Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
A sense of normalcy has returned, to our house at least.
The Royals made it to game seven, my good friends!
90 feet away even,
and even though they fell short
and even though they kept many of us up
way to late through the whole month of October, it was such a fun ride.
But their epic run is over:
the post-postseason naps have been taken
we got the orange out of storage again
just in time for Halloween
Even the weather seemed to change and the leaves started to fall
as if on cue from the good folks at foxsports.
Even without the Royals, November is always transitional months of sorts.
It is part of what makes November November.
I put away my razor for No-Shave-November,
I case you were wondering what this is all about.
Starbucks already has their holiday-cranberry-red cups in use
and someone told me that Christmas music is already playing in some places.
Way too early for my tastes, but not surprising.
I always wonder which stores can resist the urge to put up garland before Advent,
and I almost always lose.
Around these parts, the chill comes, fireplaces start to crackle.
I heard this week that the fountains outside the church door have been winterized,
and we’re thinking about mitten drives and coats for the coatless
and the snow that will drive the chill deeper into our bones.
It is a time for giving thanks, November.
For Harvest Dinners and family feasts.
It’s a time for pausing to take stock of all of God’s good gifts to us,
each of us personally
and God’s good gifts to us as a community. Gifts for the common good.
First Sunday in November is also All Saints Sunday,
and maybe that’s appropriate too, taking stock of the saints in our lives.
We did that this morning through prayer for the Saints departed,
thanksgiving for their lives and for their many contributions
mainly small, everyday things, that mattered in ways
that can go unnoticed, unheralded.
When we talk about SAINTS, its not THESE things we instinctively think about. Right?
We think about the HUGE names: your Martin Luther Kings, your Mother Teresas.
And when we think about ourselves possibly being called SAINTS,
I don’t know, it makes ME squeamish.
I once wrote a reflection for All Saints, and it began with this odd remembrance:
“He was not a hero, or a magician, or a chess player, or an obsession.
He was a certifiable member of the human race—
direct, fallible, and unexpectedly wise when it counted…
…he said he lived by the Bible and history.”
So wrote Mary McGrory on December 27, 1972,
the day after the death of Harry S. Truman.[i]
“Certifiable member of the human race…”
–Not the first thing we might think of on All SAINTS Day.
Compare that with, say, Mother Teresa,
who, until her death 16 years ago,
modeled compassion and sacrifice through her work.
She was admired by so many!
It was easy—during her life and after her death—to label HER a “saint.”
And THEN a few years ago, after her death,
her writings and journals came to light,
revealing a “saint” kinda more human, more like you and me
with searing doubts
and plaintive cries in her soul
that sensed occasionally an absence of God.[ii]
For some, that knocked her off the “saint” pedestal.
For others, however, it made her way of life accessible, for the first time.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement,
who lived and served among the least and the lost all her life
often said: “Don’t call me a saint!
I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
FEW of us were motivated to wake up today, thinking:
“TODAY, I am going to strive to be a saint.”
…But, maybe we should have.
I think THAT, more than anything, is why we are here.
God has given us all these Good Gifts, says Paul:
Thinking and Wisdom and Prayer and Preaching
Eloquent speaking and foreign tongues
Compassion and Hopefulness and Patience
All of these things gifted by God for the COMMON GOOD.
And here we are—trembling, conflicted, compromised people
CALLED, of all things—to be SAINTS of God in the world—
–so we come hoping for some EQUIPPING
for this improbable task.
How on earth can WE of all people DO…..THIS?
On any given Sunday,
(this is one of those things that you don’t think I know) but I know
that on any given Sunday…
…this place is filled with folks who almost did NOT come to church.
And still more of us are sitting in here just SURE
that every single person around us
is more in tune with God than WE are.
If we’re going to get equipped to be saints-
-then we need to know what sainthood looks like
when it comes in a more accessible form
than Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa.
How does one work on being a “practical saint”?
How do everyday saints in our day pass the time?
So I thought about that this week,
and found myself reading, of all things, the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard
who spent hours and hours on a search
for what he called “a knight of faith”.
k-n-i-g-h-t of faith, the valiant life of faith.
And Kierkegaard thought that this was an extremely difficult quest
because true sainthood, he would say, has a deceptively mundane appearance.
Contrary to believing that saints go through life acting in other-worldly ways,
ways that NO ONE could POSSIBLY emulate,
Kierkegaard thought that the saints
having tasted the INFINITE gifts of God, boundless RICHES of God—
only disclose their saintliness through “moments of being FINITE”[iii]
Now, I know, its chilly outside,
and the extra hour of sleep might not help,
but here’s what I think Kierkegaard is trying to say:
Although there are occasionally grand, dramatic moments of FAITH,
MOST of the time
the life of following Jesus…consists of small gestures.
Living in harmony,
pressing the cause of justice,
recognizing that we ought to feed the hungry who are before us,
like Jesus told the disciples to try to do,
before unfolding the miracle of generosity that is
at the heart of the feeding of the five thousands.
The “great saints”—Those who have days named for them
and are preserved in stained glass in a thousand cathedrals
they are martyrs and miracle workers. Epic figures.
BUT, “practical saints” mainly get up in the morning,
head out the door,
and show their courageous and heroic holiness
in the hundreds of small decisions
woven into the fabric of the day.
They make these decisions at work, instead of those.
They react to challenges one way instead of another.
They speak this way to their children, instead of that.
They laugh at this, but not at that.
Their feet take them down this path, instead of that one.
At the end of the day, in the life of a practical saint—
–no cure for disease may have been found,
–no war ended,
–no great discussion on the meaning of life started
–no multi-million dollar gift given for homelessness or AIDS…
…but, in the life of a practical saint, perhaps in YOUR LIFE—
-a word of love is spoken;
-a glance of tenderness is offered;
-a gesture of forgiveness is undertaken, for yourself, for another;
-a move toward reconciliation is made.
No stained glass window for you, if you do these small things.
But it’s the world of an everyday saint…
OK, if Kierkegaard was a bit of a stretch for us this morning,
how about Reynolds Price?
A few years ago, novelist Reynolds Price wrote
A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing.[iv]
where he movingly describes his decade-long battle with spinal cancer.
He endured several lengthy stays in Duke University Hospital,
and there he discovered the difference between a “professional”
and a “practical saint.”
He describes this distinction by saying:
“My presiding oncologist saw me as seldom as he could manage.
He plainly turned aside when I attempted conversation in the halls.
And he seemed to know literally NO word or look
of encouragement or comradeship in the face of what–
–as I later learned–he thought was hurried death.
“It’s often said by way of excuse that doctors are insufficiently trained
for humane relations.
That they needed some sort of med school course …
BUT, what I wanted and needed badly was the frank exchange
of decent concern.
Since when did such a basic transaction between two mammals
require postgraduate instruction?”
The night nurses, on the other hand,
were as full of grace as this oncologist was as full of disinterest.
They were able, by “something more than an accidental grace….to blend
their professional code with the oldest natural code of all–
–mere human connection,
the simple looks and words that award a suffering creature his or her dignity.
And that dignity can be transmitted in as mundane an act
…as emptying a bedpan,
or answering a call on the buzzer.”
“Many times since I’ve thought,” Reynolds writes,
“that if I were ever to donate a work of art to Duke,
I’d commission a realistic bronze statue of a tired woman in a nurse’s uniform–
–and ask that it stand by the hospital door.”
A practical saint is NOT the sort of saint who pulls off the supernatural stunt…
like causing an image of the Virgin Mary to appear on a piece of French toast—
–To the contrary, a practical saint is the kind of person who empties a bedpan
in such a way that preserves the patient’s dignity
and speaks a word of quiet compassion amid the routine bedside chatter…
Which brings us back to Harry Truman for a moment…
David McCullough’s biography of Truman
recounts that Truman, early in his life,
committed to memory BOTH Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
and this simple prayer that he would recite throughout his life:
Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth, and Universe:
Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right;
Make me truthful, honest, and honorable in all things;
Make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor
without thought of reward to me.
Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving, and patient…
Help me to understand the motives and shortcomings [of others],
even as Thou understandest mine. Amen.
The biography comments:
“These were more than ‘words to the wise’–they were bedrock.
Not everybody lived up to them, of course,
but to Harry it seemed everyone ought to try.”
…Truman had many rough edges,
and his moral vision was NOT always clear,
but there breathes in this speech glimpses of efforts at being a practical saint.
…When Truman was expounding on the need for the Marshall Plan,
he was asked whether the United States would ever
“get any credit….for sending all this stuff to Europe.”
“I’m not doing this for credit,” Truman replied,
“I’m doing it because it’s right.”[v]
And the words of the old prayer “without thought of reward”–
–words memorized as a child–
–were now finding life, in all places–
–in the SAINTLY speech of a politician.
No, not really.
But a day-to-day IMAGINATION for living….
Practical saints find a way–each day–
–even in the days of this very week—
–to get the GOOD NEWS out to the world.
In the way you show kindness,
in the way you speak the truth,
in how you HEAR the news,
in the way you vote…and the way you laugh…and the way you write checks,
in the way you take stands for grace and justice
in the hidden corridors of workaday life–
–YOU and I are called by God to be practical saints!
The destination of SAINTHOOD in our world
is not statuary hall. Its not the gallery of stained glass heroes somewhere.
The destination of SAINTHOOD in OUR world,
…is the bus ride to school, and what you say;
…and the doctor’s office visit, and how you continue to HOPE,
…and the next encounter you have…and how you ACT.
Father Gregory Boyles wrote once about taking two gang members,
Chepe and Richie,
out of the projects of LA several towns away
to where he was scheduled to give a speech.
Boyle took them out to a restaurant called Coco’s for dinner.
Coco’s was, as he put it, “one notch above Denny’s,
one notch below everywhere else.”
When they walked in, they encountered a hostess
who made no secret of the fact that she strongly disapproved
of Boyle’s dinner companions,
whose dress and tattoos clearly marked them as gang members.
Boyle is furious at the way she treats them.
“I know exactly the origin of her displeasure,
and I volley some of my own right back at her,” he writes.
“I judge her just as surely as she judges them.”
Finally, she grabs three menus and takes them through the restaurant,
far into the back where there are no other diners.
Chepe and Richie haven’t missed what’s happening.
“Everybody’s looking at us,” Richie says.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” responds Boyle,
but, he writes, everybody was looking at us.
Their discomfort lasts until the waitress comes.
She puts her arms around Chepe and Richie,
talks with them,
jokes with them,
asks about them,
calls them “sweetie” and “honey”
and brings them refills they didn’t ask for.
Says Boyle: “She is Jesus, in an apron.”[vi]
I say: she is a practical saint.
Human, discerning, uncaring for categories most of us live by.
Trying to make it through the day in a hard job,
and all the while,
doing what she can, when she can, how she can.
A few years ago a friend and colleague
was interviewing with a church in the south.
And he told me this story:
“A few minutes before the service,
the pastor got up from his desk and said:
“Come here…..there’s something I want you to see.”[vii]
“I followed him into the educational wing.
We approached a Sunday school classroom,
and the pastor pointed through the window–“Look” he urged.
“I peered in on a kindergarten class full of activity.
In one corner of the room, a teacher was reading a story to a group of children.
In another corner, a teacher was assisting kids making something out of blocks.
In still another area, children were gathered around, singing.
“In the MIDDLE of the room sat an elderly woman,
calmly and slowly rocking in a rocking chair.
“Every now and then, a child would break away from a group
and come sit on her lap as she rocked.
Occasionally, the woman in the rocker would say something
to one of the teachers,
and the adult would respond with a laugh or a nod.
“The actual teaching and work was being done around the edges and in the corners,
but this aged woman in the center was radiating GRACE around the room.
“She used to be the only kindergarten teacher,” the pastor informed me,
“but now that she is late in her life, others do the teaching.
But she still comes around every Sunday morning
to sit in the center of the room and provide a blessing.”
You know, that’s NOT a bad model for All Saint’s Day.
It’s not a bad model for stewardship season either.
In the smallest, most mundane of ways,
In gestures and modest acts,
in weeks that are good,
and in weeks that are dismal—
–we learn, we share, we praise,
and we PRACTICE the ways of Jesus.
We CHOOSE to use these gifts God gives us
today and tomorrow to BE the BODY of Christ,
Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
If we pay attention,
we may find ourselves helping equip each other
to BE God’s people in the world,
even as we ourselves are equipped—
–to go out into our strange and turbulent lives-
–to speak good news
–to act out love
–to show a fearful world what HOPE looks like…
Thank God for the Saints of the Past.
Thank God for the Saints of Today.
Thank God for the Saints of Tomorrow.
What a wonderful, joyous, incredible thing to get to be a part of.
[i] Cited in David McCollough Truman, Simon and Schuster, 1993. Also found at http://mauialmanac.com/2008/09/01/us-presidents-harry-truman/ (accessed November 1, 2014)
[ii] See for instance David Van Biema, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith” Time. August 23, 2007. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720,00.html. Accessed November 1, 2014.
[iii] These ideas indebted to sermons I’ve heard by the Rev. Mark Ramsey preached at First United Church of Oak Park, and cites work by Kierkegaard most fully developed in Fear and Trembling.
[iv] Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, Free Press, 2003
[v] McCollough, op cit.
[vi] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, Free Press, 2010, and quoted in a sermon by The Rev. Amy Starr Redwine at Firesone Presbyterian Church, Akron, Ohio, on October 24, 2010
[vii] Cited in a sermon by The Rev. Mark Ramsey and attributed to the Rev. Tom Long at a sermon preached for the Festival of Homeletics.