This past Monday I started an exercise challenge called Planks-giving. I’m part of a group of thirty-two people from many different places in the US. Every day between now and November 23 we will all practice the exercise move called planking, and each day add a little extra time until, at the end, we’ve worked up to holding a plank for a minute and ten seconds in three different positions. We all check in with each other every day via a Facebook group. The other part of the challenge is to post something each day for which we give thanks – hence the catchy “Planks-giving” name.
In real life, I only know three of the people in the group, but that does not stop me from appreciating their support and encouragement, offering my own, and getting a few tips and reminders from the group – either about the exercise or about gratitude, although connecting with them in person and in real time would be much better.
In a number of ways, this on-line group has parallels to the Communion of Saints, whom we celebrate today. The Communion of Saints is made up of all those who have gone before us in the faith; all those who have loved, followed, worshiped, and served Christ in this life, have died, and now live in God’s eternal presence. Some of them are people we know – from Scripture, from Church history, from our own personal lives. To some of them we have attached the formal title “saint.”
You only have to look around at the church walls to see the symbols of some of those named saints, the Twelve Apostles: Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Matthias. You may also have your favorite saint from history, who may or may not have the title “saint”: Mary, the mother of our Lord; Margaret, queen of Scotland; John Donne, the Anglican priest and poet; Martin Luther King, jr., Baptist preacher and civil rights leader; Theresa of Avila, sixteenth-century Spanish nun and mystic; John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the patron saint of the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham. And then there are those you know personally – a grandparent, a teacher, someone whose Christian faith and life are a profound example for you. And of course, there are all those who names are now known to God alone.
In this community of the sanctified, the holy ones, we remember and give thanks for their life and witness to Christ, and we covet their prayers on our behalf. From them we can take inspiration, and encouragement for the Christian life – a much greater and more important relationship than the one I have with my Facebook exercise group, but they share some similarities and parallels.
What is it you need to be a more faithful follower of Jesus? Do you need courage? Do you need wisdom, or understanding? Do you need strength, or patience, or compassion? Do you need healing, or sobriety, or persistence, grounding in truth, or joy? All of these are part of the pattern of holy living, and we can look to the examples and stories of the saints to learn how they met these challenges. And if there is a particular saint you feel drawn to, almost as a mentor, you can ask them to pray with you to God for what it is you most need.
It’s important to be clear about the difference between what we need and what we want. We want many things – some good for us, some not so good for us. We can and should be honest and transparent with God about all of it, but our prayer will be much more satisfying and effective if what we are asking for is something we really need: food, clothing, shelter, work, friendship, love, health, rest, connection with God and our fellow human beings. God made us with these needs, and Jesus taught us to pray for them, our daily bread – and so we should.
But the summary of Jesus’ teaching that we call the Sermon on the Mount begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These Beatitudes, these states of blessing in nine different circumstances, are all about what it means to live a Christian life, and are the character traits and faith traits Jesus wants us to work on and develop. These are also what we are to pray for: to be poor in spirit, to be open to grief and mourning, to be humble and meek, meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peacemakers, to be willing to be persecuted for righteousness' sake, to not lose heart when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account because when that happens you know you are standing alongside the saints and prophets.
This is all so different from what the world tells us we should desire, and long for, and strive for. The world prizes status, acquisition, the raw exercise of power that is often increasingly violent, being the center of attention, wealth for its own sake, cunningness, sex not as a gift of God but as unbridled desire, an attractiveness that has nothing to do with character or inner beauty. To face this each day, and to stand against it is often hard, and wearing, and so we need the prayers and witness of the saints – those in God’s realm we call heaven, and those who walk this way with us here and now.
The African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community of faith, the Communion of Saints, to help us follow Jesus each and every day as we pray for and with one another to be faithful witnesses to the way, the truth, and the life into which we were baptized.
To God be the glory. Alleluia. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5, 2017