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.