A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
November 6th, 2022 at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
The fabulous 2002 movie, Whale Rider, tells the story of Paikea, a Maori girl born into a struggling community at the edge of New Zealand. It is a tragic story full of loss, her mother and her twin brother dying in the opening scenes during childbirth. The brother was to be the male heir, the leader prophesied by her grandfather, her Koro, to be the next in a line of ancestors, to lead her people. Young Pai narrates these opening scenes telling the story of her people and their origin,
“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting. Waiting to be filled up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting for a leader.
And he came on the back of a whale. A man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea. But now we were waiting for the firstborn of the new generation, for the descendant of the whale rider. For the boy who would be chief.”
The title of Paikea would not pass to a boy, and her father, in contradiction of his father, the chief and leader, bestows the name on his surviving daughter, placing her as the prophesied descendant, the next in a long line of chiefs, stretching back to that first man. Near the end of the movie, we see the village trying desperately to help a pod of beached whales back into the sea. Pai believes these are the ancestors, the ancient ones, who have come to aid her community amidst its distress, amidst the challenges facing the Maori people – poverty, addiction, and the loss of a whole way of life. The ancestors have come and beached themselves, put their own lives at risk, to be present with a people most in need.
Today we celebrate our own long line of descendants, tracing our spiritual heritage back to a kind of “first man, the new Adam, Jesus. We call this line of descendants, this lineage, the saints, whose lives touched the world with a particular kind of grace and love. In some Christian traditions, the Saints are all of us, the church’s many members stretching back across time and space to the very first disciples. In others, like ours in the Episcopal Church, the Saints are a very special group of people, those whose lives speak to us in a particular way, about how God acts in the world. Their lives point to Jesus because of the ways they so patterned their own lives after his. Which is why we celebrate each saint in their own way and even on their own day.
The two saints that have particular relevance in my own house and life, not surprisingly, are Saints Simon and Jude, whose feast day was only a few days ago. Simon and Jude share a feast day because, the story goes, they were martyred together while spreading the good news of God’s love. And we chose these saints as the namesake of our two boys, because we wanted them to find deep connection with their own ancestors, those who came before them. For my wife Erin and I, Saints Simon and Jude remind us of our own fathers, whose lives lift up, as Saint Simon the Zealot does, a zeal to share the love of Jesus, to defend the least and to protect those most in need, and of Saint Jude the Obscure, whose life is remembered most for being unknown, hidden, and as such, a saint for lost causes, the left out, and the those on the margins.
What saints do you hold with particular reverence and care? Perhaps it is Saints Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Dorothy Day, whose lives in the modern world, exemplified the work for justice and peace? Or, perhaps you are fond of Saint John the Evangelist, and his soaring, eagle-like vision of the gospel of love? Or, maybe it is Saint Mary, and her profound witness to the ways God’s power working within us can cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the humble?
Whichever saint it is, I have a theory that it is not the grandeur or the sparkling bits of a saints story that commend their lives to us, that make their witness so compelling. What draws us to the saints is how they are so like us, so relatable and familiar. Which is why, perhaps, the vision of all of us as Saints is not so far from the truth. Even if we are not remembered as such, even when our lives don’t enter into the canon with the same reverence and specific care as, say Theresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich, we can see how their humanity, their flaws and failings are just like ours. We are reminded that the sainted Mother Theresa of Calcutta, another modern saint, lived for years in spiritual darkness and doubt, unsure of God’s presence in her life. Despite her great acts of love for the world, we can relate to those parts of her that were most human – the doubt, the questions, and the hope for a spark of God’s power in her life to kindle the darkness. What’s more, like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King, we can see in the lives of the saints, how their capacity to love is a real possibility, not remote or out of touch among the angels, but here, now, in our real lives amidst real struggle. We too can love like they did. Their love, like that of Jesus, does not exalt itself, but, rather, descends down further into the need and pain of the world.
Today’s gospel is a sermon from Jesus about just how God’s love descends among us. In fact, while in Matthew’s gospel the more famous rendering of this story casts it as the Sermon on the Mount, here, in Luke’s telling, it is the Sermon on the Plain. Almost as if to underscore the movement of God, to emphasize to the disciples and the crowd, how they are to imitate the same, Jesus descends down, into the midst of them. And his sermon is full of the promise of God’s love, the reversal of real world pain and suffering – the reversal of power of privilege of wealth and hunger. The story of God is interested not in things, as our collect prays, ineffable, but the world as we encounter it, right here and right now.
Leonard Cohen once wrote that a saint was a person who was not known for glory or for changing the world, but, rather someone who gave themselves over to loving the world. He says,
“Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart.”
These are the lives of the saints, who like Jesus, love the world with such ferocity not in spite of their humanity but because of it. These are the lives after which we promise to apprentice our own, with whose lives we confess our own is (as our collect says) knit together. These are the ones whose lives we promise to study and learn, the ancestors whose witness and example we follow like we follow the first man, Jesus. As the old hymn suggests, whether in school or church or shops or, even at tea this is where we practice the lives of the saints – in the car, in our families, in the ballot box or wherever our voice and dollars and work matter to the lives of others. The saints call us to pattern our lives after theirs, favoring, as God does, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and those in need.
In a speech meant to honor her grandfather, near the climax of Whale Rider, Pai tells the school and community gathering, “I come from a long line of chiefs…but I was not the leader my grandfather was expecting. And by being born, I broke the line back to the ancient ones. It wasn’t anybody’s fault…it just happened…But”, she continues “we can learn and if the knowledge is given to everyone, then we can have lots of leaders and soon everyone will be strong, not just the ones who’ve been chosen.”
That, my friends, is church, the body of Christ. We come here today, to celebrate all the saints, to celebrate their witness and example, to learn it and practice it, to commit our lives to loving as they did, following Jesus’ way of love, discipling their lives after the life of Jesus, showing forth his love in the world. Because, the truth is, we know that it is not just these pillars of love who can be saints, we can be one too.