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

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Growing up, my mother regularly read Greek myths and Aesop’s Fables to me. All of my goldfish were thus named after Greek gods and goddesses. And I can tell you that as a child who loved to please by following the rules, I adored Aesop’s Fables. They were succinct little stories with a very definite moral end. Full of rules. And full of characters to point a finger at who WERE NOT following the rules. I loved being able to tsk tsk about those fools. I was a barrel of fun as a kid!

One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and Woodsman goes something like this…

There was a fox being chased by hounds and hunters for a long time. Exhausted, the fox came up to man cutting wood and begged him to give him a place to hide. The man agreed and took the fox to his own hut where the fox crept in and made himself scarce in the corner.

Soon the hunters and their dogs appeared.  They asked the man if he had seen the fox.

“Oh, no,” said the man.  Except while he was saying no he was pointing right at his hut.

Thankfully for the fox, the hunters were oblivious, and I guess they had really bad hounds because they ran off still looking for the fox.

After they left the fox was slinking out of the hut to get out of there fast. But the man saw him and fussed at him. “This is how you treat someone who has helped you? Without so much as a thank-you?”

The fox replied, “Some host you are. Thank goodness your mouth was more honest than your fingers, otherwise I’d have never had the chance to offer you the thank-you that I am NOT going to give you now.”

Saying one thing and doing another.

That is where we find the two brothers in the parable from the Gospels today.

I think it is worth noting that our gospel last week and our gospel next week include parables set in the vineyard.  Jesus often uses the vineyard as a way to talk about what the Kingdom is like. Last week we heard the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The one where those who have worked a full day and those who have worked just an hour get paid exactly the same.  The laborers who have been there all day pitch a fit, which, if we are all being honest, most of us would, too. And the landowner replies, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus has told us already that the vineyard is open to all, and our rules do not apply there. God’s love does. We will find this again today.

Today’s vineyard story is worth placing in its own context in the Gospel of Matthew.

Our passage today is part of the Holy Week narrative in Matthew. The beginning of Chapter 21 opens with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus going to the Temple to set things straight and flip some tables to make room for the blind and crippled to come in and be healed.

The next day as Jesus was heading back into Jerusalem where today’s exchange takes place, he stopped to pluck a fig from a fig tree. What he found was a fig tree that looked great, green and leafy. But it had NO fruit. A seemingly healthy tree bearing no good fruit. And he curses it, and it shrivels up immediately. The disciples are standing there open mouthed looking at Jesus.

He says to them you think this is something? Just wait. If you get on board with what I am trying to do here, you’ll be able to do far bigger things than just make a fig tree dry up. You’ll be able to make mountains jump into lakes. Big things can change when you act in God’s love.

Today’s gospel picks up just after that. I do wonder if he ever got breakfast because, as David would say, he sounds a little “chippy” in this passage.

Jesus comes into the Temple and the high priests and elders immediately ask him for his credentials. Jesus slaps back. First, how about you answer a question I’ve got for you. By what authority did John baptize – God’s or his own? Well, they are stuck. If they say that John’s authority came from God, then they are exposed as liars. Or maybe worse. People who’ve gotten things all wrong about God. And if they say John’s authority was self-made, then the crowd gathered around who think of John as God’s prophet will swallow them up.

So, they play the “Uh, we don’t know” card.

And, as Jesus so often does, he tells a parable. The parable of the two sons sent to work in a vineyard. The first son called said no, but later on changed his mind and showed up to work. The second son called said “yes sir.  of course, I will go work in the vineyard today” but instead just flat out didn’t show. Saying one thing and doing another.

When Jesus asks them which of the sons did the right thing, they reply the first.

Jesus then tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, which simply means everyone that the religious leaders had deemed unworthy in whatever way, everyone they said hadn’t worked long enough in the vineyard to get a full day’s pay, those folks are going to be in front of them in line on the way into the Kingdom. John came and you refused to change, refused to believe the repentance he was pointing to and instead you pointed at him as if he were the problem. You pointed at them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, as if they were the problem. But they are the very ones who heard the good news turned around toward God and changed their minds and headed to work in the vineyard.  Even after you saw this with your very own eyes, you did not believe him.

It’s important to remember that Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes will be ahead of the religious leaders he’s talking to on the way into the Kingdom. Not that they WILL NOT get into the Kingdom. They just won’t be first in line.

If I am honest with myself, I might as well cast myself, Amelia McDaniel, into the role of one of the high priests and elders or the son who said he’d show up and didn’t or into the role of the wood cutter, too. Saying one thing, doing another. Looking one way but being another. Like the fig tree with no fruit. Maybe you are in the casting line-up with me and feel you have the chops to be one of these characters, too. I don’t think I am unique here.

It’s not that I wake up with the aim of being the fig tree bearing no fruit each day. I start off with the intention of marching into the vineyard. Sometimes I can make it all the way past lunch before I turn into that tree. But, mercifully, Jesus, still offers me a place in line and the opportunity to try again.

Unlike fables that have a tight little punch, parables offer possibilities. Fables end with a moral statement. But parables are an invitation to think more broadly. Who is my neighbor? Is just one small coin worth searching for? What would I give up everything to be able to have? Parables push us to think of what is possible in the Kingdom of God because it is just so hard to fathom.

Theologian Douglas Hare says that even though today’s parable is directed at the religious leaders Jesus was addressing, “Matthew probably intended a wider application as well. Christians too can become blind to what God is doing in the world around them… We say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path!” (Hare, p. 248)

As an expert stone arranger myself, I would like to get out into the vineyard, full of possibilities.

Is it possible to change one’s heart and mind and go to work in the vineyard?

Is it possible to summon the courage to meet Jesus in those whom we least expect to find him?

Is it possible to instead turn the finger pointed at someone else as the problem and touch one’s own heart and learn to bear good fruit?

Where are the places in our own hearts, in our own homes, and in our community that we could move from pushing rocks around the path to gathering up the good fruit to share?

And it may be possible that today this parable may find you ready to head to the vineyard to begin to work.

–Amelia McDaniel


A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross. You may have heard that before. It’s an old hymn written by Fanny Crosby who wrote thousands of hymns in her lifetime.

Jesus, keep me near the cross,

There a precious fountain;

Free to all, a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

Near the cross, a trembling soul,

Love and mercy found me.

Near the cross!  I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

I’ll confess that I invoke this hymn, or its first line, “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” when I’m about to lose it. Most likely with one of my children or at the TV when the news it on. It is often preceded or followed up with Hail Mary, full of grace. I frequently call upon both Mary and Jesus in a not-so-subtle or possibly reverent way to remind myself of who I am and what I know to be true. It’s like shorthand to remember what I believe and thus far it’s kept me from being arrested for doing something dumb.

I doubt this is a use Fanny Crosby envisioned and my guess is she would not approve of it. And I really do apologize to her for that.

Today’s Gospel reading is probably a familiar to many of you.

If any of you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Eugene Patterson, author of The Message, a contemporary paraphrasing of the Bible, offers this interpretation of the passage.

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self- sacrifice is the way, my way to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Let me lead. That sounds doable, right? We can let Jesus lead us? But what does it mean to embrace suffering?

Take up your cross and follow me. I’m afraid that this passage has sometimes given way to something that sounds like this… your cross to bear.

Oh you know so and so, their mother has Alzheimer’s and has to live with them.  What a cross to bear. 

The sentiment is that a cross to bear, embracing suffering, is a burden that is heavy, fraught, and in the end just a sad part of your story. Suffering. Unredeemed.

There is much written about suffering. There are theologians who can speak about it so beautifully. Scores of Christians have taken up this truth of human existence and held it up to the light. Sadly, there are others who comingle suffering with abuse and call it holy. That I cannot abide.

I can speak to suffering as I have known it. What I have learned is that for me my deepest suffering has given way to what starts off as pinpricks of vision into the mercy of God.  Tiny openings where it is not a “silver lining” I have found, but I do see God at work in my life.

I do not believe that God visits suffering upon me to test me. The pain that is part and parcel of being a human is not God’s master plan to torture me into believing. But I do believe that suffering has given me an opportunity to come to the cross, and with trembling soul, find God’s love and mercy. And over time those pinpricks begin to widen, and I can see more clearly what God can do within my own heart. I see the abundance of grace extended to me. What once was a burden or a hurt so heavy I might have even in my despair called it a cross to bear is not gone but changed somehow.

Jesus earlier in the Gospel of Matthew says…

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Jesus’s yoke is love. Self-sacrificing love that he laid on his shoulders for us. And because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, our yoke is indeed lighter. It is not without pain, but it is lighter. Suffering is most definitely a part of the story, but it is not the end. Love is. Paul, today, talks about the ways Jesus’ love is borne out into this world through those who would take up their cross, their yokes and follow him.

Genuine love. Love that leads us to extend ourselves to others: welcoming strangers, blessing our enemies, weeping with those in pain, celebrating with those who witness joy, choosing wisdom and humbleness over being a haughty braggart. Love that can hold fast to what is good in the face of pain.

I recently heard a story on the news. It is gospel, it is good news. And to me it is a story of someone who took up their cross, of someone for whom embracing suffering and mercy and love is simply part of how he moves through the world.

Robert Carter is a 33-year-old man who lives in Cincinnati. His childhood was marked by poverty, an absent father, and a mother who struggled with alcohol addiction. He ended up in the foster care system at 13, taken away from his eight siblings and not destined for adoption. At 16 he ended up living independently and making his way through high school while working three jobs. After graduation he was eventually able to bring two of his siblings into his home and care for them. He went on to become a hairdresser and open up his own business.

But Robert Carter always wanted a family and so in 2018 he became a foster father to three boys. Three children to care for before he was 30. As the boys were settling into their lives with him, he began to hear them speak about their two sisters. So, Robert Carter went and found the sisters and petitioned the court to take them in, too. All together. A family.

The magistrate who was charged with reviewing this adoption for approval was amazed by Carter.

“I’m thinking, ‘You [Carter] made it out of the foster system, you’re starting your own life, you’re young. This is your chance to do you.’ People are selfish and I’m expecting him to ‘do you,’ so why are you taking on the obligation of five kids? I’m like, ‘Convince me,'” the judge said.

And he did prove it to her. “They are the real deal,” the magistrate said of the family of six. And this, alone, would be a story of suffering and mercy and love.But there is more.

Four years ago, Robert Carter’s mother got sober and reentered his life.  And he reconciled with his father. Today the five Carter children have a dad and aunts and uncles who love them along with two grandparents who do, too.

In the interview, the reporter asked Carter how, how did he manage to get through school and into adulthood on his own. He said he saw what happened to his parents and he did not want that life for himself. And when asked how it is that he finds it within himself to be a parent to five children, Robert Carter said, “I feel like I just used my trauma and my hurting to be my fuel to keep going and to want better, and want to help people and do better in life.”

I do not know if Robert Carter is a Christian, but I can tell you that what I see in him is an example of someone keeping near the cross. He took the suffering of growing up without a parent and through genuine love and perseverance he became the parent that he had needed. And then in love and mercy he has opened his home to his own parents. Genuine love. A love that does not seek to serve self but others. He has certainly “done better.”

I’ll watch and wait,

Hoping, trusting ever;

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 18, 2022

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


Is your halo getting a little snug?
That is what my mother would ask me when I was getting a little too big for my britches, Is your halo getting a little snug? This question was brought out when I was behaving with some kind of remarkable lack of humility.

As an only child and grandchild for 12 years in a close knit family it was easy to feel spectacularly special. And the fact that I remember this saying clearly should give you some indication of just how often I needed a course correction.

I can still feel the sting of being called out for my arrogance. And truthfully there have been many times past my childhood when my mother should have marched up to me and asked the question again.

Being called out when you are well aware you are in the wrong hurts. But being called out when you are thinking you are good enough or being pretty darn good maybe even spectacularly good, that leaves a mark.

And often that was and is the job of the prophets. To leave a mark. To speak in such a way that gets people’s attention. Prophets go far beyond my mother’s gentle corrective question and they can throw gut punches. But prophets in their attempts to land words that alarm us are not trying to harm God’s people, they are trying to gather God’s people back to the life giving ways that God wants us to live.

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