By Rev. Heather J. Blais
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Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Andrew. In the gospel, we hear the story of how four fisherfolk become followers of Jesus. Two of them are our guys; Andrew, who is working alongside his brother Simon, and James, who is working alongside his brother John. Jesus invites all of them into a new way of life, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
They immediately left their nets, their boats, their very way of life, all to follow this stranger who would turn the world upside down and right side up.
Within scripture, we see that following Jesus is an all or nothing experience for those first disciples. There was so much that needed to be done to help transform the world into a better place. The disciples’ work focused on spreading the good news of God’s love and compassion, healing the sick, and helping the establishment think about why they do things the way they do. Since there is so much of the story left between the lines of scripture, we are left to wonder, did these disciples ever take a rest or were they caught up in the go-go-going way of the movement?
We know a bit about go-go-going, don’t we? Nearly the entire congregation played a role to ensure the Mistletoe Mart & Craft Faire was a success yesterday. We have fun and enjoy the fellowship, but the primary reason for this event is because the funds raised sustain our outreach and mission. It ensures that we have the resources we need to live into programs, such as Whitney’s Pantry, Bread of Life, Cathedral in the Light, St. Andrew’s Guild, our Health Ministry, Emmaus Companions, Church World Service, and much more. We are trying to live into Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, and to walk alongside those pushed to the margins of our society. We are trying to see the Christ within each and every person we encounter in the walls of this campus and beyond.
This work is constant. Then you mix in commitments to family and friends for the holidays, as well as to other organizations, and the go-go-going of our lives can feel a bit like a rollercoaster that’s gone off its tracks. Particularly for any of us who are inclined to understand our self worth by how much we do. We find we are in the middle of a one way ticket to burn out.
Yet the thing is, any relationship we have with another person is only as healthy as the least healthiest member in the relationship.** The same is true for our ministry teams. Any ministry team in the church is only as healthy as the least healthiest member of the team. Which means if we are setting ourselves up to be burnt out, we are setting up our relationships and ministry teams to struggle. This is not what God wants for us or for creation.
I’d like to share a story I recently came across which invites Andrew, James, and all followers of Jesus to slow down a bit.
We are invited to ensure we have put on our own oxygen mask, before we seek to help others.
A hearty and healthy pause as we seek to go-go-go the way of love.
Jesus’ Day Off by Nicholas Allan (if you listen to the sermon, the story is read in the audio).
What happened when Jesus took time for rest and renewal? (This is not rhetorical)
We know that Jesus routinely withdrew from the crowd to go and ensure his own well was full. It was the only way to sustain his life and work.
During this next week, which I know will surely be chaotic for some--how might each of us slow down and rest? Jesus found that fruits grew during his time of rest, because sometimes we only need to let things be for a bit. What might blossom if we were to try such a radical idea as rest? Amen.
**This idea that we are only ever as healthy as the least healthy member in a relationship originated for me from the writing of Rob and Kristen Bell's, The Zimzum of Love: A new way of understanding marriage.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
May we have faith in the promises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s an old World War II saying in Britain that was popular during the time when bombs were raining down on England and it was also used for many years in the post-war period when food and other commodities were scarce – it went: “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’”. It was said with tongue in cheek, of course. Initially, the gospel passage, with its predictions of doom, gloom and disasters, brought it to mind for me. The passage didn’t leave me feeling exactly cheerful – did it you? If I’m not careful, I find it easy to get sucked into news stories of doom and gloom, even to get depressed by our current political and worldly upheavals. Jesus’ listeners were told to expect the worst - earthquakes and famines, wars and insurrections, hatred and betrayals. Jesus touches on many things that could possibly go wrong – natural disasters, political disasters, social disruption and personal betrayal. That’s what I hear so strongly on first reading this piece – BUT, on delving into the passage a little more closely, I discover that, in spite of all the doom and gloom, there’s hope. There are promises that Jesus makes, that assure us we’ll not be left alone to cope with disasters. He encourages us to persevere through difficult times. He says that we’ll be rewarded for doing so with a deeper understanding of Him and the life he offers and that we’re loved more than we could ever imagine. That sense of hope and God’s love for us is the take-home message from this reading. God is victorious over all evil things and we, with God’s help, can be too.
This gospel passage was Jesus’ final public discourse. It follows right after his comparisons between the rich folk in the Temple dropping their offerings in the collection plate – offerings they wouldn’t miss -and the poor widow who gave her all. The Temple was a popular gathering place and a magnificent building. It was so revered that it was customary to swear by the Temple; speaking against it could be considered blasphemy. It had become an idol and it was a symbol of beauty, stability and permanence. Imagine, then, the incredulity that Jesus faced from his listeners, when he predicted that their precious Temple would be demolished, that every stone in the building would end up in a heap of rubble. In a time of peace, this was unbelievable. Naturally, people wanted to know when this was likely to occur and what signs there might be to warn them of this impending catastrophe. Jesus continued his discourse by predicting the coming of false messiahs, who would try to lead them astray, along with the previously mentioned disasters.
Historically, there’s evidence that all of Jesus’ predictions occurred and that they first happened before the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, only 7 years after the Temple’s completion. The city fell to the Romans, the Temple was set on fire, the gold mortar between the huge stones melted, they collapsed and it became a desolate ruin. Jesus promised that anyone who believed the signs and escaped would be saved. Some historians have indicated that in the terrible fall of Jerusalem, no followers of Jesus lost their lives. Jesus’ warnings were also protections. Historically, there’s also evidence of false prophets claiming to be the messiah and plenty of evidence of persecutions – the persecution especially of Jesus’ followers. “They will lay hands on you and persecute you”, Jesus said. Their stories are recorded in the Bible. John the Baptizer was the first witness to the gospel to be imprisoned; Peter, John and Stephen were hauled before the Sanhedrin, James before Herod Agrippa and Paul before Gallio. All were persecuted and imprisoned. Their persecution, however, Jesus said, would give them an opportunity to testify about him, which we’re told they did.
Then came Jesus’ first promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”. In other words, God will speak through them, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be with them to help and guide them. Promise #2: He will not leave them to fend for themselves. They could rely on Him for help and guidance. In spite of all this hatred and betrayal – promise #3 - by their endurance in bearing these trials and by trusting his promises, Jesus says that, from an eternal perspective “not a hair of your head shall be lost”. A life of faith is not an exemption from adversity, but a reliance on the promise of God to bear witness to that adversity, to be with us in the adversity and to be saved for eternal life through the grace and love of our God.
How might we look at the passage in today’s terms? We’re certainly experiencing earthquakes, famines, wars, insurrections and hatred. One might be tempted to think that we’re gearing up towards Jesus’ Second Coming, but, apparently, people in many past generations have also thought that they were living in the end times. Time will tell of course. Jesus, in his discourse, tells us not to worry about wars and insurrections, that they will occur and that the end won’t follow immediately. The promises he made back then to his listeners, also apply to us today. Jesus was honest in his discourse – this type of honesty is what to expect if you follow him. He could foresee signs that others couldn’t. It’s only when we see things through the eyes of God that we see them clearly. We might do that through prayer and meditation – ours, as well as that of others. Jesus also spoke of a safety that’s beyond earthly threats. Those who walk with Christ may lose their life, but never their courage and ability to endure trials and hardships.
In more recent times, in addition to the experiences of the disciples in the past, I’m reminded of someone like Nelson Mandela. He endured 27 years in prison, much of it in a damp concrete cell 8’x 7’ in dimensions, which contributed to his suffering from tuberculosis. Sometimes he was locked in solitary confinement, and for a long time, was permitted only one visit and one letter every 6 months. His wife was rarely allowed to see him and he was unable to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son. He attended Christian services on Sundays and also studied Islam. He never gave up hope and eventually, after his release from prison, led the African National Congress to victory in an election for both blacks and whites. He became the first black President in South Africa. The first thing he did as President, was to forgive his tormenters; secondly, he incorporated them into his government. He introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services, creating the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which focuses on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS. God was with him and guiding him during his times of trial and adversity. God was with him when he came to power.
Closer to home, I think of my son-in-law, Bill. Bill served as a Senior Pastor in a non-denominational/Baptist church for a number of years, until a segment of the leadership decided that they didn’t like the changes he was suggesting that would, in Bill’s opinion, lead the church forward. They made it clear to him that it was time for him to move on. He was subject to derision and forced to step down. With two children in college and a third in his final years in high school, one might imagine the financial hardship and uncertainties of not having a job or an income. In order to be employable in a Presbyterian church, the church he originally trained in, he needed to re-educate himself and submit to the ordination process of that church. God has been with him and his wife and family during these trials and adversities. He has never lost faith in God’s goodness and he’s now coming out of the dark tunnel into the light of leading a new parish and looking forward to an upcoming ordination. Adversity has strengthened him and his faith.
I can remember times in my own life when this has been true. It may have been a sense or inner knowledge that God is with me or God may have been present through a friend or stranger who came into my life at just the right time. God loves and cares for each one of us more than we can ever imagine or comprehend, so, if you’re going through a particularly difficult time, know that Jesus was there before you and will continue to be there with you now. His is the victory over all evil. Look for the grace and unexpected blessings even in a time of hardship, pain or tragedy. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” Jesus says, and, who knows, perhaps by doing so, we’ll be able to reiterate that old World War II saying that “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’” without having tongue in cheek! Amen.
Rev. Heather J. Blais
This past week we celebrated a trifecta of holy days.
It began on Thursday with All Hallow’s Eve, and while it is not a feast day in the Church, a service for All Hallow’s Eve does appear in our Book of Occasional Services. It draws from the Service of Light in the prayerbook, and there are special lessons appointed for the day, such as the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel, and the unusual story of the Witch of Endor from 1 Samuel (28:3-25).
In the story, Saul has recently cast out all the witches, mediums, and seers throughout the land. Yet after Samuel’s death, with the Philistine army approaching, Saul was afraid. He spoke out to God, but when he heard nothing, he inquired about a seer. When he learned about the Witch of Endor, he disguised himself and went to her, hoping to find solace and advice.
Yet even the witch was afraid to speak, for fear of punishment from Saul. In the story, God surprises us all, by speaking to both the witch and Saul through their fear. They left their encounter with a deeper sense of God’s vision and care.
Sam Portaro in his book Brightest and Best, writes, “To deny or denigrate such experiences as that of Saul and the Witch of Endor is to maintain that God communicates only in the ways we dictate and deem tasteful. Because Saul’s source is suspect in our eyes, we are perplexed by its intrusion into our religious sensibilities” (197-198).
All Hallow’s Eve is a time when we collectively confront our fear of death through laughter, trickery, and playing with the things that normally spook us. And when we cast all the candy and costumes aside, and look at our fears head on, God is there, ready to help us face that which feels so uncertain and scary.
The second day in the trifecta is the Feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today. Scholars believe the day originated in Ireland and spread all the way to Rome, where in the early 800s c.e. Pope Gregory the Fourth urged Emperor Louis the Pious that such a festival should be observed throughout the entire Roman Empire (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 362). There are also subtle hints from even earlier that there was an All Martyrs’ festival. One such hint is the Pantheon in Rome, which was originally a pagan temple dedicated to “all the gods”, yet in 610 c.e. was dedicated as the Church of St. Mary and All Martyrs (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 362).
All Saints Day is the centerpiece of these three days, as we continue to face death, but this time through the lens of particularly holy people, who have embodied goodness in remarkable ways through their actions and lives. This is where we remember the likes of Mary, the unwed teenage mother of Jesus; Andrew and James, fishermen who leave everything to follow Jesus; Mary Magdalene, who showed the world there has always been a place for women at God’s table; Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland; and so many more. These individuals, who were very much human, broken and beloved by God, often did not quite fit in with others. By the grace of God, they were able to take their brokenness and see a hurting part of the world and help transform it for the better.
The saints came to represent intercessors or protectors. Even long after they have lived, we still look to these folks for inspiration, as a window into what it means to embody goodness with our whole being. They give us hope.
The last day in the trifecta is possibly my favorite, Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, better known by its older name of All Souls Day. In 998 c.e., Odilo of Cluny, the abbot of Cluny monastery, decided that after the festival of All Saints, all the monasteries under his supervision should celebrate another festival, in honor of all their dead loved ones (Folks Like Me 60). It began as a time where folks might visit their family graves to clear the weeds, have a picnic, and bring fresh flowers (Folks Like Me 60). This festival eventually spread to the whole Church, and is where we get the Day of the Dead celebrations (Folks Like Me 60).
During the reformation this practice was eliminated in some places due to abuses connected with masses for the departed and because in the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is applied to all baptized Christians, not to a special class of believers or to those who have maintained higher moral standards (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 364). When the day was reintroduced, it was done so knocking out ‘all souls’ to become ‘all faithful’. Somehow the Church once again lost sight of God’s vision. God does not intend for us to only remember those who have been faithful; rather, we are called upon to remember all the broken, all the lost, and all who are different from us. It is a day to remember every single member of creation, everyone we have loved and lost, and those who have no one to remember them.
It is the day we proclaim our hope for eternal life with God and one another, as articulated in Isaiah, who proclaimed that everyone is born of God and everyone is gathered up in God at death (Brightest and Best 202).
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-7)
All three days have roots in older pagan traditions which were adapted and repurposed for Christianity. There is no doubt this was a strategic move by those who sought to spread Christianity with empire. Yet underneath those motives, still remains something beautiful about these traditions. We all must face our own mortality, and these traditions help us to find courage and hope as we look towards God, by remembering those who have gone before us. Which is why today, I want to invite each of us moved to do so, to light a candle. To recognize we all have fears about what is to come, to give thanks to those saints who are a window to help us see and understand God and ourselves in new ways, and to remember those people who made us who we are.
So today, I light a candle in memory and thanksgiving for…
...my grandmother Sally, who showed me unconditional love.
...my aunt Debbie and grandfather Gene, whose own fragility and brokenness taught me how important it is to forgive oneself.
…my friend, Father Bamforth, who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
….for Chuck in Maine, who died last week and showed the world joy, love, and light by the way he entered every room.
...the saints who have gone before us at Saints James and Andrew who have touched our lives and will not be forgotten.
...my favorite writers, Lewis and Tolkien, who helped me envision and understand my faith in deeper ways through story.
...for the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in a better world.
...for Jacob, who teaches us how to wrestle with God.
...for the prophets and early Church, who are constant reminders that God is still doing something new, even now.
For these, and so many more.
I invite you to come forward and light a candle for all those saints you carry with you. Amen.
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