(A sermon for All Saints Sunday/Proper 26B Mark 12:28-34 November 1, 2009)
If you want to confuse a little Baptist girl, send her to a school named after a saint.
I spent six years studying at St. Agnes School, hearing the story of our saint. She was a young Roman girl, they told us, from a Christian family in the nobility. In just a few short years, Christianity would become the state religion, but not in time for Agnes. The Governor’s son wanted to marry her, but he was not a believer, and she said no. The Governor himself tried to convince her, first by promising gifts and later by means not generally described to girls in the Lower School, but she continued to resist, saying she was promised to Jesus Christ. She met her death joyfully, beheaded by a sword stroke. She was thirteen years old.
We saw her pictured holding a lamb, a girl with a radiant face, a reminder that even a very young woman could be brave and faithful and pleasing to God.
But despite the efforts of the school to set Agnes up as an example, her story and those of all the other saints seemed far away, mythical, not related to us exactly. After all, we didn’t live in a time when 13 year old girls got proposals from the sons of Governors and were executed for saying no.
It’s hard to relate to a legend.
Really, I didn’t “believe” in saints. They fell outside my practices. Praying to them seemed superstitious to me. When I left St. Agnes School, they became nothing more to me than stained glass images in churches, people who must have been too good to be true.
And I think that may be one of the problems with saints. Whether we “believe” in them or not, which is to say, whether we make the veneration of saints part of our religious practice or not, we’re inclined to think they are beyond the norm. Whether they were ancient martyrs or medieval miracle-workers, they seem too perfect to be people. Their goodness may seem to put them out of reach. We don’t know them as whole people but as works of spiritual art.
I didn’t believe in saints, in the sense of going to a church where I prayed to them, but I read about them, in a book in the school library. They fascinated me the same way King Arthur and his cohorts did, and their stories came to be in similar ways. People built their legends and created their images out of a hunger to believe in untainted goodness. As stories of saints were passed down, they became more detailed and more dramatic, to encourage ordinary people to be brave when facing more everyday temptations and difficulties.
In our Congregational tradition, we have a broader understanding of being a saint. We speak of the saints of the church, and we don’t simply mean St. Peter and St. Paul. We mean the people who keep the spirit of God alive in our own time and place. And I would like to think that a person who carries a spirit of God’s love in the world, despite being human and less than perfect, can mean just as much to others as the saints in ancient tales. They are the people who bless the name of Jesus, forever, or for as long as we continue to share their stories.
We all have our saints of memory, the people whose goodness and kindness and faithfulness exemplified just what Jesus spoke about in our story from Mark’s gospel. In it, Jesus lays the foundation for a faithful life, whenever and wherever we live.
A scribe questions Jesus, and while many of the questions asked by scribes and Pharisees were intended to trick him, this one seems to have been sincere. Which is the first commandment, he asks? What is the most important thing for us to do? Who are we supposed to be as faithful people?
Jesus responds to him with the familiar words of the ancient Hebrew prayer called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
That’s the first thing we are to do, the first thing we need to know and understand.
It’s a message Agnes got, all those years ago, before anyone called her a saint.
And “The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe agrees with him; there are no commandments about religious practices or the making of sacrifices that outweigh these two ideas. We are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There’s not much point following the other commandments if love does not motivate us, if love does not ground us and elevate us and press us toward goodness.
Jesus does a lot of bantering with scribes and Pharisees, giving them as good as he gets and even more, leaving them scratching their heads about his answers. But this time he meets someone from the other side who understands him, and he tells the scribe, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” The scribe understood the ultimate simplicity of our faith: to bring God’s kingdom near, by loving God and loving one another. In living a faithful life, we make sure the name of Jesus will be forever blessed.
In Confirmation class we’ve been studying the history of Christianity, and the clouds that hang from the balcony represent the cloud of witnesses, the saints that surround us as we gather on this All Saints Sunday. We asked the students to choose their own saints, and I hope you’ll all take a look at the names they chose. Most of them have gone on to their reward, though not all, reminding us that sainthood begins with the way we live. They range from Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Gandhi to President Obama and Mother Teresa and Bob Marley—NOT the comedian, they wanted you to know.
One special saint means more to young people in Yarmouth, and that’s Hanley Denning. It did not surprise me to see her name on more than one cloud. There won’t be any official action to declare her a saint, but we don’t need one to recognize the special nature of her life and work and to grieve for her loss and to celebrate all she did. Hanley’s life and work on behalf of others exemplify the gospel and call us to live a saint’s life, too.
The saints of my childhood were my grandmother, Emily Spong, and her best friend, Miss Margaret Johnston. They grew up in the same church, but because of their nine year age difference, they didn’t become friends until they were both young women, teaching Vacation Bible School together. I’ve seen the picture from that summer, taken on the front steps of Monumental Methodist Church. They would go on to work in education, both public and Christian, for the rest of their lives. Maggie, who never married, taught first grade, which seemed just right for a little lady who stood about 4’10” tall, but when she eventually became principal of the elementary school, we learned that height was no barrier to her attainments. My grandmother served on the city School Board and provided leadership during the tumultuous years leading to integration of the schools, while Maggie taught in one that the city later named after my grandmother.
But of all they did together, Maggie and Emily felt proudest of the call that came to them after the Second World War. As new neighborhoods were developed in our hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, the Methodists built new churches. Every church needed a Sunday School, and someone to get it started. Maggie and Emily became the Sunday School planters. They trained the teachers, prepared the classrooms and oversaw the operations until the new leaders could do things for themselves. Then they moved on to the next church. They didn’t do it for reward or renown, although the churches eventually gave them a pair of engraved silver plates as an award. They did it because they wanted the story of love to be shared. “Hear, O Portsmouth, you shall love the Lord your
God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
This lesson, learned as little children and taught to little children over and over again, formed their understanding that “Separate But Equal” could never really be equal.
We all have the potential to affect the world around us, but what makes some people so special in the expression of their sainthood? I believe they are particularly good at identifying what tugs at their hearts and their minds and their souls. They respond to God, whether they know God by the names we use or not. They respond to God’s love by recognizing the places where the gifts they bring can spread God’s love and care further in the world. They recognize with an uncanny clarity that the nearness of the kingdom lies within our reach.
They are Presidents and authors and musicians and teenagers and elderly nuns and foreign religious leaders and hometown heroines. They are Sunday School teachers and grandmothers and maiden ladies. They are people in our own lives who will never be written about in books, but whose stories are inscribed in our hearts. Hear, O First Parish Church, the Lord is One. May we reach out and touch God as they did. “Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia! Amen.”