Sermon Preached on Nov. 3, 2019 – Celebration of All Saints’ Day
The Rev. Dr. Nina Ranadive Pooley
St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Saints and Losers
So how about those Nationals? (I know this is not a Nationals cap, but they used to be the Expos, best I could do!) In some ways this year’s World Series was the typical feel good sports story – one team from a franchise that hadn’t ever won the series, up against a powerhouse team that has been in contention the last several years. And yet the teams were oddly well matched, the games felt very close (even when the final score didn’t reflect it) and neither team won a home game throughout the seven-game series. First time in World Series history – every win was on the road, every loss in front of the home fans.
Which seems like no big deal in the grand scheme of the game, or life for that matter; but think about it for a minute. We love to win; we’re wired to be winners. We’re Americans after all – life is marketed and understood as a competitive sport, we are people of a culture that is all about winning. As fans, we go to games for the chance to cheer for the winners, to be with others who are on the winning side, to feel like winners ourselves when our team wins.
But the vast majority of fans in these stadiums didn’t get that story this time, instead they suffered the loss. They were all vicarious losers. That’s a lot of losers. Of course, the rest of us were watching on TV because our teams had already lost. That’s how it works, in all sports – in order for us to have winners, we have to have at least an equal number of losers (and to get to a championship, everyone has to lose but one). That’s a lot of losers and a lot of losing – you’d think we’d be better at it.
But we’re not good at it; at least most of us aren’t. Culturally we don’t seem to learn anything from losing or attempt to understand how losing often shapes us more than winning ever can. Our current political climate is rife with the fear of losing, and it just seems to get worse. The “us against them” of it all is exhausting, divisive, and destructive. It keeps our government from doing the work they were elected to do, that we need them to do. And the climate of fear and defensiveness is poisonous to us all.
When I went to the Task Force meeting last week in Atlanta – I admit that it was a relief to be so busy for four days that I didn’t see the news, or even have a chance to sift through the multitude of political emails swamping my inbox. Our Task Force is divided into subcommittees, and on mine, we have a member of the Order of St. Helena. A life-professed monastic for 30 years and counting, Sister Ellen Francis is gentle of spirit and graceful, in some ways she fulfills many of my romanticized notions of the
monastic life – peaceful, grounded in the faith and somewhat out of time, seemingly above the constraints of a worldly life. Except every time we meet online, she is tremendously busy and describes a community with a lot going on. And at this particular meeting she was proudly showing me the new daily prayer app she’s been working on, and asking questions about best approaches for user engagement.
WAIT a minute. If even our monastic sisters and brothers are OF the world, how can any of us escape? Speaking for myself, there are definitely days (sometimes whole years) when the idea of stepping out of this mess is tempting. Joining a community above the fray sounds blissful. And yet, in truth as Christians, particularly Episcopalians, we can’t. That’s not how we understand our baptismal call. While we believe that this world is not all there is, we also believe that God sent God’s son to be incarnate, to be in and with and for this world; to transform this world. And our call is to follow Christ’s lead, to be in and with and for this world. And in so much as we are able, to transform it by loving God, and our neighbors as ourselves. Loving this world enough to transform it can be a tough slog.
How do we move forward into the fray? How do we move forward through, say, next week’s midterm elections? This coming Tuesday is really just more of the same – there will be as many losers as there are winners. Like in sports, with two major parties involved, that means half of the candidates will lose. And those people who voted for them will be losers, too – and that’s a lot of losers. That’s not all that will be hard, for beneath the ballot are the issues that feel so critical to us. Our perception of reality, and our fear of change.
I WOULD suggest that, as people of faith, we in the church could help with that, but on the whole, we aren’t very good at change, because it feels like we are losing something. Yet – everything changes. When we come together to celebrate All Saints’ we are in fact celebrating the passage of time and tradition, the handing on of all that to the next generation.
We celebrate those who have come before us, not because the past was so much better than the present, (generally, it was harder than the present in many ways) but because we appreciate those people and all they have done, things large and small, wins and losses, upon which we now build the foundation of our lives and communities. We are, because they were. We can cope better in the present if we are willing to learn from the past; we might be better people in this age, if we can learn from them in their own day. Perhaps in our current political mess, it’s helpful to remember how much the saints before us had to endure, how hard won are the blessings we now enjoy.
How do we walk the days ahead? Luke tells us pretty clearly in his sermon on the plain: by paying attention to the blessings and the woes. Blessed are those who don’t have; and woe to those who have so much they are missing the Kingdom of God. Luke says: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, GIVE to others in need. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
God is always on the side of those in need, and we should pay attention to that – if we are to be the people of God we will jump in and participate with God’s desire to level the field for them. Those in need are God’s favorites – they are the people with whom God’s heart is most concerned, and so should our own hearts be. And here’s our good news – God’s heart is with the losers, all of us. In our brokenness and our losses, in our heartache, in our struggle with all that is happening in our culture, God is right there.¹
The way forward for us is wrapped up with our inner strain of loser, that place where we understand how vulnerable we are, how we are dependent, needy, broken, and human. And from that place we empathize with one another – in that place of loss and heartache, we are all the same. We know what it feels like, even if we don’t agree with one another, I know what it feels like to lose. To feel that loss of dignity, to be afraid of what this loss means. THERE, in that place of understanding – that’s our common ground. That’s our way forward together. We need to be willing to see the fear and the issues underlying the fear, and be willing to address them, or we will never really get out of this place, we will just spin here wondering why ‘they’ don’t get it.
I believe that the Church is the place we can begin to address the huge breaches in our culture, the chasms of fear. We can face it all right here – where there is always enough. Enough grace for us all. Where God loves the least of us most, where losing is a win. Where being broken is the only entrance exam, where forgiveness overflows – right here. Where everyone is valued, where dignity is honored because it is God-given to everyone. And where we attempt by word and deed to live that out in every way possible: by feeding those who are hungry, and sheltering those in need of a place to call home, and providing clothing to those who are naked, and advocating for those who are in prison, and protecting those who are threatened – because they are God’s own. They are God’s favorites actually. On good days, when we are honest with ourselves, we recognize ourselves in them. And on our best days, we recognize Christ in them, and see them as the blessing that they are.
God loves us all, in God’s economy our understanding of winning and losing is turned upside down. We are blessed, beloved and held close particularly when we are vulnerable, honest, and in need of God and one another. In reality, it is not us against them, we are all in this together. We always have been. Across the generations (past, present and yet to come) – we are in this together.
The final word goes to Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of St. John, Evangelist, from their daily offering, Brother, Give Us a Word:
The saints are those who have survived the ordeal of this life, those who can give witness, already, that the eternal promise we hear in the book of Revelation is true. The saints remind us that in the best of times and in the worst of times, life is possible and passable, and that we are not left alone. Today we remember all the saints, and they remember all of us.² Amen.
1 Inspired by David Lose, “Losers,” Craft of Preaching, Working Preacher, October 28, 2013.
2 Remember, by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE, Brother Give Us a Word, November 1, 2019, posted 5am.