“Obscure Saints”

“Obscure Saints”

St. Simon and St. Jude and Reformation-ish Sunday

October 28, 2012 Guest preaching at Memorial Congregational Church, UCC in Sudbury MA

 “So never forget how you used to be. Those of you born as outsiders to Israel were outcasts, branded “the uncircumcised” by those who bore the sign of the covenant in their flesh, a sign made with human hands. You had absolutely no connection to the Anointed; you were strangers, separated from God’s people. You were aliens to the covenant they had with God; You were hopelessly stranded without God in a fractured world. But now, because of Jesus the Anointed and His sacrifice, all of that has changed. God gathered you who were so far away and brought you near to Him by the royal blood of the Anointed, our Liberating King.

He is the embodiment of our peace, sent once and for all to take down the great barrier of hatred and hostility that has divided us so that we can be one. He offered His body on the sacrificial altar to bring an end to the law’s ordinances and dictations that separated Jews from the outside nations. His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill of the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body.

The Great Preacher of peace and love came for you, and His voice found those of you who were near and those who were far away. By Him both have access to the Father in one Spirit. And so you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household. You are being built on a solid foundations: the message of the prophets and the voices of God’s chosen emissaries with Jesus, the Anointed Himself, the precious cornerstone. The building is joined together stone by stone- all of us chosen and sealed in Him, rising up to become a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you are being built together, creating a sacred dwelling among you where God can live in the Spirit.”

~ Ephesians 2:11-22 the Voice translation

“Do you believe in God?” he asked as I handed him a plate of food. His fingers yellowed by gripping a cigarette for years. “I do.” “Well, I’m thankful for the Catholic Church here giving me food today,” Jim said as we stood on the cold concrete of Government Center up the street from the Veteran’s shelter. “Actually, we’re not from the Catholic Church,” I said. “This is a group of Episcopal churches feeding people and having communion outside today. And I’m actually a pastor in the United Church of Christ.” “What’s the difference? Jim asked.  I paused, trying to figure out how to explain centuries of division between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  “Well, one difference is who is in charge.” I finally responded. Jim waited. He picked up his fork full of rice and beans, chewed for a minute and said, “Isn’t Jesus in charge?” Let us pray…

It may be a heretical thing to start preaching about saints on Reformation Sunday.  Our forefather in faith John Calvin was none too fond of the idea of saints as some team of inferior superheroes up in heaven. In the Genevian Confession, Calvin responds if we put our trust in saints, “it is a sure sign of unbelief not to be contented with the things which God gives us. Then if we throw ourselves on the protection of angels or saints, when God calls us to himself alone, and transfer to them the confidence which ought wholly to be fixed upon God, we fall into idolatry, seeing we share with them that which we God claims entirely for himself”(Q238 M).  For Calvin, there’s such commitment to God’s sovereignty and centrality in our lives that he doesn’t want saints stealing any of our focus.  Saints are less the back-up singers crooning softly in the background of God’s solo performance, than a possible threat of a choir member breaking out and upstaging God. But in reality, the saints on the Episcopal and Roman Catholic calendar were too delicious to pass up today, even on Reformation Sunday.

Now, sometimes Reformation Sunday is a liturgical excuse for Protestant self-congratulations. We are the welcoming church. We are the progressive Church. We are the Scriptural Church.  We are not them. We are not that Orthodox, or Roman Catholic or Anglican Church. Sure, it is pride in our own tradition, but it is also a fair amount of crowing about not being like those people. Would you raise your hand if you were formed by a tradition other than the United Church of Christ? See? Did you know that about your church?  I was once trying to explain Reformation Sunday to a Greek Orthodox friend. She turned her head, confused. “Why,” she questioned, “would you celebrate a day that marks the divisions in the one Church?” I had no good answer- because so often, we define ourselves by what we are not. We have a long history of celebrating the divides among us. You hear it in your school- we are Lincoln-Sudbury, not Concord-Carlisle. You hear it in the presidential debates- we are Americans, not the Russians, Iranians or the Chinese.  Maybe you even hear it a bit in your family history.  We are not them. We are not the kind of people who talk about saints…

But Saint Jude and Saint Simon, these are saints that Calvin could get with. Maybe even saints you can get with? Jude and Simon are disciples and apostles of Jesus, #10-11 exactly. You can count along with me! The Gospel writer Matthew counts off: “There are the names of the twelve apostles: first Simon, known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeu, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” #10-11, Thaddaeus, also known as Jude and Simon the Cananaean, also known as Simon the Zealot. Hey, on the plus side they are not Judas Iscariot, right? But here’s the best part, this is about all we know about them- obscure saints.

Simon is identified by his temperament, or perhaps not. He’s either Simon the Zealot because of his passionate involvement with a group of Jews looking to over throw the Romans. Or he’s called Simon the Zealot somewhat ironically- as the most laid-back member of this travelling band of misfits. Some sources beyond scripture explain the lack of information about Simon and Jude by claiming they went off as missionaries to Persia and because of that journey, we don’t know more about them. But it’s just a guess.  We just don’t know that much about Simon and Jude.

Like someone in your kindergarten classroom, both Jude and Simon have the same name as someone else. Jude J. and Jude I.  And sometimes they get mixed up and someone takes your lunch or your coat- Jude son of James and Judas son of Simon Iscariot. Jude J. and Jude I.  An unfortunate shared name, like a young student in a friend’s classroom. A 18 year old who lived a few towns over with a perfectly fine and honorable Muslim name, who happened to be born before the attack of 9/11- an short kid who enjoyed French class and desperately wanted to be liked – named Osama . Guilt by shared name. But this is St Jude is not Judas Iscariot. We know who he is not. And that’s almost all we know. Go to all the others first! Go to Jude if you’re absolutely desperate. And so, Jude becomes the “patron saint of desperate causes.”

Even in the wide and curious family of God, Jude is on the edges, perhaps like many of us. The writer to the church in Ephesus (maybe Paul, maybe not? Again we just don’t know), reminds the people there just how wide a community of obscure saints God gathers together to be the Church. The Church in Ephesus is told, “you were strangers, separated from God’s people.” The Jewish followers and the new Gentile converts in Ephesus were welcomed equally into the community, as “his desire was to create in His body one new humanity from two opposing groups, thus creating peace.” All through the lesson in Ephesus, Christ is binding together divided groups, “those of you who were near and those who were far away.” We continue this work of strengthening the bonds of the Church in our ministry with the Massachusetts Council of Churches. For the church in Ephesus, those formerly far away “you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household.” The circle is drawn so wide, event to include those obscure, barely known, fellow Christians.

I find it oddly reassuring that the Church over the years has decided to lift up unknowns like Jude and Simon. It feels hopeful for those of us who plod along, trying to live faithfully, trying to be compassionate but often being snippy, slogging through our work and our difficult relationships. Or for those among you prone to reading Us Weekly, “Saints! They’re just like us!” As Anglican writer John Pridmore put it, “the Church does not celebrate celebrities. It celebrates saints. The distinction is an important one. The lives of celebrities are public exhibitions. The notion a hidden celebrity is nonsense. It is otherwise with the saints. ” It’s not a problem that we don’t know much about Jude and Simon. Perhaps even, because we don’t know much about Jude and Simon that we can find some comfort and encouragement in their faithful lives.

Unlike John Calvin, Martin Luther is a little less anxious about the roll of saints detracting from God’s singularity in our lives. Luther thought saints were “all believers in Jesus Christ, both those living on earth and those living in heaven.”  Luther’s sense of the fellowship of saints extends to the living and the dead, the known and the unknown. In the 6th verse of “For All the Saints” we sing following the sermon, in the 1860’s Anglican Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How wrote “

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Except not. Perhaps that’s the Protestant stumbling block about saints: we feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Except not. Jude and Simon, not much shine. In fact, pretty hard to find them at all! They are imperfect, we are imperfect members of “God’s holy family and residents of His household too.”

The United Church of Christ pastor and writer Lillian Daniels has said, “Anyone can find God alone on a picturesque mountaintop, the hiking trail, or the sunset. The miracle is that I can find God in the company of other people who are just as annoying as I am.” Here. At this church, with these other obscure saints. And maybe with those sainted Methodists and Episcopalians down the road.

The Body of Christ has always been made up of obscure saints. Look at the Church in Ephesus! Christ has bound together those who are near and those who are far. Ephesians, live with the whole messy group of saints.

One of my favorite obscure saints is Buz Bedford, who died earlier this year. You probably never heard of him. Buz was a member of the UCC church in NJ I attended as a teenager. Col. Nathaniel Forrest “Buz” Bedford was a fullback on the 1937-38 undefeated Princeton football teams, first served with the Coast Guard, then the National Guard and finally the Army. Buz was called up to active duty in January 1941 after Pearl Harbor, married Robin in June, and served all over the Pacific. Buz came back and attended Columbia Law School, finally retiring as a lawyer in 2007 at age 89 after successful pursuit to the Supreme Court of a class action lawsuit on behalf of World War II veterans against the Veteran’s Administration.  But I never knew any of this until his obituary when he died this spring at 93. I only knew Buz as the quiet gentleman who came faithfully to church, every Sunday with a golf glove on his hand. Not in his pocket. On his right hand. Thin white leather. Throughout the entire service. In January. As if the thing that he most loved could break out at any moment, and suddenly Buz could swing his club and chase that small white ball. At coffee hour, Buz would drift closer and closer to the side exit waiting to trade the fellowship hall for the golf course. I don’t know anything about what Buz thought of church, or his relationship to God. His faith is known to God alone. But Buz is my patron obscure saint of  hope that fun could break out in worship and the thing he loved most was possible, even at the most unlikely of time.

(follow Kate Murphy’s suggestion about not writing our the conclusion) This is the day to remember your obscure saints, to praise God for their presence in your life. Those faithful non-celebrities that lead you, carried you, guided you, made you laugh. The ones still living, those long since gone to their rest eternal.  May we also be them too…

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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