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Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day when we give thanks for the lives of all those held up in esteem as exemplars of the faith. When I imagine the saints, I think of them as achieving perfectionism. Followers of Jesus who got it all right, and whose lives are ideals for us to follow. One definition for perfectionism does in fact focus on the theological: perfectionism is “a doctrine holding that perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained.” And the saintly ones who do this are way beyond where we ourselves could ever be. But we can try, right? Perfectionism is what we’re called to achieve, isn’t it?

A sermon based on Luke 6.

That’s what we may think, in our social media hungry world. However, Neil Pasricha, a blogger and the author of The Book of Awesome, describes the insidiousness and harm of social media. He says, “There’s a problem comparing your Director’s Cut life with everyone else’s greatest hits [when you scroll through posts]. No matter how good that burrito you microwaved for lunch is, [even] when you chopped up a little avocado, and you put on a dollop of sour cream, and you even melted the cheese, and added the salsa you really like, and sprinkled on some jalapeños.  Then you go on Instagram and someone is at a lobster buffet in the Maldives, [and] it’s impossible to feel good about yourself.” And we tend to look at the saints or people we consider giants in the faith in the same way, comparing our ordinary every day lives with the great things they accomplished in their lifetime, and then either think we must go and do likewise, or that we will never be good enough and just throw in the towel on Jesus.

So let me say it outright: You don’t need to be perfect to be a follower of Jesus. And even the saints themselves were never perfect no matter what we ideas we imagine about them. 

This became clear with Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Before she died in 1997, many of us thought Teresa to be the exemplar of faith and connection to God. Yet, after her death, we learned that she had grave doubts, and she felt disconnected from God. Her questioning at least allowed us to see her in a more honest light. Or consider St Augustine of Hippo, who infamously prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity, just not yet.” No, the saints were not perfect.

Jesus gives us a glimpse of this need to let go of perfection in his Sermon on the Plain from Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells the people assembled on that day that they’ll be blessed—they’ll be happy—if they are poor, and hungry, and hated, reviled, excluded, and defamed because their reward would be in the age to come. But, get this, if you’re rich and full and if people speak well of you, then you’ll be miserable because your reward has already come to you.

Let me ask just one thing: which side of this equation does our society idealize? Which side do we want to be on ourselves? It’s clear Jesus never spent time on social media because that person with their photo of a lobster lunch at the oceanside will get tons more likes than the unhoused man sitting alone on a bench.

Trappist Monk, author, and peace activist, Thomas Merton explores our desire to be perfect and what it might look like to live as a saint in his book New Seeds of Contemplation. He begins by suggesting that things in God’s creation become saint-like simply in their being. He describes a tree and little yellow flowers by the side of the road, and a lake hidden by some hills, and the sea. He writes that they are “saint[s] who praise God without interruption in their majestic dance.” Why? Simply because they are what God intends them to be. They do not try to be something other than what they were created for. Imagine a hippopotamus saying that a diet was in order because he wanted to be as sleek as a race horse. Preposterous, right? Because it would mean that a hippo stopped being a hippo since it had a false idea of what it could be. Even if that hippo were to find a horse mask and put it on, we wouldn’t be fooled.

And yet how often do we put on masks ourselves? How often do we hide behind disguises in the hopes that it will get us more “likes” in real life? We define ourselves by what we do, or what we have, or where we’ve been. We listen to an ego that declares others won’t accept us if we are truly ourselves, if we are authentic and honest. 

Thomas Merton writes, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He continues, “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find [God] I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find [God].”

Why does Jesus say that if you’re hungry and poor and pushed aside by others you’ll be happy? Because in all of those situations, you realize that you must depend on God. You have to seek out God. You have to spend your time finding God, coming closer to God in your daily life. And drawing near to God means that you will begin to hear and understand what you mean to God. That you are beloved, and beyond compare just as God made you. That when you devote your life to discovering joy and then bringing it to others in your unique way, that’s when you’re drawing near to God and becoming a saint.

When we chase after the image of success in our world, when we grasp for money, fame, and fortune, we push aside what God wants for us. We become something we are not. We try to be perfect in the eyes of the world, and that is only fleeting, and will ultimately leave us empty.

God calls us to faithfulness not perfection. God wants us to become simply who we are called to be in our full humanity. We will not always get it right; we will mess up. But we can still become saints if we choose to seek after God, coming into God’s presence in order to uncover all that God desires for us.

May we do that on this All Saints’ Sunday. May we choose to live as the beloved children of God that we are, so that like the elm and the mountain, the horse and indeed the hippo, we can praise God without interruption in our majestic dance.

Image by Herbert Bieser from Pixabay 

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For those of a certain generation, you may recall the hit song by the band R.E.M titled “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  For the rest of you, it starts with an earthquake and birds and snakes and airplanes and governments for hire and combats and fires and furies breathing down your neck, as the band describes the apocalypse in a stream of conscious way. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Things which had once been are no longer. It’s awful. And, the band wants you to know, in spite of all this, they feel fine.

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The results from a  2014 survey detailed what Americans pray for most often. First on that list: family and friends. Their own problems came in at the number 2 spot. Future prosperity was a common prayer for more than a third of respondents, while praying for government officials—something Paul commends to Timothy in his letter to him—was done only by 12 percent. It turns out that praying for politicians happened less frequently than those who prayed for their favorite sports team to win, with 13% of respondents doing that.

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Melissa, Noah, Olivia, and I walked 500 miles this summer on the Way of St. James—the Camino de Santiago. Well, slightly less mileage for Melissa and me; when Melissa sprained her ankle 3 days and 38 miles from our destination, it meant that she and I wouldn’t finish but we sent Noah and Olivia along with Camino friends so that they could. Around the middle of our trip as we walked in the Meseta—a long stretch of 228 kilometers and 10 days of walking through landscape similar to the Great Plains here in the US with little shade, and miles upon miles of fields—I asked what we were learning on the Way. What might God be teaching us, showing us. What was opening up for us.

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There is much I want to say today to you before I embark on my sabbatical leave. The lesson from 2 Kings seems on first blush to be perfect. Elijah handing things over to Elisha as he’s whisked away in a chariot to heaven. But once you start laying it out, that would mean I’m getting whisked away by God—who, as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn suggests, would be using a silver Thunderbird instead of a fiery chariot, but I digress—and I’d be leaving Christine behind to pick up the ministry here. Except that knowing her as I do, I would be the one like Elisha asking for a double portion of Christine’s spirit. More so, as someone who has retired from full-time ministry, I suspect Christine will be honored to do this for a season, but then wanting to return to the things she loves that sustain her life. And there’s the simple fact that Elijah is gone forever while I’ll be returning to you in three months time. So that’s not it.

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As Genesis describes it in the primal history of the world, everyone used to speak the same language. The kids liked it, as they didn’t have to take a foreign language at school. The adults liked it, because they didn’t even have to deal with regional accents, wondering why someone called soft drinks “soda” or “pop.” The government loved it because it meant that you could get people to do what you wanted with clear instruction. It was all good.

So as the people made their way across the plain in the land of Shinar, they laid out plans for a city and the first skyscraper, a tower reaching up to the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves, to build this impressive and massive fortress. And they imagined that in this skyscraper, they could add in condos—surely costing more the higher you went up—so they could continue to live together instead of being spread over the face of the earth. They wanted the whole world to know that they could do anything they set their minds to.

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Twenty years ago, Disney released the animated film “Lilo and Stitch.” The story begins in outer space where an alien mad scientist has engineered a creature whose only goal is to wreak havoc and bring destruction. The government officials deem that the small blue koala looking being named “Experiment 626” has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is banished to a deserted planet on the outer edge of the galaxy. Except that he gets loose and ends up on earth.

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“The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step,” according to the well-known adage. But, someone will quickly add, it helps if you know where you’re going, otherwise that 1000 mile journey could turn into quite a few more miles if you head down the wrong path. Make a plan. Chart a course. Envision your future, and then work towards it.

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You may remember the Cohen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which hit theaters in 2000. It’s set in 1930s Mississippi about Ulysses Everett McGill—played masterfully by George Clooney—and his two companions who escape from the chain gang on the search for buried treasure. Interestingly, the soundtrack did even better than the film itself, selling millions of copies along the way and winning a Best Album Grammy. It includes the old gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away” sung by bluegrass musicians Allison Krause and Gillian Welch. In the film, the song covers a montage of the three escapees as they begin their journey, enjoying their new found freedom.

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No one slept well that weekend. The events from late Thursday night into Friday had left them all shell-shocked. They had enjoyed one last meal together and Jesus had once more taught them instructing them to love one another as he had loved them. Then they went out to the garden, a lovely place that Jesus often visited to pray. That’s when it all unraveled. Judas came with a band of soldiers and religious leaders to arrest Jesus. A skirmish ensued resulting in Peter lopping off the ear of a servant. Jesus cried, “Enough!” picked up the ear and healed the man, and then they led him away. A kangaroo court condemned him, he was whipped, and Pilate ultimately agreed to crucify him. Now he was buried in a tomb. They honored the Sabbath day of rest, but it was mostly filled with tears and questions about how all of this could have happened so suddenly. They had dreamed about this new way of life Jesus taught about, but now he was gone.

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