LIVING OUR PROMISES - PART I
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
Rev. Gary Paterson
August 31, 2008
So, this is All Saint's weekend, and this Sunday is an opportunity for us to celebrate the great communion of saints, a community that stretches back in time and around the world, from those early witnesses, Peter and Andrew, and Mary Magdalene; to Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin; or Augustine, such a blessing and a challenge for the church. For the Irish, there's Patrick and Bridget; for the French, Joan of Arc; and for everyone, St. Francis of Assissi. And then there are the saints of our own times, whose spirit we recognize even though the church may not have made any official designation... Jean Vanier, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa. The communion of saints - a vast circle of women and men who embraced a vision of holiness at the very heart of life, all of life, and who shaped their lives to be in harmony with that vision, to contribute their energy to its continued unfolding.
For them, the Eternal Light was refracted though Jesus Christ, and thereby was transformed into the deep colours of compassion, joy, forgiveness and justice; a rainbow of grace that shines through the words, stories, teachings of Jesus. The Saints knew that God was present and active in the universe, and they sang of a transformed world, where Christ will dwell in our hearts as we are being rooted and grounded in love. The saints trusted in God's promise of a new heaven and a new earth, so that when time ends all we have known and loved will find its proper fulfillment.
All Saints Sunday is an opportunity for us to recognize that we are invited to be part of that story, to play our role in an enterprise that is so much bigger than ourselves, even as it includes and embraces each one of us in all our rather splendid uniqueness. This is your story; the Saints are your people. You don't often to get to say that, "These are my people" unless, perhaps you come from Newfoundland or Quebec, since here in Vancouver we tend to be a hodgepodge of new arrivals. But actually, you have deep roots... the Bible is your genealogical tree, and you trace your origins back thousands of years. Your life isn't just about you... as you understand yourself to be one of the saints, part of the unfolding Christ-story, your life gains larger perspective; more is happening here than meets the eye.
Let me make this more specific... I would like to suggest that this community of faith, St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church is a specific, particular incarnation of that story. You who are gathered here today, are a concrete, living expression of the communion of saints that stretches through time and space, and is incarnated in this congregation. Oh, maybe just a page in the story, a small role, despite our own hopes of grandeur; but an important one... the saints gathered together in downtown Vancouver, faithfully being the Body of Christ, here and now.
Just last May we celebrated our 75th Anniversary, and it was a wonderful and powerful time to recognize the saints who have preceded us... who had a dream for this congregation; who built this incredible church in the midst of the depression years; the women and men who sustained and enriched the ministry of this part of the Body, who helped write this part of the story. I know a church is not a building, it's the people, but when I look around, I can't help but think about all the memories crowded into this holy space... the prayers, the tears and laughter, baptisms, marriages and funerals; the music and worship; the lives touched and changed. The saints are all around us, whispering their memories.
And the story continues on... with saints that are gathered here today; yes, that means you; claim the name. The ordinary, every-day kind of saints, who are struggling to be whole, and sometimes holy; who are drawn by the vision of the God who is revealed in and through Jesus Christ. There is a palpable sense of Spirit in this community; these past few years have been a time of excitement, change, energy, reaching out into the community, welcoming new people. We are passionate about our faith, recognizing the difference it makes in our lives and in the world; a congregation that is progressive, inclusive, and committed to justice.
Let me walk you through a week in the life of St. Andrew's-Wesley, starting with Wednesday, October 22nd, just eleven days ago. That was the night we had our Mayoralty debate, with almost a thousand people listening intently to Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner present their views and commitments on issues of housing, mental health and affordable housing. It was a remarkable evening, as the church, through the efforts of our Homelessness and Mental Health Action Group, opened up space for the community to gather and wrestle with key issues of justice; an evening of gospel. Then on Thursday evening "Exploring our Faith" met, a small group of people wanting to understand more about what the Christian journey involves, mostly newcomers to the story, coming with a hunger and a lot of questions. On Friday night, it was some twenty Younger Adults having a post-Thanksgiving feast at the church; and over the weekend another twenty people were taking the Healing Touch Level 2 workshop. Did you know that people from the community are starting to come for treatments? they've heard about the gift of healing that can happen here. Then Sunday, of course; exciting worship in the morning, with children, and welcoming new staff and ministries; in the afternoon, Jazz Vespers; and in the evening, our Chancel Choir offering up a splendid interpretation of Cherubini's "Requiem," with yours truly providing some theological reflection. Monday night, eleven people were walking the Labyrinth, engaging in prayer and meditation; on Tuesday, The Word is OUT! group met, where gay and lesbian people explore the intersection of spirituality and sexuality; and finally, to wrap the week up, last Wednesday night, thirty people gathering to wrestle with some of the great stories of the book of Genesis, discovering that Abraham and Sarah and Isaac are their people; and although we are separated by three thousand years, we are deeply connected to our ancestors. Some church, eh?
Maybe this is why I am so excited about our Stewardship Campaign that we are launching today, "Living Our Promises"; because, at its core, it is primarily an invitation to everyone of us to participate in the Communion of Saints, to recognize our place in the story, and to contribute our energy to the unfolding of this dream, energy expressed through ability, talents, time and money; our lives.
All of which sounds very lofty. And spiritual. Yes? But then came the time for me to actually sit down and look candidly at the pledge form, the actual commitment that I was being invited to make. How was I going to respond, beyond words? An invitation - how was I going to say "Yes!" and know that that "Yes" really meant something. That's when I discovered resistance, my own reluctance. Which I think is probably typical of most of us. I mean, I carry my own fears... do I have enough money? What if... well, I could think of a hundred and one different scenarios where I might need some serious cash... and what I've just given it all away? Besides which, I have my own set of desires, my dreams of the good life; and there's nothing wrong with that. So how much money do I need? On the other hand, what's the difference between needs and desires? Am I being greedy, wanting more and more... what is enough?
I do my own little dance around these issues, trying to avoid the whole thing. I'm a staff person; I work really hard for the life of the church - do I have to give money as well? I mean, it's not as if I have a lot... no home or condo in a Vancouver market that leaves me gasping; RRSP's that took a wild nose dive in the last few weeks. I mean, even my mother asked me if we were going to cancel the Stewardship campaign in the light of the stock market melt down. Lots of good reasons to not respond to the invitation.
That's when I knew I needed to go for a walk... a long walk around the sea wall, on a sunny Vancouver day in October. It was beautiful; and I was overwhelmed with a sense of the sheer wonder of being alive, marveling at the miracle that there was something, when there could have so easily been nothing; and that the "something" all around me was so stunningly gorgeous. And gratitude is what welled up in my heart... a thankfulness for everything and everyone around me; and for myself, my being alive, and so blessed. Which took me back to memories of our Thanksgiving worship together, to that poem by George Herbert:
That's what I was feeling on that walk... a heart whose every beat was gratitude and praise. I remembered the people who had shared some of their own gratitude at our Thanksgiving worship service a couple of weeks ago: little Emma saying that she was thankful for trees, and her parents adding, "and for cherry blossoms blowing in the springtime wind, and the yellow, scarlet leaves drifting to the ground in the fall." I recalled Russell taking us for a walk around his house, going from room to room, giving thanks for all that happened there, and for the people he would meet there. He even paused, and with a big smile gave thanks for the bathroom. Then Gregg talked to us about the recent death of his mother, and how family was so important to him; had been all his life, and when death came, even then, maybe especially then, there was grace and love. I remember Jennette taking us through her "Lettermanesque" list of ten... thanks for water, a cup of tea, the right to vote... for friends.Thou who hast given so much to me,Give one thing more - a grateful heart;Not thankful when it pleases me,As if thy mercies had spare days;But such a heart whose pulse might be thy praise.
When we name our blessings; when we are aware and conscious of all that we have received; when we recognize that life is sheer gift... then generosity comes more easily. It becomes a way of saying thank you. It is feeling that we are full to overflowing, and how can we not share? Filling up and spilling over, it's an endless waterfall, filling up and spilling over, over all. (a phrase from the music of Chris Williamson). I think that was the space I needed to discover in order to pick up that Pledge Form and hear, not guilt, pressure, obligation, but rather an invitation to participate in the story, the vision, the communion of saints; an invitation into generosity and a life that is rooted in generous giving, precisely because I am already so full; precisely because God has given me so much.
I think this invitation is at the heart of the story that Jesus told about the widow giving her pennies to God. Too often this story gets told so that it carries a guilt hook in the middle - bad rich guy, good widow who gives away everything. I'm not sure that Jesus meant for this story to be taken literally; that is, that the widow would end up destitute. I mean, Jesus spent a lot of his ministry arguing that widows needed to be treated with compassion and justice. Rather, I think Jesus was pointing us to a deeper truth, which is to say, that giving is never really about the "amount" given - two pennies, or fifty thousand dollars, makes no difference; rather, it's the spirit in which it is given. Is the gift a left over, the extra, something that won't ever be missed? Or does the gift come from the heart, wrapped in a spirit of thanksgiving; is it a way of response, saying yes to the invitation, a way of saying thank you back to God the Giver? Generosity, not quantity; any yes that comes from the heart, it shines bright.
I like reading this story in the King James Version; I know there are problems with Elizabethan English, but the old translation carries a different spirit, when Jesus declares, "[the widow]cast in all the living that she had." "All the living that she had" - that's the phrase that has stayed with me. Maybe that's what this Stewardship stuff is all about? a willingness to cast all my living to God, holding nothing back; to bank my life on this Jesus story. To really live a life that is a filling up and spilling over; a life that is all about saying thank you and giving generously in return. Wouldn't that be fine? "Cast all you living" - scary? Sure! But what a vision; what a way to live my life.
Which makes me think that I want to rename our Campaign. We've called it "Living Our Promises" - there's challenge for you ; and that's good, and right. But I wonder if what we are really talking about is "Living God's Promises". Maybe that's what's at the heart of Stewardship - a recognition of a God who gives endlessly and graciously; who has promised life and love and relationship; and who simply invites each one of us to respond in the same way.