Rev. Annich’s sermon, I Mean to Be One Too, begins around the 28 minute mark. The service includes a celebration of Communion and the Case Western Reserve Trombone Choir.
I love All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a sweet celebration, a time of joy as we remember those who have gone before us. But it’s also a day when we can shed tears, and that’s really good because those tears express a range of feelings that can’t be captured in words, such as awe, gratitude, grief, regret, inspiration and aspiration.
It’s really important for us to honor all of our memories and all of our feelings. In the busyness of daily life, it’s easy to forget that we are part of a lineage of love. The people who have nurtured, taught, comforted, and inspired us are now part of who we are and to forget them is to exile important parts of ourselves.
I just had the privilege of remembering a whole lot of saints who made me who I am today. Richard and I went back to Yale Divinity School for our 40th class reunion a few weeks ago. Some of the landmarks of those three years are gone now, torn down so new architecture for a new era could rise up. As I looked at the grassy spot where a dorm once stood in which I had experienced friendships that literally transformed my life, I felt waves of both sadness and of joy–sadness for the loss of a place I had cherished and joy that I still had memories of it that will forever be with me.
As the week went on I traced God’s hand at work in getting me to divinity school, keeping me there, and launching me into a deeply meaningful career. You see, I was a really unlikely candidate for ministry– the rebellious preacher’s kid who never in a million years considered a vocation in the church until I weirdly thought I might be hearing a call in my senior year of college. Through a series of crazy coincidences that could only be God at work, I ended up receiving a full ride to Yale Divinity School for one year to see if I was indeed called.
It was a really hard year–filled with doubt, anxiety, and real depression, but because of the support of faithful friends and very caring professors I was able to hold my ground and explore my call. And as the old saying goes, the rest is history. I continued to study, grow and live into the call to ministry.
Isn’t God amazing? Working through people to speak courage to our fears and faith to our doubts? As we walked the old and new paths at the divinity school a few weeks ago the faces of friends and teachers living and dead kept flowing through my mind. Who would I have been without them? Where would I be now? At one point I simply broke down and wept tears of gratitude and awe for the way God had woven different people into the tapestry of my life, people who helped me grow into a better version of myself.
How about you? Can we just stop here and think about this for a moment– Who has shaped you? Taught you? Challenged you? Inspired you? It’s so good for us, psychologically and spiritually, to remember those people, living and dead. Who do you need to remember this All Saints’ Sunday?
The list can be varied. On a grand scale I think of people like Martin Luther King, Marion Wright Edelman, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of my all time favorites is Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian watch maker from the Netherlands who hid countless Jews from the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp for her efforts.
Closer to home I think of my father and mother. But even more I think of scores of people whose names will never be famous. Some of them courageously rose or continue to rise from the prison of physical and mental illness to live lives of purpose. Some of them visited or still visit the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely without fanfare or the need for praise. Some of them sought or are still seeking creative ways to help others–through teaching yoga, doing art, and creating conscious business cultures where clients and employees are really valued.
Quite frankly I think of a lot of you. I often picture you in my mind’s eye and the many ways you serve others. I think of Leonor, who is fighting the good fight to remain in the U.S. so she can keep her family together while her lawyer pursues her case. And if you haven’t realized it–being on a kind of house arrest, being humiliated and constantly reminded of her status by a cumbersome ankle bracelet, and being separated from her children is a deeply painful experience that she is bearing with dignity and courage. She is one of the saints I think of today.
I’m using the word saints much in the way Paul did when he wrote to his various churches. He often began his letters “To the saints.” He wasn’t thinking of them in extraordinary ways. They were simply the people in the churches he had planted who had given their lives to God in Christ. And as is evident from most of Paul’s letters they were far from perfect people. They often squabbled and bickered, pulling power plays and generally being unkind to each other. Welcome to the human race and welcome to the church– a bunch of people who are at once wonderful and wounded.
I’ve told my family that I will come back to haunt them if they even so much as think about making me into a plaster saint after I die. I would actually like them to tell people how fretful, anxious, and indecisive I could be. I would like them to talk about some of the poor choices I made– but maybe not too much. But then I would like them to say, “Nevertheless she persisted.” Because you see that’s what I think in the end probably defines most people we think of as saints. Persistence.
Despite unfortunate circumstances, poor choices, doubts and fears the people who have positively influenced us have been persistent. They have done their best to move forward despite obstacles and personal failings to follow where God was leading them. They have opened themselves to the often painful process of admitting their vulnerabilities and seeking God’s help to do better. They’ve trusted in God’s word that they were forgiven and allowed themselves to live free from the shackles of self-hatred and guilt. They’ve lived by the wisdom we often pronounce at the end of AA and Al-Anon meetings, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.”
I used to get really hung up by today’s Gospel, which we know as the Beatitudes, because I felt like I could never measure up to them. If you also despair of your ability to embody the blessed states Jesus is describing, I’d like to suggest a shift in the way we read the passage. What if rather than seeing it as a heavy ethical burden that we can’t live up to, we see it as a vision–a vision of the realm of God that stands in opposition to the way this world works.
Do you know what a vision board is? It’s a practice we sometimes use in coaching. We ask people to find images in magazines, newspapers or old books that capture their hearts and imaginations and then paste them onto a piece of cardboard. The theory is that the images speak louder than words, sinking into our consciousness and ultimately pulling us toward those realities.
What if Matthew’s beatitudes are like a vision board, taking root in our deepest minds and slowly pulling us toward the reality of God’s realm? What if our meditation upon them becomes less about our weakness and failings and more about God’s vision of a different world?
That’s how I’m reading the Beatitudes these days–like a picture of a different way of being, like something to which I aspire and into which I can grow with God’s help. Because of course that’s where everything begins and ends–with our Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Of ourselves we can do nothing, but God who works through us–wonderful and wounded as we are– can weave a tapestry of our lives that is beautiful and blessed. Even the rough and ugly threads add to the overall beauty of that tapestry for the challenges they represent have often led us to depend more on God and grow in ways we could never have predicted. I’m so grateful for all the saints who have helped me understand that I can do great things as I lean on God. Like all of us they were perfectly imperfect, but they understood that God is trustworthy as we surrender ourselves to his care.
We’re going to sing one of my favorite hymns at the close of worship– “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” The closing line, “I mean, God helping, to be one, too” calls us to recommit ourselves to following Christ in large ways and small. I’m going to sing that line with gusto, but only because I know that God is able to equip us, like the saints who’ve gone before, to participate in God’s vision for me and you and all creation.
Thanks be to God.