October 27, 2019
All Saints Sunday
Hebrews 5: 1-3
“The Neighborhood of Saints”
It may seem a bit odd to you that we are celebrating saints in a Congregational Church. After all, worshiping the Saints, and asking them to intercede for us is a doctrine Protestant Reformers rejected back in the 16th century. That said, does celebrating saints have any place in Protestant worship? It does and in fact, All Saints Sunday is my favorite celebration of the Christian year. Why? The major festivals of the Church – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost -reveal what God’s love has done for us. All Saints Sunday is the celebration of our response to that love.
Some of the difficulty we protestants have with “All Saints” Day, is that we over-emphasize the “Saint” by capitalizing the “S” and we miss the importance of “All.” When we hear the word, “Saints” culture and custom bring to mind the “upper case” Saints -St. Paul and the other apostles; maybe St. Augustine or St. Francis. We give thanks for their examples by celebrating the gifts of their faith on this day. But celebrating only them, blinds us to the grace of “sainthood” with a lower-case “s.”
All Saints is a celebration of ALL the baptized including us - the “lower case” saints. It can be hard to see ourselves as such. But the notion that we are all “saints” with a lower-case “s” goes back to St. Paul; he begins many of his letters to newly Christian communities with the salutation “to the church of God that is in wherever place, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. Lower-case “sainthood” is a claim made by Christians long before we were ever called Christians. We tend to equate “sainthood” with “perfection,” as the hymn we just sang puts it “we live and struggle, they in glory shine.” The idea of “perfection” as our society understands it – never making a mistake, having our stuff together, always doing the right thing– can make us feel unworthy and nowhere close to sainthood. But perfection is not something Saints (upper or lowercase) piously attain. Rather, perfection is a process of walking with the Holy Spirit so that we become the people God created us to be. It’s awfully hard to do this alone. We need a neighborhood of saints to grow into the love God wills for us, for our neighbors and for the Creation.
Jesus defines the practice of sainthood in the words of today’s Gospel: 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 . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Saints –both “upper” and “lower case”- are people who love God, love neighbors and love ourselves. Accept it or not, the truth is that each one of us is a “lower-case” saint.
I carry in my heart the examples of particular “lower case” saints; people who exemplify love of God and neighbor, and inspire me to practice my faith more deeply. I am sure you do too. Most of “my personal saints” –both living and dead- are people in my life, my grandmother, members of congregations I have served. Most of those I call saints are not public figures. They live ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. But one practiced “lower case” sainthood in public.
It has been a year since the murder of our siblings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Because this massacre happened around All Saints day and in his neighborhood, I particularly remember his witness today.
Whenever there is a mass casualty event, the message Mister Rogers gave to children as the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, appears on Face Book, message boards and in news commentary. No doubt, you have seen it:
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Fred Rogers intended these words for children. Rather than taking comfort from his words, he expected adults to use our power to peacefully challenge, imagine, change, and model better ways of living together Best known for his love of and work with children –and often dismissed because of it - Fred Rogers was grounded in a mature practice of Jesus’ radical call to love God, neighbor and self.
In a book entitled Peaceful Neighbor, author Michael Long explores the theology of Mister Rogers and the Land of Make Believe. He describes Fred Rogers’ life and work this way:
“[He] was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he rarely shared his religious convictions on his program, he fervently believed in a God who accepts us as we are and loves us without condition, who is present in each person and all of creation, and who desires a world marked by peace and wholeness . . . [he] invited us to make the world into a countercultural neighborhood of love – a place where there would be no wars, no racial discrimination, no hunger, no gender-based discrimination, no killing of animals for food, and no pillaging of the earth’s precious resources.”
“I like you just the way you are” remains his declaration of faith. In a 2001 interview, Fred shared, “I am convinced that, for me, God is the Great Appreciator . . . and we are the greatly appreciated.” We are the greatly appreciated. Our acceptance of God’s unceasing appreciation for the best in us grounds our ability to love ourselves and love our neighbors. Jesus meets us where we are, or as Fred put it in a sermon “Be who you are. We’ll grow from there.”
Fred understood why accepting ourselves as saints is so very difficult, “When we hear the word that we are not loveable, we are not hearing the Word of God. No matter how unlovely, how impure or weak or false we may feel ourselves to be, all through the ages God has sill called us loveable.” If we cannot experience God’s love for us -if we cannot accept that God “likes us just the way we are” - it is impossible for us to love God or our neighbor. The breakdown of community, and the rise of the hostility, hatred and violence we experience all around us follows. Fred was clear-eyed about the destruction human beings can and do inflict upon each other, but he refused to believe that anyone was beyond God’s loving acceptance. Rather than ignore human evil, he insisted it be talked about, quoting again from his mother, “Anything that’s human is mentionable and anything that is mentionable is manageable.”
Fred knew in his soul that our committed response to racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, hunger, poverty, violence and evil is the work of “lowercase” sainthood. And he insisted that faithful “lowercase” saints require community, imagination and constant practice.
The Land of Make Believe was Mister Rogers’ laboratory. Together with other adults and a team of puppets, they imagined and created peaceful, gentle, loving responses to everything from war and racism, hunger and hurting, fear and bad behavior, and everything in between and beyond. Fred shared with his neighbors outside the Land of Make Believe the lessons learned and practiced in its community. I call the following five principles from Long’s book, “Fred’s Commentary on the Great Commandment”:
- Everyone longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is capable of loving. All people, no matter what they believe or do, have this longing – this deep desire to love and be loved. After all, where there is God, there is love, and God is in everyone.
- God appreciates us and our neighbor – no matter what any of us may have done. We must identify with and understand those who intentionally hurt us or damage our lives . . . Seeing ourselves not merely accepted and appreciated but also just like those we imagine as outside of God’s care –the sinners of sinners.
- We must forgive those who do not accept us as we are or, more generally, anyone who has made wrongful or unwise choices.
- We consistently choose attitudes and actions that reflect the love of God revealed in Jesus; a love that does not give up on others, but accepts and advocates for all just as they are (good, valuable, and loveable) even when they do bad things.
- Peace is possible because each of is equipped with a powerful moral imagination – the ability to see goodness in moments of crisis and danger. People can imagine bad things, hurtful things, angry war like things, but people can also imagine good things, helpful things, happy, peaceful things.
Fred’s “lower-case” sainthood speaks to me every time human action overwhelms me with fear and despair. But like Fred, I cannot practice “lower case” sainthood alone – none of us can. We need our neighborhood of saints.
Like the Land of Make Believe, Eliot Church is our laboratory. Worshipping together, serving together, and appreciating each other helps us to accept that God loves us and appreciates us – “just the way we are.”
Together, we practice “lower-case” sainthood, by encouraging each other to reach out with God’s love and appreciation to the neighborhoods around us, both near and far. Following Mister Rogers’ example, “we allow the peace of God to emanate from our hearts by advocating for people – by affirming all others as good, valuable, and loveable; by accepting all others just as they are and offering forgiveness to anyone, whether or not he or she seeks it; by continuing to care for all others, even when they no longer serve our needs; and by seeing God in between, and beside all people; and advocating for ourselves the in the exact same ways. By loving others as God loves us, we become peace, and being peace is the first step to creating peace.
Practicing “lower-case” sainthood together here at Eliot, we fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love God, our neighbors and ourselves. We are the neighborhood of saints. God “likes us just the way we are”– not just on All Saints Day, but every day – and that is worth celebrating! Amen.