Sermon: Ordinary Saints

“Ordinary Saints”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 5, 2017

Isaiah 38:19

The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
Parents make known to children
your faithfulness.

Ephesians 2:18-20

“For through Jesus both you and I have access in one Spirit to the Creator. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Today we celebrate Memorial Sunday, honoring our loved ones who have died. This day has its roots in the Christian celebration of All Saints and All Souls Days, when the church remembers both the “official” saints (All Saints) and all those who have died (All Souls).

We tend to think of saints as perfect, holy people who were supernaturally devoted to God, made great sacrifices for their faith, or possessed miraculous powers. Like St. Drogo, who survived on just water and the Eucharist. Or St. Teresa of Avila who spent 2 years in constant visions of Jesus. Or Saint Joseph of Cupertino, who could levitate.

There is a lot to learn from saints like this, but I think their exceptional faith can sometimes make them seem unrelatable, their adventures fanciful stories instead of attainable models. Yet the purpose of honoring saints is to help us grow in our faith; so today I’d like to use a somewhat broader definition of the word “saints” – one used over and over again in the days of the early church. “Saints,” to Paul and the brand new churches to whom he was writing, simply meant “followers of Jesus,” members of the church community. The ordinary believers who lived their faith with boldness and grace, in such a way that newcomers to the community were inspired to do the same, to get to know the God who had given these saints such abundant, fulfilling lives.

Saints with a capital S, those who have been canonized, can certainly ignite our imaginations with great deeds and great faith; but most of us have been more lastingly inspired to grow from being strangers and aliens, as Ephesians says it, to being part of God’s family by the everyday example of the people around us. “Parents,” Isaiah says, make known to children the faithfulness of God.” Notice he doesn’t say saints, patriarchs, or even priests – rather it’s those closest to us, or those most relatable to us, who help us come to know who God is and how much God loves us.

So on All Saints/All Souls, I like to talk about the ordinary saints – Sunday school teachers, grandparents, confirmation sponsors, coworkers, strangers – who have shared their faith with us in ways that have deepened our spiritual lives and brought us closer to God.  And I like to think about how we might become more like those people – because although we can’t all be officially recognized, Satan-slaying saints (that’s St. Margaret of Antioch), we can all carry with us the lessons our saints have taught us and use those lessons to help us become saints for others.

One of my ordinary saints is Martha Wright, the supervisor during my year-long clinical pastoral education, or CPE.  CPE is sort of like pastor boot camp – you serve many hours in a pastoral setting, ministering to people in need, and then spend many more hours reflecting about the experience, particularly your own hangups and obstacles to ministry. You can serve in many settings – a church, a homeless shelter, a prison – but most CPE programs are in hospitals, because that’s a place full of people facing difficult situations. Mine was in a pediatric hospital, and I served in the oncology and cardiac departments, where lots of kids had cancer or were born with heart defects. A lot of my patients died. And so did some of those who came in through our trauma center, which I staffed overnight once a week.  If you’re thinking this sounds like a harrowing experience, you’re right.  But it was also deeply powerful, and Martha helped me make sense of those two contradictory feelings.

Picture a woman in her 50s, short of stature, eclectic of dress, crowned with a head of short, spiky hair. Martha had a rather long commute to the hospital where we worked, so she would strap herself into her white, 1990 Honda CRX, and then paint her nails with something bright and metallic so that they had time to dry while she drove. Starting the day after Thanksgiving she would dig out her Christmas lightbulb earrings and her collection of so-called “ugly Christmas sweaters.”  She wore cowboy boots to work on occasion, and she would coax us into our mandatory educational hours every week with homemade quick bread she made from a sourdough starter she treated like a pet. She has a delightful laugh and is so jovial that you almost think she’s going to pinch your cheeks the first time she sees you – but luckily, she reserves the cheek-squishing for babies.

Now that you can picture my saint, I’ll tell you what she taught me; no doubt some of you have already heard some of this because her words have so shaped my faith.  She told me that anxiety, which can often clog up our faith, is like a dog, faithfully sitting next to us and barking to alert us to the dangers of failure, risk, and pain, because that’s its job and it is a good dog. Our job, she said, is to pat the dog on the head and thank it for its help without joining in the barking, too. So if you see me lean over to pat an invisible dog, thank Martha. “Fear not…. can any one of you add a single day to your lives by worrying about the future?”

She told me that God is constantly trying to catch our attention, sending us love notes and signs and messages of hope like a card dealer flicking out cards, and that occasionally, of course, one of those cards was going to hit us smack in the forehead without our even looking for it. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would just look around and perceive, littering our world, the evidence of God’s extravagant love for us – without having to get poked in the eye? As the words of the Sanctus hymn we will sing later this morning as part of communion declare, “Heaven and earth are FULL of your glory!”

Martha taught me that when I get angry at someone, I should get curious – what does my anger say about my own hot button issues? Or why might this person be doing something they know will blow my top? She had a CPE student once, a middle-aged man, who, each time he was assigned to bring in a written assignment for his fellow students to critique, he would neglect to turn it in, saying he had forgotten. In Martha’s words, “that ticked me off!”, and it ticked off the other students, too. But instead of staying angry, she got curious, and asked this man why he would repeatedly do something he knew would made other people so mad at him. He confessed that he couldn’t read, but was too ashamed to tell her or the class. Staying curious not only changed Martha’s feelings about the man, it uncovered a problem that could then be solved and, more importantly, it made room for grace.  Proverbs 29:11 reminds us, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”

Martha taught me to be gentle with myself, that when I felt I was falling short or when I was frustrated that I hadn’t learned from my mistakes, I could step outside myself for a minute and give myself the compassion I would give to a good friend who was struggling.  Y’all, that piece of advice right there will change your life! Instantly healing.   If God “longs to be gracious to you,” as Isaiah says, and “will rise up to show you compassion,” then surely we can show some of that compassion to ourselves.

Martha taught me that my job as a pastor – and our job as people – is not to know everything or have all the answers, but merely to root ourselves in the “one square foot” of what we do know and to keep coming back to that place.  She got this image from her ordination exams, which in the Methodist church is like a PhD dissertation defense; you get asked a lot of nitpicky questions. But I think it works equally well in parenting, in marriage, in ministry, and in our current political climate.  “I don’t know if I’m doing this parenting thing right, but my kids know that I love them, and that’s what matters.” “Sometimes I want to throttle my spouse and I don’t understand WHY in the world they do what they do, but I do know I love them.”  “I don’t know how to change the world, but I do know I can reach out to someone who’s supposed to be on the “other” side.”  ” “You are worried and upset about many things,” Jesus says, “but few things are needful –maybe only one.”

Martha taught me how to articulate my compassion and how to avoid saying unhelpful things to people who have lost a loved one; how to bring my full self into the room; how to be present with someone. She’s the reason I knew how to sit with a mama who had just lost her child in a car accident, and she’s the reason I know how to pastor here with you all.

And now, for a complete non sequitur, the other saint I want to share with you this morning is Martin Sheen. You probably know him as an actor from over 100 roles in movies like Apocalypse Now and TV shows like The West Wing. But you may not know that he’s also an activist, one who’s been arrested over 65 times for protesting in favor of such things as nuclear disarmament, marine conservation, and human rights. He’s also a deeply spiritual Catholic, which is where his activism gets its roots. But neither of those passions were givens in his life; they were things he had to discover (or re-discover) along the way.

Krista Tippett, the host of the podcast On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith), interviewed Martin a few years ago.  In the interview he tells the story of a dark time in his life. He had survived an intense illness while filming Apocalypse Now, an experience which made it clear to him that he wouldn’t have survived a spiritual crisis. He spent about four years, he says, “of reflection, and alcohol abuse, and insecurity, and anger, and resentment, and a near breakup with my family. But I was searching for that elusive thing that all of us search for. Most of the time we’re not even conscious of it, but we’re searching for ourselves in an authentic way. We want to recognize the person we see in the mirror, and embrace that person with all the brokenness and lackluster, all the things that only we are aware of in the depths of our being.”  His words really resonated with me – maybe they do for some of you, too.

Martin had been raised Catholic, but said “I was afraid to come back to the piety of my youth. I wanted the sacraments, I wanted the community, but I didn’t want to feel like I was under a microscope and that God was watching me and looking for me to make a mistake, and now I gotcha, you know?”  But then, on a day off while he was working in Paris, he wandered into a small church and was reminded of where he could find that unconditional embrace he had been looking for.  “The love that I longed for, and I think all of us really long for,” he says, “is knowing that we are loved.  That despite ourselves, we are loved. And when you realize that, and you embrace that… that makes all the difference… You know how, so often, people say they go on this journey — and I said it, too — that ‘I’m looking for God.’ But God has already found us, really. We have to look in the spot where we’re least likely to look, and that is within ourselves. And when we find that love, that presence, deep within our own personal being — and it’s not something that you can earn, or something that you can work towards – …that love is overwhelming. And that is the basic foundation of joy.”

I remember listening to this interview while I was out running and feeling a deep fountain of joy open up in my chest, to the point where I had to stop running because I was crying happy tears.  The unfathomable joy of being loved by God snuck up on me in that moment. Now whenever I feel spiritually lackluster, as he describes it, or simply disconnected from God, I go straight to the sound of Martin Sheen’s voice describing God’s love and a smile spreads over my face.  I highly recommend listening to that episode; it changed my spiritual landscape.

So those are two of my ordinary saints – a middle-aged, spiky-haired, eccentric CPE supervisor with a gift for imagery and metaphor, and a lost Hollywood actor who was surprised by the joy of God’s love.  In different ways I carry both of them with me; Martha helps me to clear away my own stumbling blocks and Martin, to feel God’s love – and to try to share it. What gifts!

You know, our mandate as saints, as part of the household of God, is not just to receive such gifts, such lessons, but then to pass them on to those around us, like a parent passing on what’s most valuable to their children. Ephesians describes this process as building more bricks on top of the foundation laid by Jesus and the apostles; this sharing is what maintains the church over the centuries. (Happily, that’s also what makes for a healthy church, so I’m off the hook.)

But I’d rather think of this process – this transmission of faith from one person to another – not as a static building, but as a living organism, like bees that spread nectar from one flower to another so that the plants can cross-pollinate and grow more vibrant and diverse and more resilient than before.  Because I have to admit – and this is something pastors aren’t supposed to say – I am not nearly as interested in maintaining the church as I am in seeing people come alive with God’s love, and that only happens if we share that love with other people.

So let’s share!  Turn to your neighbor – preferably someone you didn’t come here with, so feel free to get up and move around – and tell that person about a saint in your life.  Tell them about your Martha or your Martin, a saint who has taught you invaluable lessons that help you love yourself, your neighbor, and God more deeply. How has that person shaped you, and how do you share what you’ve learned from them to help others?

Thanks be to God, for these saints, and for our call to be saints to others!  Amen.