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Celebrating the Saints

October 30, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on Reformation Sunday / All Saints Day, October 30, 2011

 Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2          James 1: 17-27 and 2: 14-17

When Dorothy Day was a young child, at a time when many people couldn’t find work, her father brought donuts home every Saturday morning. As she sat in her apartment in New York City eating donuts, she could see ragged, hungry people walking the streets below. One day she suggested to her father that since he always brought a dozen donuts even though there were only three people in the family, perhaps she and her parents could eat just one each and share the other nine with the people in the streets. Her father told her this wasn’t a good idea, but every Saturday morning for several weeks she brought it up again. Then one Saturday her father grew stern: “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “Don’t ever bring this up again.” Dorothy refused to accept her father’s analysis of things. She kept her compassion alive, spending time among poor people and finally opening the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality in 1933. Ever since that day, people influenced by Dorothy have been welcoming the homeless poor, offering a listening ear, a bowl of soup, and a bed to sleep in at night.

I once heard an elder recount an experience at a national church gathering in which she had not expected to be called on to speak, but during which she heard things spoken by others which she knew not to be true. “How could I be silent, while surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses? My hair stood on end and the Holy Spirit lifted me by that hair and carried me to a microphone.”

What struck me was the power of that great cloud of witnesses. The communion of saints, living and dead, do speak to us, to inspire us, and to open us to the movement of God’s spirit which just might literally lift us out of our comfortable seats into public proclamation to bear witness to the faith we share and the message we have from Christ for the world.  I am interested in saints because I am interested in how the church bears witness to its faith in generation after generation.

I am also interested in how rarely our beliefs translate into ethical action. In fact, most ethical theory, as I read it, seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap between belief and action. 

The problem is not new, of course. James wrote about this trouble within his own congregation 2000 years ago, “Be not just hearers but doers of the word.” is the way he put it. “Right God-talk without right God-action is simply outrageous;” an assertion that is consistent with the witness of the Hebrew prophets who came before him.

The church has long understood that the “gap” between belief and action is often filled with the lives of saints, models and examples who not only inspire faith in the God who inspired them, but who empower us to get up and to do similar things ourselves by the simple act of going before us. “How could I remain silent, inactive, self-secure or insecure, when so many others risk so much more with fewer promises?” we might ask ourselves.

Saints model Christian practice for us, the attention to God’s presence in the everyday normal acts of living, eating, playing, working and resting, and among the everyday, ordinary people with whom we share these acts. They demonstrate an everyday spirituality which is not about dogma or doctrine, but about a way to live lives which are pleasing to God in the daily settings of life: family, friendship, work, the economy and politics. Saints teach us to trust in the sovereignty of God, and inspire us to action together that ensures no one is oppressed. They challenge us to live and work for peace amid violence. How deeply we still need such a way to live!

In the early church the designation “saint” referred to the baptized church members and to the faithful departed, a designation revived by the Protestant reformers. Thus we are all saints, and part of the community of saints, potentially and actually reflecting the sacred which is God. During times of persecution, the designation “saint” clung to those who died for their faith, often violently, at the hands of Roman rule. Thus Saint Paul, according to tradition beheaded in Rome, and St. Peter, crucified upside down, both during Nero’s persecutions. Still later, sainthood was recognized in those who separated themselves from the world to lead lives of purity in the desert, like Saint Anthony, who ironically became one of the most powerful advisors to political rulers as a result of his dedication to a reality larger than the world of power. Still later, sainthood recognized moral leaders and model Christians in monastic and religious orders, during which time women such as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen were increasingly considered saints.

It is helpful to name people whose actions have inspired and formed us in faith, borne witness to God’s just peace in the world and who demand that we stay open to the movement of God’s spirit.  The church of the middle ages believed “to read aloud a saint’s life is a form of prayer.”

I would like to share some reflections with you upon the lives of saints past and present that have impacted me.  And as we are not only celebrating All Saints’ Day but also Reformation Sunday today, it seems appropriate to define saint the way that the early church and John Calvin did:  as the community of the faithful.

The life of St. Francis of Assisi has always attracted me. His prayer of peace was one of the early prayers which I learned to love, and his Canticle of Creation, a hymn to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and even Sister Death, inspired my favorite hymn, “All Creatures Of Our God and King,” which was sung on my wedding day. Francis was a privileged youth prone to partying and pleasure, who found his life changed one day when, while he was riding through the countryside, he encountered a leper. Dismounting from his horse he shared his cloak with the leper, and then, inexplicably, or by divine influence, he kissed the leper’s diseased face. From this simple encounter, Francis began to shape his life around a whole new set of values, completely at odds with his family, his privilege and his world. When, after a lifetime of simple living, voluntary poverty, service to the sick and care for the beauty of creation, Francis lay dying, he said to his disciples, “I have done my part. Now you do yours.”

This is the message of all the saints’ lives. Their calling helps us understand our own calling to meet those around us and respond to the needs of our day. Saints make our faith relevant as they translate the meaning of our ancient gospel in fresh and transforming ways that change us and the world we live in.

Araminta Ross was born a slave in March 1822 in Madison, Maryland and beaten fiercely by the masters to whom she was hired out.  She sustained a severe head wound that caused her to have seizures and bouts of unconsciousness all her life.  A devout Christian she had vivid dreams from God. She rejected white interpretations of scripture that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Hebrew Bible’s stories of deliverance. In 1849 at the age of 27 she married and changed her name to Harriet Tubman.  She also escaped to freedom. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 establishing increased risks for escaped slaves. But Tubman sensed God calling her to return and help other slaves escape. She returned over and over again to help other slaves including members of her family walk to freedom following the North Star and using the network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad.  So infamous was her courage and her savvy, and so numerous were the slaves she helped escape, she was dubbed “Moses” by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.  Tubman explained that she consulted with God and trusted that God would keep her safe.  Despite various bounties put on her head by slaveholders, Harriet Tubman was never captured and neither were the escaped slaves she guided.  She wasn’t simply courageous – following her service in the Civil War, she spent a number of years in Auburn, NY caring for her aging parents.  And her quest for human freedom and dignity in this world continued as she became a key leader in the women’s suffrage movement. 

Saints live their faith and in so doing shape our world and our understanding of our world.  There are many other saints – ancient ones like St. Augustine who said “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O God” and who helped the early church define its relationship to the political powers of its day, famously saying, “”In the absence of justice, what is [political] sovereignty but organized brigandage?” 

Or Meister Eckhart the medieval German mystic who wrote “If the only prayer you ever learn to say is thank you, it would be enough.”

And more recently there are saints like Thomas Merton, who said “The Christian life – and especially the contemplative life – is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places.”

Or saints like Rachel Corrie, a senior at Evergreen State College in Washington State, who took a year off from school to travel to Gaza during 2003 to promote peace and international kinship.  She was killed in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer when she was standing or kneeling in front of a local Palestinian‘s home, thus acting as a human shield, attempting to prevent the IDF from demolishing the home.  Days before her death she explained during a television interview with the Middle East Broadcasting Company that what she was witnessing was a “systematic destruction of people’s ability to survive.”[1]  Saints speak truth to power, even risk or give their lives for the dignity and well-being of others.

But what of Presbyterian Saints?  By this I don’t mean giants like Calvin, but contemporary Presbyterians who have inspired us to faith.

I remember one of the first encounters that filled me with conviction and around which my life was forever changed. In 1986 I was attending a gathering of 5000 Presbyterian youth from around the country, and we filled our days with play, prayer, workshops, and worship – the rhythm of a balanced spiritual life. We entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest “Lap Sit,” and I had the sense that I was among a many of the Presbyterians who would be my peers in the church for the rest of my life. I was in exactly the place God wanted me to be at that moment.

One evening our worship was led by Benjamin Weir. Some of you may remember that Ben Weir was one of the seven persons kidnapped in 1984 and held hostage for 16 months by Islamic Jihad, which has now evolved into Hezbollah. He and his wife were Presbyterian missionaries in Lebanon when he was abducted off the streets of Beirut.  When I met him in 1986, he was the newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. He spoke to the gathering of youth about his experience in great detail, helping us to imagine the terror of his experience and the desperation of his captors. He explained how he placed his life in God’s hands throughout the experience, and how he was comforted by words of scripture he could remember and by the knowledge that his family, his congregation and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) were praying for him. And he prayed too.

And then he told us how he had been changed. He believed in peace more firmly than ever before. He explained that to respond to terrorism with violence was, yes, to speak a language the terrorist could understand, but that it was a language that failed to speak to the human being who was resorting to violence, to their own hopes and dreams which, he said, were little different than our own, and that to speak in violence was to speak in a language foreign to Christ. Back home, Ben continued to urge to church to work for justice on behalf of the Palestinians and the strengthening of the international community, rather than vengeance. And in that most difficult climate, he prayed for forgiveness for his captors and love for his enemies. He urged us, and urges us still, to practice forgiveness at all times and to commit ourselves to the Presbyterian Church’s Commitment to Peacemaking. The next day, after much prayer, I did just that, recording my words on a note card I carry to this day in my bible.

But a complete list of Presbyterian saints would also include folks with whom we have worshiped and from whom we have learned. Perhaps by now, each of you has evoked the memory of those who have inspired you. I would invite you in the next few moments, in which I will be quiet, to name them to yourself, thanking God for them and the way they have helped you find a way to live.


I think of Mrs. Peters, who would one day be my church school teacher and who had been my father’s church school teacher, whose knowledge of the bible and adept and persistent theological arguments convinced the Baptist pastor of my parent’s church to baptize me as an infant, despite the fact that the congregation they were attending at that time practiced adult believer’s baptism. I think of Mrs. Forbes who taught me Old Testament in church school. For some reason I always call to mind a student in the class showing us a magic trick. Mrs. Forbes talked about Jacob who tricked his father and brother, about Laban who tricked Jacob, and about God who was trickiest of all. She opened me to a more complex understanding of God and God’s sovereignty.

Once you start naming saints, they start multiplying. What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Rev. Fred Schuttlesworth?  Bishop Desmond Tutu?  Wangari Matthai?

Once we start naming saints we begin to see them everywhere. And that, of course, is the point.

For we are surrounding by so great a cloud of witnesses. Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.


[I wrote the following two paragraphs, but did not include them in the sermon as delivered. But the witness of Bob Brown touches on a scriptural theme present over the last couple of weeks in the lectionary – giving to God what belongs to God – and evokes my own early sense of being called to ministry. When I read Bob’s books in a church book group, I wanted to be able to think perceptively and speak courageously like Bob because I knew that such people serve God and God’s purpose, and such prophet/saints are needed in our day.]

Another Presbyterian saint is surely Robert McAfee Brown. When I was in high school, I read one of Bob Brown’s books in a church book group with my mom, which profoundly shaped my understanding of the church and suggested for the first time that God might be calling me into the ministry. The book, Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar, was about the political context of the church’s witness during the middle 1980’s. In the midst of a theological controversy within the Presbyterian Church (in which Bob was a pastor, teacher and political activist), the illegal actions of the U.S. government in Nicaragua, and the promotion of what was then known as the “Star Wars” Missile Shield, Bob spoke to me clearly about theological integrity in ministry and about a gospel with implications not just for individuals but for the whole world. Using the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” as his model, Bob wrote about what the church must say “yes” and “no” to, not only within the world around us, but within the church itself.

As a professor at Union Theological Seminary, Stanford, and the Pacific School of Religion, and through his many books, Robert McAfee Brown shaped a generation of pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As a leading figure in the ecumenical movement, he was the Protestant observer at Vatican II and produced not only a commentary of the proceedings but a popular book, The Spirit of Protestantism, articulating the distinctive contributions of the Protestant tradition. Always a champion of the Hebrew prophets, Bob helped introduce Latin American Liberation Theology to North American churches, not only as a movement to BE imitated, but as a challenge for us to develop a truly North American liberation movement of our own.


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