Sermon from November 7: Straight-Talking Saints
All Saints; November 7, 2021
Some difficult talk in this chapter, isn’t there? Someone once described the first part of this chapter – when he scolds the wealthy and tells them that the Lord will judge them for failing to pay laborers fairly – as James standing and shouting at the big house on the hill. We nice proper white North Americans don’t like to hear such talk. But there it is.
On the other hand, most of us do admire those who talk straight, who don’t beat around the bush. It takes talent to be able to tell the truth without going on the attack, to tell someone what they ought to hear but without making them feel threatened or hurt. One of those was Alice, who was never afraid to sit down with her pastor and tell me what I needed to hear. Yet she was never cruel about it. She wasn’t perfect, of course – although her rhubarb pie was to die for – but one of the many things I have admired about her was her ability to talk straight to people, but without being unkind.
One form of straight talk that James commends to us is prayer. Do not grumble about one another, he says, but do pray for one another. We have prayed here for those Christian missionaries held for ransom in Haiti. They come from among what we sometimes call “Plain People” or “Anabaptists” in Ohio; one of the important tenets of their tradition is to pray for their enemies. So rather than shouting or cursing the kidnappers, their churches ask us to pray for the kidnappers. Pray for your enemies; pray for those who hate you; pray for the sick; pray for one another.
On the first Sunday of November we pause to remember those who have left us. We do not pray for them, but we give thanks for them. I’m going to go into teaching mode: sometimes I get in the stack the request, “Please pray for Macie, who died on Tuesday” and, of course, I don’t pray for Macie. I find a way around the request. That is because we Reformed Christians don’t pray for the dead. What do we expect God to do for them once they have died? We don’t believe in Purgatory, so we can’t think of any reason to pray for the dead. But we do give thanks for them: we give thanks for their life, we give thanks for their witness, we give thanks for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
While I’m in teaching mode, this is a good time to remind you of what we mean in the Presbyterian Church when we say “saints.” On the one hand, we do not use it to mean perfect people. The five whom we remember today were not perfect. They were wonderful and they were loving, but they were sinners. The rigorous process the Roman Catholic Church uses to determine whether someone deserves the title “saint” is intended to discern whether they were cleansed of sin and so were not in Purgatory but in Heaven. We don’t use the word that way; we use it the way the New Testament uses it, to describe anyone who belongs to Jesus Christ. Jim Smith used to say that his wife Kay must be an angel to put up with a sinner like him and he was probably right. But he belonged to Jesus Christ; he is among the saints.
At the same time, we don’t use the word to describe everyone who has died. On All Saints Sunday we remember those of our number who named Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who remained part of his community to their last day. They sinned, but were forgiven. They got exasperated or angry or bored with the Church, but they didn’t leave it. They persisted. We give thanks for their confession of faith; we give thanks for their witness; we give thanks for their service. We give thanks that they hung in there.
Still, there are many others whom you remember who are your own saints, as it were. When I was a boy our pastor used to talk a lot about the communion of saints. I don’t think I knew what he meant, but it stuck with me and I’ve thought about it. Here’s one image that you may have heard others mention. When the family gets together for a summer reunion or maybe Thanksgiving dinner, the grown-ups sit on the porch while the children play in the yard. The grown-ups keep an eye on the children and the children can run to the grown-ups whenever they need to. We the living are the children playing in the yard; the communion of saints in your life are the people sitting on the porch watching you.
In the movie Places in the Heart there is a communion scene at the end. As the choir sings, the people pass the plates of bread and juice down the pew. You had a look at the half-full church a few minutes before, but at the communion the pews are crowded: with the living and the dead, the good and the wicked, the murdered and murderer. All take the bread and the cup, and they whisper to one another, “The peace of God.” For me, the communion of the saints means that when I eat the bread and drink the wine, when I watch you pass it to one another or come up the aisle to receive it, Barb, Jim, Ruth, Clare, and Gloria are here too. Also Bob and Dorothy and Ethel and Adam and so many others whom you can name. One of them is seated in that chair next to you; another is in the choir. You remember them for what they said and what they did; you laugh over their flaws and foibles; they were our saints. Even better if they followed James’ example and talked straight, saying what needed to be said when it needed to be said.
There is so much more, but let’s leave it with James’ commendation of those who showed endurance. Whatever else we may say, our saints have hung in there with Jesus and His Church until the end. So we do call them blessed. And we are blessed for their having been among us and that they continue to join us in the communion of the saints.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master