All Saints: a Prayer for Comprehension

Sometimes Jesus teaching doesn’t sit well with our sense of timing. Let me offer an example. If you were a Chicago Cubs fan at any time over the last 107 years “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” could feel a little trite. A Cards fan last year wouldn’t have wanted to quote to a Cubs fan “blessed are you who weep.” It would have felt paternalistic. For over a century the Cubbies had cause to ask “When is that laughter coming God?” But on Wednesday night this week, the laughter came. You can be sure some of the saints above were laughing too.

Cards fans, don’t lament. Remember, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” (Plus, now when we beat the Cubs next season, we don’t have to feel as bad).

The depth of Jesus’ teaching is how it holds together seeming opposites in life: joy and pain. Every life lived fully contains measures of weeping and of laughter. God is with us in the extremes and in the humdrum of daily life. God’s love is comprehensive.

I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. It comes in the office of compline, the prayers we say at the end of each day:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This prayer, like our service today, seeks to comprehend the fullness of life. Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, AND shield the joyous. There is a fullness to this prayer. As I said, there’s a stretch to our liturgy today as well. This morning we will give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize two young souls, and we will bless those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. We will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about holding things together. I’m betting that many of you, like me, are weary of this election season. We’ve been so embattled as a country, and now some are worrying whether we have drawn lines so deeply that after Tuesday has come and gone, we will have a difficult time coming out of the trenches. Will we hold together? Regardless of the outcome?

Then in the midst of this last week came the feast day of Richard Hooker, the theologian with the funny name, who lived in a similarly divided day. By the time Hooker was ordained the church in England had been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic again, and had finally settled with Queen Elizabeth I somewhere on a middle ground. But Richard Hooker saw and described a unique giftedness to this middle way, the via media. The Prayer for his feast day includes this phrase inspired by his writing:

[God] Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.

There’s that word again, “comprehension.”

As Anglicans, we speak of the virtue of “comprehensiveness.” In one Church we hold together and celebrate Protestant and Catholic traditions. We’ve held together different perspectives, political parties, and viewpoints. And our quintessential theologian asks us to see this holding together not as a compromise to maintain the peace, but as a stretching to hold a wider truth.

It strikes me that many of those we consider “saints” lived in a way that was marked by comprehension. They found ways to hold together difficult opposites. They were present to the highs and lows of life. Saints seem often to be set apart, made holy, by their ability to see opposing forces and to find another way through.

The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault seeks that sense of Comprehensiveness as she writes about the Trinity in her latest book. She sees in the Trinity, the “three-ness” of God, a way out of polarity: this or that, the either/or liberal/conservative patterns of our day. Like Richard Hooker, for Bourgeault, the truth is not something I hold on my own. The truth is not something I hold over your head to show you that you are wrong.

Imagine, she says, our political conversations transformed by a Trinitarian perspective which teaches:

“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”

“The enemy is never the problem, but the opportunity.” How often do we see our opponents this way? Bourgeault points to a basic wisdom in Christianity: there is always a third way. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus’ teaching this morning challenged those who thought they held the truth. In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.”

“Blessed are you who are poor.” The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus is challenging us to take a different perspective. Jesus wants us to comprehend.

I think this teaching, like much of Jesus’ teaching, challenges us not simply to change our view from one side to another. Jesus did not play the games of his day. He didn’t pick one side in a debate over another. Jesus re-wrote the playbook. He challenged his followers to grow, to see opponents as opportunities to grow, to wrap our minds around ever-widening ideas. Jesus invites us to comprehend.

And so this day, we hold together, with all the saints, the whole of life. We look for God in the beginning and in the end. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians we pray for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s Love. We pray that God might continue to Keep Watch with ALL, ALL those saints and souls who work or watch or weep. We pray that God might continue to shield the joyous. And all for thy love’s sake.

All Saints Day: Unbind Him, Let Him Go

Unbind him, and let him go!

Powerful words in the midst of an emotional Gospel. Unbind him, and let him go. We learn today that Jesus brings even the dead back to life. But lest we start out too seriously this morning, I am reminded that this lesson also has been the subject of one of my favorite translations in all scripture. It’s really one of the only moments that I prefer the King James. For in the official authorized version, after Jesus tells the gathered crowd to roll away the stone, Martha turns to him and says, but Lord, “by this time he stinketh.” It’s really one of the great moments in King James’ translation.

How many of us, if we’re honest, feel like we might surely stinketh? From time to time? I think one of the most human feelings in the world is to feel like you stink, like you are a fraud. “If only they really knew…” This is at the crux of this morning’s story.

The feeling is there even for Jesus: the crowd doubts him as he weeps “surely he could have stopped Lazarus from dying?” Our fully human Christ feels this moment of human humiliation before the raising of Lazarus. He feels the defeat and frustration of a friend’s death. That’s the power of the Gospel this morning: our story lets the tension build. We can feel with Jesus the frustration, the sadness, the sense that he might be an imposter.

“Surely he stinketh…” How often do we say that of ourselves? Of others? How often do we expect the worst? But surely…

That’s why the words at the end of this Gospel are so very powerful. Unbind him. Let him go.

Often it is the self-doubt from which we need to be unbound. Often it is our own self-censorship that we need to let go. Sometimes to let go of our own doubt, we need to pause for a moment and consider our humanity in light of the humanity of others.

Today is the Feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate not just one Saint or another, not just Lucy or Barnabas. We celebrate ALL of them. Now, saints are sort of tricky business for Episcopalians. We’re not exactly sure what to do with Saints. We have a calendar, well, actually we have about four different calendars of saints, and our governing body, the General Convention this summer sort of left a mess of which one we are supposed to follow. I’m not sure which saints we’re actually counting at the moment.

So we’re a little unsure about the saints officially, but unofficially, we Episcopalians really like saints. In my view, the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from the author Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She talked about the lives she looked to who helped point her to the divine. I like Madeleine’s idea, because her saints seem a little more approachable. We know JS Bach was a great composer and a very human being. We know Einstein was a genius, and could be a bit of a mess. Think of that hair.

We have a capacity as human beings, to hold up certain examples. We learn to be better human beings by emulation. We learn kindness, and gentleness, and patience, when we see these virtues modeled by those we admire. We learn to be generous when we see our parents or grandparents faithfully giving away their time, talent, and money. We learn prayer when our families pray together over meals or before bed. We learn strength when we walk with a friend who is facing cancer and who still takes time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.

But we have to be careful with sainthood, because considering someone a saint tends to sanitize an otherwise more complex life. If we hold someone up too high, we risk making the platform of holiness impossible to reach. If you scratch the surface on some of the saints, you discover that they too stunketh.

St. Francis treated his parents pretty terribly on his way to poverty. St. Augustine famously said “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” Even Mary, the mother of our Lord, forces her son to perform his first miracle because they’re running out of wine at a wedding. Among the great saints, even with all of the sanitizing of history, we can find a very human side, and I think it is important that we look.

Those of you who regularly come to Holy Communion know that the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr has had a big effect on my spiritual life. Richard is a contemplative who has written a number of books on prayer, justice, and, well, life. This week one of his daily email meditations told the story of his meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu (another of my other living saints). Both of these men of God have attracted a worldwide following. When they met, Bishop Tutu said to Richard that they were “mere lightbulbs.”

“We get all the credit and seem to be shining brightly for all to see, but we both know that if this lightbulb were to be unscrewed from its source for even a moment, the brightness would immediately stop.”

Richard says Tutu laughed hilariously afterwards, and gave him a wink of understanding.

Even the spiritual greats, perhaps especially the spiritual greats, can feel like frauds. Mother Teresa wrote all of those letters about her lack of faith. Bishop Tutu’s words are a caution. Don’t forget that human beings are “mere lightbulbs” at their best. But on the other hand, his words are an invitation: Shine. Be plugged in. Be unbound. Be set free.

I do love that very Episcopalian hymn we sing for All Saints day: “I sing a song of the saints of God.” As an aside, I know the hymn isn’t exactly what you’d call “a fine piece of music.” Many organists I know have complained about the childish tune, and I can be a bit childish about the words. There are several alternative s. My favorite alternative goes like this: “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was both, if you know what I mean.” But if you continue, you get to the best theology in the hymn. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

There’s a deep invitation in the hymn, in the feast of All Saints: to see one another for what we really are, flawed and frustrated human beings who sometimes can shine with the brightness of God.

Ellis and I have been watching a TV show from Australia the past few weeks called “Please like Me.” The show follows the day to day life of a young 20something named Josh in Melbourne. I don’t know if I’ve encountered any work of fiction, book, movie or otherwise handle human emotion and especially mental health with more grace and gentleness.

In a scene from the most recent episode, Josh, his boyfriend Arnold, and his friend Tom find themselves on the roof with his dad. Arnold has just come out to his parents and it hasn’t gone well. Tom is having difficulty at work. In the midst of it all, we learn that Josh’s father doubts whether he is a good parent. Josh smiles and says, “I’ve never really thought of whether you could have been a better dad. You’re the only dad I have. It’s a bit like wondering whether the moon could be a better moon.” His dad frowns, but Josh goes on “yeah, I think you have been a good dad.” His father responds, “sometimes I just think I’m hopeless.”

But in a moment of grace, Josh immediately responds: “well yes, yes you’re hopeless. But I’m hopeless. Arnold’s hopeless. Tom, Tom’s hopeless. We’re all, everyone is hopeless. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad dad.” Josh hears and acknowledges his father’s struggle, but he doesn’t leave him there. He doesn’t allow him to wallow. He says, let go. You’re a good dad.

You never know where you’re going to get theology. The human condition is, in the end, human. We all are going to feel like we stinketh from time to time. We all are going to feel like an unlit lightbulb. But at the heat of our humanity is an invitation to be plugged into the life of the divine. As we consider the saints, the official greats or our own unofficial lists, can we consider how some very human beings helped God’s light to show a little more brightly?

You know, we don’t ever find out what that tomb smelled like. The Gospel doesn’t say, “and lo, Lazarus smelled like roses.” No, we don’t know. What we know is that Lazarus came out. He was unbound. He was let go.

Often we are taught to expect the worst. We all anticipate the stink. We expect the worst for others, and sadly, sometimes especially for ourselves. But friends, that’s not the Gospel.

We follow a Christ who invites us to let go, to be unbound. Our God is a God who looses chains, who brings sight, and healing, and wholeness. Our God is the God of the New Jerusalem. Our God is the God who makes all things new.

This All Saints day, can you let go of your doubts about others? About yourself? Can you find solidarity in our shared human struggle? Can you be unbound? Can your light shine a little brighter?


And I Mean To Be One Too: An All Saints Sermon

A sermon preached on November 2nd for the Feast of All Saints at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver.

What is a saint? This is a fair question, really. I’m not sure there is a concrete answer, but I’m an Episcopal priest, so you probably shouldn’t ask me for concrete answers. We’re not sure, in our tradition, what exactly constitutes a saint. We’re rejiggering our calendars of saints at the moment. I said calendars because have three calendars of saints days at the moment, and next summer we might vote on another. So we definitely like saints in The Episcopal Church, but we’re not sure how decide who the saints are. Our guiding principle in nominating saints might have been best articulated by Justice Potter Steward, the Supreme Court justice in the 1960s who said, “I know it when I see it.” (He wasn’t talking about saints, but that’s okay, we are).

In my view, one of the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from Madeleine L’Engle. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She pointed to the constellation of lives that guided her journey of faith. Who makes up your constellation? Who points you to Jesus? That seems as fitting a description as any I can reach.

Since today is the celebration of the Feast of All Saints, I thought I’d offer two cents on the matter, three cents if you’ll let me. We’re not sure exactly what defines a saint, but we know one when we see one. There are holy lives that we point to in the church, lives that guide us in our journey. This morning I want to argue that the saints are those who exemplify specific virtues, surprising virtues. Saints exemplify the virtues that guide us in our journey.

A quick note on the word virtue: I mean it in the classical sense. For Plato Aristotle and Aristotle, virtues were personified. Temperance, Prudence, Courage, and Justice were often depicted, like the muses, as heavenly beings. The virtues were embodied and the work of the moral life was for humans to try to embody the virtues. Another way to say this: we grow into our full selves by learning the virtues. So, talking about saints as embodiments of particular virtues is nothing new. This morning, I want to take a look at just three virtues from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Generosity, Gentleness, and Wholeness, and look at each of these virtues through the life of a particular saint.

Generosity– “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We who are pretty financially secure love that “in spirit” part that Jesus adds in there. But don’t be mistaken, Jesus is turning the values of the world on the head here. To describe poverty as a virtue would have seemed nonsensical, and seems nonsensical today. The world of Jesus, and our world, believes having a lot of stuff is a sign of blessing. “You’re so blessed” we say. Jesus turns that economy of blessing on its head. Blessed are the generous. Blessed are those who sacrifice some of their comfort.

I wondered about starting with generosity. This one is a rough virtue to start with, because I think we often like to ignore money questions. We like to think of a lot of virtues as “private.” Stanley Hauerwas used to quote a Judaism professor at Notre Dame who said, “any religion that doesn’t tell you what to do with your pots and pans and your genitals can’t be interesting.” The same goes for our money.

My former Rector, Luis Leon used to stand in the pulpit each pledge drive season and say, “Money is a powerful instrument. If you can give your money away, you have power over that instrument. If you can’t give your money away, your money has power over you.” We have to choose how to have a relationship with our money, and the virtue that Jesus holds up for us is the virtue of generosity.

It seems appropriate here to talk about Saint Barnabas. I don’t mean St. Barnabas the parish. I do hope that you value this place enough to make plans to support the ministry here, but I’ll leave the NPR pledge-drive moment to my friend Bradley White later on.

St. Barnabas the disciple, before he was a saint, was a wealthy landowner. He sold one of his fields and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. They called him the “son of encouragement” or the “great encourager” because he was generous with his wealth. He supported the church, and he supported the young leaders. He’s the one who brings Paul to the apostles. He takes Paul on his first trip to Antioch, where the Paul’s converts are first called “Christians”. Barnabas saw the potential in a young leader, Saul, and in a young community of believers, the Christians” and through his generosity with his time and his treasure, he supported the growth of the church. That’s what we know of Barnabas, and it is one of the ways St. Barnabas points us to Christ. Barnabas invites us to practice the virtue of generosity.

Gentleness– “blessed are the meek.” Blessed are the meek is probably better translated “Blessed are the gentle.” And again, Gentleness is a surprise virtue. Today we value might, and they valued the warriors in Jesus time. Yet Jesus said, “blessed are the gentle.” How do we live the virtue of gentleness?

I want to point out a saint on this one, and it is a little dangerous because he is still alive. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was dying a few years ago, and a church in San Francisco prematurely painted him in a mural of saints. Then Tutu got better, but still he is dancing up in the mural with the saints of old. And he is still dancing with us today. Thanks be to God.

Click to read more about the mural.
Click to read more about the mural.

I’ve met Desmond Tutu a couple of times, and what strikes me about him is the time he gives to everyone. He makes time, and he makes you laugh. He is free with hugs and encouragement, and he treats people very very gently. Now, people who knew Bishop Tutu well, those who served on his staff as archbishop say that he could be demanding. He had high expectations. Maybe it is true that gentleness is a virtue that is easier for the retired, but many stories that come out of Bishop Tutu’s work against apartheid show this virtuous gentleness.

In one incident a group of armed guards burst into the Cape Town Cathedral while Tutu was preaching and surrounded the worshipers. They took out notebooks, ready to cite him for preaching against the regime. He looked at them, smiled bit, and said laughingly: “you are powerful…but God cannot be mocked. Since you have already lost, I invite you to join the winning side.” See Tutu is gentle, which is different than meek. Gentleness can be bold. In response to Tutu’s sermon the congregation burst into singing and dance. That laughter, that smile, is how Desmond Tutu’s gentleness won so many over. Blessed are those who can smile at their oppressor. Blessed are those who can smile at the people who make them nervous, like the homeless on the street. Blessed are those who can laugh WITH the opposing political side. Blessed are those who treat humanity gently. We thank God for Desmond Tutu, a saint with us, who points us to laughing virtuous gentleness.

Wholeness “Blessed are the Pure in Heart.” What exactly does purity in heart mean? I’ve chosen to name this virtue “wholeness,” let me say a little bit about why. The mystics of many religions teach us that we as human beings are subject to a great deal desire. We want this. If only that. When this occurs, then I’ll be happy. All that desire can be disorienting. What goal do we seek? How do we spend our energy? I think Jesus wanted people to have pure hearts in the sense of wholeness. The pure in heart are wholly oriented toward one goal. In that wholeness of purpose we find freedom from the whims and waves of desire. This is the virtue of wholeness.

We learn wholeness the hard way when we don’t achieve some goal. When we don’t reach something that we desire, we can learn about wholeness.

For St. Julian of Norwich the way to wholeness was through suffering. She grew up in poverty in the time of the black plague. In her late twenties, she herself was very ill. Laying in what she thought was her death bed, Julian had a vision. The heart of the vision were words that have echoed through the centuries: “All Shall be Well, and All Shall be Well. And All Manner of Things Shall be Well.” Julian recovered, and the clarity which came through her illness was startling.

Julian dedicated the rest of her life to the vision God had for us, a vision of health, of wholeness. Julian found not simply recovery from illness, but a clarity of purpose. She found a confidence in God’s care for creation, which included her own well-being. All shall be well. There was freedom in that clarity. Julian was able to lay all else aside and “seek first the kingdom of God.” In such, Saint Julian of Norwich’s life became an invitation to the virtue of wholeness, the freedom that comes from wholeness of purpose.

I’ve named just three saints and three virtues they point us toward. There are many more. Perhaps you’ve been counting your own saints along with me, pointing out the guiding stars that lead you on the way. My husband Ellis and I drove out here from Missouri for today’s baptism, and along I–70 as you leave St. Louis there is an black evangelical church that had a billboard advertising their services: “turning sinners into saints.” If you’re interested in learning more, we’ve got some spare seats on the ride back. We could drop you off. But really I think you can learn about sainthood right here, in this community.

We learn from the saints the way through life, the way to holiness, the way to grow in grace and gracefulness. At the end of the service we’ll sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true. The most difficult line of that song is “and I mean to be one too.” One of the saints of God. This morning we’re baptizing two new saints of God. We’ll pledge together to support them in their life of faith. I have to say to you Reid, when I heard your story, I was impressed. This 10 year old boy asked his parents to bring him to church. He wanted to be baptized.

My niece Claire isn’t quite articulate enough yet to ask, but we’ll baptize her as well. Reid and Claire’s baptism is our formal recognition of them as fellow travelers along the road. We are all walking together, walking the way of the saints. Ram Dass likes to say, “We’re all just walking each other home.” We all need guides to teach us the virtues it takes to keep going. We are all fellow travelers.

Who shows you how to be generous? Who teaches you to give away your money and to spend time mentoring the next generation? Who demonstrates gentleness for you? Who showed you how to smile at the people who make you nervous? Who is your example of wholeness? Who do you look to who has a a sense of clarity of purpose? What other virtues are you learning from the other saints? Who leads you toward Christ?

They are all of them saints of God, and I mean, God-helping to be one too.