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Citizens and Saints

November 2, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Stewardship Commitment / All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. This was also marked by the Presbyterian Church (USA) as Christian and Citizen Sunday (the Sunday nearest the election). A free four week devotional call Advocacy as Discipleship: A People Called to Witness is available from our Washington Office.

 Psalm 24     Hebrews 12:1

“We are humans – which mean we not only have problems but are problems.”

This is Wendell Berry, explaining why mechanical or technical solutions to the problems we face are at best insufficient and at worst dangerous. Since fully committing ourselves to anything, a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, requires something akin to love, Berry strips us of the illusion that what we need is more knowledge. But this is not a recommendation for ignorance. He writes,

our decisions can also be informed – our loves both limited and strengthened – by those patterns of value and restraint, principle and expectation, memory, familiarity, and understanding that, inwardly, add up to character and, outwardly, to culture. Because of these patterns, and only because of them, we are not alone in the bewilderments of the human condition and human love, but have the company and the comfort of the best of our kind, living and dead.

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Today is the All Saint’s Day. In worship we celebrate the great cloud of witnesses, and remember those who have inspired us. I’m grateful for Berry’s reminder that what we need in the church for character, culture and spiritual formation is the living examples of saints who have gone before us and the saints who surround us.

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 concrete settings of life: family, friendship, work, the economy and politics. Saints teach us to trust in the sovereignty of God, and inspire us to act together until 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 from the desert became one of the most powerful advisers 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, women whose visions and music inspired the church and underscored women’s leadership.

Remembering the early church’s designation of all baptized members living and dead as saints, I want to invite us as a congregation to think about who has inspired and formed us in our witness to God’s just peace in the world? Who are those saints who demand that we stay open to the movement of God’s spirit?  Right now, take a pink prayer slip from the pew holder and hang onto it. As I preach I invite you to think about who the saints are who have influenced our congregation’s life and witness. And following the sermon, write their name just their name, on that pink slip. And when the ushers collect prayer requests during the hymn, hand your slip (perhaps a long with a prayer request) to the usher, so that we may give thanks for them this morning.

When we think of saints we often think of today’s passage from Hebrews – that great cloud of witnesses that helps us run toward faith’s goal. But usually we think of this great cloud as comprised of people who have died, rather than those who are living. And we usually think of them as a cloud made up of individuals, rather than a cloud with common witness. Similarly, here on earth, we tend to think of individuals not groups who shape our faith.

Recently someone asked me why Presbyterians have not generated social or communal movements such as our Catholic siblings have, both within and without the church. For example, why don’t we have a Presbyterian Dorothy Day and hundreds of Presbyterian Worker Houses? Why aren’t there dozens of alternative communities shaped by particular understandings of the gospel? Why not modern “Calvinists,” like the modern Franciscans, committed to communal lives of simplicity, study and peace?

Upon reflection, I think part of the answer lies with our understanding of CONSCIENCE. The responsibility of exercising one’s own and respecting another’s conscience has been written into our church constitution for over 200 years, and is an inheritance of our much misunderstood Calvinist and Puritan past.  The following, for example, was adopted in 1788 by the first Presbyterian General Assembly in this country.

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of [men] which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.

The Roman Catholic Church appropriates difference and dissent by making room within its structure for alternative, bodies with particular understandings of the gospel: monks and mendicants in the middle ages, Catholic Workers today. The responsibilities and contours of conscience are, if you will, lodged with these bodies. But Reformed Christians have always located conscience (for good and for ill) with the individual. We believe the spirit moves and is discerned within the church through the DEMOCRATIC PARTICIPATION of our people exercising their individual conscience. And this process is often contentious and noisy and never as clear as we would like it to be. But we must also consider how carefully and intentionally our ancestors nurtured a fragile democratic culture using the more identifiable Christian practices of hospitality, forgiveness, prayer, humility. It is one of our Reformed traditions greatest gifts not only to ourselves but to our nation and our world: individual conscience wedded to democratic deliberation.

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Do you remember a time here in this congregation when an individual stood up and spoke out on a matter of conscience? How did that shape the church? And when have you seen our congregation bring its members together in a deliberate, democratic process – at council perhaps, or maybe even during a congregational meeting — to discuss important issues or make important decisions?

But if individual conscience and democracy suggest why Presbyterians have not fostered alternative movements within the church, our understanding of public CITIZENSHIP may suggest why we have not historically been identified with alternative communal movements in society. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Reformed Christians both nurtured and promoted the modern idea of citizenship. One cannot read John Calvin or the early puritan revolutionaries without seeing that they had no interest in creating alternative societies, like the Amish for example, because they were dead set on transforming whole nations through the agency of a mobilized citizenry. Presbyterians simply brought their scripture-shaped consciences into public life and set out to change everything. Back in the 60s, Princeton University political scientist Michael Walzer traced the origin of radical politics to the conscience of the Calvinist citizen, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson has recently updated this story in her particularly fine essay on Margaret of Navarre. Reformed Christians have long reveled in King George’s labeling the American Revolution the “Presbyterian Rebellion” (a quarter of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians!) and cherished the idea that our church polity gave shape to the U.S. Constitution.

On this all saints day, we remember that saints are those people who have helped form our faith – some are living, some are now part of the great cloud of witnesses. Some of these people we have met, others, we know only through the witness of others. Who are the saints who have shaped our congregation’s faith? And what have they taught you? How have they inspired you? For what ends have they summoned you to strive?

Take a moment and think of someone you know or someone whose legacy has influence the life and witness of this congregation. These are our saints. And for them we give thanks.

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