Friday, November 2, 2007

A sermon for All Saints' Sunday

This is from two years ago, long, and with toddler baptism. Cyrus was about one year old when we baptized him, so we had all been getting to know him for months and people were already quite fond of him.

I'm off to Europe in a bit, so this is a belated All Saints' Day post and an early All Saints' Sunday post.


St. Mary’s House (Episcopal), Greensboro
November 6, 2005

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Psalm 149
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of the Triune God --
the One who gives us life,
Christ Jesus, who calls us friends
and their Spirit, who makes all things new.

These also were godly [ones],
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on
generation after generation.

I cannot hear today’s first lesson
without seeing in my mind’s eye a book called
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by Walker Evans and James Agee.
I have my own copy of it now,
but my parents must have had it in our home
or I must have somehow seen it very early in my life.

In 1936, the year that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected
to his second term as president,
Walker Evans, a photographer, and James Agee, a writer,
took on an assignment for Fortune magazine
and drove into rural Alabama
to learn about and report on
the lives of three families of white tenant farmers,
the Gudger, Woods, and Ricketts families.

"Tenant farmers" means that they farmed, but not on their own land,
and the fruits of their labor,
for the most part, did not benefit them.
The following year, 1937,
Roosevelt’s Committee on Farm Tenancy would find out
that tenant farmers constituted half of the farmers in the South.
(They were also almost a third of the farmers in the North,
and one quarter of Western farmers.)
Most of these farmers and their families were desperately poor.
Roosevelt’s committee proposed economic solutions.
Agee and Evans reported on the farmers as artists.
Their goal was to describe the farmers’ lives as accurately as possible
on their own terms.
Evans and Agee lived with the Gudger, Woods, and Ricketts families
for six weeks,
shared their food, slept in their cabins.

The result of their reporting
was rejected by Fortune
but later published in expanded form by Houghton Mifflin,
though it originally sold fewer than 600 copies.
After a quarter of a century it was reissued
and is now an American classic.
It was
an unconventional set of photos and writings.
Neither the images nor the words were sensationalist.
Evans and Agee honored their subjects’ dignity,
even as they presented them in a complex picture:
no snapshots, no slogans;
no sentimentality either.
The exact opposite of celebrity journalism.

There is irony in the title of Evans and Agee’s work
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
since it depicts
the least famous,
the most hidden,
the poorest of the poor,
who lived far, far
from the centers of power in this country,
who worked,
slept, loved, ate,
and struggled for survival
every day of their lives.

The book of Ecclesiasticus,
from which today’s first lesson is taken
is also known as Sirach.
It is known also by some longer titles,
The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach
and The Book of Ben Sira.
The book was probably completed
about two centuries before the time of that other Jesus,
Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Christ.
I’m going to refer to it as Sirach, both because it’s the most common title
and because "Ecclesiasticus" has six syllables.

It is quite possible that Agee,
the writer in the Evans-Agee team,
who attended an Episcopal boarding school
St. Andrew’s, in the Appalachian Mountains
had heard this passage from Sirach in chapel.

This piece of scripture starts with a lot of fanfare:
It hails
famous men,
and the text does say "men" as in males
and not as generic human beings,
wise, accomplished, creative men,
public people, leadership types.

If we read on beyond today’s passage,
we would see that it is just the start
of a really, really long
epic poem
celebrating Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Caleb
and all the judges of Israel
and David and Solomon
and Isaiah and Ezekiel
and on and on and on –
five chapters’ worth!
There is something of second-century B.C.E. celebrity journalism
in this long litany of praise.
These are the big guys. The ones who get named.
The ones who make the news, both when they are alive
and after their death.

As usual, the Sunday lectionary is a tricky thing:
precisely because we have this reading out of context,
we get to hear and pay closer attention to
one of its few mentions of the
the ordinary people,
the forgotten
who "have become as if they had never been born,"
–although even this mention
leaves out all the women who have lived and labored and wept and sung
throughout the centuries.
Out of context and in today’s lectionary snippet,
the reading from Sirach is a little more
–though with its male bias, not quite–
in keeping with the spirit of today’s feast,
All Saints.

The feast of All Saints
is not about the cult of celebrities,
even celebrity saints.

It is, much more, a celebration
of how the Gudger, Woods, and Ricketts families
are part of the same company
as the teachers, kings, and prophets of Israel.

It is a celebration of how
Sarah and Hagar
and Rebecca and Leah and Rachel
and Miriam and Deborah
and the nameless concubines and slaves
and wives and mistresses
and daughters and sisters
of these teachers, kings, and prophets,
are in their company
and ours.

It is the day to remember the fullness,
the breadth and depth,
of the communion of saints,
our companions in God,
whose presence extends to the ends of the earth
and even beyond death.

Think of it as a day to take the immeasurable measure
of the history and the geography of our faith.
All of it, or as much as we mortals can comprehend.

Think of it as the day to name this history and geography
and all its folk.
Not just the celebrity folk.

Not just the heroes and sheroes.
Not just the exemplars.

It’s not that we don’t need exemplars
or that we don’t need to name and honor them
and to rediscover them anew –
Moses and Miriam,
Zerubbabel of Judah and Cyrus of Persia
Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala,
Hilda and Hildegard,
Augustine of Hippo and Augustine of Canterbury,
Benedict and Scholastica,
Francis and Clare,
Catherine of Siena and Martin Luther,
Rosa Parks and Oscar Romero,
and your grandmothers and mine.

But what we remember on All Saints’ Day
is that we and they belong to the same crowd.

And it’s the crowd we look at.
A crowd, like that in the vision we heard from the Book of Revelation,
a great multitude that no one [can] count,
from every nation,
from all tribes and people and languages

Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian who teaches at Fordham University,
has written a wonderful book about the communion of saints
called Friends of God and Prophets.

In this book, she calls All Saints’ Day
"that feast of splendid nobodies."

That feast of splendid nobodies.
Not just the feast of holy celebrities.

And as we remember and praise the nobodies,
the whole crowd of them,
we remember them
in their somebodiness.

"Somebodiness" is not a word I invented.
It comes to us from the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.
and speaks of humanity and dignity:
the humanity and dignity for which Dr. King and Mrs. Rosa Parks struggled,
the same humanity that Agee and Evans wanted to preserve and honor
as they wrote about tenant farmers in Alabama,
the same dignity we promise uphold when we make our baptismal vows.

Today we baptize Cyrus.
Today we are lifting up Cyrus’s somebodiness.
He is already somebody.
He was somebody from the day he was born.
He gets his somebodiness from being human.
It’s not just baptism that makes him somebody.
He is already a child of God.

Today as we lift up Cyrus’s somebodiness,
and give thanks for his precious self,
we welcome him into the church –
–not just the Episcopal Church,
but the church universal.
We celebrate and affirm
that God’s friendship with humanity in Jesus
is for Cyrus, too.

We pray that Cyrus will be a friend of God,
a friend of Jesus,
a human being freed by the Holy Spirit
to praise God, to honor God’s creation,
to do God’s work in the world,
to know the joy of God’s company
and of the company of the friends of God.

And we are sharing with Cyrus what God has given us:
the company of all those splendid nobodies.

Cyrus will belong, as we do,
to the great crowd of saints,
of many nations and races,
holy and sinful,
motley generations of them,
dead and alive,
the famous and the hidden.

We belong to them.
They belong to us.
We cannot be who we are
without them.

The vision we lift up today
of all the saints, hidden and renowned
famous or infamous, elegant or clumsy,
can spark our imagination in lonely and fearful times.
We are not alone.
What good company we have!

But –
– there’s a catch.
You knew there was going to be a catch:
this is the Gospel we’re talking about.
The saints
are not just
good company on cold nights
or on post-election mornings.

They are
the friends of God.
They are
the ones who take to heart
today’s Gospel.

And what a Gospel.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...
Blessed are the meek. Happy the ones who mourn.

Meek? Mourn? We like winning the World Series. And the elections.
And who wants to focus on lament?
Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the peacemakers.
Mercy and peacemaking... Okay.
Wait. You mean every day. In every way. !?
In our private life and in our public life?!
All the time?
– Can I go part-time or job-share or something?
Blessed are the pure in heart... those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Oh, Cyrus. It’s not about success. It’s not about fame.
It’s about living with heart and loving justice.
Blessed are those who are persecuted.

The Beatitudes bless and promise wholeness
to oppressed people,
those who live with misery on which you can’t take a detour:
the poor; the hungry; the sorrowful.
The Beatitudes showers blessing upon those who care so deeply
about the somebodiness of the poor and the marginalized
that they hunger for justice for them, they thirst for mercy for them,
their bodies ache and their hearts pine
when humans treat one another
as less than human.

The Beatitudes promise us blessing
but remind us that being a friend of Jesus has a cost.
People will exclude us
and slander us
and get their facts wrong about us;
we may become the victims of spin and lies and worse,
because we have lived as friends of Jesus.

Do you still want to stand in celebration
for this Gospel?

Was Jesus out of his mind?
Is this what we signed up for?

Pledge allegiance to this one
and you have given over your life
to the very opposite of status,
of success,
of conquest and empire-building,
of easy comfort,
of winning at all costs.
You may even lose that last mantle of protection,
your reputation.

That’s the good news.

But we never, ever have to hear it
or live it
We will always have,
and Cyrus will always have,
the company, and wisdom, and witness
of those people who have managed to say yes
to those Beatitudes, the ones I would love to avoid
and can’t. The Beatitudes of today
that whisper and shout to me and to us
that Jesus was not out of his mind,
that he knew exactly what he was talking about
and that there is joy
in embracing his way and his truth and his life
even in the fog.

Cyrus will have his days of fog
and we will have our days of fog with him:
when he is cranky and not sweet;
when he is an awkward teenager and no longer an adorable toddler;
when he tells us truths we would rather not hear;
when Cyrus and we, his elders, struggle to understand each other.
In those days, we will have the company of saints,
and so will he.
In those days, he will still be marked with the sign of faith
which he receives today. And we had better remember it.
In those days,
even when he feels alone,
Cyrus will not be alone.
As he grows, it will be our sacred responsibility
to remember the baptismal vows we renew today,
to be for him the saints, the friends of God,
and to teach him that the communion of saints extends far beyond
our own small community.

There is no such thing as being a Christian away in a corner.
The "we" comes first.

Several of us here went to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak the other night.
With a twinkle in his eye and the fervor of an evangelist,
Archbishop Tutu exclaimed,
"God is smart! God has created us so we could never be self-sufficient."

God is smart. God has created us so we could never be self-sufficient.

Remember that one, friends of God.
Remember that one, friends of Cyrus.
Praise God for the community that has no borders.
Praise God for the gift of this communion
in which each one of us is somebody.
Praise God for the splendid nobodies,
whose memory gives us hope.
Praise God for this hope
which we share with Cyrus today.



Paul said...

Lovely, Jane. Thank you. Safe and effective journeys!

Jane R said...

Grazie, Caro.

Heard a solid sermon this a.m. (I'm writing at nearly 8 p.m. Paris time, but the computer say 1:48 p.m. because it still thinks it's Stateside) by Peter Elliott, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, Diocese of New Westminster, yes, THAT New Westminster! He was visiting at the American Cathedral.