6 November 2011
All Saints Sunday
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, Missouri
Based on St. Matthew 5: 1-12
By James Semmelroth Darnell
Happy All Saints Sunday! We Protestants sometimes have a difficult relationship to the saints, eschewing them as ‘too Catholic.’ But this morning I want to suggest that saints are not just those whose lives seem nearly perfect, who performed amazing miracles, and even are officially recognized by the Church, but rather people just like us who strive to follow Jesus in their daily lives. One of my mentors, David Ruhe, the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines, Iowa recently said, that “All Saints’ Day is also a reminder that we are all a part of what the Bible’s Epistle to the Hebrews calls a “great cloud of witnesses.” These are the ones who have gone before us to light the way in faith, and we have all been blessed by the witness they bore with their lives. They are church members
and family members and friends and pastors and teachers. They are still living and long dead. They are aunts and uncles and sons and daughters and second cousins twice removed… whatever that means. The lessons they have taught us live on in us and through us. This is a day to recall all these witnesses to mind with a prayer of thanksgiving.” So today we give thanks for all those who have gone before us, blazing the path of faith in Jesus Christ. Common and uncommon, ordinary and extraordinary, we reclaim all our forebears and we claim each other as saints of God.
It becomes all the more important for us to reclaim the language of sainthood, being in a faith community called St. John, and a town called St. Clair.
At age 17, I was late entering confirmation. My pastor and I met one-on-one every week the summer before I left for college. Together as we studied the Apostle’s Creed, one thing confounded me more than any other: the communion of saints. I just didn’t get it. I thought to myself, we’re Protestants, we don’t believe in saints! In God’s great sense of humor, I now relish saying, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.” I rejoice that we belong to one unified body as the United Church of Christ’s Evangelical Catechism says, “the Church and all its members, the blessed ones who have gone before us, and those who shall come after us; all who believe, love, and hope in the graciousness of God and participate in the treasures entrusted to the Church. The communion of saints shall always be found under the cross.” A friend asked me recently why I so cherish this aspect of the creed, affirmed in the catechism. In short, I am grateful for those who have gone before us—those who blazed the trail of faith, from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to Joseph and Mary to St. Francis and St. Clare to Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. I am grateful for all they teach us, and for how they surely cheer us on from Heaven. I am grateful for those who will follow us, who will carry on the faith in new ways we have yet to imagine. I am grateful for all those around God’s Earth who share with us in witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would be lonely without them!
But what is a saint after all? Jan Richardson says, “The saints are not models of perfection but rather people who opened themselves to the ways that God sought to work in and through their particular lives and gifts.” Joan Chittister offers that “”For centuries the church has confronted the human community with role models of greatness. We call them saints when what we really often mean to say is ‘icon,’ ‘star,’ ‘hero,’ ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.” Matthew Fox writes that, “All who are attempting to imitate the Christ in their lives merit the title of ‘saint.’ Some do it more fully than others and are willing to let go of more to get the job done.” They are all correct – a saint is a real person who offers us a glimpse into how to live a Spirit-filled life. But perhaps on of the best explanations of what it means to be a saint comes from Dean Lueking:
Saints are given a clarity about what passes for the good life but is phony at the core. They can hear Jesus’ pronouncement on those who would appear to have anything but woes: “you who are rich. . . who are full now. . . who laugh now. . . who are well spoken of by all.” Why woes on these? The good life portrayed here is detached from its foundation in God. These ideals of life have become idols, ends in themselves which finally bring not blessing but blight. Thus saints are given the backbone to warn with woes as well as uplift with blessings.
This brings us into this morning’s passage from St. Matthew. I am reminded of a UCC congregation named after this passage that earned the nickname, The Church of the Bad Attitudes. But rather, this morning’s passage is what is known as the Beatitudes. Beatitudes actually means a list of things or attributes that are considered blessed. They occur a few times in the Bible, and here they come as the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus preaches a long sermon to his disciples and followers about what discipleship entails. It is the longest ‘teaching’ passage in the New Testament, lasting 3 whole chapters, and it begins with “blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…blessed are you when people reviled you…”
It’s an odd list if we think about it. It doesn’t jive with our notion of “common sense.” A blessing to be poor, mourning, hungry, and persecuted? But here blessed doesn’t mean happy, because certainly those things don’t offer happiness as we normally think of it. Rather it means honorable – honorable are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the wisdom of our culture would more likely say, blessed are the rich, blessed are the full, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the warmongers. But as Lueking reminds us, Jesus says woe to such things and that it is exactly the opposite qualities and virtues that open the gates to the Kingdom.
Jesus preached the Beatitudes to the same people he had previously healed. He preached it among those living under the oppression of Roman rule. He preached it to those who were being persecuted. He was preaching to the very poor, meek, merciful, and pure in heart that he was pronouncing blessed. He was telling the very crowd in front of him that theirs was the kingdom of heaven. And get this, he didn’t say that the kingdom of heaven would be theirs in the future and those awful rich folks would get their comeuppance then. No, he says “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Right then and there, the kingdom is theirs, because of the way they are orienting their lives toward God with values that are counter to the wisdom of power and politics. Dr. Amy Oden, the dean of Wesley Seminary, and one of my favorite professors at my alma mater writes that, “The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor… Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular interior orientations we must cultivate. Kingdom righteousness saturates our whole lives, and promises much more, too. It is the way of blessedness.” This is what is honorable, to cultivate in ourselves peacemaking and purity of heart. Rather than worrying about what and who we have to avoid, and legislate that for others, it is about orienting our lives to be centered on God and the harmony of God’s world.
The saints, they are those who demonstrate this for us. They model the way of following Jesus even when they are mournful and poor in spirit, they show us how to love more fully. When I think of saints, I am reminded of the nurses I worked with as a chaplain intern at the Washington Hospital Center. A large trauma facility that often treated victims of violent crimes, our doctors and nurses dealt with many trying situations. But yet the nurses especially acted with grace in the midst of those storms. The head nurse on one of my units even once asked me to bless a particular room where no matter which patient was there, always seemed to have more issues. She demonstrated a life oriented around the Beatitudes and is, I would argue, a saint in scrubs.
A beloved saint in this congregation, who we will honor later this morning, was Albertha Panhorst. Now I of course never had the privilege of meeting her, but was fortunate enough this week to view a DVD of the interview Rev. Spivey did with Bert shortly after her 100th birthday. Among the saintly wisdom from that interview, she said, “Be grateful for what God has done for you, and I am grateful… I don’t know that it’s up to me to give advice, maybe more important for me to listen to other people and not try to impose my views on everyone.” These are certainly the words of one who oriented her life toward God.
In my home church, we had two such women, Dorothea Diamond and Elda Gardiner. Dorothea was born just one block from the church and was a member there all of her 93 years. She was one of the first to be confirmed in English in the church. I remember looking at her confirmation photo with her, seeing her 80 years younger in her white dress, and she just said “Oh goodness, that’s ancient history!” She was a one-woman altar guild, and there was no one on God’s green earth who could iron altar linens as perfectly as she could…not to mentioned she changed her own flat tires. She and her sister wouldn’t complain about something, they’d put up the money and have something fixed, often without telling the trustees. When our building was restored to its 1891 glory, they made sure we got doors authentic to when they were little girls. Elda moved to Washington in 1939, and was a member of the church for 69 years until moving with her daughter at age 93 to Wisconsin. For many years she faithfully led our Women’s Fellowship and was the cashier with Dorothea’s sister at our Fall Sale. When these two beloved women died at ages 93 and 96 in the past two years, they left a void not easily filled, as I’m sure Bert Panhorst’s passing also did. It was not just their longevity, but faithfulness that made these women exemplars. They quietly lived out their live oriented toward God and service to the Church, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They stood by their faith communities through thick and thin, watching things go from German Evangelical to Evangelical & Reformed to the United Church of Christ. Pastors came and went, but they stood by with grace and love and blessing.
It is by the witness of such people, who followed Jesus from where they lived that reminds us that we too are saints when we daily seek to live as disciples of Christ. We find persons in our own lives who demonstrate Christ-like living and the blessedness of the Beatitudes who become role models, icons, and our patron saints. Their example encourages us on in our own striving. We are reminded too that this is how even the most honored and revered of saints began. St. Francis was to some just like Bert Panhorst was to some of you, and like Dorothea and Elda to me. Surely we can find miracles in their own lives no less impressive. So today, give honor and thanks for all the saints, each and every person who has sought to follow God’s way. We each do it, sometimes falteringly, but we do it in community with one another striving for the kingdom of heaven, which is already ours. Thank God that we do it not alone, but with that great cloud of witnesses, all those who are blessed, as they cheer us on.
Glory be to God. Amen.
 Irion, Andreas, translated by Frederick R. Trost. The Evangelical Catechism: A New Translation for the 21st Century, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2009, 89.