s about taking every good thing you have been given, and being a good steward of it, which in 21st century terms just means being a good manager.

Stewardship is about recognizing what God gives us and then deciding to use it well. Our time, our talents, our treasure…no matter what we have, we make the choice.

Layout 1So, this is the last day of our stewardship season, which means it’s also Dedication Sunday. Today we are collecting pledge cards for next year, and after worship the stewardship committee will be tallying them up. Then they’ll go downstairs to coffee hour, ring a bell, and announce the total. It’s an important annual tradition for us.

But today is also an even more important day. It’s All Saints’ Sunday. For Protestants, All Saints’ is when we remember the people we have loved and lost. On All Saints’ we proclaim our hope in Christ’s love, and we talk about what is called the “Communion of Saints”. That’s a confusing phrase, but to simplify it, by Communion of Saints we just mean this: all who have lived and died in this faith, who we now believe to be gathered (or in community) with Christ and each other in the next life.

Because I’ll be out of town on our usual pledge Sunday, these two events had to fall on the same Sunday this year. That made me a little uneasy at first. Money is hard enough to talk about. Money and the memory of people we have loved is even harder. And I didn’t want anyone to think we had done this deliberately to try to emotionally manipulate anyone into giving more. This isn’t “your grandmother was a saint and she would given more than you”.

But as I thought about it, I really came to appreciate the beauty of talking about stewardship and talking about our whole lives. I’ll tell you why.

One of the traditional readings for All Saints’ is the Beatitudes, which you just heard. Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the merciful. In other words, blessed are people who, in reality, are nothing like me. I want to be all those things, but I stumble on a daily basis.

And on All Saints’ my flaws are front and center. Martin Luther said that we are all simultaneously both saint and sinner, but I can testify that my saint is far outweighed by my sinner. And this talk of saints…those are the holy people, the ones who seem to walk around with halos on their heads. That’s not me.

But our faith says something a little different. We believe that people are not saints in life, no matter how good they are. We are all imperfect. But we teach that when we die, we don’t become angels like Hallmark tells you. Instead, we become saints.

In fact, the biggest barrier between you and becoming a saint is not that you are imperfect…it’s that you are still alive.

There will come a day when we will all leave this life. We do not have to fear that day. We belong to a merciful God who has given us extraordinary grace. And on that day we will find that we have joined the great Communion of Saints.

And so, that means that we, you and I, are saints-in-training, whether we believe we are worthy of that title or not. We are not going to get it entirely right this side of the kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take our work of preparing for sainthood seriously.

Mary Luti, who some of you know from her writing, once said that the best way to learn to be a Christian was not by reading more theology. Instead, it was by studying other people. In particular, she said to study the people whose lives and faith you admire, and then do likewise.

So, who have been your saintly teachers? Who have been the people who have taught you just a little more about what it means to live a life of faith?

For me, one of them was a man named Sammy Clark. Sammy was my college chaplain, and some of you might remember that I flew to Georgia for his funeral when he died suddenly last spring. I met Sammy when I was a college freshman, and a new Christian, and he changed my life. He’s the one who set me on the path to ministry.

I was one of many who learned from him, and recently I wrote this about him in a daily devotional:


Rev. Sammy Clark

“As a college chaplain Sammy loved, and was loved by, everyone. He advised a fraternity that was perennially about to get kicked off campus while at the same time affirming gay kids coming out long before it was culturally acceptable. He prayed with us on Wednesday nights in the chapel and then snuck out back to smoke the cigarettes that his Methodist ordination was supposed to ban.

Sammy was good, but he wasn’t perfect. He was a human being who messed up, just like all of us. And he wasn’t a saint in life. Had anyone suggested that he was, he would have broken out in a grin, shook his head, and laughed.

But Sammy is a saint now.”

Those of us who knew him are better for it. And so on this first All Saints’ Sunday without him, I give thanks for him. And I give thanks for the way he used his life.

Sammy taught me about being a good steward of the life I had been given. He taught me that we are called to give not just parts of our lives, but every bit of it, back to God.

Sammy had left an Ivy League PhD program in English to go to seminary. In the late ’50’s, instead of becoming an English professor, he went back home to south Georgia and worked for Civil Rights. But he still always loved poetry, and it’s a poem that reminds me about what he taught us about that kind of life.

Mary Oliver writes in “The Summer Day” these words:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So tell me…God has given you this life. This “one wild and precious life”. What is it you plan to do with it?

Whatever your answer is, that is stewardship. It’s that simple. And it’s that hard. Stewardship is nothing less than figuring out what you will choose to do with every moment, and every gift you’ve been given, in your “one wild and precious life”.

On this All Saints’, I give thanks for the saints in my life who have taught me with their lives about how to choose well. Amen?

Blessed are the Different: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2014

Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When I was in middle school my Catholic friends began this process of choosing saints’ names. They were all about to be confirmed, and they had to pick one saint, whose life they respected, and take their name for their confirmation. I only knew a few saints like Patrick and Francis, so it was really fascinating for me to here about all these different saints because we in the Protestant traditions don’t really talk about them much.

We don’t discount saints, but we tend to see sainthood as something that happened to people a long time ago. The saints are people like Peter, Paul, the disciples, the early first believers. We don’t keep looking for saints among us and canonizing them the way our Catholic brothers and sisters do. Even now Mother Theresa and John Paul II are becoming official saints in the Catholic Church, but we don’t have anything similar.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In a way, that’s okay with me. And here’s why: I tried to be a saint once. I was in elementary school and I figured sainthood was a sure-fire ticket into heaven, so I’d give it a try. I was very holy. For about all of five minutes. Then I gave it up.

Sainthood, I decided, was just too hard. So, whenever All Saints’ Sunday comes up on the church calendar, which is today, I always approach it with this knowledge in the back of my head that sainthood was a failed vocation for me, and we are talking about other people.

And every year on All Saints’ we read this same passage from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s the Beatitudes, which is basically a list Jesus gives of the people who are “blessed”: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the ones who hunger for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. And for each of these, a sort of blessing is given, like seeing God or inheriting the earth.

So, at first glance we might think, “that’s why we read it on All Saints’…it’s about people who can do no wrong. It’s about saints who have no reward in this life, but God’s blessing in the next.” And, maybe that’s true for some, but I think it all goes a little deeper than that.

One of you told me a story recently about the beatitudes. A storyteller told a story of a parent who was asked if they had a favorite child. Surprisingly the parent said “oh yes, I do”. The person who asked was appalled but the parent explained, “whichever of my children is going through the hardest time on any given day is my favorite, because that is the time when I am favoring them by giving them most of my thoughts, and my prayers, and my attention.

As it turns out, the word “blessed” can also be understood as meaning “favored”. And, the storyteller said, if we think of God as a divine parent who loves all of God’s children, perhaps the beatitudes are less about God loving the holy and perfect ones more, and more about God favoring us by drawing closer when we are in the hardest of times.

I think there’s something to that. And I think there’s good news there for those of us who are not saints. These words are not about being a reminder to us of how far off the mark we are. If anything, they are a reminder that God is present and loving us in our hardest, perhaps even least saintly, hours.

So, again, why do we read it today?

For me, it all comes down to an idea that a man named Martin Luther summarized in a Latin phrase nearly 500 years ago: Simul Iustus et Peccator. To translate that, “simultaneously saint and sinner”. Luther was talking about all of us there. He was saying that all of us occupy this space of being both. We mess up. A lot. We sin. A lot. We get it wrong. A lot. And yet, somehow we are still saints too.

Now, I told you my feelings on sainthood and how it didn’t sound like a sustainable career option for me. So, you can understand my suspicion here. And yet, I think Martin Luther was right. But before I came to believe that, I had to give up some of my old assumptions of what saints were like.

Now, when you think about a saint, what do you think of? Someone on a stained glass window? A figure on a prayer card or pendant? A statue? Mother Theresa in Calcutta? I’m not saying that some saints aren’t like that, but I think that’s a shortsighted view of sainthood.

Because in our tradition, we understand sainthood a little differently. Saints are not perfect people. Saints, instead, are simply everyday people who have died in the hopes of Christ’s Resurrection.

I talked about this yesterday at Gary’s memorial service. Gary is now a saint. And though he was a wonderful person, and his life shined as an example of God’s love, he’s not a saint because of that. Gary is a saint simply because when he left this life he joined the great Communion of Saints, the community of all who have lived and believed and somehow been found by Christ’s love.

But you and I, we are not saints. At least not yet. We are still wrestling it out in that space where Luther called us both “saints and sinners”. And, as hard as sainthood is, sometimes this feels even harder.

And here’s why I think that is. In the New Testament, when the word for “saint” is used, it doesn’t just mean “good person” or “holy person” or anything like that. Instead, the original word, “hagios”, isn’t even a noun at all. It’s an adjective, a description. And what it means is perhaps that most challenging part of all of becoming a saint. It means “different”, or “set apart”.

In other words, if you want to get ready to be a saint, then you have to be different. Different is not just okay, it’s good according to the Bible. Being different is what you and I are called to be. And the only thing that’s wrong with that, is this: being different is hard.

Don’t believe me? Ask any fourth grader you know what it means to be different. They’ll tell you it’s not such a great thing to be. In fact, we spend so much of our life trying not to be different, and trying not to stand out. Being set-apart is not something that makes most of us feel good. Instead it’s something that terrifies us.

And yet, it’s what God asks of us. God asks us to live our lives in a way that often goes against what is easy, accepted, or well-understood. We are called on constantly to choose the right over the easy, the good over the popular, and the meaningful over the mindless. In short, we are being called not just to be set-apart, but to voluntarily set ourselves apart. This is not for the faint of heart.

And yet, there are some days when we see it so clearly. There are some days when we understand at a gut level that this is what we have chosen and that we would never be happy choosing another way. And those are the days when, despite our stumbles and our wrong turns, we are closer to sainthood than ever.

And those are the days that we too are blessed. Those are the days when we are favored by God. Because, just like children can tell us that being different isn’t easy, their parents will tell you that watching them go through that is pretty hard too. And I’d imagine that in those times those children who are feeling the strain of being different in some way become “favored” by their parents. And if God if our divine parent, I’d imagine that on those days when we are struggling the most with this whole Christian life thing, and the ways in which we are called to be different, God is drawing a little closer to us too.

Listen again to the ones Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In other words, the different. The ones who choose another way. The ones who, for all their imperfections, might just be becoming saints after all. At least one day, hopefully a long time from now.

But while we are not yet saints, others are. And we have known them. And so on this All Saints’ Sunday, I have this question for you: Who are the saints who you have known?

Who in your life is no longer with us, but taught you that maybe being different wasn’t just okay, but that it was the way to being blessed? Who lived their life in a way that taught you that God was with you, and that you were blessed? Who built something with their lives that remains as blessing to you still?

We all have these people. And on this All Saints, they deserve a moment to be lifted up, and so I invite you to do that now…

What the Saints We Knew Taught Us – Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 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.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Being a saint is hard work. I’m not speaking from experience here, but rather from observation. This is what I’ve learned: You have to be perfect. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t have a bad day when you lose your temper, or get frustrated at your neighbor. You have to give away everything you own. You have to spend every night cooking in a soup kitchen, or reading to people in hospital beds, or toiling away at a second job so you can give every penny you make to the poor. You also can never enjoy yourself. If you find happiness even for a moment, you’re probably sinning, and you should immediately confess to God and go do some more volunteer work. Also, you need to pray. A lot. Like ten hours straight each day. Minimum.

And if you do all this, maybe, just maybe, after you die (and you will likely die a torturous, slow, martyr’s death) you will be immortalized with a stone statue or a stained glass window in a church somewhere. And you will be called “Saint So-and-so”. But, really, you shouldn’t even hope for that, because hoping to be a saint is probably a sin too.

When you think about saints, maybe you think about something similar. Perfect people who lead lives of exemplary holiness. People who lead often joyless lives, and have horrific deaths. People who we look at as being extraordinary. People we can never be. Most of us, we believe, are not cut out for sainthood.

But maybe that conventional definition, that idea of the holy, untouchable saint, isn’t what being a saint is really all about? Maybe there’s an everyday sainthood that we might know more about than we think? And maybe today, on All Saint’s Sunday, it’s the perfect time to think about those everyday saints whom we have known.

The Scripture passage today tells the story of a man who came to Jesus asking what the greatest commandment, the greatest rule for life, was. And Jesus gives him an answer that tells us a lot about what true sainthood looks like: 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 man answers him, “you’re right, teacher. And, you know what, doing what you just said matters more than all the burnt offerings and temple sacrifices and everyday rituals we’ve been taught to do.” Now, you have to remember, that was blasphemy. The man was rejecting the common religious knowledge of the time. So Jesus was faced with a choice about how to respond to the man. And yet, he doesn’t tell him he was wrong. He tells them this: you are not far from the kingdom of God. In other words, you’re getting it right. You understand what true faith looks like.

It’s a good reminder for those of us who want to know what true sainthood looks like. Being a saint isn’t about religious rituals or leading joyless lives. Instead, being a saint is about living a life of joy. A life in which you love God with all that is in you, heart and soul, mind and strength. And then loving your neighbor with that same kind of love. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about loving perfectly. It’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about believing in the spirit of the law. Believing in the law of loving God and loving others. And it’s about acting out that belief in all you do.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day where we remember all of the saints who have come before us. And from the outset, we might think it’s a day where we are supposed to look to the example of all the saints we’ve heard about: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Paul. Maybe we’ll even acknowledge some soon-to-be venerated saints like Mother Teresa.

But that’s not the real meaning of All Saints day. Because sainthood is not about some list somewhere of the most extraordinary people ever. Sainthood is about the everyday people who have used their lives to love God, and to love others. In our religious tradition, All Saints day is about all of those we have loved, and lost, who loved us and who by their love taught us to love God.

You’ve known some saints. Maybe they were parents, or grandparents. Maybe they were teachers, or coaches. Maybe they were neighbors or friends. Maybe they were spouses, or children. You loved them, and you learned from them. You learned by example about loving God and loving your neighbor. And you miss them. That’s what today is about.

It’s no coincidence that today, All Saints’ Sunday, is also our fourth Sunday in our sermon series on giving. Because today we are asking who in our taught us how to give. Who showed us what it meant to love by giving? Who was always there when we needed them? Who was generous with their love and their time and their compassion? Who rose to the occasion when you needed them the most, and gave selflessly of all they had? My guess is that if all of us take a minute to think about who the saints of our lives really were, we will think of the most generous people, in every sense of that word, that we have ever known.

We are continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Both people we have loved in our own lives, and people who loved God, and loved us, even though they knew they would never meet us.

This church is an example of that. This building was built in 1858 by people none of us ever met. 150 years ago they gave of the little that they had to build this meeting house for our community. If you look at these pews, you’ll see small plaques with names engraved on them. Those are the names of people who bought these pews as a way of sponsoring the building of the church. They bought the glass in these windows too. You can see the way the glass waves a little, because glass does that over 150 years. That glass was their offering to their neighbors, and to you. You can look at this communion table which sat in the Wilmington church for decades, perhaps over a century, and you can see their care for their house of worship. It’s a legacy we now remember here as well.

But not all of the gifts to this church came 150 years ago. People who are still members of this congregation made the decision decades ago to add a back room to the church. They lifted the church up and added a basement. They put heat in the church because the old stove that used to sit right up here threw out so much smoke that, one member from decades ago told me, you couldn’t see the pastor when he preached.

This is what the saints of this church and the Wilmington Church did for us. They gave us these gifts because they wanted a community of faith to prosper here. And I’m not just talking about the building. The building is just one physical example. What they did spiritually, what they did to build this church up into a community of believers, is far more important. They loved God, and they loved their neighbor. Even their neighbor they would never live to meet.

It’s an incredible testament to what it means to be a saint. And it’s only one very small corner of the world. Because if I asked you to tell me about the saints in your life, you would tell me equally incredible stories of people who gave freely, and who changed your life. And the really extraordinary thing is, one day, if we are lucky, people will share the same sorts of stories about us. Because the choices we make today, the love and generosity we exhibit to the world, can touch not just those who surround us now, but those who will remain long after we are gone. We are not yet saints. But one day, we, like all others who leave this world for God’s, will be. And maybe people will be remembering us on some All Saints’ Sunday. But for now, we remember others.

This morning I set up some tea light candles around the communion table, and around the communion table that we brought up from the Wilmington Church. In just a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to remember, by lighting a candle, the saints in your own life. We will then have this physical reminder of them when we celebrate communion today. Communion is a time when we are connected not just to one another, but to God, and to the saints of all times and places. Today we remember that more than ever. May the candles be a physical reminder that the saints are still with us, and that we have not forgotten them, and that death is not the final word.

Now I’ll invite you, as you’re so moved, to come forward and light a candle, or two, for those you have loved and lost who were saints to you…

“The Saints We Knew” – Sermon for November 6, 2011

We don’t talk about saints much on the Protestant side of Christianity. We leave that to our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters. They name their churches things like, “St. Mary’s, St. Patrick’s, St. Francis’,” while most of the time (but not always) we choose names that tell you more about where we are located. There a certain suspicion in Protestantism about the saints. We are too afraid of making idols out of them, and so we acknowledge their place in ancient church history, but we don’t talk about them as much as we maybe should.

But I have friends who grew up in churches where the lives of the saints were always being discussed. It was a part of the fabric of their lives. They knew the most important saints days, they knew the patron saints for their parish or their town or their heritage. And some of them even say that when they were children their first ambition was to become a saint. In some traditions that’s still possible. Mother Theresa’s life is being examined by the Catholic Church, for example, to see whether she may have been a saint.

But in Protestantism, we don’t talk much about wanting to be saints. I would consider it briefly when I was very little and then probably about ten minutes after would do something that I was sure had disqualified me from sainthood forever. And, to be honest, sainthood sounded a little boring. I imagined a life of being perfect, and never having any fun.

But sainthood is a little more complicated than that. A few weeks ago I told you about how Martin Luther used to say we were all simultaneously saints and sinners. We were all trying daily to do the right thing, and yet all making the mistakes that every human makes. Even the great saints of history were human, and fallible, and imperfect.

Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. All Saints day was actually November 1st, but most Protestants move it to today. It’s not one of the major holidays of the church year for us, and we tend to think more about the night before it filled with candy and costumes.

But there is a beauty about All Saints day. We come to church on this day to remember not just those old saints who supposedly did things like drive snakes out of Ireland or who blessed the animals. We come because we too have known saints, and we miss them.

Our faith believes that when we die, we too join the communion of saints. We don’t earn a place there by our perfect lives or our great acts. We will find ourselves there because God’s grace has been given to us and we couldn’t say “no”. We couldn’t turn down sainthood.

But for now, we are here, and we are, as Luther said, still both saints and sinners. Sometimes a little more of one than the other. And all the people who are around us are too. And yet even still, sometimes they do truly saintlike things that change the lives of those around them. They become the people who show us God’s love and grace and goodness. They inspire our faith. They lead us to live good lives. They show us what is important. They give so that we can live. And when they leave this world, we miss them. Today we raise their memories up once more, and we look to the next life where they are already all saints.

So, who are the saints you remember? Who helped to shine the light of God just a little more in your life? Your parents? A childhood Sunday school teacher? The person you worked with whose quiet faith caused him to make things a little brighter for everyone around him? The person who came to your help when everything in your life had fallen apart, and who picked you up and helped you get back on your feet? The one who fought for what was right when everyone else was too scared?

They were all saints. And because of them we are here today, remembering the little things they did that inspired faith in us. And remembering them is good.

I’ve talked before about being on Facebook. I think there are actually a lot of spiritual lessons that can come from it. My most recent has to do with a saint I knew. David was a seminary classmate of mine. We was a former swimmer at Harvard and he both incredibly smart and incredibly athletic. He was getting a PhD at Duke and he could have taught at any seminary across the country. But instead, he and his family decided to go to South America as missionaries and to teach there. Not long before he was scheduled to leave, he went out on a run with another classmate. He was in his 30’s now, but just as athletic as ever. But not long into the run David fell to the ground and never recovered.

I see David’s profile pop up on Facebook from time to time. And I used to wonder whether I should “unfriend” him since he is gone and the account is dormant. But I’ve decided not to. David was a part of my life, and he was a saint. Because the way he lived his life inspired me to want to love God more. And I was far from the only one. Today he is one of the saints. And he is not forgotten

But, who will one day remember us as saints? And why? Those who love us will not remember us as perfect, but to whom will we leave a legacy of a good, generous life that pointed not to our own accomplishments, but to God?

In the end the best remembarances of us won’t be about our check book balances. They won’t be about how big our house was, or whether we made partner. They won’t be about how much stuff we accumulated throughout our lives. They will be this: how much we gave.

The ones who remember you will remember your generosity first. They will remember your love of them. They will remember your friendship. They will remember the ways you took what you had and used it to help others. They will remember the ways you concerned yourself more with giving what you had away, rather than holding on to what you wanted to keep for yourself. In the end, there is no clearer indication that God’s grace is at work in you than your willingness to serve the needs of others before your own wants.

We don’t give so that we will get something, but even still you may be surprised at how your life is blessed by your giving in ways you may never expect.

When I worked for a hospice as a chaplain we had a nurse who was the son of a Holocaust survivor. His mother had been liberated from the camps at the end of the war, and because she lived, he had been given life.

One night he was called out to check on a dying man. The man didn’t have much longer to live, and his family was all gone. He was all alone. The nurse was going to go and take care of him and then leave for the night when he saw that the man had served in a particular Army unit during World War II. It was the same unit that had liberated his mother’s camp.

For the rest of the night, until the man died, the nurse stayed with him. The man who would have died to save the life of a woman he had never met, was now kept watch over by a son whose life had been made possible because of what the young soldier had given.

We never know what exactly our legacy is, and we never know how it will bless us in the most unexpected ways.

In a few minutes we will be taking part in communion. One of the things that is most incredible to me about the sacrament is that it binds us not only to God, but to one another, and to the whole communion of saints. When we sit at this table we sit here not just with each other, but with the believers of all times and places who are now saints.They are with us. The saints we have known are here with those who would-be saints.

This has been happening in this building for over 150 years. But before that it was happening in other buildings in this valley back over 200 years ago.The ones who sat in these pews, as well as the pews of every previous building, and who left a church here for us, they are here too. And long after we are gone, and everything that we know is gone, that communion of saints will remain and hopefully we too will be a part of it. It’s the only permanent thing we can ever hope for, and it’s the only thing that can ever satisfy us.

We are not, yet, saints. But we believe we one day will be. And wherever those whom we love end up, wherever they light their candles, may they remember how we tried to be. May they know that even when we were not perfect, we were trying. And may they forgive us our mistakes, and remember more our light, and may they join us at this table of joy. But for now, take a moment, and name in your hearts those who were saints to you. And then picture them joining us at this table today, and give thanks for the saints who were, and join them for the feast. Amen.