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Sunday, November 04, 2007

All Saints Sunday

"Do to others as you would have them do to you . . .”
Luke 6:20-31
All Saints’ Sunday
November 4, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Today is a very emotional day for many people. It is All Saints’ Sunday – the day we remember, in the words of that great hymn, “all the saints, who from their labors rest.” For us as Episcopalians, that means not only the saints who are remembered on the calendar for their great works of mercy or courage, but also for those who have been beloved saints and blessings in our lives: grandparents, parents, spouses, children, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends.

It is a day that causes us to remember – even as we recall those we have loved who are no longer with us – our own mortality, the fragility of our mortal existence. We are here but for the passing of a couplet of seasons and then gone. We know this most acutely when we ponder the shortness of the gift of life given to those whom we have loved who now rest in Light Eternal.

So, these words of Jesus, buried as they are under the goodness of the words of his first sermon, the Beatitudes, strike me deeply today: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” You may know this as “The Golden Rule.”

This ethic of reciprocity is not strictly a Christian thought. The Dali Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Confucius once said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” One of the tenants of Islam is: “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” And, Judaism, as taught by Rabbi Hillel, holds, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? And yet, the Golden Rule gets some of its polish, I think, precisely because we rub up against it so often. It’s not easy to do. Some of you know that I was away on Annual Clergy Retreat for part of this week. About one hundred and twenty clergy came away to the Pocono Mountains in PA for two days to be with our bishop and to hear his emerging vision for our diocese.

We also got to spend some time with Katherine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop. Bishop Mark had sent a copy of some of his thoughts on his vision for the diocese and asked her to respond, which she did. We’ll be talking about that emerging vision soon enough. For now, I want to concentrate on her remarks about being ‘beloved.’

Bishop Katharine made a brilliant connection with the three stories in Genesis and the baptism of Jesus. God said, "This is my beloved, with him I am well pleased," which is an echo, she reminded us, of God saying at creation, "It is very good." Further, she connected the story in The Garden with The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, reminding us that Jesus was able to resist Satan because he had just been baptized and had a very clear sense of his identity and the fact that he was 'beloved' of God.

I absolutely resonated with her point that our understanding of our identity frames the way in which we view the world and the language we employ in our conversations about God and religion and the human enterprise. If we believe ourselves to be wretched and fallen human beings, that sin came into us in the Garden by the temptation of Satan in the guise of a snake, we have a very different understanding of ourselves and the world than if we believe ourselves beloved of God - sons and daughters who claim our inheritance of eternal life through Christ Jesus because we, like the rest of creation, are worthy and, indeed, "very good."

The Evangelical, more Calvinist position begins with the wretchedness of humankind, and pretty much stays there, being eternally if not daily thankful for the salvation and redemption of the human condition by the suffering (emphasis on suffering) and death of Christ Jesus. The traditional Anglican position has been to hold all three chapters of the Genesis account in tension - the fact that we are beloved of God and the fact that sin is in the world.

The idea of free will celebrates the gift of our God-given gifts of intelligence and reason, but does not negate the presence of evil in the world, nor our capacity to make wrong decisions and choices. But, neither does the capacity to make bad choices negate the inherent goodness of our humanity. The truth is that God is a mystery, and we do well to understand that the deepest spirituality is one that invites others into a deeper experience of this mystery - not the certainty of answers set in cement tablets.

Bishop Katharine then did just that and had us meditate on the image of God coming to us and saying, "YOU are my beloved, with YOU I am well pleased." After a time of silence, she invited us to share our insights. It was so much easier for many of us to concentrate on how others were beloved of God and how God might be pleased with someone else. Anyone but us.

That was such a powerful exercise I want to take risk and do the same thing in church with you this morning. Yes. Right here. Right now. Find a place of quiet and comfort. I know. These pews are not exactly the most comfortable places to sit, but this won’t take long, I promise. Take a few deep breaths. Try to let your body relax. Now, think of a place where you feel absolutely safe. It may be the room you had as a child, or a place at the ocean or in the mountains or in the forest. It may be in someone’s arms. Find that place where you feel absolutely safe. Now, close your eyes and imagine that you are there.

Now, imagine yourself surrounded by all those saints who have gone before you. People you know and love who have passed on from this life. They are perfect now – perfectly restored to health and wholeness in their body, their mind, and their spirit. It is just as has been promised. They dwell in light inaccessible and are deeply bathed in the unconditional love of God. You can just feel it surrounding them.

As they surround you, feel yourself surrounded by that same unconditional love. Now, hear the voice of God say to you, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Hear those words as if they were meant for your ears only, because God means for you to hear them today. “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Then, when you are ready, open your eyes again and be in this church again.

What was that like for you? Let’s talk about that at coffee hour or later in the week.

I think it neigh unto impossible to follow the Golden Rule unless you begin by knowing yourself to be beloved of God. You can not know yourself beloved of God unless you know yourself to be blessed of God. Yes, that old song is true: Count your blessings, name them one by one. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” Begin with gratitude for the blessing of what you don’t have. Yes, thank God for that which you need. That hunger and thirst will give you the very inspiration and ambition to succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who weep”. Thank God for the blessing of tears, for it is only those who have lost something precious who can weep. Imagine those who have lost no one precious to them. They are even poorer for never having had anyone in their lives valuable enough for which to weep.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hate you.” Thank God for those who do not like you or criticize you or even those who mean to do you harm. Yes, do not curse them but thank God for them. If you are not annoying to someone, somewhere you are not being fully human. A saint of the church, a man named Irenaeus, once said, “The glory of God is (hu)man(kind) fully alive.” The truth is this: If you are fully human, fully and truly and uniquely yourself, you are bound to annoy someone. And remember: when you are fully alive, God is well pleased.

If you think about it, the very reason you miss those who have died has a great deal to do with their full humanity. Now, you can laugh at their foibles. Now, their annoying habits or peccadilloes are the source of great stories and memories. Fear not. The same shall be done unto you when you pass from this life.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. It’s still a very golden rule. Following it may not make us saints who will be remembered on a church calendar, but not to worry. Golden or not, we are beloved of God, and with us, God is well pleased. Amen.

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