"I Mean to be One, Too"
A 2011 Sermon for All Saints Sunday
on I John 3:1-3 and Matthew 5:1-12
"Praise him, praise him, all you little children: God is love, God is love!" (2X) That's a little song my mother taught us kids when we were growing up. The words come from St. John's first epistle or letter to the church, now one of the lessons appointed for this All Saints' Sunday, here at All Saints' Church and churches everywhere. I believe that, in heaven, if not on earth, all the angels, all the saints and all the children of God sing about God's love. It's never too late to sing a song about God's love, especially God's love for all the saints - all those of blessed memory who have gone before us and those who will come after us. On a Baptism day, especially on this festive All Saints' Sunday, we are most aware of God's love for all the sainted children of God.], especially the ones made "officially Christian" today.
All you mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents in the front pews, listen up! Your grandchildren, your sons and daughters, these sisters and brothers of yours - all of [them will become saints today! Today, they will be made holy! They will be blessed - washed with sacred water, anointed with holy oil. They will become saints among us. Someday, as that grand old children's hymn [we just sang] suggests, one of them may grow up to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a caregiver of some other kind. One might become a soldier, or a priest, or an artist, a scientist, a technology wizard. Friends, some of these children of God will end up talking to us from the other side of the Genius Bar. But all of them will grow up to be women and men, who, in ways we and even they may never understand, are called to serve God, country, humanity. No matter what their occupation may be, God will certainly occupy them with something.
Who knows what they will do with their lives, these beloved children, when they are "all grown up?" We really don't have a clue. What we do know is that God loves each any every one of them, today and forever, because they are saintly children, who do not belong just to us. These children belong also to God. And God is love, God is love.
What about us? Are you and I still God's children? Do we still belong to God? That great saint of the Reformation, Martin Luther, said Christians are simul iustus et peccator, both saint and sinner, simultaneously, all mixed up together. Yes, every grownup here today is a sinner. Each of us adults came here today, having made something of a mess of the mark of love God in Christ makes on us in Baptism and countless other times in our lives. As Bishop Eugene Sutton recently reminded some priests he gathered together, none of us is a perfect saint. "No exceptions," he said. Each of us here today is imperfect, a sinner, and yet, each of us is also a saint. How is that paradox possible?
The church has taught for 2,000 years about our simultaneously-sinner-and-saint status. When we were born, each of us was made, as God's children, in the image of God. Then, sin happened. And happens. And happens. Whether it takes a few seconds or a few days, each of us will leave this sacred place and space here today and eventually, we will fail to receive in full the unconditional love, grace and mercy of God. Each of us will struggle, our whole lives long, to grow up, from God's image into God's likeness. We will struggle through our sin as we seek more and more to be like God.
Christians believe Jesus is the perfect image and likeness of God. So, imperfect as we are, who are we to try and follow Jesus? The thing is that, even Jesus, being human, needed to grow up, like us, into God's likeness. Over the course of his lifetime, Jesus changed and grew. God calls each of us to do the same. To become God's adult, mature children, we must surrender to and depend on God to help us grow. Spiritual growth means that, during our lifetimes, we will be called by God, over and over again, to change, to be formed and transformed by the love of our God.
Some of you have come here today with a deep sense of gratitude for where God is in your life. Some of you are even filled with childlike joy! But some of you have also come here today weighed down with suffering. You may have lost a good job, a precious home, a beloved person. You may be wondering where the next meal is coming from or worrying about how to pay the bill that just arrived. You may be sick and tired of being sick and tired, weary to the bones of your life and all its challenges. In a little while six newly baptized ones will begin a new chapter of life as saints of God and God's beloved children. But what about us? Once we have grown into manhood or womanhood, do we still belong to God? Do we still feel like we are "beloved, God's children, now"? Even though we may mean or even long to be saints of God, I wonder: how's that "working" for you?
Today, as we recall with joy and love those Christians whose lives were in some way saintly models for us, I'm thinking of some of the more recent saints of All Saints'. There's St. Bruce Jones, a lover of fine fellowship, who would surely have enjoyed yesterday's Fall Fest, because he knew how to taste and see that the Lord is good. And there's St. Paul Wisner, who showed us something about stewardship, when he gave his entire estate to this parish church. I'm also thinking about the saints in my own life, like Saints Charles and Laura Voller, my godparents, and St. David Thompson, who taught me how to be an acolyte. And I'm thinking about my mother, Betty, who sang songs to me in my childhood and to whom I sang a song just before she died: Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' to carry me home . . .
These saints and so many others model for us what it means to follow Jesus and to love God and one another. The saints remind us of God's call to us, here and now, to live our own lives of love, with God's help. Sisters and brothers, do listen for that line in the Baptismal vows we will renew shortly: I will, with God's help. We cannot love as Jesus loves, we cannot be the saints God calls us to be, without first receiving that love and that help to love from God.
Let me tell you two brief stories. First, Christians have claimed for 2,000 years to be people who love each other. St. Tertullian wrote in the 2nd century that the Christians' deeds of love were so noble, the pagan world confessed in astonishment, "See how they love one another!" This was the love of God, flowing through those earliest Christians to their friends, families and neighbors. But just how did they do with loving the strangers in their midst? And what about the people who felt to them like their enemies? Did they love their enemies as much as they loved their friends?
Despite the passage of nineteen centuries I suspect that they and we are not so different, when it comes to love. Sometimes, it's easier to love the stranger than to love the friend who has upset you, because you will probably see your friend again. Sometimes, it's easier to love the person who feels like an enemy than to love the family member who has hurt you so deeply, that you actually become like enemies to each other. The problem with our beloveds is that we know them and they know us all too well. The song title that speaks to this truth is, "You Always Hurt The One You Love." There are some people in our lives that we would never choose to be part of our family or church, but here they are. And we don't like them. And we may wish they would just go away.
Here's the second story: A few weeks before the death of our own St. Nancy Little, I visited her at her home. When I got ready to leave, she said, "You know, when you first came to All Saints', I didn't like you very much." I thought, "Good for you, Nancy! FINALLY, you've told me YOUR truth." We talked a bit about the kinds of things that made it difficult for her to like, let alone love someone like me, so very different from the other clergy she had known. Before I left, she told me she was praying for me, and she kissed me on the cheek. And I loved her for loving me.
Saints show us how to love and to live lives so loving that the world says, "See how they love one another!" To be a church, to become a true Christian community, is to live a life that is counter-cultural, to live a life that challenges the status quo, a life like Jesus and all the saints have lived. To be saintly, to be blessed, Jesus says, is to mourn our losses, trusting the Spirit of God, the Holy Comforter will indeed comfort us. To be saintly and blessed is to hunger and thirst for righteousness, trusting God will fill the emptiness in our souls. To be saintly and blessed is to be pure in heart, like children who have just been baptized, so that we, like them, can actually see God at work in the world and in the Church - even here, even now.
As we become who we are, beloved children of God, we will become, more and more, the saintly children our God keeps calling us to be. You see, to be a Christian, to be a saint is to never stop being and becoming a child of God. Whether we become a doctor, soldier, priest or genius, God has a second occupation in mind for all of us. Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount and is still teaching us that, as we grow up, God keeps trying to occupy us with the ways of making peace. A peacemaker is a child of God and a lover of souls, no matter how imperfect those souls are. A peacemaker is a child of God who loves both friends and enemies, no matter how much they may dislike one another. A peacemaker is a child of God who is both saint and sinner, who loves both saints and sinners, all at the same time.
It's not always easy being a saint, being God's beloved child. It's not always easy being a lover of souls. And yet, I want to be a saint. How about you? Do you want to be a saint, someone whose love is something someone will notice? I want to be a saint, like Bonnie June and Hannah Marie and Ava McCrea and Reagan Lynn and Alexander Joseph and Nathan Daniel. For the saints of God are just folk like them, like you, like me, and "I mean to be one, too."
It's never too late to sing about God's love. Love him, love him, all you little children, God is love, God is love.