Monday, November 4, 2013


Today we reflect on and conclude a 3-day Autumnal festival
            about mortality, those who have gone before, and each other.
That kind of 3-day festival happens around the world in different cultures
            and different religions, but pretty much the same three days.
In Christianity, the first day is about evil and mortality.
We laugh at the scary stuff and play with it.
Halloween is a great victory of the frontal lobes
            where humor resides over the reptilian brain,
            which is the seat of fear.
That’s why fear based religions don’t like Halloween.

The next day, All Saints, we commemorate the Communion of All Saints.
The Saints are heroes of the faith, but they their heroism is rooted
in the Communion.
It is the network that valorizes them, not individual strengths.
Thomas Merton said, “The saints are saints not so much by virtue
            of their own sanctity as their capacity to appreciate the sanctity
                        of each other.
All Saints Day reminds us that in spite of our personal limitations,
         by virtue of being part of that communion,
          we are all capable of that kind of heroism.

The third day, we recognize that the Communion of All Saints
            is rooted in something larger and deeper,
                        the Communion of All Souls.
That is the connection based, not on heroic achievements,          
            but on our common humanity, characterized by
            mortality, frailty, brokenness, squierreliness,
                        and occasional obnoxiousness.

That brings us to the story of Thomas Merton.
When he was a young man,
            Merton lived an undisciplined, aimless life
                        in New York City.
That life left him lonely and empty.
So he started reading about Christianity.
It fascinated him, attracted him, puzzled him.
It was like something from another place and time.
But he knew it was going to change his life.

One day he was taking with his best friend, Sachs.
Merton described his sense of being called to something different
            – not just to do something new, but be someone new.
His friend said, “Tom why don’t you just say it?
            You want to be a saint.”

Merton immediately disagreed and tried to dismiss the idea.
But it wouldn’t go away.
Years later he admitted his friend was right.
Once we accept the gospel of Jesus,
            we are called to become saints.
Did Merton become a saint?
He became a monk.
But he was a grouchy monk with irritable bowel syndrome
and authority issues.
He wrote books that changed countless lives.
But he struggled with pride in his writing.
He was a bold voice for peace and justice.
But he struggled with rigidity and moralism.

Thomas Merton wasn’t perfect.
But he was entranced by the perfection of God,
            and he longed to be made whole.
He wanted to become who God intended him to be.
I believe he was a saint.

None of the saints have been perfect.
Paul was overbearing, tempestuous, and used dubious grammar.
Peter was unstable.
The list of saints includes masochists, misogynists, and misanthropes.
St. Bernard was a warmonger obsessed
            with destroying the career of Peter Abelard,
                        the greatest theologian of his time.

So what makes a saint?
One of the greatest novels of the 20th Century
            was The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann.
It’s based on an epic poem from the 12th Century.
Mann tells the story of Gregory, a young man born
            of an incestuous relationship and given away
                        to hide his parents’ shame.
When he learned his origins,
            he set out to overcome his birth
                        by doing good in the world.
He tried to do good out of his own good will.

He not only failed.
He repeated his parents’ mistake
            by engaging in incest himself.
That’s when he gave himself over to God,
            and wound up as a Pope Gregory the Great.

The author’s point is that Gregory was holy
            not because he was without sin,
                        but because of how God turned his sin
                        into humility, wisdom, and gratitude.

There are two lessons for us here.
First, holiness is not for a few super heroes of the faith.
It’s for all of us.
We are all called to holiness of life.
The name of this Holy Day reminds us
that we are all called to be saints.

The second point is that holiness isn’t something we do.
It’s what God does in us if we just allow it.
God finds us in our broken state
            and makes us new people.
As one of our prayers says, “God works in us that which
            is well pleasing in his sight.”
God does it. We just do our best to stay out of the way.

God makes us into better people than we could have been
            if we had not been morally and spiritually broken.
When we consecrate the bread, when we make it holy,
            we break it.
The breaking is a part of the act of making holy.
Our brokenness is part of how God makes us holy.
God does that by joining us in it.

In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller repeats a story
            he heard from a folk singer.
Miller doesn’t know if the story is true.
It really doesn’t matter.
What matters is the point.

It’s about a hostage rescue.
A commando team of Navy Seals was sent to rescue
            hostages who had been held captive
                        by terrorists for a long time.
The Seals broke into the dark, filthy basement
            where the hostages were cowering in a corner,
                        huddled together, shaking.
The sounds of gunfire had not given them hope.
They were sure they were about to die.

The Seals broke open the door.
They had to hurry to evacuate the hostages.
So they stood there in commando gear
            carrying semi-automatic rifles
            and shouted orders to the hostages
            “We’re here to rescue you.
                        Come with us. Now!”

But the hostages did not move.
The Seals shouted louder. “Come with us now. Hurry.”
The hostages did not move.
They thought the commandos were just more terrorists.

So one of the Navy Seals took off his helmet.
He put down his rife.
He went over to the hostages and sat down with them.
He huddled together with them in the darkness and the dirt.

No terrorist had ever done that.
No terrorist would ever do that.
After awhile he said, “It’s ok. We can go now.”
Then they followed him to safety and to freedom.

Brothers and sisters, we are not heroes.
Saints are not heroes.
Saints start out as hostages to sin, addiction, fear,
            and all the pain that makes being human so hard.
Is there anyone here who is not such a hostage?
I know I am.

But then Jesus comes into our prison.
Jesus joins us in the darkness and the dirt.
Then after a little while, he says,
            “It’s ok. We can go now.”

So we get up and follow him.
He doesn’t bark the order “Follow me.”
He says it gently, as an invitation.
He says it kindly as you might say it to a child, “Follow me.”
Saints are just hostages who have followed Jesus.

But look who we are following.
We are not following a Savior who leads us out of our human muddle.
We follow Jesus who joins the human muddle.
He “shared our human nature, lived and died as one of us.”
His way is not out of the human predicament but deeper in,
            because that’s where the love is.

It is our human limitation that makes compassion possible.
I want to share with you a few lines from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem,
            “In A Parish.”
It’s about the flawed people buried in a parish cemetery.
He writes,
            “Had I not been frail and half broken inside
                 I would not think of them, who are like myself half broken inside. . . . .
                 Crazy Sophies.
                  Michaels who lost every battle,    
                  Self-destructive Agathas
                   Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death, And who
                   Is going to express them? 
                   Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation ? . . .

The answer, of course, is: we will.
We can, not because of our strength but because of our weakness.
We share the crazy mixed up vulnerable state of being human.

And we share the vulnerable state of being mortal,
            which leads to a few verses of Ted Kooser’s poem, “The Mourners.”
Describing the conversation after a burial, he writes,

            “After the funeral, the mourners gather
            under the rustling churchyard maples
            and talk softly, like clusters of leaves . . .
            They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
            but now they keep saying hello and hello,
            peering into each other’s faces,
            slow to let go of each other’s hands.”

So today, this Holy Day, I invite  you to the Communion of All Saints
            and the Communion of All Souls,
            a communion based not on spiritual heroism
            but on our shared human vulnerability and mortality.
Let us peer into each other’s faces
            and be slow to let go of each other’s hands.