Saints of God

Luke 6 and Ephesians 1

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Religious Saint in China

Saints of God are all around us.  You are they.  You.   In Chicago last week I saw one, a dear old friend, former Minister of First UMC Evanston, former Acadmic Dean at Claremont.  I later that week came across a sermon of his.

Emory Purcell wrote, “When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser’s resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God’s love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don’t know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

“Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers – parents and young people – bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God’s love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made (America) great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross.”

Epistle and Gospel

Friends, beloved of Marsh Chapel and the airwaves:  The saints of God have been well acquainted with impediments to the language of love.  The saints of God have manifold experience of the resistance in experience to the reign of love.  The saints of God know, through and through, the multiple discouragements to the path of love.

One is the very question of the capacity of speech to ignite a decision, of any kind, for a new alternative, of any sort.   Every day, every week brings a new wave of words not fitly spoken, of deeds not fruitfully done, of sentiments not charitably rendered.   Is preaching an anachronism?  Or teaching?  Or earnest discourse of any kind?  Doubt about language itself is itself an impediment to learning the language of love.

Another is the relatively modest response, by cultural comparisons at any rate, to the lived forms of love, imperfectly represented in families, in churches, in movements and missions.   There is a kind of discouraging but inevitable comparison, truth to tell, that lurks behind the mammoth celebration of a World Series victory.  We know what it feels like to celebrate, and to celebrate a clear victory.  It feels great.  But the victories which make us feel great, are not so great themselves.   We have a way of cheering a run, a home run, a grand slam.   But we are not as fully aligned with, or inclined toward, the generations-long struggles that might bring a truly wonderful victory over—you name it.  What we do celebrate somehow eclipses what we could celebrate.

Nevertheless.  I believe in the power of love, and in the language of love, and in the power of the language of love.  I believe you do too.  You are saints of God.  Love is the way forward, and in the end is the only way forward.  Love is the way the world gets better, and in the end is the only measure of the world getting better.  Love is the transfiguration of imagination, the integration of variation, the modification of attenuation, the multiplication of aspiration.  Love never ends.  Love is God.  The Bible records these sentences, in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John.  Love never ends.  Love is God.

Our choir sang love like angels on Monday in NYC.  They entered the city, put on the city as a robe, as a new suit of clothes, offered with grace the musical grace of God, paused for applause, and disrobed, returning the clothing of the city on departure.   Into noise they brought music.  Into cacophony they brought symphony.  Into streets lined with garbage they brought order, charity, magnanimity, generosity.  Into the lingering horror of 9/11, whose victims were treated in George Washington’s pew before which they sang, they brought the beauty of holiness, the grace and goodness and love of lovely good and gracious music—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus.   I felt:  you young people are too good for this world, or at least for parts of it.  Love lifted us, that afternoon.  Love, sung out by saints of God.

The student of Paul who probably wrote Ephesians cuts into our souls with a gleaming phrase.  ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  He has about him a church that has lived now for some decades beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  So, three reflections on inheritance.  So, the seal of the Spirit.  So (rightly rendered) your faith in\toward all the saints, or your faithfulness in\toward them, and the inheritance bequeathed by them.  So, the name that is above every name.  So, the church, the body of Christ. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  Saints of God have such eyes.

Especially here our teacher offers us something beautifully saving in this epistle.  There is a spatial dimension to salvation.  One is caught up by a certain community, along the lines of a certain map, in the embrace of a certain spiritual geography.  You will feel it, perhaps coming down the sawdust trail of the aisle in Marsh Chapel, for communion.  You are not alone.  The saints of God are with you, around you. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.

Boston is taking stock this week, taking stock of a year of mayhem and marvel both.  It is too soon, well too soon, for us yet to absorb the sounds and sights of 2013.  For this we shall need not only the eyes of the heart, but the ears of the heart as well.  To hear the explosions as they did ricochet down Boylston Street.  To hear the sirens racing at night down Commonwealth.  But also to hear the cracks of bats that sent balls and outfielders tumbling into the outfields and into the bull pen and into the stands.  And to hear the surge of joy, the shared happiness, lifted in a choral shout at the long end of many games.  Boston is taking stock, this week, taking stock of this year gone by, wherein again we have been taught by experience to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.

Jesus in St Luke utters both blessing and woe.  There is a leveling coming in God’s time.  The last shall be first, the first last.  From worst to first.  In God’s time which we cannot understand.  We have only the yearning of the heart, the eyes of the heart, and the examples of the saints to go by.  But lifelong loss of limb, horrific harm to innocent women and men, calls up for us a longing for resurrection, a yearning, visible in the eyes of the heart, for restoration.  In God’s time we look forward to what we can never see in our time.  In our bones we know that the leveling of justice is the path to love.  Valleys exalted, hills made low.  The Republican Governor of Ohio this week expressed the same sentiment.  The poor have suffered enough.  Wealth carries responsibility with it.  All should be fed at the Lord’s table.  Laugh and celebrate, but a leveling is coming, in God’s time.   Above earth’s lamentations, there is divine restoration, if only to start in the eyes of the heart.  Saints of God see with enlightened eyes, eyes of the heart.

Secular Saint in Syracuse

Some of you know I was home in Syracuse a few weeks ago.  Theirs is an historically Methodist though now largely secular college, like ours.   But all the secularity, all the un-religion, all the modernity in the world, in the end, does not occlude the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart.  Love lives.  The saints of God, religious and unreligious, observant and secular, theist and a-theist, churchly and cultural, share these eyes, a seeing with the heart (wouldn’t that make a good book title?).  You should read the commencement address, by George Saunders, given at Syracuse University last spring.  Here is its marrow:

One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.  (But not kindly).

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. George Saunders, one of the saints of God.  Until then, I will take up his cause, and ask you to do so too.  Robert Cummings Neville wrote (2001):  “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.” (Symbols of Jesus, xviii).  Are you walking in the light?  Are you loving your neighbor?  As you would have others do for you, do you do so for them?  Are you seeing with the eyes of the heart?

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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