For All the Saints (11/6/16)
Johann Michael Rottmayr, Karlskirche Fresco
On November 6, 2016 we observed All Saints' Day. This is one of my favorite days on the liturgical calendar. I think we often fail to recognize some of the everyday saints in our lives, so this day gives us a chance to remember all the saints of the church. My sermon begins with a memory of my grandmother, Ora.
Good morning! Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. In celebrating this day, we are participating in an ancient tradition. All Saints’ Day has been an official celebration for at least 1,400 years! On this day we honor all Christian saints, especially those loved ones who have passed away in the last year.
On this day, I can’t help but think about my own grandmother, Ora. She lived her whole life here in the Mon Valley; many of you knew her—she taught some of you in first grade. I keep a picture of her on my desk here at the church. A few days ago, Carolyn Smith saw the picture and said, “I remember her! Your grandmother was such a sweet person!” And she was right! I think everyone who knew my grandmother would describe her as a saint. She was a faithful Christian and she shared the love of Christ with everyone she met. Her birthday was November 2nd, so even if we weren’t celebrating All Saints’ Day today, she would still be on my mind, because it’s so close to her birthday.
Grandma loved to cook and bake; she showed her love by feeding everyone she could. You weren’t allowed to leave the table if there was food to be eaten. “Don’t make me put this away,” was one of her favorite lines. I was always happy to help finish the chicken or the stuffing. Sometimes you left her table so full it hurt. Of course, there was always dessert. And let me tell you, she made the world’s best pie crust!
For Grandma, the pie was more about the crust than the filling. One of my regrets in life is that I never learned to make her pie crust. Mind you, I’m not a baker. I love to cook, but I lack the patience and the precision for baking. You have to follow recipes when you bake, but I like to improvise. Still, I wish I’d learned to make her pie crust because it would have been another way to preserve her memory.
Most importantly, though, was Grandma’s absolute, unconditional love for her family. She taught that love to her children. She shared that love with my mother when she became a part of the family, and in turn, my parents taught it to me. Then Grandma nurtured that love; so of course I think of her today.
Today, I imagine that a lot of you are remembering the saints of this congregation who are no longer with us: the Flemings and the Finleys, maybe a few Smiths, and a lot of other people who were so actively involved in the life of this community. In my first month here at Rehoboth, many of you have told me stories about these saints and how they used to plan dinners and events.
From the conversations that I’ve had with a number of you, it’s clear to me that you’ve lost a great deal of human capital in the last generation. It was a lot easier to be the church, twenty or thirty years ago. The women who planned, organized, and cooked the food for the chicken-and-biscuits dinner were still with us. The men and women who served on the various committees that ran this church got older; many of them have joined the church triumphant. Unfortunately, they weren’t entirely successful in passing down their knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for service to the rest of the congregation.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that many of you still have a great ethic of service. But I also know that many of you feel overwhelmed. Everyone is way busier now than we used to be. And there aren’t as many of us as there used to be. The world changed, and we’re no longer sure how all the moving parts fit together. The task seems too big—whether it’s organizing a church supper or mending this broken world.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, it seems that Jesus wants us to take up a whole lot of impossible tasks. He tells us:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Give to everyone who begs from you. I admit I have problems with all of those things. I was in Pittsburgh on Friday and a homeless man asked me for my spare change. I had some coins in my pocket, but I shook my head and walked on by. I didn’t make eye contact. As I passed this man, he said to me, “God bless you, sir.”
I think that many of you have done the same thing. Sometimes I question if a homeless person is just going to use the money to buy alcohol, or perhaps I wonder if the person is really homeless, or maybe I don’t even thing about these questions at all. Maybe I just walk on by without thinking at all. But you know what? Jesus didn’t tell us to analyze the situation and then make a determination as to whether or not this person is worthy of our charity. Jesus tells us to give to everyone who begs from us.
Again, I say, ouch! Why does Jesus make this so difficult?
The simple answer is that we’re the ones who make it difficult. We’re the ones who substitute our judgment for Christ’s call. Jesus calls us to do the impossible because he is trying to bring forth God’s kingdom here on Earth. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces that he was sent to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” (4:43). In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus puts more definition around what the kingdom of God looks like: It’s a place for the poor and the hungry, the sad and the lost. But it’s not a place for the rich or those who are comfortable.
In our crazy, mixed up world, we don’t see our own riches. The rich person is always someone else. We see our own poverty, even here in the church; we see all the people who are no longer here, yet we often fail to recognize our material abundance at home. Jesus calls us, as the church, to continue His work of building the kingdom of God. In our poverty, we don’t feel that we’re up to the task. We remember the church as it used to be and when we think of the saints of this church who have gone on, and we are paralyzed. We are poor in human capital and we forget that we are blessed. We also forget that we, too are saints.
In Paul’s letters to the congregations at Rome and Corinth, at Colossae and Ephesus, the Apostle opens each letter with a greeting to the saints in each of those communities. The saints are those people who are in Christ; they are all practicing Christians. Beloved, this means you and me. We think of the saints as people who have passed away, people who were holier than we are. Yet Paul tells us that we are all saints. And he reminds us that, “in Christ we have obtained an inheritance.” Through Christ, God gives us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation,” so that, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” That is the hope of the kingdom of God, the new creation that is in Christ and available to each of us through the resurrection!
As I said earlier, my grandmother’s dining room table was the embodiment of her love for her family. That was where she fed us physically and emotionally; we knew that she loved us, completely and unconditionally. Though I never learned how to make Grandma’s pie crust, I learned unconditional love through her. That is my true inheritance from Grandma.
So too, this table is the embodiment of God’s love for humanity. We come to this table knowing that we are in need of God’s grace and we leave this table knowing that God’s grace and mercy are extended to us through Christ. The inheritance that the Apostle Paul speaks of is greater than money, it is greater than fear, and it is greater than all of the human capital that we have lost. We don’t have the saints of this congregation who have passed away, but we have the saints who are here now and we have the Holy Spirit! This is more than enough to continue the work of building God’s kingdom here on Earth. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are all reconciled to God and to one another through the love of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. So look for the ways that you can be agents of reconciliation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!