A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that those who believe in him may live.

That one piece of scripture may be the most well-known passage globally. Billboards, stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts, signs at football games, tattoos. You name an object and John 3:16 has most likely been emblazoned on it.

But the verse just ahead of it harkens back to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness…

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Moses and the serpent stick, as I call it. Not a widely familiar story.

Have any of you as a kid gone on a long car trip? Or have you been the parent in the car for a long car trip? Maybe you have lovely memories of idyllic scenery, group singing and delicious snacks. I can recall some happy time spent the far far back of our station wagon, which had roughly more square feet than my first apartment. Lounging around on pillows with my feet in the air.

But mostly I would tell you that long car trips meant pain and suffering to me as a kid in which I complained for a good 90% of the trip. And I suppose as the Lord’s gift to my mother, this pattern repeated once I became the captain of family trips.

The Israelites were on the most miserable of long trips. A trip made more miserable because they had no idea where they were headed. At least at the end of our long trips there is the promise of a welcoming friend or family member, a clean bed. They had none of these certainties. And they were afraid. And they murmured. Their fear turned into anger, and they complained to the management, a lot.

There are five murmuring stories in Numbers. This is the last one of them. Prior to this the Israelites had spoken to the management about bitter water and the Lord instructed Moses about how to sweeten it. Then they were hungry, so the Lord sent down manna. But then they were thirsty again and God told Moses to strike a rock and they were provided with fresh water. But then they wanted meat, manna was boring. So, God sent quails to them.

Does this pattern feel familiar to any experiences you may have with children?

And just like my mother who had just about enough of me, God gets fed up with their complaining, really fed up. And he sends venomous snakes who bite them and if bitten, they die.

Then the people do something different. Something I certainly never did during the course of a car trip with my parents. They repent.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” And Moses graciously, and I really mean graciously because they have not been easy at all, prays for his people.

God tells him to make a bronze serpent and place it on a stick. When the people are bitten, if they look up at it they will live. And it worked.

I can’t make the part about God telling Moses to make something that seems a lot like an idol any less weird. It just is. Although it does not appear to be idolized here, it eventually had some kind of power ascribed to it. They carried that thing around for a long time. It was still in Jerusalem centuries later. The serpent stick appears in 2 Kings when Hezekiah demands it be destroyed.

But this odd story is precisely what John harkens back to in today’s Gospel.

Jesus in this passage is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus, the Pharisee and leader, who comes to Jesus in the night trying to figure out just what is going on with Jesus. And before Nicodemus can even ask Jesus any questions Jesus just lets loose.

Have you ever been in a conversation, and you say one thing and then all of the sudden the person you are talking to starts in on a dissertation about something you have no idea what he’s talking about? That’s kind of what happens here to Nicodemus.

And what Jesus says to Nicodemus has been taken and, as I see it, has made into an idol, made into some kind of gatekeeping passage about who is in and who is out in the Kingdom of God. As if just gazing up at a John 3:16 billboard, as the snake bitten Israelites looked up at the serpent stick, will save us.

Whoever believes. Believing in Jesus is not a nice thing to just think about. Believing in Jesus means acting in the world as Jesus would have us act. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into a life of belief in him. A life that although filled with hope can lead one straight out into the wilderness where things are hard and uncertain.

In the last few gospel readings this Lent believing in Jesus means…

  • not storing up treasures on earth
  • repenting because the kingdom of God has come near
  • picking up our cross and carrying it
  • Losing our lives for the sake of the gospel
  • flipping the tables, challenging those whose business exploits others

I don’t know about you, but I’ve not managed to do those things well in the last three weeks of Lent or for the other 51 years and some odd weeks of my life.

Believing in Jesus means that we are to do the things He told us to do…

  • Be as merciful as the Good Samaritan
  • Love our enemies
  • Forgive those who trespass against us
  • Give without expectation
  • If someone sues you for your shirt, throw in your jacket, too, without hesitation
  • Don’t worry about tomorrow
  • Reconcile, live in peace with one another
  • Humble ourselves and get down and wash the feet of others
  • Love others the way that Jesus loves us

These actions are BELIEVING in Jesus. These actions push back the darkness. These actions reveal the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Who among us lives each and every day in a way that reflects the wideness of his mercy and the wonders of his love? I mean really, fully. I myself spend a lot of time complaining to the management rather than living into Jesus’ way of love.

Nicodemus gets beaten up in lots of interpretations because he is cast as the bad guy who just can’t understand who Jesus is. He does not have a John 3:16 T-shirt or bumper sticker by the end of this conversation with Jesus. He goes away into the night.

Nicodemus does appear again in the Gospel of John. And his story deserves to be told every time he comes up in the lectionary. Because he is extraordinary. Nicodemus’ last appearance is at the foot of the cross.

At the foot of the cross where not one of the disciples who went around telling people to believe in Jesus are. Not one of them.

But Nicodemus is. He’s there and with Joseph of Arimathea he collects Jesus’s dead body and cares for him. They took down the body of Jesus and wrapped him in linen and laid him in the tomb.

Does Nicodemus fully understand who Jesus is at that point? Does it matter? Or does his belief lead him to act the way Jesus would want, with mercy, courage, and love?

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. 

For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Saved through him, by living as Jesus teaches us to live.

This is the invitation that Jesus gives to Nicodemus; this is the invitation Jesus gives to us.

We want to be disciples who follow Jesus, and we can be. But we can also be like the disciples who abandon Jesus at the cross.

We are also the Israelites in the desert, murmuring and able to return to God and repent because we are constantly in need of God’s grace.

I think we are called to be like Nicodemus too, ready to show up in mercy and courage and love even if maybe we don’t fully understand yet what being a believer means.

Lent is a time to remember to live like Jesus wants us to, not only with our lips but in our lives. To admit the ways our lives do not align with what believing in Jesus looks like. To admit our murmurings and recognize the inestimable grace that God offers to all of God’s creation. To look to the cross, lifted up, as our hope of new life and as our call to Love as Jesus loves.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that those who believe in him may live.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

I know most of you have heard me talk about living in Louisiana, because I talk about it all the time. Especially around this time of year.

I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in June of 2005. My son Jed was born in July. I can’t tell you how miserable I was. I was so hot and I was surprised as a southerner that I was experiencing culture shock. But Louisiana is a place unto itself. Then at the end of August, when Jed was just about six weeks old, I turned on the TV and saw that Katrina was on the way. The children and I left and went home to Nashville. We ended up having to be gone for nearly a month. Although Baton Rouge was spared from the storm the entire region was in disarray and there was no guarantee that I would be able to get gas once I hit Mississippi because oil production had been shut down in the Gulf.

When I returned to Baton Rouge the town had doubled in size. Nearly 250,000 people from the New Orleans area, which was just a little more than an hour east, had come to shelter in hotels and rentals and with family. There was nowhere else for them to go because New Orleans was uninhabitable, and it remained so for quite some time.

Just five years later in 2010 a freak storm stopped over Nashville, Tennessee, my hometown, and dumped so much water the Cumberland River and all its tributaries boiled over in a flood that took the lives of 11 Nashvillians and destroyed or damaged over 11,000 homes and businesses including the Grand Ole Opry. My home parish of St. George’s lost two dear parishioners, Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge, who got swept away from their car a stone’s throw from church where they were headed that Sunday morning.

I tell you this because I do not come to the story of Noah and the flood as if it is a sweet story we tell children. Try telling this story to a classroom full of children who know exactly what a flood that covers everything is because they have seen it with their own eyes. I never could do it. It’s been 18 years since Katrina and I still struggle with this story. How does such a story fit with the Kingdom of God?

Why did God cover the earth with water? Why would He do such a thing? The people of Israel wrote down this story that had been told for so many years while they were in exile in Babylon, themselves wondering why, why God would let them be in such a state.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence.  Genesis 6:11

That’s how the people in Babylon told the story.

The earlier tradition of the story reads like this, The Lord saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  Genesis 6:5-6

That is what God’s people remembered there in exile. That God was sorry that He had ever created humankind because the thoughts of their hearts were so absent of Him, because the earth of filled with violence. We people broke the Lord’s heart. But the story does not end in brokenness but hope.

God found hope in one family, the family of Noah. He spared Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives and two of every kind of animal after calling upon him to build an ark to house them all to ride out the waters.

God remembered Noah and all the wild and domestic animals after 40 days and nights floating out in the waters. And God sent a wind to blow over the earth and the waters subsided. And all the inhabitants of the ark stepped out onto dry land again.

This is where the passage we hear today picks up…

As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, as many as came out of the ark.

Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

And God as a sign of this first Covenant sets his bow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between him and all creation.

I think we just often think, oh the beautiful rainbow. But the people living in exile in Babylon would have heard something very different. The bow and arrow was the most deadly weapon of the age.  God turned this weapon upside down. And every time God saw the bow, he would remember His promise. Never again.

God required nothing of Noah and his family or any of creation in this promise. Nothing. God knew that Noah, just like the rest of humankind, still had a heart that could be evil. Just a few verses later in the scripture Noah is drunk and naked.

But God didn’t wipe out all of creation and start anew. God changed how he was going to handle us humans and he decided that love and mercy were the way.

We broke God’s heart and instead of getting rid of humankind, instead of scraping all of what God had made and called good, God chose mercy and love.

God laid down the power of destruction against us. God promised steadfast love to humankind who will inevitably never be able to live up to such a love.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking with the children about how God heals the brokenhearted. It was the responsorial psalm for the day. They had wonderful ideas about what it meant to be broken hearted and the group was popping with things to share.

Harrison, who is the dear 4-year-old who was baptized just last week, shot up his hand. “I know, Amelia it’s like this…”

And he raised his hands above his head.

“It’s like in church when the priest says Jesus took bread and he broke it. And he did that for us. Because he loves us.”

It’s like this.

We break God’s heart.

God breaks his bow and promises to love us, just as we are.

And in time God sends Jesus.

Jesus who breaks his body in love for us.

Jesus who breaks the bondage of our sin.

And we are broken open, if we let ourselves be, to hope in Christ and the hope of the Kingdom of God in our very midst.

I never set foot in New Orleans before the flood. In late February 2006 we loaded up Wyly, my daughter who was three, and Jed, who was a whole seven months old, and headed in for Mardi Gras.  The people of New Orleans were determined to go forward with the celebration that is one of the defining marks of them as a people.

As we drove in there wasn’t a roof that wasn’t dotted or completely covered in blue tarp. Plywood covered windows.  Mounds of debris lay everywhere. There were piles, huge piles of flooded out cars stacked one atop the other, beneath the underpasses. The spray paint signals made by rescuers indicating that they had been in the building still on so many doorways.

We parked and loaded up Wyly in the wagon and I tucked Jed into his carrier on my chest. I had no idea what to expect. What I found as we rounded the corner and stepped onto St. Charles was a sight I will never forget. People everywhere, children, families from every walk of life. There in joy to celebrate. Strangers came up and oohed and aahed at my babies. Music, so much music, from the parade, from people playing boom boxes in the neutral ground, which is how New Orleanians refer to what we call the median. Children perched on their dads’ shoulders shouting, “Throw me something, mister!” as the floats rolled by with people in fantastic costumes throwing prizes. People coming up and hanging beads around my little girl’s neck. “Here you go, baby.”

I fell in love with New Orleans that day. A place so broken, a people so broken, so heartbroken, filled with so much hope.

In Lent we are asked to turn ourselves in all our brokenness toward God, surrendering to God’s love and mercy and to let that love change us as God himself changed. We are asked to fix our hearts, souls, and minds on the promise of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings.

If you asked me about the times that I’ve glimpsed what the Kingdom of God might be like, I’d mostly likely tell you first about that day on St. Charles.

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

In the first letter to the Corinthians appointed for today, Paul tells the people of Corinth, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
(I Corinthians 8:2-3)

Knowledge puffs up, LOVE builds up.

Today’s Gospel is from Mark. There are two things about reading Mark’s Gospel that for me stand out right away.

First, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, is written with urgency. In today’s reading we are only 21 verses into the whole Gospel and Jesus is a full-grown man who has already been born, baptized by John, spent 40 days in the wilderness and gone out and gathered up disciples. In the other synoptic Gospels, it takes Matthew three chapters and Luke four entire chapters to get to this point.

And second, I find it is easy to identify in Mark with the disciples Jesus gathers along the way. Because I know about Jesus. I get it. And I can get might “judgy” about the people in Mark’s gospel who do not know Jesus; like the people who are encountering Jesus for the first time, like the people in Capernaum from today’s story.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson beautifully sets the stage for how one can approach reading the Gospel of Mark…

If you think you are an insider, you may not be, if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware, you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by HIS MESSIAHSHIP in terms of obedience and service.
(Luke T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, page 158. Published in 1946)

Johnson goes on to say that it does little good to try to figure out who the bad guys are in Mark’s narrative, who Mark is taking aim at. He’s talking to us. We are the ones in need of the Holy One who has come to make God’s presence in our very midst known.

In this very first public action of his ministry as told in Mark, Jesus sets about both teaching and healing at once. Although the text does not share what Jesus taught. Only that he did so with an authority, with a power that was new to the hearers.

This story is not one I love trying to tell children.

Why don’t I love retelling this to children? Well, demons. If anyone is particularly excited about broaching this subject with children, they probably ought not to be around children. There is no doubt in my mind that children have an understanding of evil, but when you name it as a demon it gets tricky. For them and for us adults, too.

The original hearers of this Gospel would not have had the same backstory you and I bring to hearing about an exorcism, no images from horror movies flashing in their heads. Talking about demons was not out of the ordinary. It was a common way of naming that which was not of God.

And in today’s gospel “that which is NOT of GOD” knew good and well who had the power in the room when encountering Jesus. “Have you come to destroy us?” he asks. And all Jesus has to say is BE SILENT. And “that which was not of God” left the man restored to be fully the beloved child of God he was made to be. Jesus possessed, possesses, the power, the authority to call out what is not of God and send it off. This is what got people talking.

The urgency with which Mark speaks is apocalyptic, not that Mark is describing the end of the world in a fiery ball, but that Mark is revealing to the world the power of Jesus. And that power looks markedly different from what we often associate with authority.

Jesus is not puffing up himself with his authority, he is building up the world, revealing the nature of God’s love. Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel tries to keep the talk about him to a minimum, avoiding the limelight, telling his disciples to zip it and not talk too much about him.

Jesus, whose life and ministry leads to the cross, is clear about where His authority comes from. FROM THE LOVE OF GOD. And as theologian Elizabeth Schlusser Fiorenza says, he does so with “steadfast resistance” to anything – any demonic force, any political or religious construct, anything at all – that would seek to do anything else but BUILD UP all of God’s people. Jesus moves through Mark’s Gospel story in “steadfast resistance” straight to the cross. Straight to sacrificial love. To the cross where we learn what power and authority look like in the Kingdom of God.

Our Tuesday book group has just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. The story follows a family of four girls, their mother, and their missionary preacher father as they travel into Congo. The father, Nathaniel, is hell bent on saving the residents of the village, determined to get them all down into the crocodile-invested river to baptize them. He feels he has the knowledge about Jesus that these villagers need, hollering through sermon after sermon AT them. And he is incredulous as to why they won’t accept his heavy-handed invitation for a baptism in the river and a chance to be taken under by a crocodile.

Nathaniel throughout his time in Africa sought to overcome others with his knowledge of the authority of Jesus, rather than demonstrating Jesus’ “steadfast resistance,” Jesus’ transformative, restorative love.

His time there was not spent walking toward the cross like Christ, serving in love. Instead, Nathaniel seemed to be standing at the foot of the cross screaming about the authority that he knew about, but they did not. His insistence on his knowledge kept him from building anything. In fact, he destroyed his family, the village, and himself in the process of trying to prove himself right.

In thinking about who I might hold up as someone who has lived their life in “steadfast resistance” to that which keeps us away from the love of God, I came up with a several people, well known for resisting hatred and violence in this world. And thank God for them. But it seemed more important to me to think about people whose “steadfast resistance” goes largely unnoticed.

Are there people you know whose lives have been built on love, sacrificial love? I believe there are many known to us. People who day in and day out quietly serve those in need and in doing so are quietly walking the way of the cross. People who without fanfare or fuss do something to bring God’s love into this world no matter the cost to themselves. People who know what it feels like to be possessed by a demon, to be held captive by that which is not of God – hatred, greed, self-harm, self-loathing – who have been freed through God’s love, restored like the man today. And they take that freedom and offer it to others in humility, not on authority.

The world is filled with people like this. We are surrounded by them, known and unknown.

As we hear the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark throughout this season and this lectionary-year cycle, I want to listen with humility, like I am an outsider, one ready to live in “steadfast resistance” to anything that is not of God.

I pray that we hear THE GOOD NEWS in Mark as Jesus’ power and authority are revealed on his way to the cross and build up this world in love.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

One of the unexpected joys of my work here at St. Mary’s is that I have been given the opportunity to age up. In the congregations I have been in previously, my work centered around children and youth, and I rarely ventured into the territory of people who had mostly stopped going to the orthodontist.

I am grateful that my life here includes coordinating a number of book studies, some adult forum programming and preaching. Turns out I like grown-ups too.

Currently our Friday morning book has just completed, Miracle on 10th Street. It is a compilation of writing by the great Madeline L’Engle, an author who wrote for both children and adults. It is full of pieces of prose and poetry about Advent and Epiphany that have given us a great many things to talk about over the last few weeks.

I could not help to think about today’s Gospel when I read these lines from her poem “First Coming”:

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with any sweet birth narrative or genealogy. Mark comes out swinging, right in the midst of the tarnished world.

There’s no gussying up with any pedigree showing how Jesus is from the House of David. There are no angels sweeping in and upending Mary’s world. No trip to Bethlehem. This isn’t John’s beautiful, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

Right out of the gate in Mark’s gospel we meet John, the crazy cousin, clad in camel hair and eating bugs and honey in the wilderness. He jumped right into the messy world to make way for Jesus.

John has something to say. And it’s not particularly sunshiny. Most prophets, including Isaiah who we heard today as well, have some pretty hard things to say. Prophets are not people who have any particularly great status or power. They are usually not from “the right side of the tracks.” But prophets are undeterred by their lack of credentials. And they make it their work to point out the ways that people are not behaving how God intends. Prophets open the “thing drawer” in the kitchen, that place where you stuff all the junk, and reveal that not all is well.  They look at God’s people and shout, beg, whisper, cry whatever they can to get us to see something we do not want to or cannot see for ourselves.

One time with a group of four- and five-year-olds I asked about believing in things we cannot see. So, we talked about things that we know are there, but we cannot see with our eyes. There were answers like germs and wind. Some kids mentioned love and God. One child looked at me incredibly intently until I called on her.

“I cannot see my face.” she said. “Oh,” I said, “but you can see yourself in a mirror.” To which she replied, “But that’s just my reflection. I’m not really seeing my face. And I can’t see my own eyes.”

Prophets take us by the shoulders, look at our faces and tell us what we cannot or will not see about ourselves.

The words of comfort we hear from Isaiah today come after 39 chapters of Isaiah taking God’s people by their shoulders and telling them what their faces look like.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:16-17)

The first portion of Isaiah speaks to the leaders and people and shows them the ways in which they have failed to live in God’s justice and righteousness. How instead of living in the Covenant God had made with them, they had ignored the needs of God’s people and sought their own power in arrogance.

But prophets speak out not to obliterate God’s people, but because they have the imagination to see how things can be different. Prophets can tell of God’s love that passes all understanding for the same reason they can tell us where we are off track, because they can see our faces.

So, Isaiah also speaks words of God’s saving grace. Of hope. Which is what we heard today. Which is how Mark begins his whole story of the life of Christ …

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

John came proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins. Which is to say John came proclaiming that he could see God’s people in ways they could not, reminding them of the ways that they were not living into the Covenant God had made with them so long ago. He looked into their faces asking them to change, to repent meaning to turn their hearts towards God’s love.  And he told them that God was at work bringing the power of God’s love and righteousness into their very midst.

I often wonder if John the Baptist were to appear today if I’d go out into the wilderness to hear him. The Gospel says that many people were going to him. I wonder what drew them there.  Was it the power of his clarity, knowing the nearness of the proximity of God’s love? Was it that the people who came were desperately tired of the way the world was working?

It may seem a strange juxtaposition in the midst of preparing for the birth of Jesus to in this Gospel be placed on the banks of the Jordan River with John. I suppose no less strange than last week’s Gospel either, grappling with when the world will cease and begin again.

There is a want, at least for me, to just to rest in the comfort of knowing that sweet baby Jesus is on the way. Not so easy, according to the prophets.

It is good and right to wrestle in these coming weeks as we await the birth of Christ with John’s call to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. To prepare for Jesus’s arrival with anything less that this would be cheap grace.

What would John the Baptist say to me were he to look at my face? What would John the Baptist say to all of us? That is a question worth turning over in these next weeks.

I confess that I am disheartened by what I imagine John would say. Not only by what he would say to me but about the state of the world. I can see how prophets throughout the ages have looked around and let loose with harsh and painful words. I don’t think a one of us would say the state of the world today is our best effort. And I lack the imagination to begin to think of how things could ever change.

But then I remember that the prophets speak hope too. A hope that imagines…

Valleys lifted and mountains laid low.

A hope that promises us that

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And in this sense of hope, I’m struck that Mark’s story begins by calling people to be baptized, one at a time, to begin again.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

I do not want to come to the wonder of Christmas morning without stepping into the Jordan River with John.

I want to be willing to heed the warnings of the prophets, willing to acknowledge and bewail the ways in which I have fallen short, the ways in which this still tarnished world falls short of making pathways made straight for all of God’s beloved creation.

This Christmas I want to peer into the manger, ready to meet the gaze of the one who sees my face, the one who sees your face, and in great love shines on us all the Light that will never go out. And then our faces although we cannot see them for ourselves may reflect that love, that light into this broken, tarnished world and we together begin again.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

For several years I worked as the Christian education teacher at an Episcopal day school. I went into work early on Fridays to set up for the all-school eucharist. Having to come so early meant I came in without my kids in tow. So, for 10-15 minutes every Friday morning it was quiet in my car, and I was able to actually listen to the radio. My timing meant that I managed to hear StoryCorps on NPR, a brief segment with just two people talking to one another. This was a huge highlight of my week.

StoryCorps began in 2003 with a sound booth set up in Grand Central Terminal in New York City for people to tell their stories to each other. The mission of StoryCorps is to help us believe in each other by illuminating the humanity and possibility in us all — one story at a time. This sounds to me an awful lot like part of what we do here every Sunday.

Each Friday morning, I listened to two people. One asking questions of the other about a particular event or situation. The daughter interviewing her father who knew he was slipping into dementia. The student asking his teacher just what she had seen in him and how she had managed to help him get into college. The grandmother recounting to her grandchild what life was like in the Jim Crow South.

Every Friday morning this beautiful slice of humanity was laid out for me in the quiet of my car, by people who I would never cross paths with. But their stories of love and loss, regret and redemption, humor and solace forged some kind of connection. Most Fridays by the time I pulled into the parking lot at school I had already tested the limits of my waterproof mascara and my heart had been broken open.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday — the day we remember the saints and all those who have gone before us. It is the most human of our holy days when we recall those who have left their imprints on us, who have left imprints of God’s love on this world. It is a day that we hold up for each other the wonders of people whose lives have been a blessing, one story at a time. It is also a day that reminds me why I wear waterproof mascara and it most certainly breaks my heart wide open.

“God gets stuff done through flawed human beings,” pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says. The saints we celebrate today, the famous ones who have done good deeds of great note and the ones known to us only in the most tender places in our hearts, are just people, not perfect people, not perfect stories. Just people through whom God gets good stuff done. And if ever there was a time to hold up for each other the work that God can get done through people it is right now. Today.

Lines drawn. Boxes checked. Guns pointed. Bombs dropped. Human beings being summarized into categories and columns and charts. It seems to me that the stories we are hearing about other humans rarely begin with what we share, but rather how very far apart we are from one another.

This story of separation we are immersed in makes it fearfully easy to forget what the lives of the saints teach us. That God gets stuff done through flawed human beings. Not perfect people. Not the people who seem to have it all together. Not the people with the best teeth or the best ad buy. Not the people whose authority rests in powers and principalities. Not the people at the front of the line. Not necessarily the people we agree with.

Although we may be drawn into thinking that power, influence, riches, and perfection are the means to glory, Jesus teaches us something very different today as he begins teaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins his teachings not by telling anyone what they are doing wrong, but by proclaiming their blessedness. Blessings in places where we humans might least expect to find them. These blessings for the poor and hungry and persecuted people standing in the crowds as Jesus spoke these words were not just for that day. These blessings are for today. We are not so very different here now than the original hearers of the Sermon on the Mount were. We are flawed humans. They were, too. People through whom God can get good things done.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those at the end of their rope. At the end of their bank account. At the end of the last loaf of bread. God is there with you.

Blessed are those in deep grief. Those who feel that all is lost because what is most dear is gone. God will hold them.

Blessed are the meek, the ones who know that their worth lies in their belovedness to God and nothing more. They inherit the earth because they know their place in it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, those who want to see God’s mercy and love poured out into this world. They will find themselves full as they empty their lives out for others in the name of God.

Blessed are the merciful because in extending mercy and forgiveness they find themselves forgiven and connected and whole.

Blessed are the pure in heart, who know it is not perfection that God seeks, but only that God is the dearest treasure. And to treasure God like that brings clarity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, the crazy ones who insist that there is a different way to live, a way that respects the dignity of every human being. They know their place in the family of God.

Blessed are the ones persecuted because of their courageous love for God. God holds them fast even as they are harmed while proclaiming LOVE.

Blessed are you when you stay true to God, refusing to let your worth or anyone else’s be defined by anything other than the LOVE OF GOD. That might make people uncomfortable. Let them be. Because in heaven there is a great cloud of witnesses who have done exactly that, singing your praises. Jesus is revealing the character of God. He is showing us how surprising and accessible God’s blessings are.

The saints are people, some rich, some poor, some with power, many without it. People who led mostly straight and narrow lives and people who had some major detours. But each of the saints in different ways has been able to live a life that reflects and responds to these blessings for others and for themselves.

This day is as holy a day as was the day Jesus taught the Beatitudes. This ground under our feet, it is no less holy than the ground that was under those listening to the Sermon on the Mount. No less holy than the ground that the saints before us have stood upon. The water that will be poured over the heads of those baptized today, as holy as the Jordan River. God has not withdrawn from us. God has not stopped blessing the poor and the meek and the humble. God has not given up on us. God is in our very midst. The saints are not only people who lived in ages past, long ago heroes whose likes will never be seen again. There are saints here today, showing up and getting good stuff done for God.

What are the stories of the saints that you want Weston, Hattie, Harper, Molly, and Fritz to know? How might God ask us to show up for these children, for all our children? So that, like the saints before us, our lives of faith may be a blessing to them?

StoryCorps is the single largest collection of human voices ever gathered. Amazing. It is the largest collection of human voices recorded. But I believe today as we come at this font and to this table, a far larger collection of human voices gathers, voices more numerous than the stars, all of the saints, all of the company of heaven, with us now in this place at this time. Each one witnessing to us, witnessing with us that God’s blessings abound. Voices reminding us that we too are a part of this story. On this most human of holy days may we know the blessings of God and find the strength and courage and love to show up to be the saints we are called to be. Amen.

Amelia McDaniel