Vision of Peace

Isaiah 11: 1-10

One would think that the older I get, the more sermons and Bible studies I have under my belt, that the more routine, the more “been-there-done-that” response I might have to reading some of these same old Advent texts year after year after year. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are certain poems, certain phrases from favorite books, certain pieces of music, and yes, certain passages of Scripture that inspire me every time I read them. This passage from Isaiah 11 is one of them.

My dad is preaching on this same passage today and we were discussing it the other night.  He pointed out that this text isn’t as simple as it may seem.  When you consider the context, the world of the first writer of Isaiah, it becomes apparent that for him peace was far more than just a set of flowery symbols. Upon a closer reading, it becomes apparent that this text is an attempt to articulate God’s promise of peace. An abiding peace.  A peace that starts deep within our being and somehow finds its way into our words and actions.  Isaiah’s peace is that profound, lasting, sense of shalom that so many people, myself included, are longing to find, to feel, and to extend.

So… what was Isaiah’s world like?  Well, it was anything but peaceful. The Assyrian army had sliced their way through Isaiah’s native land of Palestine, leaving nothing but a trail of blood and agony.  He was living through what has been called the first holocaust of the Jews.  It occurred between 740 and 700 bce.  Five times during these 40 years the Assyrian army, the vast and superior Assyrian army, advanced on the hill country of Israel leaving behind death and destruction wherever it went. With no regard for anyone’s culture, with no regard for anyone’s religion, with no regard for anyone else’s life, they came, devouring everything and everyone in their path.  Over and over and over, the people of Isaiah’s Judah had been ravaged.  Like Syria today, the horrid sounds of war were ever familiar.  The cries of pain seldom ceased. Who could plant a field and have any hope that it would survive to the harvest?  Who could bear a child with a confidence that it would reach maturity?  It was a horrible forty years, those years in which Isaiah lived.[i]

With this as a backdrop, one might think Isaiah would pen and long and sorrowful lament. That he would wail and tear this clothing in despair. But he didn’t. Instead the prophet spoke, saying in essence: “Even though the world has become a living nightmare, even though there is no sign anywhere that peace will ever come, even though human greed and destructiveness are running rampant across our world, hear this:  The promise of God is more powerful than the destructiveness of humankind.” Let me say that again because it’s just as important today as it was in Isaiah’s time. “The promise of God is more powerful than the destructiveness of humanity!” The wolf shall dwell with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid. There’s no “maybe” in there.  These images that Isaiah used are meant to inspire us, to challenge us, to motivate us, to call us to action.  These are not passive words. Peace shall come!

The elephant in the room of course is the word “shall.”  How far off is this “shall”?  When will peace finally come? And when it does come, what will Isaiah’s peace really look like?   Well, as I pondered these questions this week, my mind wandered a bit.  It tends to do that.  But in my wandering I thought about a missing button on my coat. It turns out that if you’re going to sew a button on your coat, there are no shortcuts. I guarantee it. You must take the thread and put it through the eye of the needle; you need to tie it, the who thing, or it simply won’t work. There are no shortcuts. Believe me, I tried all the shortcuts. I tried using tape. I tried wads of tap, masking tape, two-sided tape, everlasting tape and none of them worked. And I tried glue. That didn’t work. When I put my button through the buttonhole, it fell off. There are no shortcuts when it comes to sewing on a button. Likewise, there are no shortcuts to God’s peace.

God isn’t going to do all the heavy lifting for us. Peace is the result of hard work, trial and error, and persistence. Beginning to find this sense of peace may mean putting your ego, your pre-judgments, your need to be right… aside. Remember, the promise of God, as articulated here by Isaiah, is more powerful than the destructiveness of humankind.

Father Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned and martyred by the Nazis in a Nazi death camp in 1945. He too was a firm believer in the power of God to overcome human destructiveness.  At the time of his arrest, December 1944, Father Delp didn’t lament his situation. Instead he wrote: “Advent is the time of promise, it is not yet the time of fulfillment. Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come.”[ii].

And this is where the witness of the church comes into play.  Sometimes coming to the realization that peace comes through compromise and conversation and not hateful words or violence takes a kind of dying to oneself.  Or at least a dying to one’s self-centered attitudes.  But once that happens, as Father Delp points out, “there shines the first mild light of fulfillment.” And maybe that’s the point of all this.  Maybe that’s the point of Advent.  Maybe that’s why this passage from Isaiah is so inspiring.

Just before the text we’ve been looking at, Isaiah says that God has cut down all the trees. Nothing left but stumps.  This is an image of the exile.  But, as we’ve seen so many times, God is steadfast and faithful.  And by God’s hand, a shoot arises from the dead stump.   The first mild light of fulfillment creeps across the horizon. When we, as individuals or as a community of faith, reach out to someone in need, we begin to catch a glimpse of this sunrise.  When we make loving God, loving our neighbor, loving our enemy, loving all of God’s people, not just those who are like us; when we love from the center of our being, the results can be amazing.

My friends, we are surrounded by all kinds of “stumps” but we can make a difference.     To extend Isaiah’s image, It’s God who causes the shoot to grow, but we can nurture it. Through our loving-kindness, we can bring a smile to a long-frozen face. With our resources, we can house, feed, clothe and vaccinate a child, who, reenergized by restored health and a hearty meal, begins to run and play.  We have the capacity to share the healing and wholeness that comes through a deep and committed faith, a healing faith that reaches out to an estranged person, inviting them to take that first step back into the church after years of hurt and absence. We can do this.

My dear friends, Advent is the invitation. It’s an invitation to share the love of Christ.  It’s an invitation look outward beyond our own interest.  It’s an invitation to be a living, breathing reflection of God’s grace. It’s an invitation to hope.  It’s an invitation to peace.

May it be so. Amen.

[i] Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery. Not Much but Enough for Me. A reflection on Isaiah 11. DayOne.org. 2010

[ii] Fr. Alfred Delp. Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings.                    Ignatius Press. 1944

It’s About Time

Isaiah: 40:1-11

Comfort O Comfort My People Isaiah tells us.  But where do we find this comfort? that’s the question we have before us today.  Where do we find comfort?  I don’t know, maybe comfort can come from a most unlikely source? Who here remembers Fred Rogers?  Mister Roger’s Neighborhood? Who watched Mister Rogers on PBS as a kid or, like me, watched it with all four of my children?  Come on, you can admit it…   Anyway, I bring up Mister Rogers today because he was a picture of comfort.  With his melodic voice and mild mannered ways, Mister Rogers would always begin the show… do you remember?   Yep, by putting on his tennis shoes and his sweater.  Brilliant.  Why? Fred was brilliant because he understood that shedding the clothing of the world, so to speak, and changing into that sweater subconsciously took his young viewers to a safe place. While in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood every child was invited first and foremost be comfortable. As she remembered the life of Fred at his memorial service, Teresa Heinz Kerry said of Rogers, “He never condescended, just invited us into his conversation. He spoke to us as the people we were, not as the people others wished we were[i]

What a beautiful thought this is as we enter the Season of Advent.  The season when we prepare for the coming of Christ into our hearts and lives once again. But Advent can be a stressful time. A hurried time.  A time of year when we may feel anything but comfortable. However, Walter Brueggemann, UCC theologian and Biblical scholar, provides us with a wonderful prescription if we’re feeling ‘discomforted’.  “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations,” he writes, “to consider our life afresh in light of the new gifts that God is about to give”[ii]

In other words, At the beginning of a new church year, we remember who is really in charge of everything, and set our hearts on being part of this One’s plan.  A plan that paints a very clear picture: while God is the One who brings this dream to reality, there’s work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.[iii]

Comfort O Comfort My People. Isaiah, Like Fred Rogers, is inviting us to shed the garments of the world; the stress of buying presents, preparing the meals and baking all those cookies. Perhaps you’re dreading the renewal of an uncomfortable family relationships?  But Advent is a time when we are invited to set all these things aside, and to just be.  The Anticipation of the Coming of the Christ-child gives us the opportunity us to rest into the comfort of knowing that God’s really in charge.

And when we set all the distractions aside, it’s clear that we are challenged to extend the hand of peace to all the ends of the earth.  Isaiah, as we look at the full width and depth of his work, is calling for us to loosen the grip on our swords and our instruments of war, and to take up the things of peace. We are called to participate in bringing God’s comfort to all people.

This is the first Sunday of Advent.  Today we lit the candle of hope. In the coming weeks, as we write our Christmas cards and sing Christmas carols, with their lovely messages of serenity, grace, and good wishes, my prayer is that we all will hear a call, deep in our souls, to pursue peace in our lives and in the world around us, not just to talk about it as if it were a sweet but unattainable idea. But instead, take real, concrete steps to heal division, alienation, and broken relationship in our family, our community, and the world, if we have the courage to do so. Beginning with just one step, one relationship, perhaps one apology or offer of peace, we need to believe that we can be part of, what Walt Whitman called a “beautiful peace.”[iv]

And it all begins with forgiveness; asking for forgiveness, forgiving ourselves and others. Fred Rogers once said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.” “…forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”[v]

Ya know, for me anyway, that quote sheds some new light on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.  How did the final line from the theme song go? “…won’t you be my neighbor?”

As people of faith, how can we live out Mister Roger’s question? How can we extend the hand of peace, of comfort, of hope, and ask people from other races or religions or cultural experiences to “…be our neighbor?”  How can we transcend our differences and learn to how to speak with one voice about the call to peace given to us by our Creator, who, loves each one of us? What can we share in common–our care for our children, for the earth, for the future–that brings us together in recognition that we, and our lives, belong to the same God and therefore find our common ground in peace, not war? How might we deepen our respect for one another? How might we listen to one another, and in the listening, hear the voice of the Still-Speaking God?

One final thought this morning. The great Christian thinker, Thomas Merton, once said, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed–but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”[vi] My friends, comfort finally makes its way into our lives when we acknowledge our own short-comings.  One of the biggest challenges to peace, to finding a sense of comfort, in our society today comes from all the finger pointing.  Facebook and Twitter are full of reasons and encouragement to hate the other guy. But the Bible is not.  Jesus clearly spoke out against injustice, we all know that, but the message behind his words always pointed us toward the hope that justice and peace and equality would become the norm of society. And for Christ’s hope to become a reality, we must roll that finger back in, and speak words of peace, words of reconciliation, words of forgiveness, words, like those uttered by Isaiah thousands of years ago, word of comfort.  Comfort O Comfort my people.  That’s my hope for all of you on this first Sunday of Advent. Amen.

 

[i] Vancheri, Barbara (May 4, 2003). Pittsburgh bids farewell to Fred Rogers with moving public tribute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved on January 9, 2011.

[ii] Brueggemann, Walter. Texts for Preaching Year A. www.ucc.org/sermonseeds. 2016

[iii] Matthews, Kathryn M. Learning Peace/God’s Path of Peace. www.ucc.org/sermonseeds. 2016

[iv] Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. (exact quote: “Peace is always beautiful.”)

[v] Ibid. Vancheri.

[vi] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Direction Press. 1961.

Rejoice Again?

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Rejoice. Really? We live with the threat of ISIS in the back of our minds every day. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are seeking asylum from the terrors of war in their own nation. We see Russia taking giant strides backward toward its Cold War philosophy of oppression. And on our own shores, we observe frightening gaps between blacks, whites, and Latinos, gaps of understanding being played out between people of color and law enforcement far too often.  And over the course of this past week, we’ve witnessed acts of hatred and violence against Muslim Americans, the LGBT community, and hate-filled voices of junior high school children, chanting “build the wall” as the Hispanic children cowered and cried.  There is an ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have nots in this country and around the globe. And beyond race or religion, we see widespread abuse of the vulnerable, both the very young and the very old. So, as enter this season of Thanksgiving, how in the world can I stand up here before you today and ask you to “rejoice”?

Well, I can answer that charge simply, with two names: Paul and Jesus. Paul and Jesus. You see, when Paul penned these words to the church in Philippi, he understood the kind of world we’re living in today. He knew that the Philippian church was facing division, persecution, they were at a crossroads, should we stand up to our oppressors or should we keep our head down and accept the status quo. Remember now, Paul wrote this letter while confined to a Roman prison cell under the sentence of death. He knew about bad times. But Paul was wise enough not to try and peddle empty hope or a Pollyannic type of religion to people who were too savvy to swallow it and too worn out and weary to waste time listening to fairy tales. Instead, in his dire situation, writing to people in their own, he said this: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” You have to understand, he was not writing about a sense of peace that denied the painful realities of life, but instead a peace that existed in the midst of them. It was a sense of peace that was not based on logic, but rather on relationship…not based on the environment around you, but rather on the friend beside you: a peace “that passes understanding–guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” who has been born to us, for us, to be with us in our difficult times.

Certainly, the principles of our Christian Faith do have the potential, if heard and embraced, to change the world. But, until the world begins to hear and embrace these truths and until it changes, there remains another kind of peace, one that surpasses understanding, one that is more personal than chaos or hatred or political division; one that gives us the strength to survive whatever the world throws our way.[i]

And it’s this type of peace that brings us back to the example of Paul. He lived into the peace that he preached. Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through God  who strengthens me.”

You see, we are not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens. Let me say that again because in order to find a sense of peace in a chaotic world, we must understand that we have a choice. We are free to choose how we will respond to adversity. And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I think it’s appropriate to look at another group of people who chose joy over lament.       The Pilgrims.

It was winter. It was a horrible time. The weather was cold and damp; the work was hard; the food supply was inadequate. We are told that at one time there were only five grains of corn per person per meal. It was called the “starving time,” with sickness and death all around them. Almost half the colony died during that first winter. I am sure many of them became demoralized and depressed and resentful, but some of them chose to focus on making the most of what they still had, rather than on all they had lost. They concentrated on the positives rather than the negatives, and that helped them make it through the bitter winter to better times.[ii]

My friends, we all have the choice of what we will maximize and what we will minimize, and the person who has learned to choose gratitude for the positive in the midst of the negative is far better equipped to cope with whatever comes, and to make the best of things in the worst of times.

But there is another situation in which we have to make a choice. We have to make a choice not only when we go through those difficult days, but also when we go through the good ones, when the harvest is bountiful.

After working long and hard on their farms during the Spring and Summer of that first year, the Pilgrims experienced a bountiful harvest with plenty of food. And once more, they had a choice to make. They could have said, “we’ve worked hard for it, and we deserve it.” But instead they chose to be grateful, and gathered on that first Thanksgiving to give thanks to God for the rich harvest.

And that choice is ours too. Today is Stewardship Sunday. That uncomfortable time when we talk about the finances of the church. The time when I stand up here and invite you to challenge yourself to increase your giving by 1, 2, or 3.6%.  3.6 because that’s the increase in our budget this year.  But I’m not going to do that… wait… I guess I already did. Sorry. But anyway, instead of browbeating you about giving, I want to take a little different tact today.  I want to talk about “gratitude” instead of “stewardship.” Maybe we should call this day “Gratitude Sunday.”  Because isn’t that really what we’re talking about here, gratitude? Isn’t our giving to the church, the giving of our time and our talent, of our presence and our prayers, along with our financial gifts, come from a place of gratitude?    A gratitude that is lived out in the presence of the Living and Still-Speaking God.

And in that same realm, we have so much to be grateful for and celebrate today!  We as a congregation are doing a wonderful job of both meeting our budget and participating in the mission and ministry of Christ.  We do this by reaching into our local community using our time, talent, and treasure to improve the lives of people who live near us and by reaching out with a hand of compassion across the globe touching the lives of people we will never know personally.  That’s our calling.  That’s what it means to BE church!  And that’s what lies at the very core, the very heart, it’s the very essence of Paul’s Joy!  He said to the ancient church “let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. Don’t worry about anything but instead be grateful. My friends, these words ring just as true today as they did all those many years ago. Even in these difficult times, God is near!  And God’s peace, a peace that Paul says “surpasses all understanding”, will guard our heart and our minds in Christ Jesus. And he implores us, he appeals to us, to continue this positive wave we are riding. He says, “keep on doing the things you have learned and have received and heard and seen in me!” and here’s the best part, here’s the goodie… “the God of Peace will be with you.”

My friends, we can face this winter of discontent with rejoicing in our hears because God is with us. And we can respond to God’s unceasing presence by continuing to show our gratitude by loving God, by loving our neighbor, by loving our enemy, by loving the one whose different, by loving all of creation, the land, trees, and animals. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, this Gratitude Sunday, and on into the weeks and months to come, may we all experience the God of Peace. And may a prayer cross our lips, a prayer that echoes across this land and resonates deep within our hearts; a prayer that says:”Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” May it be so. Amen & amen.

[i] Rev. Dr. Michel Brown.  Peace Amid Bedlam. DayOne.org 2015

[ii] The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg. It’s your Choice. DayOne.org 1996

Infinite Possibilities

Wow… What a week…Whether you have a renewed sense of hope this morning (this evening) OR you’re lamenting the outcome of the election, one thing that none of us can deny is that things are about to change. And the one constants about change is that it produces fear.  Even if you think the coming change is for the better, it can still propagate fear.  That’s just the nature of change.

And fear, real, paralyzing, deep down, tie-your-stomach-in-knots fear gripped the people of Judah. A this text that we have before us takes place during a time of great change. Judah’s oppressors, the Babylonian Empire, the ones who seventy years earlier had sent them into exile, was now falling apart. The Empire, embroiled in greed and refusing to care of the most vulnerable among them, had become weak, so it was self-destructing.  One can make an argument, as Jesus demonstrates over and over again in the gospels, that a society who neglects the poor, the outcast, refuses hospitality to the alien, is a society that will ultimately fail. And many, many years before Jesus, Isaiah speaks directly to this point and about Babylon when he says, “the former things have passed away and they shall not be remembered or come to mind.” And the real world result of all this is that Judah suddenly found itself free from oppression and free to return to their homeland. So, all should be “just ducky” right? Well not exactly. You see, after the liberation, after the celebration, after the dancing in the streets, they had one of those “Oh My God” moments. You know what I’m talking about? OMG. We wanted change, we got change, but now we have to actually live with or into that change.  The very change they longed for was the very thing that scared them to death.

Now, if you’ve ever been hiking, especially in the mountains, you can relate to this. You see that ridge or that hilltop up ahead and say, “If I can just get to the top of that, I’ll have a spectacular view of all that lies before me.” So you haul yourself up, and what do you see? A beautiful view.  Yes. But beyond that… more trail, another hill, a long way to go.

But it’s from that hilltop that Isaiah pointed out to his people that their journey was just beginning. They cringed with fear at the prospect of actually starting over again in their homeland.  But Isaiah, in true prophetic fashion, helped them to see the larger picture.  A picture that lies beyond politics or even history itself. He offered them a vision of a peaceful future, a hopeful future, hope-filled future.  And he does this using a beautiful image.  The image of the wolf and the lamb feeding out of the same trough, as if to say to his people and to all nations: you don’t have to crush your enemies to get to the new Jerusalem. Annihilation need not precede redemption. Winning does not constitute the sign of God’s favor, but rather reconciliation does. If anyone is in Christ, that is the new creation: the old has passed away; and behold, the new is come.

And this new creation that Isaiah talks about isn’t some flowery prognostication of some future reality. Prophets weren’t fortunetellers as their often mischaracterized. Isaiah, and all the Biblical prophets for that matter, were speaking to their people in a particular place and during a particular period of history.  It just so happens however, that those prophetic words still have power and meaning for us in this place and time. Isaiah wanted his people to know, he wanted them to feel, the hope that comes with having a faith in God. And Christ brings this same faithful hope into our world as well. What does this hope look like? It’s a hope that reconciliation might take place.  It’s a hope that Peace will finally prevail. It’s a hope that this image of a “new creation” that Isaiah uses will become a reality of Justice and Equality for all people.

And maybe that’s finally our take-away from the circumstance we find ourselves in today. Hope. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” At this moment in time, it may seem like hope is molting.  But make no mistake, those feathers will grow back and they will grow back stronger, more colorful, more vibrant than ever before. Hope gives us infinite possibilities. Infinite possibilities if we are willing to come together, work together, for the greater good. Yes, there is much that divides us as a country and a people. But there are so many more things that unite us. All of us: all races, all colors, all lifestyles, all political perspectives. And as we face this new reality, this change that happening in our nation, we have the opportunity to face it together. Will we disagree on somethings? Of course we will. But, my friends, that’s our strength. Our strength is in our diversity. Our strength is in hearing other voices, considering their perspective, and coming to compromise. But, most of all, our strength is in our faith in the Living God. The ever-present God. The God whose Still-Speaking in the world today.

There’s one final thing I’d like to share with you this morning (this evening) And it’s the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. In his famous “I’ve been the mountaintop sermon” They are so relevant once again this week.  King said: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land![i]

May it be so.

Amen


 

Christopher R. Seitz. Isaiah 40-66. The New Interpreter’s Bible Old Testament Survey. Abington Press. 2005.

Richard Lischer.  Your Future Is Too Small. Reflection on Isaiah 64-65. faithandleadership.com 2010.

New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (NRSV)

[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech full version. Huffingtonpost.com

 

The Great Cloud

The story is told of two brothers who were rich but very wicked. They were just awful. They were miserly when it came to their money, they were mean to the village’s children, they were verbally abused to, well, everyone. But these two wicked brothers did have one redeeming quality, well, sort of, they were members of the local church. But one of the brothers suddenly died and the pastor, as you might expect, was asked to preach his funeral. But on the day before the funeral the surviving brother went to see the pastor with a proposal. He said, “I will give $100,000 to the church on one condition. During my brother’s funeral you have to tell everyone that he was a saint. Now, the pastor knew the church needed the money but he didn’t want to lie. How he could make such an outlandish statement? Well, the next day everyone in town turned up for this funeral because word had gotten out about the hundred thousand dollars and everyone wanted to see what the pastor was going to do. Would he lie to get the money? Would he tell the truth about his awful man? Well, after a short prayer and a familiar hymn the moment of truth was upon them. Time for the sermon. Everyone moved to the edge of their seat as the pastor began. “This man was an ungodly sinner, wicked to the core, he was mean as a snake, but, compared to his brother he was a saint.”

Today is All Saints Sunday the day we celebrate the saints of the church. But why is this important? Well, first a little history. All Saints Day itself came into being in the year 835 when Pope Gregory IV established November 1 as a special day to honor all the saints of the church, those who have gone before us, the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” as we often call them. Over the course of history however, the word “saint” became associated with the great heroes of our faith. Especially in Catholicism, those canonized for sainthood were lifted up because they either had a remarkable experience of God or they were an extraordinary leader in the Church. And I think it’s important for us in the Protestant tradition to recognize and honor this understanding of “saints” as well. Obviously, we don’t use the saints as intercessors; we don’t pray to them. But we can learn from their lives and from their experiences of God.

Now, that being said, in our church today we don’t just think of saints as  people who were extraordinarily holy. As a matter of fact, sainthood, for us, has little to do with being good or somehow set apart.  Instead, we remember the “Communion of Saints,” which is simply every person who has died surrounded by love and grace of God.

And I would say both understandings are fine. But what if we were to broaden them a bit?  What if we were to view the label “saint” as a vehicle for uniting?  What if our definition of “saint” not only connected us with our deceased forebears from years past, but with our living sisters and brothers around the world as well? Do you see what I’m getting at here? If we are indeed the saints of the church, all of us, present as well as past, then why not embrace one another, sharing what unites us over and above that which divides us?

So, what is it that unites us.  Not just Christians but all people of faith?  You know, there’s a story from the Buddhist tradition that may help us out here. It seems that there was a young man who wanted to discover the way to truth, goodness and salvation. So the young man came to The Buddha and asked to be shown the way to salvation. The Buddha agreed and took the young man down to the river.  Once there, he took the young man out into the middle where it was waist deep. The Buddha then took the young man by the back of the neck and pushed his head under water. The young man thought, “Awesome! I am being baptized by the Buddha” But the Buddha didn’t let him up. He held the young man’s head under the water for a long time. The Young man began to struggle and tried to push his head up, but the Buddha used his second arm and hand to keep the struggling man under water. But just as the young man was about to drown, the Buddha let him up. The young man, frightened and confused coughed out the words, “Master Buddha, why did you do that?”  The Buddha replied, “When you thought that you were drowning, what did you desire most?” The young man answered, “Air.” “When you crave God’s goodness and wholeness as much as you craved air,” the Buddha said, “you will find it.”

“When you crave God’s goodness and wholeness as much as you crave air you will find it.”

And the same is true for you and I. People of faith can rally around some basic understandings of what it means to be a part of this global community. And particularly within our Christian tradition, what it means to be a part of the on-going march of the communion of saints. My friends, when there’s a craving inside of us for justice, for equality, for peace; that’s saintly. When there’s an overwhelming desire for the poor in this country and those living in poverty ridden countries around the world to be fed and clothed, and provided with clean drinking water and quality medical care; that’s saintly.  When there’s a craving inside you to see every child and every person given an equal opportunity to excel, regardless of social standing or national origin, or race, or sexual identity, or whatever; to me that’s participating in the present and continuing Realm of God (and that too is saintly).  And when there’s a craving inside you to join with all people of faith, past and present, to speak up for voiceless, stand up for those who have been knocked down, and walk with those who have been outdistanced, even when these things are unpopular; that’s saintly. And on a more personal level, when there is a craving inside you to move a little closer to God through faith formation, devotion, and prayer; that’s saintly. And finally, when there’s a craving inside you for peace; that deep abiding peace that starts deep within you but soon leads you to actively join with other faithful people from around the globe, working toward that day when war isn’t tolerated and violence is overcome; that too, is indeed, saintly.

One final thought this morning on this idea of saints.  I alluded to it earlier but I want to be perfectly clear.  We are all, at the same time, both saints and sinners. To be a part of the “communion of saints” isn’t a mandate to be perfect. Not even close.  But what is required is a loving and compassionate heart, a bit of humility, and a mustard-seed-sized, or greater, faith in God. And, my dear friends, here’s the good news for today; the best news! We all have these things in abundance. Thanks be to God!  Amen.