As the early church took shape and firmed up a belief system, it came to speak about the “Communion of Saints” to which all believers belong, including it in the Nicene Creed, the confession of faith we continue to proclaim today. When we speak of the Communion of Saints, we frequently go on to talk about “a great cloud of witnesses” who surround and accompany us on the journey of faith.
The Catechism (or Outline of the Faith) in the Book of Common Prayer describes it this way:
The communion of saints is the whole family of God,
the living and the dead, those whom we love and those
whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament,
prayer, and praise. (BCP p. 862)
So the first way the Church understands saints is simply as all believers – those who strive, in whatever degree we can, to follow Jesus. These are the saints we sing about in another hymn we’ve often sung on All Saints:
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folks like me,
And I mean to be one too.
So those are the saints with a small “s”. Some of those saints become Saints (with a capital “S) because they lead lives of faith that we recognize as extraordinary. Some were martyrs, but others were scholars, monastics, musicians, clergy, evangelists, revolutionaries and more – they are individuals in whom we believe God was working, whose lives and choices point us to the Christ we glimpse in them.
The Roman Catholic Church tradition has a process for the canonization of saints (or, in other words, setting apart as holy). Anglicans – including we Episcopalians – don’t canonize people. In their book on Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, Scott Gunn and Melody Shobe observe that “The church does not make Saints; the church recognizes people whom God has made Saints.” (p. 249)
In the Prayer Book’s List of Holy Days (pp. 17-18) we find the list of recognized Saints who are in fact assigned Holy Days on which we commemorate their lives. There are actually not many - only seven individuals are named - and the list reflects the perceptions of the church from centuries past. The church today maintains a much broader list of persons who may be recognized as Saints in the church, and who have days designated for their commemoration.
It is pretty cool that this list of “Holy Women [and] Holy Men” is not fixed, but is ever expanding. On it we can find our own guys, James and Andrew, but we also find Perpetua and her companions, third century martyrs for the faith; Andrei Rublev, the 15th century Russian Orthodox monk who painted the wonderful and familiar icon of the Trinity; Mary Brant (Konwatsijayenni) an 18th century woman of mixed English and Mohawk parentage who worked to maintain peace between European settlers and the Iroquois Confederacy; and John Muir, 20th century naturalist and environmentalist, among many more interesting and sometimes surprising names.
The Episcopal Church acknowledges that we do not agree on what constitutes a Saint, and that different church communities practice different traditions in the ways they relate to the Saints. Some individuals offer prayers asking the saints to pray with or assist them, while others use the example of the saints’ lives to inspire them. (A Great Cloud of Witnesses is the church’s current publication containing brief biographies of all of those included on the list of those recognized for commemoration; it is available in book form or as a PDF, available online.)
Among the practices common to many Episcopal churches regarding saints are two that we are practicing today. In our prayers on All Saints Day we remember the names of members of this congregation who have died in the past year.
In addition, we invite members of the community to lift up for remembrance their own loved one who have passed away and whom they remember with love and gratitude. Today, as you can see, we have tried a new thing by inviting you to share pictures of those dear departed.
We were inspired to try on this visual approach to remembrance by the practice of our Mexican brothers and sisters who celebrate the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, also on November 1. On this holiday, families remember and pay respects to departed family members and friends by gathering around altars of remembrance, to eat and tell stories.
Many cultures of the world, in fact, recognize this time of year as a time for communication with the dead. The pre-christian Celts and Druids celebrated the festival of Samhain mid-way between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, or on October 31 and November 1. They believed that “the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down on these days,” allowing interaction with those who reside in that otherworld. (History.com: Samhain)
Those emerging from the dead over Samhain included both the ancestors for whom cakes might be laid out for them in homes and also fairies. The practice of dressing in animal or monster costumes during the festival had the purpose of preventing the fairies from kidnapping the ancestors. (Ibid)
As Christianity took hold in Europe and various pagan practices were adapted and transformed to fit compatibly with Christian faith, the traditions of Samhain became, between the 5th and 9th centuries, the Feast of All Saints, preceded on October 31, by All Hallows Eve.
So all of that is a fun history lesson, but what does any of it mean for us today, trying to see how to be faithful in a complicated and challenging world?
For one thing, the church’s All Saints traditions are a reassurance that we are not alone in our struggles. The faithful who have gone before – both the little s and capital S – were, just as we are, were imperfect folks doing their best. As the hymn says, “they toiled and fought and lived and died”. Their efforts and their perseverance are what makes them saints, and for some of them, God working in and through them made a profound difference in the world.
And they are with us as companions on the journey in the mystical body of Christ – the great cloud of witnesses, the family of God.
It also seems to me that the saint-and-ancestor feasts and festivals throughout time and across space all speak to the fundamental human concern about death – including both for ourselves, and for those we have loved who are no longer with us. The death that concerns us is not only the physical end of life, but also the subtler, psychological, emotional and spiritual forms of death that show up in all of our lives.
I suspect that this is why the story of the raising of Lazarus is chosen for us as the gospel for All Saints. There is much in this story to unpack and marvel at, but undoubtedly the most compelling truth that the story testifies to is that the power of God’s love conquers death.
Jesus’ friend Lazarus is absolutely, physically dead. He is stashed in a tomb, in the dark, behind a stone, and wrapped in the bands that hold back the stench of death. But Jesus loves Lazarus as he loves Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. And Jesus knows the power of the Creator, that Love is stronger than death. Jesus calls Lazarus’ name, and he emerges from the place of death.
In his discussion of the Lazarus passage, Lutheran pastor and theologian Brian Peterson observes that “Jesus is the presence of God’s life become flesh for us.” “Jesus is the one in whom there is life (1:4),” he goes on to say, “the one who even now calls us out of all the dark and binding places of death….. the life of Jesus breaks into our present and transforms it… on both sides of the grave there is life for us because Jesus has been sent to call our names.” (2018 commentary on John 11:32-44 at Working Preacher.com)
Not only are we not alone because we are a part of the Communion of Saints, but even in the presence of the ugly deaths with which life surrounds us, we are called by name and welcomed into the larger life that is God’s love for us.
For this love, and for the life of Jesus, showing us the way and calling us to follow, thanks be to God.
While in Mark’s gospel Jesus is not all-knowing, he does have a very clear sense of the path he is walking, the same path he is asking followers to join him on. And the disciples, they love this teacher. He sparks something in them that keeps them moving forward, walking through the forest, even as they have no idea where they’re going. Jesus is pointing out trail markers, letting the disciples know what they can anticipate on the path. Yet whenever Jesus offers a lesson on what it means to follow him on the way, or foretells his suffering, death, and resurrection, the disciples experience it quite differently. It’s a bit like he is telling them, on the trail you’ll pass a rock, and then a bit further down there will be a tree. Jesus and the bird looking down can see it quite clearly, but those consumed with the overwhelming current reality, simply feel a bit lost, and as a result, stumble a lot along the way.
In today’s gospel, Bartimaeus is a bit like the bird who can take in the big picture. Jesus is departing Jericho and making his way to Jerusalem, where in the days ahead he will undergo suffering, death, and resurrection. He is accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. Along the side of the road, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus sensed Jesus’ presence and began to cry out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”*
This was the first time in Mark’s gospel that anyone referred to Jesus as the Son of David, and it would have stood out to those listening. It tells us that while Bartimaeus lacked physical sight, he knew how to truly see God’s world. This Jesus of Nazareth was the one they had all been waiting for.
While members of the crowd attempted to hush Bartimaeus, it only made him cry out more loudly. Jesus instructed that Bartimaeus should be brought over to him, and when members of the crowd called him forward, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, his only worldly possession, sprang up, and went to Jesus.
“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”*
Bartimaeus answered, “My teacher, let me see again.”*
This entire exchange is in stark contrast with the rich young man, who was unwilling to give up his worldly possessions in order to follow Jesus. The cost of discipleship was too much for him. Yet for Bartimaeus, it was his complete willingness to follow that led Jesus to heal his physical sight. Jesus offered an outward sign of healing, to reflect the inward grace already within Bartimaeus, emphasizing his gift for seeing Gods’ world so clearly. From there, Bartimaeus embraced Jesus' invitation to follow him on the way.
More than a story of healing, this encounter plays with the idea of blindness. While Bartimaeus could not physically see, he had an inward sight. While the disciples could physically see, they often lacked an inward sight. Mark is using the story of Bartimaeus to lift up the lack of awareness and faithlessness that the disciples struggled with at times. The story emphasizes what it really looks like to get up and follow Jesus on the way.
The story also begs of us:
Where are we blind or lacking awareness?
Why are we stuck in the thick of the forest?
How are we called to see more clearly?
What is the birdseye view God might be calling us to embrace?
We began today’s service with a version of the Great Litany crafted for our calling to care for creation. The Great Litany helps us to fully confess, lament, pray and hope as the body of Christ. This particular version of the litany focused on creation reminds us that in order “to love God, we must also love what God loves.” **
One week from today, leaders from around the world will gather for COP26, COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty signed in 1992 by countries recognizing the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming and drive climate change.***. Climate change is an area humanity has struggled to come together and successfully address, as we know it requires individuals, communities, corporations, and governments to sacrifice some of our power, privilege, comfort, and economic gains for the sake of the whole world.
This past August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report, warning in the strongest terms used to date that human activities have: “...unequivocally warmed the planet, and that climate change is now widespread, rapid and intensifying.”*** The report goes on to explain “...how climate change has been fueling extreme weather events and flooding, severe heat waves and droughts, loss and extinction of species, and the melting of ice sheets and rising of sea levels.”***
Leaders have called this report a “code red for humanity” and referred to COP26 as “the last best hope for the world”.*** & **** One of the primary goals of COP26 is to figure out how we can prevent temperatures from rising by more than 1.5C this century. In order to do this it will require we cut carbon emissions by 45% by the year 2030.****** This is no small task.
Now, let me confess. When I hear leaders urge us to address climate change or read in the news about its devastating and irreversible effects, I feel a hell of a lot like those disciples lost and stumbling in the woods. Those leaders may see a clear path, but I am overwhelmed by it all. And when I’m overwhelmed, do you know what I want to do? I want to turn off all technology, close the blinds, lock the door, hunker down with a blanket and book, and pretend the bad thing isn’t really happening. It's a pretty, healthy and mature response, if I do say so myself.
In these moments, I could not relate more to the disciples in their most challenging moments of following the way of love--James and John jockeying for position, the rich young man walking away, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and Heather’s hiding under the blanket. And I know I’m not alone in these moments of faithlessness. Because so many of us find it simpler to more or less ignore the realities of climate change and the work of advocating for God’s world by loving what God loves.
Don’t get me wrong. We are not complete monsters. We recycle. We compost. We attempt to live into zero waste.
We calculate our carbon footprint; strive to reduce it and lead simpler lives.*****
Yet the actual weight of the world is not on any one of us. This is an area where some corporations want us to remain blind. And of those corporations, the fossil fuel industry is the most greedy and glutenous. There was a report earlier this week that the fossil fuel industry is set to soar in the next decade, which is in direct competition with COP26’s goal of reducing the rise in global temperature.******
So while leaders gather next week to figure out how to reduce the rise in temperature, those in charge in the coal, crude oil, and natural gas fields will continue to use and abuse, at detrimental cost to all forms of life, while lining their own pockets.
So what are we to do?
There are no simple solutions, but here are some ways that I am trying to see the work of caring for God’s creation more clearly, to outgrow my own blindness and follow the way of love.
Many of you are already doing these things. I invite you to see if you can take your efforts even one or two steps further. Those of you who would be more comfortable hiding under a blanket, choose one or two ways you will be intentional in choosing to see more clearly.
Let us pray:
Open the eyes of our hearts, God. We want to see you clearly and follow your ways. Amen.
* Mark 10:46-52
**Illia Delio, Keith Douglass Warner, and Pamela Wood, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, pg 92.
Jesus did call together an eclectic group of disciples: successful fishermen, a tax collector working for the Roman empire, a zealot seeking to overthrow the Roman empire, as well as several other oddballs and eccentrics. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus would call two brothers, who spent too much time posturing for power and position. Maybe I’m overreaching, but I think we witness some thunderous behavior by these brothers in today’s gospel.
Today’s passage is the third and final time Jesus foretells his suffering, death, and resurrection.******
Immediately afterwards, James and John approach Jesus:
“Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
“Arrange it so we can sit in the highest place of honor- one at your right and the other at your left.”
Jesus tells them:
“You have no idea what you are asking.”
James and John, certainly are functioning a bit like thunder. In response to Jesus' incomprehensible news, they turn their attention to how they might benefit, towards how they might amplify their power and position. And they are doing it quite loudly, causing a roar of discord amongst the disciples. Thankfully, Jesus once again redirects all the disciples, expanding what it means to be great.
“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around...and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.” ******
Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.
In this movement, to be great, is to abandon the pursuit of our own self-centered interests. Stephanie Spellers, in her breathtaking book, The Church Cracked Open, describes Jesus as calling us to: “Move your body, your resources, your power and your heart into place among the hurting people with whom Jesus already stands. That’s when you gain abundant life, because that’s when you begin to experience Jesus-shaped life.”******
She goes on to say, discipleship is a call to: “Commit to behaviors and relationships that nourish rather than dominate, share rather than hoard. If the self-centric way of empire prizes self and group above all else, and exploits and controls others for the prosperity and peace of those at the center, the way of love is its opposite.”******
Let’s face it. It can be hard to remain in servant mode. It is a way of moving through this life with a frame of mind and heart that cares deeply for the neighbor, for walking the way of love. Yet like other things that are important to us, such as eating healthy, exercising, spending time with family, performing our jobs to the best of our abilities-- we have to remain intentional, to be mindful of maintaining a servant's heart. We’ll never get it perfectly, but if we show up faithfully each day we are doing the best we can.
So what does it look like to follow Jesus’ command to be a servant? Well, today we are celebrating the ministries of two women who have done a pretty lovely job of showing up faithfully with a servant’s heart.
Back in 2012, former St. James was in the midst of a clergy transition. In any parish, transition can be a delicate time, as there are usually one or two tender and unique dynamics at play. As a result, the parish named Rev. Jane Dunning, a retired priest already familiar to the parish, as their Priest Associate. During that time of transition, Jane served as long term supply with another local priest, offered pastoral support, and faithfully encouraged the wardens. When the parish called a young and inexperienced priest to serve their community, Jane encouraged the parish to remain open hearted and minded, that their new priest might have new ways of doing things. And that is how I still see Jane serving us today. She has a gift for encouraging people, for helping folks to remember that all will be well, that God really is with us. She has walked beside so many of us in worship, offering pastoral care, presiding at weddings and funerals. She is also a treasure of the firefighting community, as she serves these young people, who often experience trauma in the line of duty. Jane, wherever she goes, brings a gift of encouragement. And while she has stepped down as our Priest Associate, her servant ministry continues in the ways she shows up each week and continues to encourage us to trust that all is in Gods’ hands.
Our other servant leader is, of course, our beloved Deacon Ann Wood. Some of you long timers know this, but I bet others might not. Ann began her journey to the diaconate at former St. James. She was a parishioner, one with a servant’s heart, who felt a call to go forth and serve. Former St. James sponsored her in the ordination process, and then bid her a prayerful farewell, as she went on to serve numerous churches in the Pioneer Valley. Part of her servant ministry during those years was serving as a chaplain at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
In 2016, Ann explored with the bishop what it might look like to return home, serving one last parish before retiring. Thankfully for us, the bishop blessed her coming back to former St. James, where only months later we merged with former St. Andrew’s and became an entirely new community of faith- Saints James and Andrew. During Ann’s time with us I have come to have such gratitude for her gifts for pastoral care, offering prayers, and the laying on of hands. Every time I have seen her lay hands on someone for healing prayers, it is as if you can see the Holy Spirit moving in and through her. It’s humbling and beautiful. She has been a voice of wisdom that we have come to count on at our biweekly clergy and warden meetings, and she remains a chaplain to us as she leads us in prayer, grounding our work in God.
Ordinarily, when folks retire, we also have to say farewell. We are fortunate to keep these two wonderful servants, now in new roles as parishioners. In a few moments, we will offer special prayers and thanksgiving for their ministry.
But first, I want to highlight that while it is not always easy to be a servant, as we can get distracted, we can even get a bit thunderous, we know if we keep showing up and trying our best that we too can move forward with servant’s hearts. We’ve seen it modeled so beautifully by these two women, by one another, and even by these occasionally thunderous disciples of Jesus.
This week, how will we each go forth to love and serve? Amen.
* Mark 3:17
**** Google’s definition of thunderous.
***** Adapting a phrase coined by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
****** Mark 10:35-45 The Message
****** Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open, pg 87-88
Everything that we have, that we enjoy, that makes us human and makes our lives worth living comes from God and is given into our keeping. Our homes, our children, even the breath we breathe are gifts we have to care for. Every single day – really, many times a day – we make decisions involve choices of how to use our time, expend our energy, or invest our resources. These are all stewardship decisions.
Here’s a brief story for Stewardship Season. I’ve read several different versions of it, but this one is Jack Kornfield’s:
A famous rabbi living in Europe was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi's dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city. A servant directed the visitor to the rabbi's room, which was in the attic. The traveler entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more.
After he and the rabbi had exchanged greetings, he asked, "Rabbi, where are your things?"
The rabbi paused, and then quietly asked in return, "Well, where are yours?"
His visitor replied, "But, Rabbi, I'm only passing through." And the master answered, "So am I, So am I."*
The lectionary, during these weeks of stewardship season, provides us with many of Jesus’ teachings relating to wealth (and Jesus in fact spoke quite frequently about wealth and the choices people made regarding it.) Today’s Gospel is one of those, Mark’s version of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man, a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke.
As we just heard, a man runs up to Jesus as Jesus is “setting out on a journey”, kneeling before him, asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus reminds him of the Commandments to be followed – he must not murder, steal, lie, cheat, or commit adultery, and must honor his father and mother.
The young man declares that he is already doing these things. Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him”, and told him this:
You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Mark tells us the young man was shocked, and walked away, grieving, “for he had many possessions”.
Jesus then chose to reinforce teaching to the disciples – How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God, and offering one of his most dramatic and memorable metaphors, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
We don’t know what the rich young man wanted or expected in approaching Jesus. To my mind, he seems to have approached with humility and sincerity. It really seems like he was a good person, a good citizen, living his life in the way his faith tradition prescribed. And yet somehow he felt there was something missing, some truth he had not yet understood which would offer him eternal life.
I wonder whether the young man didn’t offer a clue to his problem in the language he used in his question to Jesus?
He looks at the life of fulfillment, of perfect righteousness and right relationship with God as something more he can “inherit” and thereby, presumably, “own”, beyond what already fills his life.
Perhaps he lives a life dominated by possessions and he is caught up in a worldview in which meaning and fulfillment come from “possession”. He doesn’t lie or cheat or steal, but perhaps his wealth has insulated him from true connection with others and with the suffering that so many in his time and place experience.
The thought of divesting himself of all of those possessions, to take up with Jesus and the disciples with just the shirt on his back is a leap that it seems he cannot make.
This is the fundamental challenge in living a life of stewardship – remembering that, like the visitor and the rabbi, we are “just passing through”, and that the blessings we receive are just that – gifts given into our care, for us to hold in open hands and make use of wisely, to make the world a better place.
The rich young man’s wealth, rather than becoming the vehicle through which, by letting go, he could move beyond himself into a fuller life, instead became his prison and his source of grief.
Jesus calls us to live lives of generosity, and promises that it will bring us joy.
Generosity is always based in the fundamental knowledge that we have enough, and we can afford to give away the extra that we don’t really need. The trick, it seems, is in recognizing how little we really need.
To live generously, we need to truly trust that God will continue to provide what we need, that if we give away our time, our energy, our money, we will still have enough left.
To live generously, we have to truly believe that other people are as important as we are, as worthy of love and of blessing.
As we enjoy these beautiful days of fall in Central Mass, savor the last gifts from the garden and make ready for winter, let us notice our blessings, and let us be thankful for them.
Let us equally notice the needs outside ourselves in the world around us, and let us see the ways in which we can make a difference.
Let us keep our hands open as we hold the gifts with which we are entrusted, and let us remember to share – ourselves, our time, and our treasure.
I invite you to pry with me that we might be freed from the fears that cause us to grasp things too tightly.
To pray that God might help us to recognize the opportunities that surround us to live life generously, and to find freedom in trusting God’s care for us.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen
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