We’re living in difficult times, and that has felt especially true this past week or so.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little beat up by all of the campaign rhetoric as we approach Tuesday’s elections. And I still feel very deeply the shock of the of the massacre last Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Among other things. There are also the troubles and worries in our own lives. We all have them.
And it is so good to be here together today, to hold these things in community.
That is what we do when times are hard. Or even, for that matter, when times are good. We come together in community, to walk together through our difficult times. To cry together. To laugh and to celebrate together.
And today we are celebrating, we’re celebrating our community here.
This is All Saints Sunday. It’s the observance of the feast that commemorates all the saints, both known and unknown to us. God knows them all, of course.
We offer fond prayers of gratitude for the saints of our own lives, those loved ones who have fought the good fight and gone on before us.
All of these saints have shown us through their very lives what it means to live a good life, to live the life of faith. They remind us that we’re part of a community that’s much bigger than this group gathered here in Hilltown today, part of the community of followers of Jesus Christ that extends down through time and reaches across the world. It’s a community we call “the communion of saints.”
So we give special thanks today for this local branch of the communion of saints at Good Shepherd Church, by demonstrating our commitment to this community by turning in our pledges of support in the year 2019. As our Vestry begins to prepare a budget, the responsible thing is to know what our income might be, and so we gather those pledges, and we’ll bless them later in the service.
Because one aspect of membership in community is commitment to the whole, and one form our commitment to this community of faith takes is the right sharing of all the gifts God has given us.
I was with a different community of faith on Friday night.
In the wake of that violence at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, some of us in my community of New Hope where I live attended Friday evening worship with our sisters and brothers at Kehilat HaNahar, the little shul by the river. We went to take a visible stand against anti-Semitism. To show our love and concern for this community. To share our very real grief with them—but also, to share our hope.
Because this is what a true community does. We walk together through things like this. That’s part of our commitment to the whole.
And it was good for my soul to have a time to hold all those feelings I’ve been having this week in a worship service that was led by someone other than myself. Just to be able to sit quietly and pray. And it was very moving to me to think that I was there praying some prayers that Jesus himself would have known.
And while we prayed, there was a New Hope police officer posted very visibly in a car right outside the entrance, which I found both reassuring and heartbreaking.
My God, what have we come to?
In her sermon Friday evening, Rabbi Diana Miller quoted the writer Elie Wiesel, who was a survivor of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and he’s the author of a searing memoir called Night:
He said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Which I thought was very similar to something our bishop, Daniel Gutiérrez, wrote in the letter you’ll find as an insert in your bulletins this morning. I’m not going to read that whole letter here because it’s pretty long, but I hope you will take a look at it.
The bishop condemned the violence in Pittsburgh, of course, and he also called for action, beginning with taking some time in each of our parishes today for preaching and talking about this subject. So that’s what I’m doing.
In his letter, Bishop Gutiérrez said, “Outrage at the sin of others not followed by action in our own lives is the counterfeit gospel of our modern time.”
Our faith isn’t just something that we hold onto for comfort. Authentic faith has to be backed up by action, by taking a stand. Those Christian martyrs who are among the saints that we honor today certainly knew that.
And the Baptismal Covenant we read today as part of our All Saints liturgy certainly tells us that.
The beginning of the Baptismal Covenant, which we’ll read in the usual place of the Nicene Creed, includes the words of the Apostles Creed, which is the ancient baptismal creed of the church.
So the covenant is a statement of belief, but it doesn’t stop with what we believe; it goes on to speak of we do. Point by point, it’s a reminder of what it means to live a life of faith, a life that flows from the waters of baptism and is nourished by the bread of heaven.
A life of faith involves resisting evil—actively resisting evil—including racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other ways we try to diminish the image of God in others.
It involves proclaiming the Gospel in the words we speak and in the example of how we live our whole lives.
A life of faith involves intentional awareness of the reality that we see Christ in everyone we meet—in every single person.
And it calls us to be peacemakers—people who hunger and thirst for justice, as the Beatitudes say.
A life of faith is about respecting the dignity of every human being, precisely because we know that we do see the face of God when we look at each person.
The bishop refers in his letter to the way the Sermon on the Mount calls us to a different kind of life—he calls it “a life that understands that the condition of the heart is a precursor to our actions in this world.”
So in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the commandment against murder, and how anger and insults are really little murders.
There are so many insults are flying these days. And so many lies.
Hate is being used to manipulate us. To stir up our fears and to divide us, turning us against our brothers and sisters. And as Christians, we have to resist that. We can’t be indifferent. We have to take a stand.
There’s another quote from that book by Elie Weisel that comes to mind. I don’t think the rabbi mentioned this one, but Weisel also said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
So I call out the haters, those who stir up fears of immigrants for their own purposes.
By his own words, it was a fear of immigrants—I would say an irrational fear of immigrants, obviously—that motivated the shooter in Pittsburg.
And I’m going to call out, lovingly but honestly, the fact that I’ve heard people say things, even here in this blessed place, that do fall into that category of racial or religious stereotyping. To be honest, I’ve said some things myself thatI’m ashamed of when I think about them. We have to resolve to do better.
Sometimes these statements are easy to recognize, and sometimes it’s much harder to see them for the lies they are, but I think our project of outrage followed by action in our own lives, as Bishop Gutiérrez put it, has to include working on recognizing those sins and rooting them out.
This actually is one of the things that community is supposed to do for us: To show us our better selves. To hold us accountable. To inspire us to be the best people that we can be.
There’s a priest named James Martin whose words seem to be everywhere these days, and last week I came across a little reflection he’d written about saints, and about those people in our own lives who stand out for us as the holiest people we know.
For me, honestly, some of them are sitting right here today. They’re my models, my heroes.
And Martin says the example of these people is one way “that God encourages holiness in us—by making us want to be more and more like those people whose lives we admire so much. …” so that we come “closer to God.
“And closer,” he says, “to the person you’re meant to become.”
So the community that gathered at the shul in New Hope on Friday reflected on hope, and on the goodness that does exist in this world. And it helped me to think about how much I want to be part of that goodness, to be that person I’m meant to become.
We wished each other Shabbat Sholom, Sabbath peace. We prayed, and there was a lot of singing. The prayerbook very helpfully had the Hebrew and English on opposite pages, so that while others were singing in Hebrew, I could at least read along so I understood the meaning of what was being said.
But the last thing we sang was something we could all sing together. It was in English, and we hardly needed to look at the words in the book.
And I thought it was an inspired choice. So much so, that I was decided to follow that example, which is why the closing hymn that you’ll see posted on the board today is different from what’s printed in the bulletin.
Together and with passion on Friday we all sang “America the Beautiful.”
America is beautiful. It’s a place of physical beauty. We finally see the foliage bursting out in color all around us, and on this sunny day, it is so beautiful. And last week I was in New Mexico, where the landscape is very different, but so beautiful.
But even more important than the physical beauty of our country, we the people are beautiful … all of us … all kinds of us. Because we are all made in the image of God.
We the people are beautiful, and that really is the beauty of the American experiment. It’s never been perfect, and the words of this anthem acknowledge both the imperfection and our hope to be better, by way of a prayer that says, “God mend thine every flaw.”
And that prayer continues, “And crown they good with brotherhood”—by which we mean community, that precious sense of being members of one family.
Our country is built on a beautiful dream that all kinds of people could come together, to enjoy freedom, to know justice, to live without prejudice or persecution.
A dream that there could be harmony in all our diversity:That is our dream. That dream is who we are, both as Americans and as Christians, and we must never give that up.
So I was inspired on Friday evening, and comforted, and part of my inspiration was that we, too, will sing “America the Beautiful” at the end of our service. We’ll sing the whole thing, but I invite you to sing it with me now, just the first verse. We don’t need the hymnal or an organ for that, do we? We all know the first verse:
Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea!
James Martin, S.J. “The Examen with Fr. James Martin, S.J.: Recognizing the holy people in your life.” https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwj6oaLG9rXeAhUF7VMKHRzIAhoQFjAAegQICRAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.americamagazine.org%2Ffaith%2F2018%2F10%2F29%2Fexamen-fr-james-martin-sj-recognizing-holy-people-your-life&usg=AOvVaw3mAXO3g12V0hTDx6lXSXUXOct. 29, 2018, accessed Nov. 3, 2018.