Game 7, Inspired Saints, and Unexpected Angels (starting with Jason Heyward, natch): My Sermon for 11/6/16

        Last Sunday many churches celebrated the festivals of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  The calendar days of these festivals are November 1 & 2.  As they happened during the week this year, the All Saints (and All Souls - in the UMC they are combined) Worshp Serivce took place on the Sunday after, which is November 6.  Here is the sermon I preached for that Sunday.  For your edification, and more than that, hopefully, your joy.

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         Like all well-meaning preachers, today I’m called to offer a sermon that not only helps us better understand ancient words of scripture but also how those ancient words speak to the experiences and events that swirl around our lives and world.  

           So, with the ancient texts for this All-Saints Sunday worship serivce already given to me in our Revised Common Lectionary, I wondered what current experience or event to focus on.  Something that is front and center in the hearts and minds of folks not only here but throughout our land?  Like all well-meaning preachers, I want to be as relevant as possible.  

           Well, of course, there’s the upcoming presidential election.  That’s a subject that can always use more theological reflection.   And it is certainly front and center on people’s minds.

           But what else?  I always like choices.  Choices, of course, are the American Way.

           Well, there’s our very beautiful fall day today!  That’s something we always like to talk about - the weather! - oh if only one of the texts designated for today's service was the “For everything there is a season” one from Ecclesiastes!  But it’s not.  Too bad.  Later on that possibility.

           Oh and there’s the BEST DAY of the year - I mean best NIGHT of the year - that was just dropped in our laps!  Who doesn’t want to spend time today celebrating THAT?  And you know what I’m talking about…last night we got to turn our clocks back and got an extra hour of sleep!!!!  I know I show my age here by proclaiming this as my favorite day/night.  In fact, I tend to get so excited about that extra hour of sleep, I don’t get any sleep at all!  A sermon here on value of self-control would be very welcome about now.  Actually it would have been more helpful last Sunday….

           And then there’s the thing that happened last week that’s not just the best thing of the year, it was the best thing of the millennium.  And you know what I’m probably talking about.

           It involves this.  [I pull Cubs cap out of bag and put on my head.] 

          And this.  [I unzip my robe and robe.  I am wearing a Cubs “World Series” t-shirt over my dress.] 

          And this.  [I pull out Cubby Blue giant “foam finger” and put on hand.] 

           For so long I said the Cubs merchandiser should make one of these with the number “4” instead - something fans could wave proudly when we got out of the division basement.  "We're Number 4!  We're Number 4!"  that sort of thing.

          I’d have also brought today the small “W” flag that now hangs next to Dad’s door at the nursing home, but it’s gotta stay there now till the next Cub game, which won’t be till next spring.  Woo Hoo!  

           [I start jumping up and down silently.]  This is how I was cheering Wednesday night.  This is how you cheer at the nursing home.

           You don’t have to be a Cub fan to relish what just happened last Wednesday (unless you’re from Cleveland).  Actually, even Cleveland fans are, from what I can tell, very gracious and happy about what the Cubs were able to do - end a 108 year old victory draught - the longest in sports history.  And the celebration in Chicago on Friday was attended by 5 million people - that’s the 7th largest social gathering in human history!  In a year full of huge YUGE rallies, this one totally took the cake!!!

           So let’s have a sermon about that! 

            For me, the thing most memorable, most preach-worthy about Wednesday night and the whole of the World Series was that it was so inspiring.  More to the point, everyone on the team was inspiring.  Don’t you agree?  And, ironically, that word "inspiration" is theological in nature.   It means, literally, “God-breathed.”   

           The idea in the ancient world was that God (or the gods) breathed their spirit into a chosen person, filling them with extra-special energy that shaped their words and actions with Divine power and guidance.  Through these “inspired” words and actions the Divine breath was then passed along to those who witnessed the inspired person.  They were likewise filled and able to speak and act in similarly “inspired” fashion.  And they passed that breath - and words and actions - along to their witnesses, and so on.   That’s how ancients would describe what happens when someone inspires you, when you inspire someone else.  

           There were so many inspired, inspiring players on the Cubs team, and in so many different ways.  

           For starters, there were the incredibly talented young players — and quite a few of them!  Filled with so much enthusiasm as well as talent and dedication.  Enjoying playing the game with their teammates as well as their opponents, many to whom they showed much affection during the World Series as they met each other on the bases -- they’d played together in college or on other teams.  What was best about winning in the post-season was that it guaranteed they could play another game, and with one another.

           Watching these youngsters and with that spirit gave me new energy and license to be a crazy kid enthusiastic about the work I’m called to do.  [I once again jump up and down silently.]

           And then there were the seasoned veterans, who were older - like, 30 - and who provided wisdom and gravitas to the youngsters, especially when the kids got a little too flighty.  We also are inspired to be like them - those who the next generation come to for counsel, and for good reason.     

           Especially moving to me was what Jason Hayward did for his teammates during the rain delay at the end of regulation play Wednesday night.  As you may or may not know, Heyward was a superstar player from St. Louis who last spring came to the Cubs as a free agent and signed a multi-year multi-million dollar contract to play at Wrigley Field.  However, although he remained really good on defense this year, he was terrible at the plate.  He received all sorts of criticism and mockery from the press and the fans.

           But on Wednesday night, after the Cubs blew a 5-1 lead by the end of nine innings and suddenly it was 6 to 6 and it started raining before the tenth inning could start and fans everywhere and I think some of the Cubs themselves were starting to say, with horror and heartbreak, “Here we go again!  Going to once again snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory!” -- while that kind of nightmare energy was starting to accelerate everywhere (and I was angrily - and silently - typing, “And we should drinking champagne by now!  #%!*&")...while I was yelling silently at the nursing home…

           ….Jason Heyward was suddenly overcome with this overwhelming urge to call his teammates together for a meeting in the weight room - a small rather dank room in the “Visitor” clubhouse - and even though he’s never been one to speak up like this, he said, “Come on, we can do this!  We’re a great team!  We got here for a reason!  We can do this for one another!  I love you and we all love one another.  Let’s do this like we know we can!”  

           They were the right words at the right time.  And from the surprisingly right vessel.  After 17 minutes, the rains stopped, the field was ready to resume play, the Cubs came out and made all the right hits — nothing extra heroic, just everyone doing their part.  They scored two runs and before you could say “Next year is NOW!” the game was over and the Cubs were champion.  And I was cheering like this!  [Silently, with a little noise that can’t help but be made.]

           It was the least likely person with the least likely gift that proved most significant, most inspiring.  

           What makes this all especially transcendent is that the inspiration came via a team of people, not just one.  We got to experience that Divine breath as it moved through all sorts of folks in all sorts of ways, so it came to us in ways broader, deeper and more profound.  Strength in numbers.  And variety.   

           It’s no small coincidence perhaps, that the end of the World Series coincided with the actual date that we in the Church celebrate as “All Saints Day”.  This is a sacred day when we remember and seek to be inspired by the giants of our faith…people who are extraordinarily inspired in their words and actions…Christianity’s All-Stars as it were.

           We’re invited to remember and be inspired by our young superstar saints, like Joan of Arc, who at 19 answered God’s call to lead the French to victory on the battlefield; and Francis of Assisi, who in his early 20’s dropped out of the army and gave away all his possessions to live in simply in the forest and create an order of monks committed to peace; and Martin Luther King, Jr., who began his amazingly effective non-violent quest for civil rights and social justice when he was but 26.  

           We also remember more seasoned great Saints, like Mother Teresa, who until she died at age 87 (the new 47 dontcha know) continued giving complete Christlike dignity and care for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  And there’s the most-seasoned saint of our denomination - John Wesley - who until the year before he died, also at age 87, regularly rode his horse around England like every good Circuit Rider, tirelessly overseeing the endlessly expanding Methodist Movement, practicing with excellence the Method’s intense, life-changing rigors.   

           And then there are the unusual Saints, like Brother Lawrence, an illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages who was born with a birth defect that affected his hips and made it difficult to walk.  He experienced a calling to become a monk and entered a monastery where he was assigned a job in the kitchen, caring for the pots and pans.  And I’m talking giant, heavy pots and pans that are hard for even a fully mobile person to clean and put away. 

           Yet, Brother Lawrence had developed this way of talking to God - listening and speaking to God in every moment — he called it “practicing the presence of God” — and it gave him this glow and this strength to not only handle his tasks gracefully and joyfully, but it also piqued the interest of people from far and wide - even lords and ladies -- who would go to the kitchen of the monetary to hear him talk and teach about getting close to God.

           That is one unusual saint!

          And then there is the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society.  And perhaps you women of the UMW (United Methodist Women) know what I’m talking about.  This society of women supported the Methodist women missionaries who, in the late 19th century were being sent to Eastern Asia and India as the denomination, as many denominations in those days, were committed to Christianizing the world.  This was also happening at a time when women were not being allowed to serve as pastors here in America.  
           Even though women couldn't serve in that capacity here, it was a different story there.  In East Asia and India, traditional cultures where women determine the faith life of their family and if you’re going to convert a family you have to start with the wives and no husband will allow a strange male in the house to interact with his wife, women were desperately needed for the job.  So women leaders went there and women back at home - wives mostly - would save their pennies to support their sisters leading the charge overseas.   They were very successful in their savings and converting efforts.  The money sent abroad built hospitals and schools.   Women suddenly became a very powerful force in the Methodist Church.

           Scholars think it was the momentum and confidence and power discovered by the women of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, then the dominant Christian denomination in America, that lead to the Suffragette movement.  

          Ladies, when we go to the polls on Tuesday, we can thank our forebears, very unusual saints, for that opportunity.  We can also thank those men who at that time denied women’s ordination in America.  That roadblock provided the impetus for our forebears to seek even greater achievement than simply becoming pastors.  

           Clearly, when it comes to who is on God’s championship team, God leaves no out.  Everyone and everything is used to bring us all to true, beloved victory. 

           And it doesn’t stop there.  Traditionally the day after All Saints - which is November 1, which would have been Game 6 - there is All Souls Day — which landed on Game 7.  All Souls is the day when all who have died, especially those who have died in the past year, are remembered and honored.

           In the Methodist Church, we combine All Souls and All Saints Day because we believe God makes saints - superstars of Spirit - of us all.  So today in our All Saints Sunday worship we not only think upon our loved ones who have died, but how they embodied God’s spirit - how they were inspired and inspire us even now to be better, stronger and more faithful.

           We think of a whole team of people who have gone on before us.  Those who maybe were young when they passed away, or were young in spirit.  Never-endingly playful and fun and childlike, who taught us how to keep that orientation to life alive in us no matter our age.  We also remember the truly wise elders of our lives who are no longer with us.  They were a refuge of advice and understanding as we soughtto figure how to navigate our crazy and sometimes cruel world.  We miss them terribly yet still hear them guiding us, if we listen.  

           Then there are the unusual saints of our lives.  Maybe those dearly departed with unusual interests, hobbies, quirks, talents.  Something about their unique passions informed us about what it means to be fully human in ways we can't express, but we so value and hope to find in our own way this kind of passion for ourselves.  

           And then there are the unusual saints whose main talent, it seems, was a never-ending ability to be difficult to love.  Perhaps it’s because this is the way they chose to be or perhaps it’s because of challenges they’d had to confront in their environment or it was their biological make-up.  They have passed on before us and we grieve their deaths, but we wonder what contributions really did they make to the world, or to our well-being or the well-being of others.  If we're honest with ourselves, we're sort of grateful we no longer have to endure the struggles that interactions with them usually engendered. 

           But let's think more deeply, consider the possibilities.  After all, God uses everything.  Maybe they more than anyone else taught us... Patience.  Compassion.  Forgiveness.  A mirror in which to look painfully honestly at our own sins and shortcomings.  We learned more about ourselves, and about the messy but nevertheless graceful realities of life, from them than maybe anyone else.  What incomparable gifts, really.

           And it is this whole panoply of characters - an entire cloud of witnesses and saints - surprisingly fantastic, each and every one! - who inspire and through us inspire others.  In a wide wide variety of ways.  That makes the adventure all that much deeper and wider and more powerful.

           In our reading today from Letter to the Ephesians (1:15-23), the author (believed by some to be St. Paul) speaks about a glorious inheritance that believers receive in their baptism.  What kind of inheritance is that?  It’s the the Holy Spirit and its gifts, such as love and kindness and faithfulness and generosity and joy - that is passed on not only through the fully inspired vessel of Christ alone - who now lives in our hearts.  Also, as the author suggests, it's through a panoply of saints - Christ’s “body” - who succeed him and precede us.  Jesus is the coach and his saints are the team — and they are inspirers of all sorts — young and old and obvious and oh so unexpected.  All have their impact on us…a helpful impact that does nothing but cause us to grow and grow and grow.

           And really, what better Good News, hopeful news for us as we enter into this week of presidential elections?  It's so easy to be inundated all sorts of fear about what will happen and we’re so divided now, what will happen afterwards, etc etc etc.  Blah blah blah....

           Our scripture, our history, our Cubbies, and our personal experiences, tell us that this does not need to be a time for panic, but instead a great opportunity to find ways God, the Universe, whatever you want to call us, is actually drawing us together to be a team, filled with people with not only of all sorts of different ideologies but with unique abilities to inspire.   All sorts of deeper possibilities of beloved community are becoming available - that is the Divine Will, I would say.  

           When in these several days, weeks, months, we're finding ourselves in a panic and/or feeling totally stuck in "Othering" others, starting to point fingers at those who are to blame for failures and bad choices and everything else...when things get to the bottom of the ninth (as it were) and it all should be over but still it's going on, I'm thinking that there just might be an unexpected angel calling us to something different.  Something much better and surprisingly real.  We don't know who that 'Jason Heyward' will be, but he's (she's) somewhere close.  That's just the way God works, the Universe works, however you process it.  The important thing is to look for him/her, accept him/her, and be grateful.  A messenger is just around the corner who says, somehow, "Love!" "Trust!" "Remember the good!" "Once again, 'love'!" and, most important of all, as the tarp's been removed from the field....

           "PLAY BALL!" 

          We can do it!  All of us!!

         (As I jump up and down I loudly proclaim....)  WOO HOO!!