Why Saints and Holy Days?

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On occasion I have had folks, whom I consider to be very mature Christians, ask about Holy Days. They were not raised in our traditions so they find it a bit curious that we would gather for worship on a day other than Sunday and they are not clear our purpose for doing so. And I am going to make an assumption that they are not alone in being uninformed about Holy Days so I want to unpack it for us.

Holy Days are days that are generally marked as Feast Days in the Christian Calendar. They commemorate events in the life of our Lord or commemorate the lives of those who were closest to Him such as His Mother or the Apostles. But this explanation leads us to the next question of why we should care about the Christian Calendar. May I suggest several reasons.

First the Christian Calendar connects us to our Jewish roots. When the Jews were taken over by the Romans or the Greeks or whomever, they did not conform to those cultures. They maintained their own identity as best they could and they did so in part by keeping their own calendar. Their calendar was a lunar calendar and was marked around Feast Days like Passover and Fast Days like Yom Kippur, the Day of atonement. For the most part their calendar was marked by events that connected them to their God. They still recognize this calendar. In the Jewish Calendar today this is the year 5777 which if you think about it makes you much older than you think!

As Christians we are also called to think differently and we are called to maintain our own identity. The Scripture says that we are not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

A second, and in my opinion, even more important reason to follow the Christian Calendar is because it follows the life of our Lord. And doesn’t it make perfect sense that if we are following as His disciples that we would walk in His footsteps? Our new year begins by preparing ourselves for His birth, we join Him in the time of His temptation in Lent, we walk with Him through Holy Week and we reach the pinnacle of celebration at His resurrection. Our year ends with the long season of Pentecost in which we are learn to walk in the Spirit and see the fruits of the Spirit mature in us.

There is rythhm to this calendar such that when you observe it you find you are living a different rythem than those around you and it is not only deliciously counter cultural but it is also fulfilling. I see so many people on social media who cheer that is Friday, talk about sports all weekend and then post how depressed they are to go to work on Monday. Surely God wants us to live more edifying lives than living for the weekend. We are called to a higher purpose than that.

As I said earlier, many of the Holy Days are not just about Jesus but are also about the people who were closest to Him. This leads to a third reason why the Christian Calendar is important. It is a spiritual version of Ancestors.com. It keeps before us our spiritual roots. It tells us who we are and where we have come from. It gives us a context to our own spiritual journeys.

We just vacationed in Hawaii and a native told us that before they had a written language, they kept their culture alive by telling and retelling the stories. Old men would have memorized long intricate stories of their past and they would have young men commit those stories to memory and then pass them down to future generations.

In keeping the Christian Calendar, year in and year out, the Church is telling us the stories, stories to be preserved and passed down to future generations. And as our culture drifts further and further away from its Judeo/Christian roots it is going to be even more important for us to keep telling those stories so that we hold on to our values and beliefs.

Let me illustrate what I mean by referring to the recent election. I do not do this to make a political point but to make a spiritual point. Think for a moment about the qualities and character of both candidates. I’m sure by this point you have them clearly in mind. In essence both parties are telling, we the people, that this is who you must be to hold the highest office in the land.

Now look again with me to today’s Gospel. “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who mourn….” On another occasion for this sermon Jesus added, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers….” Do any of those qualities sound like something that would get you elected to the Presidency? How about Mayor? How about Dog catcher?

So we need to hear the stories again and again and we need tell the stories again and again because our aim is not winning an election, our aim is inheriting eternal life. We are not being groomed for political office we are being groomed to be a royal priesthood who will reign with Him forever. Through literature and music and media and games we are hearing so many other stories whose narratives are a lie. We can never hear the true story enough because the standards of this world are foreign currency in the Kingdom of God.

Those are some points about why the Christian Calendar and why observing Holy Days are important. Allow me to take it one step further and explain why All Saints’ Day is so important to us.

You can tell that it is important because the Church gives us two occasions to celebrate it. All Saints’ Day always falls on November 1st. But then we are allowed to celebrate it again on the following Sunday, which is aptly named All Saints’ Sunday. If you throw in All Saints’ Eve on October 31and All Souls Day, which is November 2, then it seems that we sure do a lot of celebrating over a pile of dead folks. Let’s add one more thing. In the Apostles’ Creed, which we say daily in Morning and Evening Prayer, the Church has us confess our belief in the communion of the saints. So again, something important must be going on here to merit all of this attention.

First, in confessing the communion of the saints and having a feast day to celebrate them we are making a definitive statement about the nature of our religion. We are either in this together or we are not in it at all. There is no “me and Jesus” Christianity. There is no “Lone Ranger” Christianity. There is no “John Wayne” Christianity. “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one Body.” We are, as the collect for All Saints’ says, “knit together in one communion and fellowship.” One communinion and fellowship means that the living are united to the dead, but the really good news is that the dead aren’t really dead. St. Paul said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

This concept, that we are not alone, should inspire us. I believe that is what the writer of Hebrews intended for us when after chapter 11, where he chronicles the heroes of the faith, he begins chapter 12, “Therefore surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” One of the prayers of the BCP has us pray, “Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer.” In the communion of the saints you have an endless cheering squad while you run the race.

A second reason that acknowledging the saints is important is because it tells us that the Church is not the USS Enterprise. We are NOT being asked “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The path that we are on, while not easy, is certainly not new. Untold numbers have gone before us. We don’t have to make it up as we go. We simply have to remain on the path that they have cut for us. And while I find the idea of their support encouraging, I find the idea of the saints paving the way for us to be comforting. We don’t have to be brilliant or even successful. We just have to be faithful. Just remain on the path. The one thing that every cult leader and every heretic has in common is that they have left the path that the saints have left behind for us.

I did not quote in full the passage from Hebrews 12 and it is important that I do so that we can see another reason for the necessity of the saints and the reason to celebrate them. After it says, “Therefore surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It goes on to say, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”

When related to correctly, the saints point us to fix our eyes on Jesus. If you will notice, many of the icons of Mary do just that. In many of them her hand is pointing directly towards Him. In others her head is tilted towards Him or her eyes are fixed directly upon Him. In this way you see Mary but your attention goes to Jesus.

St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” and so it does not detract our attention from the Lord to follow those who have so closely followed Him. Just the opposite. They act like a lighthouse when we are in dark and stormy seas. They point the way to safety.

When I was a kid I had two statues on my dresser. One was Alfred E. Newman from Mad magazine. It was a little China bust that had the motto, “What, me worry?” I got it because I tended to worry too much and I hoped that this bust of Alfred with his motto would help me. The other statue I had was of Willie Mays, the centerfielder for the San Francisco Giants. Not only was he a great baseball player but he was such a gentleman and was so graciouis towards others when he was bing interviews. Wille was making about $40,000 playing baseball and while that was a reasonable amount of money you could tell that he did it for the love of the game.

Looking back I wish someone had told me more about the saints and that they were my points of light growing up. Alfred didn’t help because Alfred wasn’t real and so I continued to worry. And while I got it right about Willies, these days you are really rolling the dice to make a professional athelete your hero. Just in the NFL alone there have been over 800 arrests since the year 2000.

We have a young woman in the parish who is a singer songwriter. Her stage name is Ella Mae Bowen and she did a hauntingly beautiful remake on the Footloose album. Her song was “Holding out for a Hero” and I think that song was such a hit because it struck a cord in all of us. We would be here for another 15 minutes just naming all of the superhero moves that have come out in recent years. But when we look to those to admire and to inspire us, we need to chose wisely. In the communion of the saints there are plenty from which to choose And what I love about them is that they are not fictitious characters nor are they plastic saints. St. Jerome who translated the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin was evidently a very difficult person to get along with. Imagine that, a crumugeon for a saint! It’s not like we don’t have a few of our own around here. St. Thomas as you remember was not exactly a pillar of faith. St. Peter suffered from foot in mouth disease. Some of the mystics and pillarites would be diagnosed and put away, but as to them all, as the writer of Hebrews says, the world was not worthy of them.

God has not only called each of us to be His children but He has placed us together as a family, one family, the living and the dead. I challenge you to keep our family story going. Make Holy Days a priority. Keep telling the story. Resist the false narratives of the world. Follow the path that the saints have set and run with endurance the race that is set before you.

“Do not be anxious about your life”

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The Greek philosopher Diogenes was renown for being a man who was content with what he had and what he didn’t have. He was happy to make his home in a clay pot. When Alexander the Great came to Corinth everyone turned out to greet him at a great festival except for Diogenes who decided instead to go sunbathing by the river. And yet it was Diogenes who Alexander had come to meet so when Alexander found him sunbathing, he said to Diogenes, “Ask any favor and I will grant it.” The favor Diogenes asked was for Alexander to move because he was blocking the sun. He didn’t need or want a thing. He was one content man.

Jesus, in this section from the Sermon on the Mount, is calling us to move from anxiety to contentment. He says, “do not be anxious about your life.” But if that is all that He said, it would not have been enough. Telling an anxious person not to be anxious is like telling a drunk not to think about whiskey. If you spend all day trying not to be anxious then you will end up being anxious about how well you did at not being anxious.

So Jesus gives three important points to help us move from anxiety to contentment. The first is to recognize how pointless anxiety really is. He says, “and which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his life span?” Of course you cannot add hours to your life but studies have shown that you can do the opposite. Researchers from Harvard Medical School concluded that high levels of anxiety can reduce your life span by as much as 6 years. Not only does anxiety not help us it actually hurts us. Anxiety is a fool’s errand.

The second thing that Jesus points us to, in order to move us from anxiety to contentment, is our heavenly Father. Our heavenly Father knows our needs even better than we do. Our heavenly Father proves through His care of creation that He is capable of meeting our needs. Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father, because He is our heavenly Father, will certainly care for His children as He cares for birds and flowers.

When Jesus adds the words “O you of little faith” He is not throwing a low blow or being disrespectful. Rather He is telling us something very important. He is telling us that being anxious about our needs reveals a lack of faith. Or to put it another way, being anxious about our needs shows that we are not truly trusting God.

It really comes down to some very basic questions and answers. Is He God or is He not? Does He love you or does He not? Does He have the will and the power to care for you or does He not? If you answered with 3 “yes’s” then you need to move from anxiety to trust. Then once you enter the room of trust, shut the door behind you.

The third thing that Jesus does, to move us from anxiety to contentment, is to give us an awe-inspiring vision. This is ingenious. When you are living for and being part of an incredible dream then you don’t have the time or energy for anxiety about petty things. For example when the first men were landing on the moon you can bet your last dollar that they didn’t have time to worry whether or not they had paid the water bill back home.

And so after Jesus tells us not to worry about our needs because our heavenly Father has that part covered, He gives us our assignment. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” This is the vision, this is the dream that we are to live for, the vision and dream of God’s kingdom.

Seeking first the kingdom is not just about going to heaven, although it certainly includes it. When the kingdom comes in its fullness it will be a new heaven and a new earth. It will be our inheritance because we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. It is where we will be a kingdom of priests to serve our God. It will be where every wrong is made right and all things will be brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made.

Jesus inaugurated it, declaring that it is in our midst. He told us to pray daily that it would come on earth as it is in heaven. It certainly is not here in its fullness, but it is here and we are to live in it now. Jesus tells us to make it our life’s priority to seek it.

Jesus tells us not only to seek the kingdom of God but He adds “and His righteousness.” What does that mean? The righteousness of God is the perfection of God in all His ways. He does not live up to the highest standard, He is the highest standard. And as we seek Him we will also be seeking His righteousness. The closer we grow to God the more godly we become.

But righteousness is also seen in relationship to others. Righteousness is seen when mercy and grace are given. Righteousness is seen when justice is upheld. Righteousness is seen when wickedness is vanquished. Righteousness is seen when the poor and oppressed are protected. So when Jesus tells us to seek God’s righteousness, we are not only to seek to become godly but we are to seek ways to act godly towards others. That is why James gives us such a practical perspective. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the orphans and widows, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Pure religion is to be godly and to act godly.

But doesn’t this discussion about righteousness and godliness take us in a different direction from the initial discussion about contentment and not being anxious about our needs? Actually no. It brings us full circle because righteousness and contentment are connected. Listen to St. Paul’s advice to Timothy. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it.”

I also believe that this discussion of contentment fits perfectly for our reason for being here today. Contentment and thanksgiving are equally connected. I wondered this week if it is contentment that produces thanksgiving or if it is thanksgiving that produces contentment and I concluded, “yes.” People who are content are thankful for all the blessings of this life and thankful people are content with what they have, knowing that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

Contentment and thanksgiving are such life changing virtues to pursue. When you grow in contentment and thankfulness, a peace enters your life that is the kind of peace that the world cannot give. You look around and realize that you are blessed on every side, that there is nothing that you really want, and that all your needs have been met. When your energy is not being drained by anxiety you find a whole new creativity and discover new ways to look at and to appreciate life.

I need to add that there is an implied warning in Jesus’ call. The promise that our needs will be met if we seek first the kingdom also implies that if we don’t then they won’t.

This can be difficult because it seems so counter-intuitive. If I am working hard to provide for my family but it seems that we never quite make ends meet, then it only makes sense that I need to work even harder. Instead of working 6 days a week I need to work 7, in spite of what the commandments say. So I put God on the back burner and work 7 days a week and not only are the ends still not meeting but now I am more exhausted than ever. That is when Dr. Phil steps in and asks me, “So how’s that working out for you?”

Jesus’ answer for me is not that I need to work harder but that I need to take a hard look at my priorities. His promise is that if I will put God first then my needs will be met. But if I don’t put God first then I can work 8 days a week and will still come up short and still have my life will be dominated by anxiety. This implied warning is not a threat. It’s just an explanation of how things work in God’s kingdom.

We come here this morning to worship before we gather with friends and family for our Thanksgiving feast. This is a concrete way to seek first the Kingdom of God, to put Him before food and football. I heard on a news station that many today think that Thanksgiving is about thanking the Indians for feeding those first pilgrims. And while we certainly should be thankful for what those Indians did, they are not the focus of this day. God is. For me, one of the most beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book is the General Thanksgiving of Morning and Evening Prayer. In it we thank God for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. Then we add, “but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the perspective that we are to have on Thanksgiving day and in fact it is the perspective that we should have every day. We will be praying that prayer together in just a few minutes.

Well it appears to me that Alexander did not get Diogenes’ point about contentment. He pushed himself so hard to grow a giant empire that Alexander died one month shy of his 33rd birthday. Diogenes on the other hand lived to be in his 80’s. It is to our great benefit to hear and apply Jesus’ teaching. There is of course no promise that it will make you live longer but if you heed His words you will live richer. “Do not be anxious about your life….But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Amen and Happy Thanksgiving.