Today we celebrate All Saints Day… along with Halloween. Usually the two are separate dates on our church calendar, which may seem to make more sense, but, in reality, the two are closely connected. Halloween originated in the ancient Celtic times as a time when the veil between the worlds was thin…. When we could connect easily to those who had died. But this also meant they could connect with us too. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The ghosts were said to damage crops and cause damage to homes, and mostly mischievous harm was done. They gathered together to make huge bonfires and give crop offerings to their gods, often dressed in animal hides, and then each home would take a pice of the fire home to light their hearth fire for the winter.
As with many Christian festivals, the Pope’s of the time who were trying to convert everyone to Christianity, used the festivals already being celebrated and changed them to Christian ones. Christmas is set where it is in our calendar due to the Winter Solstice festival, as one other example. And Samhain was no different. Pope Gregory moved the observance of Martyrs from May to November 1st, and expanded it to include all saints and all souls, and soon the Samhain and All Saints were a blended festival, celebrating the dead and helping them stay where they needed to be instead of breaking through to earth to make mischief!
In Mexico Day of the Dead is celebrated in the same manner, remembering the dead with elaborate rooms set up in home to remember those who have died in the last year. As well as a picture of the one who has died, people bring their favorite foods and drinks, colorful sugar skulls, flowers and cloths are laid on the altar or table or bed, and people travel from one home to the next to share stories and wild tales of the one they are remembering. It is a festive time and laughter and music fills the streets and you never leave a home without a cup of hot chocolate or coffee…. And it goes well through the night! It was a honor to be there one year and be invited to join in the celebration!
In the Catholic Christian calendar, All Saints and All Souls have become a time to remember…. Traditionally All Saints it a time to remember those who have officially made sainthood and All Souls everyone else. In Methodism, we see all who have gone before us as part of the great cloud of witnesses…. As saints who have taught us something to be remembered and honored. And while this remembering can be sad, when some time has passed and grief been felt, often we can remember stories about what we have carried and remembered from one of our saints lives with a feeling of celebration rather than mourning.
So while death is still very much a part of our lives, that promise from Isaiah not yet a reality where death has been swallowed up, I believe that, with time, when we remember those who have died tears will be wiped away from our faces when we we remember our personal saints who have paved a way for our lives, who have taught us things that we continue to grow and learn from, who have left us better people than we would have been if we did not know them.
One of the saints in my life was my great aunt Molly. I didn’t ever get to see her very much as she and my great uncle, George, lived in Norfolk and we were down in London. We did not have a car, and neither did they, so the only time I would see them was when were had taken a train to visit my grandparents and my grandfather agreed to drive us to see them. My great uncle died when I was pretty young, so I don’t remember much about him, but I remember visiting their home….. an old blacksmith cottage with a thatched roof in a little village…. And feeling like I was being wrapped in a warm hug. It felt safe and welcoming and like I was loved. They were unable to have children, and this was always a heartbreak to them, but it did not stop them sharing heir great love with the village…. Many of the local kids would pop in to say hi (and often be given a cookie!) And they were surrogate grandparents to the kids whose families lived far away. Their cottage looked like it belonged on a jigsaw puzzle of an English cottage…. A sunny, flower filled garden and this old building topped with its roof. It had been built in the 1700’s…. Small windows and thick walls and a huge fireplace inside.
When I was 18 or so I decided I wanted to visit aunt Molly, and drove myself to stay for the weekend. When I got there there was a note on the door telling me she was just finishing up at church. I knew she went to church every week, but by this time I had stopped going, but I wandered over to the church a few houses away, and crept in the door to find her. She was up by the altar, arranging some flowers she had picked from her garden, readying the space for worship the next morning. We hugged our hello’s and she said she was almost done, so I helped her finish up with the flowers and polishing the pews. Then I asked if we could just sit there for a minute. I sat in a pew and she sat next to me, and I quietly prayed, Molly by my side. She knew I was hurting and struggling, and silently just took my hand in hers. Soon we left the church and went back to her house for tea. We didn’t say any more about it…. The English way! But the next morning I asked if I could go to church with her. The only thing I remember was walking down the lane with the church bells ringing our over the village! But there was something in that moment the day before in that quiet church with my aunt sitting next to me stayed with me….. her faith and hope, even after all the struggles she had endured in her life. She was my grandfather’s sister, and I know she had not had a good childhood with him around. And then the heartbreak of not being bale to have children, of the loss of her husband at a young age…. And many other things I never knew about. It was as though, in that moment in the church when she held my hand, all that possibility of faith enduring was passed on to me.
And I remember being super angry and confused at her funeral. For there, on the cover of the bulletin, was her picture…. But her name was wrong, and everyone kept calling her a different name, referring to her as Janet. How had I never known she was a Janet and not a Molly? But to me, she will always be my great aunt Moly, a woman of deep faith, even with the trials and pain she lived with.
So now, it’s your turn! Each of you should have a ball of clay…. For we are formed and formed and formed over and over again by God’s own hands, by the lived of those who help shape us, by the experiences we have. I invite you to go sit with someone you did not come to church with taking your ball of clay with you. Choose one person to begin and have that person share a vignette of a saint in your life, Tell a story to the other person. It may be a funny story or how you still see their influence on your life, it may be a memory that just comes to mind, or a colorful story that makes you laugh. And as you share your story, the listener is going to shape the ball of clay. If you are the listener, just let your hands move and shape, don’t overthink what you are making, just see what happens as you shape the clay while you listen. After two or three minutes, I’ll ring the bell and the you switch roles, with the listener telling their story and the new listener shaping their ball of clay.
So find a partner, and I’ll ring us in to begin!
Give your clay creation to the one who told you about their saint, and come forward as a pair with them. As you place it on the altar, say the name of the saint you heard a story about and light a candle for them. If their picture is here, you can place it by the picture, but you may have told about someone whose picture is not here, and that fine. If you would like to say other names, and light candles for other saints while you are up here, use this time to do so. With each name, I will ring a bell.
Let us pray
We remember, O Loving God, the presence of those we knew and loved. Once more may we entrust them to your abiding love. We gather strength from kinship with those who hearts also ache with the absence of their loved ones. Grant us healing and hope even as we grieve. Help up remember sties of how they touched our lives, and turn our tears into gratitude and hope and lessons learnt from these great saints in our lives. With your grace help us to face the mystery of death and what lies beyond it. So may we place our trust in you and in the promise that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.
There is a book I nearly always take with me when I go on a retreat…. It’s by a Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alvez, called The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. Rubem, in addition to being a theologian, is a mystic and a storyteller, and the first half of this book, in particular, always teaches me something new. He begins with a story that reminds me of where we find ourselves in todays’ scripture readings. Each morning he goes to his study and sees a spider web. Upset with this sign of carelessness and untidiness, he goes to the kitchen to get the broom and sweep it away. But then, one morning when the cobwebs is up in the same corner once more, he sees it for what it is. He goes on to describe how the cobweb is so precise and symmetrical… a work of art. And then writes,
I am fascinated by the web for another reason too… for what I do not see. I did not see her first move, the move which was the beginning of the web, the leap into the void….I imagine that tiny, almost invisible creature, hanging alone on the wall. She sees the other walls, far away, and measures the distance between them: an empty space…. And there is one thing only she can count on for the incredible work she is about to start: a thread, still hidden inside her body. And then, suddenly, a leap into the void. And the spider’s universe has begun!
This perseverance and leap the spider took, even though it’s home and food source were destroyed over and over, is what the Israelites were doing in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who appointed one of his minion to stay and the the land. He then took all the skilled craftsmen and wealthy people to Babylon and kept them captive, treating them as slaves to do work for his country. He only left the poorest people behind. Jeremiah 25 says, I will send … Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring [him] against this land, and against its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations, and will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, a thing to be hissed, an everlasting ruin. And this whole land shall be a ruin, and a waste; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
Some time in this period of the seventy year exile, the Psalm we heard today reflects. This lament shows the state of the people who were held captive. The desire to remember Jerusalem, even in this new land where they were forced to live. The desire for future revenge on the Babylonians…. The dreams of paying back evil for evil and this hard image for us to hear of them wanting to dash the little ones of the Babylonians against the rocks. Their pain is raw. Their emotions are real. They have been hurt and wronged, and are struggling to find hope. Yet the pledge to remember Jerusalem and save their songs for God, refusing to sing their songs of joy to the people who had captured them.
But then we hear the counter passage from Jeremiah. God reminds the people that when the seventy years are up, they will be able to return home. The God has plans for them. That if they turn again to prayer, they will hear these plans. When they seek God with all their heart, God will lead them home and restore their fortunes and re-create the community. God gives them a glimmer of hope.
While I take issue with the Book of Jeremiah saying that the whole exile and destruction was God’s punishment for the Israelites, when in reality it is more a way for people to try to understand why this happened to them, the hope that God gives is huge when people are in the midst of suffering. It makes the difference between survival and death.
Many studies were done on people who were imprisoned during the holocaust trying to figure out who survived and who didn’t, and, for those who died natural deaths (including from starvation) were often the ones who had lost all hope, who had stopped telling the stories of who they were outside of the camps, who had come to believe that this was the end truth they had to live in. While others, living in the exact same conditions, who had hope, who remembered what life was like before and dreamed about what life could be after, who shared quiet stories and wept and felt the horror but did not get lost in it, the ones who kept a sense of community and looked out for others in the small ways they could, were more likely to come out of the camps alive…. Even when they gave up a share of their meager food portion to someone else, leaving them even less to eat.
So, like Rubem Alvez’s spider, who never gave up hope and each day set out to spin a new web to replace the one Rubem had destroyed, leaping in to the void drawing on those inner resources she had to trust to stay alive, these Israelites are hearing a piece of hope that they can cling to and spin their lives and dreams on as they hear Jeremiah’s prophecy. It helped those who were told the stories of Jerusalem sitting on the banks of the Babylon river to keep hope alive. But it took the stories and the weeping and the cries for revenge and the being present to emotions and the sense of community with one another, and healing work to be done, for this hope to take hold and grow. Others, who did not get this, never returned to Jerusalem. Some had grown too comfortable with the way things were in Babylon. Some had forgotten the stories of their ancestors. Some had headed off to new places and did not want to return. Some had lost hope in the promise that God had plans for them and decided to turn their backs on God. But for those who had remembered and wept and shared stories, the hope of returning home never died. The hope in God never wavered. The hope in community stayed strong.
So what does this have to teach us?
Firstly, I believe that we have to remember the songs of joy our ancestors have taught us. Think of the old songs from the Appalachian region, passed down from generation to generation, building resilience and giving a rhythm to work to… or the songs used on the Underground Railway that had messages hidden inside them…. Steal Away, Wade in the Water, Follow the Drinking Gourd. Each one had not only messages of the way to go, but drew on the strength of the people that went before them, their ancestors from long ago and not so long ago.
What are the songs of joy you sing? How do they help your faith?
But with these songs of joy, to know who we can sing them to and who to keep them from. Like the stories we tell about our lives, Who can witness them with respect and understanding and who may turn them around to use against us? How can we share and guard our stories of hope so they remain powerful for our lives and a message for lives to come? Some of these captives seemed to do this well, telling the stories of their homeland in a way that made it real and a place the generations after them would want to go back to…. But some did not share the stories in a way that those following them would have that desire placed inside them. I think this is true for our faith too…. Do we tell the stories of a God who is judgmental and would cause the Israelites to be captives in Babylon to teach them a lesson, or do we teach of a God who is loving and invites everyone to the table? Which God are you passing on to your children and grandchildren? Which God did they hear about in their youth? How can we repair the damage done by so many who believe God’s love is conditional? How can we repair the image of God as one who punishes rather than one who walks with us in our times of trial? How can you share stories of a God os Love with those who you love…. And with the world at large…. Through your words and actions?
It also teaches us that we need to feel the feelings…. That we can feel like we want to dash their little ones on the rocks to get revenge… that anger and grief are emotions worthy of being felt not pushed aside, not ignored or denied. We don’t need to act on them…. And please never dash a little one against a rock…. But we can imagine hurting someone who has wronged us and that this is a way for us to move through that anger. For who among us could imagine that and not feel compassion for the little ones who have done nothing wrong. But our picturing it can release the anger and let us move beyond it. Too often we label feelings as good or bad and the bad ones we try to ignore or suppress, when really, feelings are just that. The more we give them healthy ways to be acknowledged the more they can just pass through and not take hold.
And, possibly most important in this story, we need to remember God. We need to seek God with all our heart and search for God in each circumstance and pray to God and call upon God and come before God. Then we will find our hope once more. Then we will be brought back from exile…. From feeling far away from God, restored to God’s side and filled with hope once more.
So leap…. Like the spider in Rubem’s study…. Trusting that what you have inside, what God has placed deep within, is enough to hold you and bring you home. Sing songs to witnesses that can hear them well. Don’t waste your breath singing songs to those who will use them against you. Keep your community in mind as you remember the stories that sustained you before and the hope you have for the future. Tell of a God with a love so great that all are invited to partake in the grace offered. Sing a song of hope, and leap into that hope, knowing that God is right there with you. Amen.
Let us begin today by all taking a breath together. That scripture reading we heard can bring up feelings for many of us....many in this room have struggled with fertility issues, have suffered the pain of not being able to conceive, of miscarriage, of giving birth to children who have died, or children who are atypical in some way, disrupting the dreams we held for them before we found out. Many have struggled with being pregnant and not being ready for a child, maybe choosing to terminate the pregnancy, or give a child up for adoption, or have had a child removed from their care. Many have had adult children who have died or are estranged. And with circumstances that change after a child is born that throw everything out of balance. Many have not been seen and heard when they have said they don’t want a child, or not been in a position to have a longed for child, or been told they should not have children because of who they love. And many other things have caused pain around the whole notion of what society considers normal around children. So let us take a moment to hold all that hurt and harm as we breathe and pray together:
Loving God, we know that there is a lot of hurt we hide around the issue of family and children. We know that most of us in this room have faced some pain around this issue. Be with us today as we look at hidden hurts, as we feel the ways we believe we have failed, as we hold and acknowledge the pain and the shame we have experienced. Heal us. Help
us find ways to be vulnerable so we can break the isolation and silence the subject of family often causes. Help us be sensitive to one another as we move through this world, so we can recognize the hidden pain in one another and cause no more harm.
If you would like someone to speak to about the pain you are carrying around children or some other hurt, please reach out to me. You are not alone. You do not have to carry this in silence.
There is a story I’ve heard about a teacher who, at the beginning of the school year, told the children to take a piece of paper and crumple it up.. She explained that each time we say or do something mean, this is what happens to the other person. Now she told them to uncrumple it.... Or course, no matter how hard they tried, the paper still had wrinkles and folds in it. She let the kids sit with that for a moment, no words needed to explain what she meant. But I think more than just seeing that our words and action can leave a lasting impact on someone, when we get crumpled, the crumpling takes up more space than a smooth piece of paper does.
I remember as a child, I got a good grade for some homework I had done. Now, my world was upside-down and back to front in a lot of ways, and I knew I would be in trouble if my mum saw that I had made an A+++ on my homework. While I wanted to show her and have her be proud, I knew it
would upset my brother, and therefore upset my mum. If I got B’s and C’s, or even an A- I was safe, but any grade above that I would get in trouble because I would be showing my brother up. He was older than me by 2 years, and we were in the same small school until I was nine, and everyone knew us all, Teachers would often tell my brother he should be more like me, and it caused a lot of trouble at home.
I still remember to this day that what that homework was... I was 8 and we had been asked to make a list of words that sounded the same but were spelt differently.... Like two and to and too or their and there. I had gone home, and something about this homework had really sparked excitement in me.... Maybe because it showed that not everything was so clear cut. I began to think of words.... Like our (and in this is our church) and hour (as in sixty minutes). I pulled out a dictionary and looked through it for inspiration and earnestly wrote down all the words I could find. I think we had been asked to make a list of ten words, but I filled up page after page, my imagination sparked at the task. I skipped to school the next day and was proud to hand my paper in, my hard work right there in front of my teacher, Ms. Spaeth.
But then, I got my paper back with it’s A+++ my heart sank as I realized what I had done. I went to the teacher and asked her to take the pluses away and put a minus there instead. She looked confused at the request
and said, “Alison, you earned this. You worked really hard, and did more than anyone else in the class. You did a really good job. I’m not taking that away from you.” So I took my paper back to my desk and quietly crumpled it up. Then I stuffed it in my satchel, hidden among other pieces of paper and a couple of books and tried to forget about it. When I got home my mum asked how my day was. “Fine,” I replied. She took my satchel to look to see what homework I had. And I prayed she wouldn’t pay any attention to the crumpled up piece of paper. But what I didn’t think about was how much more room a crumpled up piece of paper takes over a flat piece pf paper. At once she spotted it and pulled it out. My plan had failed. And after the trouble I got into that night I never cared about homework again.... Just doing the minimum needed to get by.
That’s what it is like when we try to hide our hurts too. Everyone in this room is carrying around some kind of hurt and pain. It may be something that you did that you regret, or something that was done to you by someone else, or a physical pain, or just a feeling of not being right that you never share with anyone. How often, when someone asks how you are, do you simply reply, “I’m good.... I’m fine.... I’m ok.” And if someone asks how your day was, “Good.” Might be your go to reply. We crumple and stuff anything that has happened that has caused us pain into the depths of our bodies and try to pretend it isn’t there. But when we do this...
like the crumpled up papers.... It ends up taking up more room, it becomes bigger, it can grow and stick out in ways we don’t want it to. And sometimes the things that we carry around that have hurt us end up hurting someone else. We might be short tempered with someone because we are trying to hide our hurt, or turn our backs on our friends or do something we regret. All because we are unwilling to show and share our pain.
When Hannah tried to hide her hurt, others would not let her forget it. Peninnah would make fun of her and mock her and parade her children around in front of her. I imagine her saying things like, “It’s easy to have children. Why is God punishing you? I have been blessed.... God loves me more. And Elkanah loves me more too for I gave him children.” The basic assumption at that time was that God controlled who had children and who didn’t, that it was all part of some Divine plan. Of course, today we know that’s not the case.
Hannah was really hurt by this, and would fast and pray and weep, and was met with a lack of understanding around her pain. And even on the day she was praying silently to God in the temple, she was misunderstood by the priest who thought she was drunk.
This is often how our hurts are met too.... Either with someone telling us we shouldn’t be so sensitive, telling us to stop crying, telling us to be brave, telling us to get over it or put it behind us or forgive and move on. Yet each
time a hurt is met with a lack of compassion and understanding, we put another crumple in the paper and try to hide it deeper inside. Even when we know the crumple adds to the volume and size of the hurt, and the pushing it deep does not help.
So what is the alternative?
Rev. Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum says, “Hannah finds some peace after she explains her feelings in her own words, and she is (finally) respectfully acknowledged by Eli. Even as Eli himself is not able to provide an immediate solution for Hannah, he is able to accept her hurting and pray for her. Eli does not have to solve anything to be present.”
And this is key for each of us. To hear someones pain. To be heard. To sit with them in it. To be sat with. To not solve or fix it for them but to see it and be with them. To be seen. And if it feels like there is no one who can do that with you, to practice doing this with ourselves... to look at the pain, to not push it down but give it room to move through.
Each time we do this, the hurt smooths out a little more and it begins to take up less space. Each time we name and have compassion toward a hurt, we heal a little more.
AA Milne wrote:
It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn't heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore's house.
Inside the house was Eeyore.
"Hello Eeyore," said Pooh.
"Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet" said Eeyore, in a glum sounding voice.
"We just thought we'd check on you," said Piglet, "because we hadn't heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay."
Eeyore was silent for a moment. "Am I okay?" he asked, eventually. "Well, I don't know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That's what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all.
Which is why I haven't bothered you. Because you wouldn't want to waste your time with someone who is sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all, would you now."
Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.
Eeyore looked at them in surprise. "What are you doing?"
"We're sitting here with you," said Pooh, "because we are your friends. And true friends don't care if someone is feeling sad, or alone, or not much fun to be around at all. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are."
"Oh," said Eeyore. "Oh." And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.
Because Pooh and Piglet were there. No more; no less.
And isn’t this so true. That all it takes sometimes is for someone to acknowledge our pain, to see we are hurting and to come and be with us. When our hurts can come out of hiding and be accompanied in some way, when they don’t get made fun of or belittled, when someone is willing to sit with us in it until we feel better, we do feel better! We don’t need to be fixed or have anyone else take our pain away.... They can’t anyway.... We just need it to be seen.
And this can happen in many ways.... We may find a book where someone else’s pain is like ours and be comforted. We may find a friend to sit with us. We may find our voice and be able to share our story. We may pray and feel God’s comfort for us. We may even just look at it ourselves with compassion and love.
But whatever your hurt is, don’t crumple it up and hide it. This doesn’t work. It just makes it take up more space. Instead, look at it.... With God, with a friend, with a spiritual director or therapist or pastor, with a teacher or parent or spouse.... Name it with compassion and love. And watch it change and heal and smooth out and take up less space.
And that’s what we want.... For when we have been hurt that hurt will always be with us in some way, but we want it to take up less of our lives, to not be so consuming, to form us as part of who we are but to not
overwhelm us any more. To have smoother edges that don’t push and hurt us in the same way.
So show your hurt in a safe space and watch it begin to smooth out and fit itself into your life in a new way.
This story we heard from Acts today is a powerful one in many ways, but most especially, I think, in the way it shows growth and change. When we look at the life of Simon, now known as Peter, we see his continual transformation to become more and more whRead Now
This story we heard from Acts today is a powerful one in many ways, but most especially, I think, in the way it shows growth and change. When we look at the life of Simon, now known as Peter, we see his continual transformation to become more and more who God wants him to be.
Peter began his life in the Bible tellings as a fisherman, whom Jesus met as he was fishing with his brother Andrew. Jesus tells the pair that they will become fishers of humans, and they immediately drop their nets to follow him. In the Gospel of John though, Andrew is a follower of John the Baptist and he brings Simon to meet Jesus, but all the Gospels say that Simon was a fisherman, invited by Jesus to join him.
The first transformation of changing from a fisherman to a disciple was soon followed by a name change for Simon. Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas”. Cephas is Aramaic for “stone,” and the gospel writer adds that this means Peter when translated. This is why Peter is sometimes referred to as “the rock.” In the Gospel of Matthew, he again is called Peter the Rock after he identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus tells him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
We also know that Peter was one of the disciples that struggled with both courage and fear.... He climbed out of the boat to walk on water... and
succeeded until he realized what he was doing. He was the one to call Jesus who he was. He told Jesus he would never betray him and then promptly denied knowing him as Jesus was being led to the cross. And after the resurrection, Peter is the one challenged again by Jesus with the “Do you love” me questions in John’s Gospel:
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’
The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said,
‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’
And now we have the story from today where Peter’s heart and belief is again tested.
This being courageous and then remembering who he was plagued Peter for a long time, but in the end, courage won out!
In 64AD, Peter was put to death as a Christian Martyr by the Roman Emperor Nero. He served as the Rock, the pillar of the early Christian Church for 31 years after Jesus was killed, denying him no more as he brought many to the Christian faith.
What does all this tell us about Peter? As I sit with the story of his life, I see a man who, at the beginning of the accounts we have of him, thought he knew what he knew and that that was the truth. Up until he met with Jesus, I doubt he really questioned a lot. I imagine him to be a devout Jew, a scholar of what was right and wrong. He probably had all the 613 rules in Leviticus memorized and never ate shellfish or pork, never dressed in mixed fiber clothing, had no tattoos, never gossiped, shaved or cut his hair, never touched a weasel or rat or lizard, never lied or reaped the fields to the edges, never swore on God’s name, never kept a grudge, never mistreated foreigners, and never sold land, to name just a few.
And yet, when Peter goes up to the roof to pray, he has a vision that repeats itself not just once, but three times. A blanket filled with forbidden food is lowered and the voice of God speaks to him saying, “Get up Peter. Eat.” Peter reminds God that he is a good, devout Jew who follows the rules and has never eaten anything he should not have.... Nothing profane
or unclean. But the same thing happens again and again, until the voice says, “God has made this clean. You cannot make it profane. Eat it!”
Then these three visitors show up at the house Peter is staying in and tell him Cornelius was looking for him. And Peter realizes that he is not to call any person profane or unclean either, and to accept all as worthy of hearing the word of God. He has been transformed to a person who is inclusive and welcomes everyone.
And what a gift this is for us too.... To know that our journey is full of transformations and we never need to be so stuck in a belief that we cannot change when we listen to God’s call on our lives, when we open ourselves to visions and dreams and allow them to show us new ways of being that are more in line with Love, more in line with grace, more in line with seeing the interconnected nature of us all.
For in Christ there is no East or West, In him no south or north. But one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide world.
When we remember this, we can become a little squirmy though as there are many people we probably don’t really want to be related to. Depending on our individual tastes, we would rather get to choose who our relatives are.... And we are challenged to ever expand that view until we see how we are related to all.... Yes, everyone.
World Communion Sunday brings this to the forefront of our minds when we remember Christians around the world celebrating this day with us, each taking communion in their communities remembering us here also taking communion.
Rev, Diana Haag wrote,
I love this day. It began last night - as we were going to bed—World Communion Sunday. Asian Christians shared the bread and the wine. Churches in China met in secret so that they would not be arrested. Christians in the Middle East and Fiji met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist. Just hours ago, in Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much fuller and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. In Africa the sacrament was celebrated by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they commune together.
Those celebrating today include Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Congregationalists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations. Some take the sacrament today with organ music, others with simple singing, and still others in quiet so as not to be arrested.
The bread is wildly varied in types and colors and from many places.
Some created primarily from wheat, others from rice or other kinds of grain.
Some will have bread left over. Some with very small pieces that could barely give every Christian there a morsel. Still - it represents the body of Christ broken and the sustained body of Christ around the world today. The juice around the world will be different. For some it will be wine, some will have juice, some will celebrate with water that had to be carried from a dirty well some miles away. Some will use individual cups, others fancy goblets, still others have been passing around whatever cup was in the home where they were meeting. Still - it represents the new covenant of Christ in their place and in their communities, just as it does in ours.”
And for each of us it is a time to remember not only our relatedness to Christ with the words, “Come, all of you, and remember. This is my body broken for you. Drink and remember.. this is the cup of the new covenant, given for you.” But also to remember our connectedness to one another. Both those we share this day with around the world, but those who do not know or believe Christ’s love for them yet. Those who have turned away from Christ because they have been hurt by Christianity or find it irrelevant to their lives, those who have never heard of Christ’s love for the world, those who follow God in a different way calling out Abba or Yahweh or Allah. No one is profane in God’s eyes.
We are related, and no one is profane or unclean!
Many of us are not quite there yet though. We still see some as profane. And I truly believe that it is only by being open, by praying to God, by listening to one another’s stories, by being open to having our minds changed that we can grow in seeing each person as one who is related to us.
In our area there is a new initiative, brought about by religious and community leaders who have recognized that we still have room for transformation in inclusiveness and is working to change this. It is called Safe Spaces, and it is asking people to invite someone for a conversation to get to know them better. The aim is for 5,000 conversations to be had in the next year. The plan is for individuals to invite someone to meet them for a safe space conversation and to talk about deep things that may challenge or stretch or enhance our understanding of one another. It requires vulnerability, curiosity, courage and deep listening. Some sample questions they offer are
● What brought you/your family to Central Minnesota (whether long ago or recently)?
● What keeps you in Central Minnesota?
● What fears do you have about the future? What concerns weigh on you?
● What are your hopes and dreams for the next generation?
● Describe a time you felt you really belonged and were cared for? ● Describe a time you felt isolated or alone?
● Describe what home means to you?
● What are your strongest values that guide your life?
The deep hope is that people will understand each other a little more and begin to build community at a deeper and more respectful level. That we will not look at the other as a stranger who we need to judge or be afraid of, but that we will see the ways we are connected and related to one another. And they realize it’s a hard ask, so suggest beginning the conversation with a friend or neighbor and then reaching out to someone you don’t know as well, and then someone you may have no reason to speak to in regular life but want to get to know.
We are all related. We are all in this world and this state and this community together. We have to find ways to connect, that go beyond a World Communion Sunday, that challenge us and call us to vulnerability and courage. Peter could have kept his view that Cornelius and his entourage were unclean and never invited them into his home. If he, and all those early followers of Christ had done that, we would not be Christians today. So we thank him for his courage and example, his willingness to be
transformed, his welcome and words that inspired and spread the Gospel around the world.
As we celebrate Holy Communion this morning, we do so with others around the world, who began yesterday and will continue through the day today. We celebrate that we are related. We celebrate that we love and follow a God who does not leave us to be comfortable in our little bubbles, but challenges us to change and grow as we deepen in our faith! Thanks be to God!
These are some harsh words from the scripture today... and ones, if we are honest, condemn most of us here. This passage in James says, For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” For how often do we make a judgment of someone based on how they look, how they are dressed, how clean they look and smell.
There was a story going around the internet a few years ago of a pastor of a mega church who decided to test his congregation. One Sunday morning he showed up at church in disguise thirty minutes before the service began, looking like a homeless person. He walked around as the 10,000 congregants entered the building, approaching them to ask for food, and seeing who would pay attention, offer him help, or even just smile and welcome him. The story goes that only three of the 10,000 would even say hello to him, and the ushers placed him in a pew at the back of the church far away from others. People went out of their way to avoid this disheveled looking man, or looked at him with disgust. Who was he to show up in their midst?
Yet the poor are lifted up so many times in the Bible as ones we should be helping. From Deuteronomy, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” to 1 Samuel: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” From proverbs: Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. to the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And many more in between. Over and over we are reminded that the poor are ones we need to care for.
But, you might be saying to yourself about now, isn’t this a sermon about prayer!
To which I will reply.... Yes it is!
For me serving the ‘poor’, however we define the poor, and prayer are so intricately intertwined, that this is a sermon about prayer.
Of course, the poor do not always look scruffy or unkempt, they don’t always live on the streets, they don’t always have empty bellies or a lack of material wealth. The poor can be any among us who are hungry for something different, something more, something that is missing from their lives. And while the story of the pastor who disguised himself shows us that some may go out of their way to avoid the poor.... The noticeably poor
that is, it makes me think about how often we ignore those hungry places in ourselves and others by avoiding them. How often do we put the ‘poor in spirit’ places in our lives on the back pew hoping they will just disappear? So how do we serve the poor as prayer?
When we take the passage literally and serve the materially poor we must do so covered in prayer, treating our very service as prayer, for if we don’t we will burn out quickly. I have shared stories of my time in New Orleans during seminary, working with clean up crews after Hurricane Katrina and mentoring some teen girls. But what I have failed to share before is how hard it was on me on a spiritual emotional level. Day after day hearing stories of pain and how everything had been lost, working and living in conditions that were filled with mold, going through people’s possessions to see if there was anything salvageable... a photo somehow saved from damage, a trophy found, a ring discovered in the piles of debris. But so much loss. And working with the teens triggered the unhealed part of me as I over empathized with them. One day I was on the phone with my spiritual director sobbing. She asked me if I was remembering to pray. I was really angry at God at this time, so responded with words covered in pain. “Why would I pray to a God who allows all this suffering?” I managed to get out between my sobs. She replied, “How can you do this alone? How can you do this without prayer? God placed it on your heart to go to
New Orleans to help. God is with you. Invite that Presence in.” Immediately I felt the presence of God and calmed down, feeling peace within. And I soon retracted my statement about God letting all the pain exist, for that is not my theology, and remembered instead that God’s presence is always available! And from that day on I took on each task as a prayer. Knocking down walls.... Each blow of the sledge hammer a prayer for the family whose home it was. Each pile of debris met with prayers for the love and lives that the moldy items had belonged to. Each story of loss and pain listened to with an ear turned to God. And while my circumstances did not change, my heart did. Instead of being worn down and exhausted I was, I felt calm. And while tears still fell, they did not overtake me and make me want to quit.
Often people will go into the world to serve without recognizing God by their side, and most who do not treat service as prayer will burn out.... Or become cynical and callous toward the pain they are moving among. I worked with the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in San Rafael, and they had a high turn over of staff, but the ones with an active spiritual life were the ones who stayed.... The others found it too hard to be doing this work. Yet when we enter service as a form of prayer, we can be sustained and refreshed to face another day.
Mother Teresa said, “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature— trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... .We need silence to be able to touch souls.” And this touching souls was her work as she moved among the poorest of the poor. When asked in an interview, “You love people whom others regard as human debris. What is your secret?” She replied, “My secret is simple. I pray.”
And neuroscience has done studies to prove the change in our brains if we pray or meditate each day. In one, Dr. Andrew Newberg took patients whose memories were beginning to fail and scanned their brains for a base line and then asked them to pray for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. He then scanned their brains again. The changes he found were remarkable. He says, "We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention," According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things. The new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims. "They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent.” His other studies were done with nuns and monks who spent hours a day in prayer where their brains, compared to the brains of people without a prayer
practice, show enlarged frontal lobes, which is the area that leads to a decrease in stress and anxiety.
So, when I was challenged to serve as prayer, I was more able to cope with the pain and stress and hurt surrounding me as my brain was sending signals to the rest of my body that I was safe, that I was not alone, that I was able to stay in the moment more easily. Instead of avoiding hearing another story of loss I was able to walk toward it, ready to listen without having bodily reactions and anxiety and stress they had caused before. My empathy was in check and I could be in relationship with those whose lives had fallen apart, sitting with them until they found their feet once more.
But what about the parts of us that are poor. How do we do this with ourselves? To be in relationship with the parts of our lives that have fallen apart until they can find their feet once more? The parts within each of us that are hungry for something different? How do we approach them with an attitude of prayer? How do we not ‘pass them by and avoid eye contact’! Or feed them things that leave them hungry still?
In some ways, this is the harder task. For when we see and get to know another in prayer, then love will stream from that encounter. But when we see the poor parts of ourselves, even in prayer, it can be hard to switch from judgement to love, to switch from critical thoughts to understanding. We get frustrated that the poor is still there with us..... or maybe we don’t
see it ourselves at all and it takes someone else to point it out. I came across this story... no author was listed.
Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads he said, "God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would even thank you more if mom gets us ice cream for dessert. And Liberty and justice for all! Amen." Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark, "That's what's wrong with this country. Kids today don't even know how to pray. Asking God for ice-cream!"
Hearing this, my son burst into tears and asked me, "Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?"
As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, an elderly gentleman approached the table. He winked at my son and said, "I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer." "Really?" my son asked. "Cross my heart."
Then in a theatrical whisper he added (indicating the woman whose remark had started this whole thing), "Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes."
Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment and then did something I will remember the rest of my
life. He picked up his sundae and without a word walked over and placed it in front of the woman. With a big smile he told her...
"Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes, and my soul is good already.”
The woman in the story was poor... even if she didn’t know it. Maybe her ways of praying were so formed that there was no room to be spontaneous. Maybe her view of God was a stern God, and certainly not one that included ice cream. Maybe she avoided asking God for thing for herself because she felt unworthy. But her comments made it clear that she was poor in spirit!
So this week, as you enter into prayer, pray to see those places within you that are hungry, that are poor, that are longing. Those places that have maybe made you a little harsh or callous. Those places that are closed or in need of joy and curiosity. See if you can sit with them and ask them what they need.... Really need, not a temporary fix like ice cream, but a fix that will allow for true healing and transformation. Like drinking from the living water so you will never thirst again. Like eating of this bread and drinking from this cup that will help you know you belong and are loved, even in those poorest places. Like welcoming Christ into the center of your being and learning that you are worthy of this love. Like silencing the voices that put you down so your soul can be touched.
Pray for the poor. And as our psalm says:
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free;
And opens the eyes of the blind.
May this promise become a prayer, so the poor can be seen and healed and joy and happiness can be found.