Sunday, November 26, 2006

the legacy of the saints (mark 12. 28-34)

One of the core teachings of Jesus is about the greatest commandment: 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 your neighbor as yourself. It relates to the church's observance of All Saints.

This core teaching helped the followers of Jesus to know what they might aspire to: the ideal. We call these followers of Jesus “saints”. I have come across a couple of definitions of the word “saint”. One definition has it this way: a saint is a someone who lives out the meaning of a single verse of scripture.

The saints remind us of Paul’s listing of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

The saints remind us of Paul’s meditation on the virtues in Philippians: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The saints remind us of Paul’s instruction to the believers in Colossians: put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

The saints remind us of the teaching of the prophet Micah in the Old Testament: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.

But there is another dimension to what it means to be a saint, and here I am speaking not of any kind of ecclesiastical dogma, but of what the scripture itself calls every one of us to be and to do. A saint is someone in whom the love and light of God transparently shine through.

Last summer Pam and I were at a conference of clergy and we made a connection with another Methodist pastor who was there, whose named is John Fanestil. John lives in San Diego, and he had recently written a book, entitled Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death. It is a wonderful book about how some people approach death not only with acceptance and peace, but with a sense of glorious anticipation, even as they are aware of all that they will leave behind. His research began with narratives of eighteenth century men and women, whose “happy deaths” were recounted in Methodist magazines, and continued in the experiences of those with whom he has been privileged to know and serve.

I thought of John, and his book as I prepared for today, and as I thought of some of those who had experienced “happy deaths”. I was sitting in the hospital room with one of our members and she was eating a late lunch, talking about how good the food was in the hospital (people rarely do that)……and she remarked that this particular day was Herman Nicholson’s birthday, and she would not have the chance to call him and wish him a happy birthday.

Then she talked about how different all of the Providence ministers had been, and I remembered that on another time she talked about she and her husband would often have Sunday lunch with Doug and Bobbie Corriher, I had known then when I first began in the ministry, and she mentioned how grateful she was for all of her pastors. I realized in that moment that I was being given a gift. I remembered, driving away, some words of one of my professors: when real ministry happens, it is never quite clear about who is helping whom.

That evening I wrote something briefly about that moment, just so I would have it, in my journal.

“Our large congregation is composed of many people, with varying interests, temperaments, needs and callings.

One of the most influential holds no particular position or role, and yet she is one of our most prominent members.

She has difficulty breathing, due to age and declining health, and yet her voice is heard loud and clear, especially by the people who are called on their birthdays.

She is a frail person, and yet there is within her a deep inner strength. She has watched a number of very different pastors come and go over the last forty-seven years (she joined our congregation in the year that I was born), and she is appreciative of them all, seeing only their strengths and disregarding their limitations.

She has overcome a number of personal and family crises in her own journey, and yet her great concern is most often about the needs of others.

She has an absolute love for her local church, and a great desire to be in worship, and yet being present is becoming less and less frequent.

Her name is spoken with awe and reverence by those who know her, and yet her posture is always one of profound humility.

She is a living example of how one individual can change the lives of countless people.

She is a saint because the love and light of God shine transparently through her”.

She would have been slightly embarrassed by the attention and even the adoration. It was not in her nature. But she was a saint.

The Methodists had a word for the process toward the ideal, toward sanctification, toward a happy death: sanctification. Sanctification was nothing more than love of God and love of neighbor…this was one of the ways John Wesley defined sanctification, and he commented that most people were sanctified shortly before their deaths. It is there that our commitments, to God and to each other, are most clear for all of us to see.

I think of the saints who passed in our own congregation this year. A daughter of one of those whom we will name commented: “Without her presence, her love, her encouragement, I don’t know where I would have ended up”. The son of one of those whom we will name said, of his father, “he was a builder, he worked with his hands, he could make or restore anything, but his workmanship is most clear in the lives of his children and grandchildren…he has shaped us”.

The saints are those who love God and their neighbor. In Methodist language, they are going on to perfection, to the life God intends for all of us. Often this gets worked out in the practices and habits that form us: we love God through worship and prayer and study, we love our neighbor through service and inclusion and generosity.

And of course they can’t be separated, love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus held them together in his teaching, and his earliest followers, who struggled as we do to live these teachings, did as well. John wrote in his letter to some of the earliest churches: those who do not love their neighbor, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have never seen (4. 20).

The saints do come to a kind of clarity about all of this. They make peace with God, and at times they even possess a desire to be in God’s presence, in eternity, in heaven. They forgive and make amends and express gratitude and give their blessings to those who will continue in this life. It is good that the church sets aside one day, All Saints, to remember the importance of the saints in our experience, for they are the very ones who have put us in a place to worship God, who have taught us the scriptures, who have prayed for us, who have included us, who have served us, who have given themselves to and for us.

Through them we learn the great commandment not as a theory, but as a lived reality. Again John, writing to the earliest Christians; after stating a doctrinal position, that God is love, he goes on: “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God’s love abides within us”.

I don’t perceive of myself as a morbid person, but on All Saints I am put in touch with mortality, my own mortality, the mortality of friends, mentors, family, heroes.

I think of Cecil, who died this year in an automobile accident. Cecil and Pam were members of a church that I once served, a wonderful church where, for a time, the youth ministry was a mess, there was no other word to describe it, everyone divided, many quick to criticize the others, I remember sitting down with Cecil and his wife over lunch and his saying, “we will be glad to help”. A saint.

I remember the great preacher William Sloane Coffin, whom I heard preach at the Riverside Church in New York City when I was a college student, perhaps the greatest prophetic voice of his generation. A saint.

I remember Herman Nicholson and Doug Corriher, whom I have already mentioned, former ministers of this church, whose leadership certainly helped Providence to be the church that it is today. Saints.

I think of other saints: grandparents and friends, teachers and neighbors, heroes from a distance, and stretching back, I think of John and Charles and Susannah Wesley, I think of the apostles and prophets and martyrs. Maybe even now you are thinking of a saint in your own life, Someone who taught you the great commandment--to love God and to love your neighbor--someone for whom the love and light of God transparently shine through.

Mostly I think of the saints whom we will name out loud. And when I gather with you in the holy communion, it will indeed be the communion of saints, in anticipation of the great banquet that Jesus promises, and in anticipation as well of the great homecoming, where we will gather with the saints at the river, that flows from the throne of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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