The Habits of the Saints (Text is Luke 6:20-31)
A sermon preached at the Sunday Assembly of Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI, on the Feast of All Saints/All Souls, Sunday, November 3, 2019
I bring you greetings from the good people of the congregation of Hanapepe United Church of Christ on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where I serve as the part time intentional interim minister. I came home this past Tuesday just in time for a Wisconsin Halloween snowstorm. I will be returning to Kauai in January and choosing between a Wisconsin winter and perpetual summer is not hard to call. As a number of jealous ministry friends have said, “It’s a tough job, but I guess someone has to do it.”
Speaking of tough jobs, you may be a tough audience given all the goodies out there in the lobby at today’s Holiday Fest. So onward!
I grew up in the Methodism of a small town in the rural Midwest. As such, our liturgical calendar basically consisted of Christmas and Easter. There was no Advent, no Epiphany, no Lent to speak of, no Holy Week really, just a straight shot from Palm Sunday to Easter, no Ascension, no Pentecost, and most certainly no All Saints Day! I mean, how Romish! How papist!
Somehow in spite of that ecclesiastical sparseness, a call to ministry got through to me, and upon completion of college, I headed off to seminary. It was 1971, the heyday of ecumenism. While I was a Methodist – well, United Methodist by then – I chose a Presbyterian theological seminary that was part of a small university. But what made it unique was that my school was part of a four school consortium that included a Lutheran seminary, a Roman Catholic (aka Dominican) school of theology, and a secular state university school of religion. Three of the four schools were in the same city, and in fact my seminary, the Presbyterian one, actually shared facilities with the Roman Catholic school in their Priory. Well, needless to say, the world of worship exploded for me. All of a sudden we Methodists had a liturgical calendar and a lectionary, thanks to something called Vatican II. And with all that came days in the year like All Saints!
I found myself in a worship class being taught by a Dominican liturgical scholar and there, of all places, I discovered that the rebellious Anglican priest John Wesley, who was responsible for the Methodist movement, was much in love with All Saints Day. Why didn’t we Methodists know that? Wesley called it “a day of solemn joy,” an odd pairing of words, don’t you think? Anyway, Wesley took great comfort in All Saints. And I turned a research paper I wrote for the class on Wesley and All Saints into a published article in a Methodist journal. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I too fell in love with All Saints. Over the course of my years as a Methodist minister, I worked to introduce All Saints into the churches I was appointed to serve. With mixed results I might add. Methodists can be very Low Church! But in a few places the annual observance took hold, as in my first parish appointment out of seminary in rural northeastern Iowa.
So when I learned that I’d been assigned to bring an All Saints homily here today at Sunday Assembly, I was very pleased. Now my hope and prayer is that you will find our worship experience this morning, including this homily, equally pleasing – pleasing to God who gifts us the lives of the saints, and pleasing to our spirits, for as Fred Pratt Green has written in a wonderful hymn, “Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days; a world without saints forgets how to praise.”
Like Wesley’s “solemn joy,” Green’s phrase is an interesting one: “a world without saints forgets how to praise.” I think they are both right. Without the witness of the saints of God who have walked ahead of us in faith, we do indeed run the danger of just plain forgetting who we are and whose we are!
By the example of the saints, their humility and, yes, their habits, that we are informed and shaped. As an All Saints prayer writer pens it so well, the saints “wear our human frailties with the dignity and resolve of those who are the earthly cradles of the nature of God.” (Week 53: True Humanity, A GUIDE TO PRAYER FOR ALL GOD’S PEOPLE)
Let me say a bit more about this. All saints have habits. Some are good habits. Some not so much. But today instead of listing habits in columns we might label “good” or “bad,” let’s focus on an everyday chore instead as an example, like doing the laundry, and let that teach us something about the saints of God.
My late, mother, a saint if there ever was one, did our family’s laundry. OK, I grew up in the 50s and 60s and few moms then didn’t do the family laundry. But I doubt it was on her list of favorite things to do. The basement was dark and damp. The washing machine was an old wringer type. It was a lot of work. But she never complained from what I can remember. I assume she had a system for doing the laundry, and that system made sense to her.
Later we got an automatic washer, but at first we had no dryer. Mom said we had a perfectly good clothesline in the back yard. It made no sense to her to spend money on hot air.
When I headed off to college in another state, Mom gave me laundry lessons, and ironing tips, too. And she told me, don’t be bringing home your dirty laundry when you’re here on a weekend. Why would I want to be spending my time doing that, she asked rhetorically. So I learned to visit the Laundromat, usually with roommates.
My sister was also in college when I was, and she too had received the same teaching and had witnesses the same system concerning laundry. But one weekend when I visited her campus and we ended up in a Laundromat doing her laundry, I discovered her laundry habits were nothing like mine. She presorted and used a couple of machines. I crammed everything into one pillow case and dumped it all in one machine.
When my husband and I got together 20 years ago, apparently his mother’s lessons were sort of like mine…except for how to fold things out of the dryer. We each had our own methods and techniques, he taught by his mother, and me by mine. Now two decades out into the relationship, we’ve pretty much learned each other’s techniques, but it wasn’t easy.
Ok, enough about laundry habits, except to say, why oh why didn’t my college Laundromat have a bar in it like they do today on campuses? College would have been a wholly different experience.
My point here is this – we all have habits. Our habits are all different. Some are unique. Some are quirky. We have laundry habits because we all do laundry. And if you have never done laundry, well then you have other habits: driving habits, dressing habits, work habits, and yes, even faith habits.
We have faith habits because we are people who “practice” (note the word!), who practice faith. Some of our habits are corporate in nature, like this worship service, like baptism and communion. Other habits are more personal: morning or evening devotions, Bible reading and study, singing songs and hymns in the tub or shower, and praying for people as we go about our day.
Faith habits are something Jesus observed quite often. The beatitudes we heard today from Luke are taken from Jesus’ sermon on the plain – that’s right, on the plain. No mountain here as in Matthew. Makes no difference. The beatitudes read like a laundry list where lights, darks, and colors need some attention. Jesus is found addressing people who look all washed up and have no hope.
Our faith habits give us away. In today’s Gospel reading we are given a summary of what Jesus observed from his early ministry. Jesus says the poor in spirit are being neglected. He tells the crowd these are people who long to hear a good word from God. Jesus says he sees mourners not being comforted. He sees the strong and the able keeping their distance from the meek and the weak ones. He has even overheard a rich man, during prayer time, thanking God that he wasn’t like a beggar.
The Beatitudes are for people like you and me whose faith habits at times can be quite dull, whose lives need a little boost to intensify the uniqueness of our colors. Jesus addresses people of ordinary faith habits and encourages them to take heart.
Today we remember and honor persons who have taught us to have faith, to trust God, and to expect God to bless us in whatever state of living we might find ourselves. In my own life these are parents who taught me quiet confidence, grandparents who taught me about stewardship, about giving off the top, first, not from the bottom, last; a Sunday school teacher who taught me to love to color, teachers and professors who opened up my mind, a husband who has seen me at my worst and loves me anyway, and dear friends and ministry colleagues who have been supportive listeners throughout challenging times. The recent letter we received from our Stewardship Committee also calls us to remember and honor those who lived out our ecumenical values and principles, the vision and faith of the sisters, all who have been part of this Sunday Assembly worshipping community, and all who, called to be the hands and feet of Christ, weave prayer and hospitality and justice and care for the earth into a shared way of life. Saints are those folk who help us as Kierkegaard suggested to live forward while understanding backwards.
All of these folks had or have habits of faith. In the words of Christina Rossetti, all these people, these saints, teach us the “grace to walk before God as they walked.” Or as David Edwards puts it in a wonderful hymn, “Some there are who by their living lift us to a higher plane…Some there are who by their loving lead us far beyond our fears…Some there are who by their dying draw us closer to the Light…Thanks to God for those inviting us to live more faithfully! Thanks to God for those who show us richer lives of charity! Thanks for those we see no longer, but who mem’ries in us lie! Thanks to God for those who teach us how to live and how to die!”
Yes, thanks be to God for the habits of the saints. For people like them, in my life and yours, we praise God today, because truly a world without these saints would forget how to praise.