Saints Above and Saints Below

Passage: Revelation 21:1-6a
Date: November 4, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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It’s that time of year when melancholy can set in, as the days shorten and the rains come.Each year, our All Saints Remembrance feels like a time of melancholy too, as we read the list of names and find it hard to imagine that we lost all of those precious saints. When I was new to the congregation, this Sunday was not hard. For those of you who are new to our community, you might not know anyone we name today. But for the old-timers, this day is a reminder of friends we loved who are no longer with us. And that can be hard.

We call them saints not because they were perfect or even necessarily all good. They were human, and they were loved and they made their mark in the world. Were it not for Gloria Davis, Goodnight Moon and Charlotte’s Web might never have been published. Over a thousand children were born into this world because Dr. Ben Jones was there to tend to their mothers. Bonnie Hensley inspired us and so many others with the gift of her extraordinary voice, all the while crafting water fights with the family at home.

Gloria Colvin served those living on the margins in Portland while she was the executive director of FISH. Polly Kurtz ensured that her children would love everything there was to love about books. Sue Reif could make something beautiful, serve a fantastic meal, provide welcome, and be her hilarious self all at the same time.

Chrissie Thomas started a nonprofit so that other families with medically fragile children would not have to go through what her family did in trying to find caregivers for their children. Betty Fry, wearing her librarian hat, introduced children to the love of reading. In his prime, Dr. Bruce Huntwork served the people of Iran, and came home, and later joined his wife Ann in advocating for those considered the least among us.

Mary Jo Anderson, Jan Pratt, Janet Smithwick, Lorraine Yoder, Carol Thomas, Ellie Liefke, Gerry Larsen, Bill Klein – beloved children of God; beloved friends and church members; beloved parents, beloved spouses. All these blessed the world with their presence.And we miss them.

What, then, shall we say about these things? Let us say that we will call them saints not because they were perfect but because they believed that God had something to do with the goodness of their life. Let us say that we will call ourselves saints, too, remembering what Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

So perhaps this day, this day in which some of us are very sad in our grief, we might hear a word of hope for ourselves as we think about the saints.

The early Christians used the word ‘saint’ to describe anyone who was in the Christian community. Our Presbyterian understanding of the saint is someone who is loved by God and loves God in return. So we are saints too.Someday our names will be read on the first Sunday in November, and someone might say kind and true things about us, remembering what we offered the world, saying how we made a difference in the world or in the church or in the life of one person. While being a saint is in part about what happens after we die, it’s also about how we choose to live in our day and in our age.

It has been a tender week for me, as this is the first All Saints Remembrance since my father died. I’ve wanted to get through it so I’ve pushed away the tears. (This is not particularly healthy, so please don’t do this.) I might be over analyzing this, but it appears that our house is in tune with my psyche, because the basement sink has been leaking and we have water all over the place. Evidently the water will get out, one way or another.

I will confess I have not behaved in a very saint-like manner this week, dealing with all the water in the basement. But every day is a new opportunity to consider how we will live out our identity as saints on earth. We never do that alone – sainthood is about community. And we happen to have a community right here where we can practice our sainthood with each other.

Last week Saint Miguel and Saint Michelle made an extraordinarily delicious meal for our Fall Festival.Saint Miguel stood on large cans while frying the taquitos that about ten other saints of all ages had made in the morning. Feeding people is the work of the saints, be it our own people for an after-worship lunch, or our neighbors who come to Grace Church on Friday nights, or, as does Saint Chelle, taking a wagonful of grilled-cheese sandwiches to the tent city.

While we were feasting and playing in the Great Hall, Saint Steve and Saint Trevor, our custodians, were dealing with a flood of water that had come in under the door into the Marcus Whitman Room. They wet-vac’d it, they set up fans and dehumidifiers, and they called for professionals. They got soaking wet in the process. Making a space hospitable is the work of the saints, be it cleaning after a drain stops up, or ensuring a space is well lit and at a comfortable temperature, or welcoming people with a warm sincerity so they know we are glad they are here.

Last Sunday, some of the matron saints of the church, led by Saint Laurie Lynn, gathered in Vernonia to take some deep breaths together, to check in about the state of their souls, and to get to know one another. Even saints need a rest now and then, and time for Sabbath, time set apart to reflect on self and God. Honoring the Sabbath is saint work, be it going on retreat, or coming to worship, or turning off all the loud devices, not doing, and simply being.

This morning, with help from Saint Debbie and St. Michael of the Organ Bench, the saints in the choir gathered to warm up and go over their music. Tonight, the Saints of the Bells will gather here to practice and make music together. Creating beauty is the work of the saints – the beauty of a song, the beauty of a sculpture, the beauty of a pencil drawing on a doodle pad by a somewhat bored child in church. 

I could go on, and talk about the saints of the Adult Education Committee, who help us expand our minds and deepen and challenge our understanding of God. Or the saints of the Property Committee, who keep this building together so that we might use it as a tool for ministry and as a place for the larger Portland community to gather. Worship for Life teacher saints. Deacon saints. Food-and-clothing donation saints. Teenage saints.Small saints. Old saints.Doubting saints.Radiant saints. I wish you could stand up here and see yourselves the way I see you. It is humbling, and it is hopeful.

I encourage you to consider your own sainthood, to think about how you are living out the reality of being loved by God and loving in return.It’s understandable that you might not feel up to the task.

But take encouragement from these words of one of my favorite saints, Frederick Buechner.“… the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now,” that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.”

The Reverend Beth Neel
Westminster Presbyterian Church
All Saints Remembrance
November 4, 2018