Monday, November 30, 2015

1st Sunday in Advent - November 29, 2015 - Hope for the Individual

               As I have mentioned several times, this year I am inviting all of you on a journey, looking at the meaning of discipleship, that is, what it means to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus.  So as I was planning out the year, I wondered where to begin.  Should I talk about prayer?  Should I talk about service?  But as I thought and prayed, I was moved in another direction, namely, hope.  When I thought why we might pray, serve, care for others, I kept coming back to the idea that it was because we have hope.

            Sometimes we are hoping for things to happen, kind of like spiritual New Year’s resolutions.  We hope to be better people; kinder people.  We hope for terror to end and peace to reign.  We hope for poverty to end; hunger to end; and loving compassion to shape the world around us.  But we also have a different kind of hope, a gospel-shaped hope, something that we forget in the midst of fear, something Julian of Norwich articulated so beautifully in her phrase, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

            So we are going to talk about hope in four ways over the four Sundays in Advent: hope for the individual, hope for the congregation, hope for the community and hope for the world.  Now I am going to warn you that this sermon may go a little longer than you are used to from me, but that is because it is a story, my story of finding hope.  I will also share that there are parts of this story that you may find difficult to hear as a congregation.  I am not going to apologize for those parts because they are honest and they are told in love, love for you, love for the church and love for God.

            So I will begin by saying that about five years ago, I was probably the most anxious and stressed out that I have been in my adult life.  This comes from a person who used to be in charge of cabins full of eight-year-old boys as a camp counselor, so I had experienced certain levels of stress.  But I was stressed out and questioning my career, questioning my call and questioning a number of things.  How did I get to be that stressed out and anxious on Cape Cod of all places where so many people come to relax?

            First, there is the matter of expectations.  I have always been good at meeting expectations.  I got good grades; got into a good college and did well in seminary because I was good at figuring out what teachers wanted and giving it to them.  In my first church in rural Pennsylvania, especially, I figured out what would keep the people happy, who needed a visit and who needed a phone call; who would only be involved on Sunday mornings and who might fulfilled by getting involved at a deeper level.  They also told me again and again that they just wanted to be a little country church; their pastoral expectations were not that high.  As long as they had the basics and had someone to say grace at potluck suppers, it was all right.

            When I first came to Christ Lutheran, it was clear that the expectations were higher, which was fine.  I’ve always been good at meeting expectations.  But the expectations kept mounting up and people kept telling me what we should have and should be doing.  You told me you wanted a Sunday school.  You told me you wanted more people involved.  You told me you wanted special services in Advent and Lent.  You told me you wanted a weekly choir.  You told me you wanted me to look, dress and act more like a traditional, extroverted pastor.  You told me that my family should be more involved.  I played trumpet, and you told me I should play it more.  I wrote music, and you told me I should write more.  I played guitar and you told me I should play it more.  Some of it was troubling and some of it was flattering, but always there was an underlying expectation that whatever I did and did well, I should give a little more.

            And then there was the reality that we would have meetings to discuss our Sunday school and children’s programs and people would come to discuss and it was great and energetic until we got to the point where we asked people to teach or lead, and everybody took a step back.  And Mimi, our minister of music, and I talked through the choir again and again, but as soon as we asked for people to commit to a weekly choir, many would take a step back.  And we would put together Advent and Lenten services.  We would plan them; I would write sermons and often the handful of people who did show up did not include the people who actually asked for the services to take place.  I could meet some of the expectations that depended on me, but could not meet the expectations that depended on you.  And that created this level of anxiety of knowing what you wanted but not being able to give it to you.

            Second, there was the reality of the larger church.  We would get together for synod meeting after synod meeting and hear the news that the church was shrinking and this was especially real in New England.  We would talk about cultural shifts and the rise of the nones (those who put “none of the above” on surveys of religious preference) and we would talk about how a lot of the programs and ideas that had shaped the church in previous decades just weren’t working anymore.  So not only couldn’t I meet your expectations, but it was not clear that meeting those expectations would be helpful in the long run.  How hard should we push for a traditional Sunday school when the general news is that traditional Sunday schools aren’t working like they used to?

            Third, there was the financial reality.  When I took the call at Christ Lutheran, what no one mentioned and probably didn’t know because we are secretive about giving, is that one giving unit was giving about 15% of the church’s budget.  About five years ago, they left, (not out of anger but simply moved away) and what had begun as a fairly stable call financially (we still spent time in the Finance committee trying to figure out what to  cut) became an unstable place, running deficits, going through reserves, always looking to do what we could with no money.  So not only do I have these expectations, that may or not be helpful in the long run, I also have to figure out how to do them for free.  And every year there is the question, can they afford to continue this call?  Do I have to start looking to move?  Do I have to pull my children out of school and take them away from a place where they are established and like it a whole lot?

            So I was stressed out and anxious and everywhere I turned it seemed that there was someone ready with a “we should, you should, the church should.”  How did I handle that?  Those of you who know me know that I don’t drink.  I just don’t like the taste.  I don’t smoke, because (and I apologize to those of you who do smoke), but “Yuck.  You should really cut that out.”  But I do like a good donut and I can find a temporary contentment with a good burger and fries.  So I enjoyed some late night snacks and lunches out and gained upwards of 30 pounds.  This turns out to be a pretty common pattern among clergy but not something that I am proud of or okay with.  I didn’t want to be stressed out and unhealthy.  I didn’t want another donut.  I just kept finding myself with another donut.

            This is the place where hope enters the story.  For me, hope entered quietly.  I prayed a lot during that time.  I sat in this very sanctuary and prayed for guidance and prayed for change and prayed for wisdom.  I said angry prayers and I said prayers of lament and prayers of surrender.  And then I ran out of things to say, so I stopped saying things and I listened.

            Now this is a moment where those of you who are not fans of the contemplative track my ministry has taken among you might get impatient.  I’ve had people in the congregation tell me that they weren’t sure that this “silence stuff” was Lutheran.  I have had Lutheran colleagues tell me that they didn’t see much value in silence as a practice.  After all, we are a very word-centered and wordy tradition.  Pastors preach.  Pastors teach.  Pastors develop ideas and share them.  Though Martin Luther once wrote, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer” and when it comes to prayer “few words and much meaning is Christian.”  Regardless, this is my story of hope, so you get to listen, which is exactly what I was doing, listening.  I would sit in this sanctuary and listen in silence.  I heard the sounds of the building as it shifts in the wind, popping and cracking away as breezes would hit.  I heard the sounds of wind in the trees and, once the windows were changed over, saw branches waving in the wind.  Over time, I became very aware of the presence of God as a constant reality in this place.  As I became more aware of God here, I became more aware of God in all the places I went.  God was present in hospital rooms and boring meetings.  God was present in visits and at special services.  God was present in the cheerful conversations and passive-aggressive silences that can make up congregational life.

            And with that awareness of the presence of God, there also came a great freedom.  I realized that I didn’t have to meet everyone’s expectations.  I mean, I knew that I couldn’t spend my days playing video games and expect to remain employed.  But my well-being in faith no longer depended on whether or not I could provide you with a Sunday school filled with children or a weekly choir.  I didn’t have to worry whether or not you liked it that my wife and children attended elsewhere.  I didn’t have to worry whether programs succeeded or failed, whether the church itself succeeded or failed.  I had discovered what Julian knew seven-hundred years ago.  All will be well.  Because God has been made known to us in Jesus, because Jesus set us free from the power of sin and death, sets us free to have life and have it abundantly, all will be well.

            This does not mean that everything will go just the way I want it to.  I may have to take another call before I plan to.  We may have to do creative things to stay in this location.  You may even come to the point where you have to acknowledge that it is more faithful to close than it is to die through attrition.  We are not at that point yet, but if any of those things happen, all will be well.  

            And I want you to know that, all will be well, because we have hope.  Now we will talk more about how this might apply to the church next week, to be a place with hope.  For me, it means I want to find ways to share it.  I want people to know that through Christ we have hope and all will be well.  This is why I got involved in grant-writing and the Still, Small Voice.  This is why I worked to build a labyrinth on our property and invite you to try it.  This is why I will keep inviting you to join me in silence on Wednesday mornings.  And whether you are here or not, I will keep silent for you.

            Now I also want you to know that I periodically forget everything that I have just been saying.  There are days that I wake up anxious about the future.  Sometimes I do worry.  Sometimes I do get stressed.  That is why hope is linked to discipleship.  It is in our nature to forget and need reminding.  God is constant; we are not.  God is always with us; we keep thinking we are alone.  God keeps telling us that all will be well; we keep finding reasons to worry.  Discipleship is doing the things that bring us into and remind us of the loving presence of God and the promise of life in Christ.

In part due to my quieter personality, silence was the key in rediscovering hope.  For you, I urge you to seek out the things that make God’s presence real for you.  These can be traditional things like prayer and worship and study, service and kindness and compassion.  It can be less “churchy” things like sitting in silence, watching the sunset or walking in woods or doing something creative, writing, painting, sculpting or building.  My point is to spend a part of your day seeking out the presence of God in a way that makes God’s loving presence real for you, and real for you outside of the activity itself.  Sometimes we hear a hymn or see something beautiful or have an intense experience in worship and we are pleasantly surprised by God, but the hymn ends, the beauty passes, the feeling wanes and we are back to where we were before.  Discipleship is the process of moving from a life that is peppered with God-moments to a life that is aware of God’s presence, promise and love as a constant reality.  Ground yourself in hope and you cannot help but share that hope.  So as we talk about hope for the indviduals, hope for you and hope for me, I urge to spend a part of your day rediscovering hope, reminding yourself that in Christ, “All will be well, and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Christ the King Sunday, 2015

 My thinking this week has been shaped by thoughts about catastrophe.  We continue to consider the attacks in Paris and Mali and the work of ISIS and other extremist groups.  We hear leaders say that now is the time for safety.  It is time to stop taking in foreign refugees as there could be enemies among them, fighters sneaking in to do us harm.  We are afraid and fear tells us to close the doors.

                I also attended a clergy meeting on disaster preparedness.  We spent an hour and half talking about things that could go wrong.  First it was natural disasters that range from irritating to decimating, snow storms and hurricanes that take away our power and close off communications.  As one comedian put it, times when, “There’s no internet to tell us why there is no internet.”  But the discussion got darker; weather is not the only disaster.  We talked about chemical spills.  We talked about outbreaks of influenza.  We talked about different shooter scenarios.  We didn’t talk about locusts, but I suppose they are not due for another few years.  How would we respond as clergy?  How would we respond as congregations?  What does it mean to be the church in the midst of disaster?  We are afraid that we are unprepared.

                And then a couple of days ago I had a message on my phone from someone who probably has too much time on his hands and enough money to pay for one of those annoying recorded message services, where you make a message and it goes out to any number of possible clients.  It was someone who wanted to share the idea that the best thing churches can do in this day and age is to make sure that our ushers are trained and armed, ready to defend the church against violence with violence.  We are afraid and so we must do whatever is necessary to make sure we are safe.

                Now this is not going to be a gun control sermon, so those of you whose blood pressure is rising, calm down.  That being said, I hold some strong opinions on this one.  Some of you will like them and some of you won’t, like just about everything else in our congregation.  Rather, today I am thinking about this in terms of being symbolic of our time.  This is not the first time that American churches have been talking about arming themselves.  The meetinghouse at Plymouth Plantation served as church, courtroom and last defense.  It has cannons on the second floor.  The Fort Herkimer church on the Mohawk River in upstate New York, built around the time of the revolutionary war has gunports for shooting a rifle from the inside in case of attack.  But these were buildings meant to be the last defense for communities.  They were often the strongest buildings around, built for communities that felt insecure about attacks from native Americans or from British forces.

                We have an undercurrent of fear and anxiety.  Terrorists are doing their job, making us feel that our daily routines are unsafe.  A changing climate means that we can’t predict the weather and storms seem more extreme.  Financial uncertainty leads many to daily stress about how they will afford basic necessities.  We live with fear and you can see it.  You can see it in the way people carry themselves, high-strung and tense, ready to pounce on any offense.  You can hear it in the way that people talk to one another when they disagree.  Our leaders used to debate but now it is often just shouting and name-calling, hoping that the volume wins arguments.  You can hear it in the way that people look for something to be offended by, something that will give them an outlet for their fear.  This week it may be the Starbucks Corporation declaring a war on Christmas with a plain, red cup.  Next week it will be something else.

                We are afraid and when we are afraid and under stress we forget some of the important ideas that define us.  When we are afraid, it seems like a good idea to arm the church and ignore the biblical hope that swords will be turned into plowshares.  When we are afraid, we forget that part of the message of the cross is to show us exactly what happens when society acts out of fear, an innocent man put to a painful death.  

We are afraid and when we are afraid we forget that part of our basic story is that Jesus could have chosen power; power over the religious leaders; power over Pilate, but instead showed that even when they seemed to have the greatest power over him, they had no real power at all.  The message of the gospel is not that you will be safe.  If that is what you are hoping for, just keep ignoring the scriptures because Jesus leads the ultimately faithful life and ends up on the cross.  The apostles are arrested and many put to death.  Paul is chased out of towns, shipwrecked, arrested and beaten.  The promise of the gospel is not that you will be safe, but that nothing can separate you from the love of God.  Paul writes most beautifully, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That does not mean that you won’t get sick or be injured.  It doesn’t mean that there will be no hurricanes or snow storms, plagues, shooters or terrorists.  It means nothing that this life can dish out to you will be able to separate you from what God has done for you and how God feels about you.  It means that the cross is always seen in the light of the resurrection and suffering is always seen in the light of the promise of life.

Last week, in talking about giving (and I should probably bring it up since we are dedicating our pledges today), I asked whether you saw yourselves as giving units purchasing services or as a church funding the mission of the kingdom of God in this place.  Today I would ask the same question and take it even further, asking whether we are living the mission of the kingdom of God in this place and do we even know what it is?

Many churches today thrive on creating particular feelings, for some it is a feeling of inspiration and awe.  In our tradition we seem to lean toward feelings of comfort, sometimes guilty of confusing the gospel with nostalgia.  You look for Jesus as a kind friend who will hold your hand through difficult times.  Today, however, we celebrate Christ as King, ruler and authority, and one who comes to give us a different feeling, not awe in how amazing he is or comfort in how kind he is, but hope.  Hope, that God’s love is real and present and always among us.  Not escape from a world with danger, but hope found in a promise of peace. 

When we are embraced in that hope, then we living in the mission of God’s kingdom.  When we extend that hope to the world around us, then we are living out the mission.  As we enter into a new church year, one focused on discipleship, we will begin with a season of hope.  Hope that embraces us.  Hope that shapes us.  Hope that sends us.  Hope that we find in the good news of Jesus Christ our king.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 15, 2015 - Financial Problems are Vision Problems

Last week I talked a bit about money and giving and the survivor model that we and many other congregations work with.  That’s the model where we squeak by financially year after year and then feel good about ourselves for just getting by.  We give just enough to cover the basics but not enough to fund change and growth.  This may be a sign of the subconscious will of small congregations.  We say that we want to grow, but we give in a way that makes sure it never really happens.  At the same time, we tire people out, especially those who are most motivated to do something new or seek a measure of growth.
So I want to take that idea a little further and talk more about our motivation in giving.  Next week you will be invited to dedicate your financial pledges for 2016.  As I mentioned last week, we will be doing time and talent as part of our focus on discipleship in 2016.  Last week I said that the survivor model is actually not a financial problem so much as a discipleship problem.  Today I will also say that it is a mission and vision problem.
Often I have heard people say, “When we really need it, the money is there,” or “When there is a special project, people give generously.”  This means two things.  First, the money was always there, just not available.  Second, we give toward what moves us or interests us. We live in a consumer culture and that affects how we view the church and how we give.  In most cases in our day to day lives, we pay for the services we receive.  There is little haggling.  I pay for the items in my cart.  I pay for the services provided by professionals.  When this translates in the church, we see people giving to support the services they actually use.  Why should I fund Bible studies when I don’t go to Bible studies?  Why should I fund family nights when I don’t go out at night?  Why should I fund the bishop’s office when I don’t have a real interest in the larger church?  This is another part of that survivor mentality. 
But this leads to all sorts of problems in sustaining the mission of the church.  We will give towards a furnace as a special project, but not the regular funding of the oil that will make it work.  We will give toward a new organ, but not fully fund the salary of a musician.  We will give toward what touches us and seems important to us, but we don’t fully fund the mission of the church.
And that gets us to the question of mission and vision.  Are we a group of giving units purchasing services with a pastor on retainer, or are we a church investing in the mission of God’s kingdom?  So much of Jesus’ frustration with the Temple in Jerusalem can be translated into a loss of purpose.  Here was a place where people were supposed to come and encounter the living God.  It was a place for lament, repentance, forgiveness, celebration and praise.  But it had become a place of buying and selling, where financial barriers had been set up to make that divine encounter more difficult.  Jesus looks at it says, “It will all be torn down.  Not a stone will be left on stone.”
Those who came to the Luther luncheon last Tuesday heard story of a young Martin Luther travelling to Rome as a monk.  Again, this was supposed to be a pilgrimage of great holiness, and instead he found a money-making machine.  Pay a fee to see the relics of a holy saint.  Pay a fee to walk among the Christian dead in the catacombs.  The Reformation really begins as a protest of indulgences, which were promissory notes that were supposed to buy holiness and forgiveness, and were used to fund building projects and papal luxury.  And again, things were torn down.

I was reminded at our council meeting on Thursday that it is very easy to get wrapped up in internal concerns and forget our purpose.  It is easy to forget that we are part of something much larger when we are tucked away in the woods of Falmouth.  The ELCA recently announced that we have successfully raised 15 million dollars to fund malaria relief in West Africa.  Ascentria Care Alliance (formally Lutheran Social Services of New England) continues to welcome refugees from around the world, continues to arrange international adoptions, provides affordable senior housing at several sites in New England, and helps work with communities to break cycles of poverty.  The New England synod continues to develop new mission sites for sharing the good news including a church without walls for the homeless community in Northampton, a Chinese language ministry in South Boston, Spanish-language ministries in Holyoke and Hartford.  You are part of that and when we talk about benevolence in the budget, that line item where we wonder if we really can afford to give to the synod, that is the sort of mission work that we are funding in our own limited way.

Monday, November 9, 2015

November 8, 2015 - Financial Problems are Discipleship Problems

This past week, you should have all received financial pledge letters in the mail.  Our stewardship Sunday will be on November 22.  On that Sunday you will all be invited to dedicate your financial pledges for the year.  As such I am going to give a couple of sermons on money and giving.  Some of you may be concerned that our mailing only talked about financial giving and not time and talent as well.  As we spend the next year focused on discipleship, we will be talking about time and talent at length, especially since that gives us more time to think about stewardship as disciples rather than trying to talk about it only when we are also talking about the budget.
                So it seems like having the story of the widow’s gift would be a good story to use when thinking on stewardship.  Look at her example, she gives out of her poverty to support the Temple.  She gives extravagantly and challenges all of us to give more deeply.  Now you all should go and do the same.  You don’t even have to give your whole livelihood, just 10%.  That’s how this passage often gets interpreted because, pulled out of its context, it sure seems like a story about extravagant but humble giving.
                The problem is, it probably isn’t that story.  We read it and say that Jesus says, “Good job,” to the widow, except that Jesus doesn’t say “Good job” to the widow.  He doesn’t say, “Bad job” to her either.  He just tells the crowd with him what he sees, that she has given all she has to live on.  We make the assumption the widow wants to give this gift out of joy rather than obligation.  We make the assumption that Jesus approves of what is going on.
                But the placement of the story is important.  Jesus’ reactions to the intersection of money and religion are not positive.  A few chapters earlier, the first thing Jesus does when he gets to the Temple is to start knocking over tables and chairs in protest of the money changing system.  The house of prayer has become a den of thieves.  The paragraph just before this in the reading includes a warning about the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.”  Just after this passage, what we will hear next week, is that the Temple itself will be torn down and not a stone will be on stone.  Odd that the widow would be praised for supporting an institution that was Jesus points to as corrupt and soon to be torn down.  So Jesus is not so much saying “Good job, widow,” so much as he is saying, “Bad job, religion.”  Bad job, for taking advantage of people, for making them choose between faith and basic needs, for becoming an institution that treats people as commodities, useful mostly for their time, talent and treasure. 
                Thank goodness we are not like that anymore.  We would never talk about needing new members so we can make our budget, fix our building or fill our committees.  We would never talk about or imply that the church is like a business that needs more customers.  And we would never, ever, never use money as a way to control people or ministry, threatening to withdraw our giving if we are displeased.  Thank goodness we have left those attitudes behind.
                As a pastor I am often torn, because I do have an administrative funcion and I do draw a salary and as such, I, along with my family, are dependent on the budgeting process.  As a rational human being I know that this congregation has to have money to pay for lights and heat.  It has to have money to fund ministry.  I know the budget is a tool we use to be responsible stewards of donations.
                And yet, as a Christian leader who is very concerned with discipleship, I have to say that the budget has little or nothing to do with your faith.  If, as you consider your pledge, you use the budget as a measuring tool, you are giving to the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.  The budget has little or nothing to do with your faith life.  Stewardship and your attitude toward money and possessions has much to do with your faith life.  Generosity has much to do with your faith life.  Most congregations don’t have money problems; they have stewardship and generosity problems.  Most congregations don’t have financial issues; they have discipleship issues.  As I look out on the congregation today, not knowing your bank accounts, but knowing your homes and your lifestyles, it is hard for me to imagine that a $120000 budget is beyond our means.  I say that with some trepidation, because I know that for a few people in our congregation, an increase in giving would be a significant hardship, but for many people in our congregation, an increase in giving would be an inconvenience, a night in rather than a night out, a couple fewer pumpkin lattes, a couple fewer impulse buys.  That is not a financial issue.  That is a stewardship and discipleship issue.
                Jesus condemns a system that eats people up, that uses people.  I would suggest that we as a congregation have also set up a system that uses people up, tires people out and turns them away.  Many congregations live in this system.  It is often called the survivor model of the church.  It’s the model that we have all tacitly agreed on and, looking at much of the congregation’s history, has been the model since the early 70s.  We make it through.  We survive.  We give just enough so that we don’t have enough to fund real growth and change, but to keep things running.  At the end of year we manage to bail ourselves out and we say, “Good job, church!” 
                And we don’t recognize how tiring it is for all those involved.  We don’t recognize how many people walk away or step aside because they are simply tired.  No one wants to be the treasurer who has to deal with shortfalls and uncertainty.  No one wants to be the council members that stare at the reports of said treasurer and say “No” to new projects because they will cost money.  No one wants to be the fundraiser who wants to support a life-giving ministry but instead is paying for a few gallons of oil.  No one wants to be the teacher asked to lead a class without resources.  No one wants to be the pastor who feels guilty for making a living and being the biggest draw on the budget (poor me).  No one wants to be the visitor who is seen as a potential resource.  So I have to say, “Bad job, church.”  It pains me to say it, but we have done a bad job.
                And bad job, pastor, for trying to keep things smooth and not making this call sooner, for being part of this same survival system, also relieved when we just get by because there are so many places that are closing.  I’ve read about two in the New England synod in past few months.  Bad job, pastor, for allowing yourself to get wrapped up in copier costs, contract fees and heating oil futures while ignoring the implications of stewardship and forgetting the joy of generosity.  Bad job, pastor.  Poor me.
                But good job, Jesus, for shining light on this place where we are broken and need to grow.  Good job, Jesus, because that is what you do, as hard as it can be for us to hear, you point to the places that we want to hide away, but which are the same places that keep us from being truly free, truly joyful and truly alive. 
That’s why I will say that while the budget has little to with your faith, how you give, your attitudes toward money, your personal stewardship and generosity have much to do with your faith.  If we can gather together and hear the good news of the one who gave his life for us on the cross, the one who in the resurrection showed us that death is no longer the last word; if week after week we can gather around the table and experience Jesus giving himself to us again; if we can do those things and are not moved to a deeper place of generosity, then there is a disconnect between the faith we proclaim and life that faith inspires.  That is not a financial problem, it is a discipleship problem.

Good job, Jesus, because you give a chance to fall on our faces, but stand up and try again.  Good job, Jesus, because you have given us an example to follow but also the freedom to fail.  Good job, Jesus, because while way may struggle with generosity, your generosity of life and love never ends.  Thank you, Jesus, and may our lives, every part of our lives, be turned toward you in thanks and praise.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

All Saints' Day - 2015

Sermon – All Saints’ Day - 2015

                Today is All Saints’ Day.  Historically, it is a day to celebrate the saints in heaven who have gone before us.  November 2 in the catholic church is All Souls’ Day, which is a day to remember and pray for the souls of those in purgatory, those whose sins were not bad enough to condemn, but not pure enough to allow them into heaven.
                After the Reformation, the understanding of sainthood in Protestant churches changed.  Some religious scholars suggest that the understanding of saints as heavenly residents who could advocate with God on your behalf arose as a replacement for the many god and goddesses of the Roman Empire.  Christian fishermen could no longer pray to Neptune, god of the sea, but they could pray to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen.  The saints were another set of divine intermediaries like archangels, cherubim and seraphim.
                But in the Protestant church, sainthood became less about the saint in heaven and more about their example on earth.  When we speak of a particular saint, we are talking about someone who is an example of faith to admire and follow.  We don’t expect the saint to do anything for us, but rather celebrate how the person lived out the gift of faith.  We will talk about Saint Francis of Assisi, his choices of kindness and poverty, but we don’t pray to Saint Francis.
                We also talk about sainthood in a very general way, pointing to biblical language that referred to the whole community of faith as saints.  We are God’s saints, made holy not by our own doing but through God’s work in Jesus Christ.  We are made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.  We are already God’s saints, living in the kingdom of God, in communion with those saints who have preceded us. 
                We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that we are not perfect and not consistently holy.  I don’t drink coffee, but my experience is that some of those who do are often unholy until they’ve had the first cup.  We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that we make mistakes and sin.  We are God’s saints in spite of the fact that there are parts of our lives that we try to close off from God’s grace.
                Lutheran theology describes the Christian condition as being both saint and sinner at the same time.   Part of this is living in our world.  We live in a culture that is based on consumerism; that encourages gluttony and greed.  It is hard to get away from it.  We live in a society that has been shaped by a racist and sexist past and even though I don’t like to think of myself as racist, as a white man I have benefited and I can’t escape that. 
On a more personal level, I sometimes think about the saint and sinner idea in terms of those places in ourselves that we keep open to God and those places that we close off from God.  We all have them and the beauty of the Christian community is that they differ and complement one another.
                This is not going to be a full-on stewardship sermon, but money and possessions is a common place that we try to keep closed from God.  People sometimes get angry when pastors talk about money from the pulpit.  We don’t want to hear this worldly stuff.  The church can’t tell me what to buy or how to give.  That’s personal business.  And even though God knows all about it, every dollar in your bank account and every penny hidden under a couch cushion, we still want to keep it to ourselves as though that is possible.  But somewhere in every church we find people who are different, who are open to giving and actually enjoy finding ways to give from what they have.  We say they have a spirit of generosity, something that the apostle Paul labeled a gift of the Holy Spirit.  That part of their lives is open to God, and it can be a great example to help the rest of us grow.  One of the difficult things about doing stewardship in the church is that we are often so secretive about money that we don’t even know that we have these kinds of saints among us.
                We become saints for one another if we pay attention, because each of us has been touched by God and each of us has places where we are open to God where others are not.  At the last meeting on homelessness in Falmouth, one of the speakers talked about how over the years they had adopted homeless people, allowing them to live in their home sometimes for weeks and months.  And I felt my chest tighten as I thought about a homeless person living in my house, with my family and my kids, and I realized that here was a place where I had room to grow, as I marveled at the gift of hospitality this person showed.  He was open to God’s calling in a way I was not.  There was one of God’s saints at work among us.
                We are saints to one another, not because one is particularly holier than another, but in living out our faith with our gifts in our own lives in our own ways, we show one another what holiness can mean.  One of the greatest misconceptions of sainthood is that you have to die to become one.  Instead, Jesus died so that we can be saints now.  We are saints who can bring the holy to our day to day lives and day to day interactions.

So this morning, as we take the time to remember the saints who have preceded us, I urge you to remember that you are one of the saints.  I remind you of the tradition that as we gather at the communion table we gather with all the saints, be it Saint Francis, Saint Andrew or saints whose names are only remembered in dusty books of congregational roles.  You have a place at that table.  I urge you to remember that we are saints for one another, living out many different examples of holiness.  I urge you to remember that we are saints for the world.  God’s holiness is not supposed to remain in this place, but belongs with you out in the world.  Although we are sinners who make mistakes, we are God’s saints made holy through the cross of Christ.