Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Love toward All the Saints” (Ephesians 1:15-18)
November 3, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today is All Saints Sunday, during which we are reminded that as Christians we are not alone but part of the present, past, and future “communion of saints” saved by the unconditional love of God. On All Saints Sunday we are reminded that we need each other, that when it comes to the gospel the self-made need not apply, that as U2 sang years ago, “Sometimes you can’t make it on your own” (from their 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).
One of my favorite songs ever is “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, and when it comes to being reminded that we all need one another, the chorus says it all:
Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long till I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on (on his 1972 album Still Bill).
My wife Steph and I are suckers for dramatic television shows. Back in the 90’s when we were young parents we were hooked on classic 10:00 procedural dramas like Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and ER. Often I would nod off before the end of the show and miss the surprise or twist ending, a major crisis in the days before TiVo and On Demand, although definitely a first world problem. More often than not Steph would figure out how the episode would end anyway, whereas I was always caught off guard by the surprise or twist ending.
One of our current favorite TV dramas is 9-1-1, which is focused on the professional and personal challenges of first responders in police and fire departments. One of the main characters is a middle aged firefighter named Bobby Nash, played by Peter Krause. Bobby is the head of a local fire department but wrestles with his personal demons. He frequently talks about these with a priest, but while on the job he always appears to have it all together.
But in one episode Bobby was reminded that he needed help from all the saints with whom he works, reminded that indeed sometimes he can’t make it on his own. One day Bobby does not show up for work, which never happens. He is Mr. Dependable. Two coworkers, Evan and Henrietta, go to his sparse apartment where he lives alone, and find Bobby asleep on his bed with an empty liquor bottle. They put him in the shower and make him coffee. After that he is sitting on the couch, embarrassed. Evan and Henrietta now realize Bobby is an alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon.
Evan asks, “How long has it been?” Bobby sighs, “Five hundred and forty six days—forty-five and a half if we’re being picky—eighteen months.” Evan continues, “Your crash was hardcore.” Bobby nods, “Yep.” Henrietta brings him a cup of coffee. “Thanks,” Bobby nods. Henrietta gently says, “We all have our breaking point,” and noticing four table settings, asks, “Who were you cooking dinner for?” Bobby shakes his head, “I don’t know. I was drunk.” Then Bobby take a deep breath and assumes his work demeanor, “I’m gonna be fine. It’s a one time-thing. I promise. Okay? I’m good. Sorry to put you guys through this.”
Henrietta and Evan are not buying it. Henrietta says, “Do you know why redwoods can grow so high? They move and bend with the wind. If you stay rigid, eventually you’ll break.” There is a pause, and Bobby asks, “Are you calling me uptight?” and looks at Evan, “She’s calling me uptight isn’t she?” Evan gently says, “Maybe ask for help once in a while?” There is another pause and then Bobby simply asks, “Help,” and as he begins sobbing Henrietta and Evan sit on either side of him on the couch and hold him. “I’m so sorry” Bobby sputters, and Henrietta says, “It’s okay.” And that is what the communion of saints looks like.
Sometimes we think of saints as being like superheroes who have immeasurable faith, who perform miracles, whose life is holier and more in tune with God than you could ever imagine—and we forget that just like Bobby Nash, saints have their breaking point too, saints need the help of fellow saints to keep on keeping on. A saint is not a superhero, but rather as the late pastor and songwriter John Wimber once put it, “one beggar helping another beggar find bread.”
In today’s passage from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians the apostle writes about how all of us saints need one another:
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1:15-18).
All of us saints need each other. We need each other’s prayers. We need each other’s love. We need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts again and again about the power of God’s unconditional love and to share that love with one another, especially when we reach the breaking points in our own lives, especially when like Bobby we need help, especially when we need somebody to lean on.
Even the Apostle Paul—the author of thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, the anointed Apostle to the Gentiles who spent years preaching the gospel and planting churches all over Asia Minor and Europe, who endured more suffering and persecution than you could imagine—even the Apostle Paul knew he was no superhero, knew he needed the same thing as Bobby Nash: help.
In his most vulnerable letter, his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes a litany of his sufferings for the gospel and then admits, “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (2 Corinthians 11:29). Then Paul becomes even more vulnerable and describes his weakness: “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Bobby Nash’s thorn in the flesh was alcoholism. Paul does not specify what his thorn in the flesh is—while scholars have conjectured that it was a physical infirmity or depression or anxiety or some kind of besetting sin or hang up, nobody knows for sure—but whatever his thorn in the flesh was, Paul does say what he did about it: “I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,’” and then Paul concludes, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Paul asked God for help in his weakness, and God responded with grace, “My grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, when you are sitting on the couch embarrassed by your weakness and asking for help, God will sit next to you and hold you and reassure you that it will be okay.
In my own life I cannot count the number of times I have needed help from other saints who just like me are riddled with weaknesses and dependent on others. When our newborn baby daughter Becky was rushed to Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. in the middle of the night a fellow saint named Mark who knew his way around the city much better than I, led me there through the rainy darkness when I was utterly distraught. When our newborn son Paul was in the NICU in Charleston, South Carolina my friend Trey came one evening to relieve me and Steph and literally stood next to Paul’s crib praying for him all night long.
When we arrived to Valdosta several summers ago, many of you were waiting by the rectory to help unload the Ryder truck. When I slept through my alarm early on a Thursday morning and arrived late for the 7:00AM Eucharist everything was all set and ready to go because Peter Ingeman had taken care of it. When the engine of my old pickup died a few years ago while I was helping one of my kids move in North Carolina, one parishioner lent me his truck to finish the move, and another parishioner lent me her truck to drive until I got a rebuilt engine for mine.
When Steph had surgery several years ago, many of you brought meals, too much to eat, a wonderful blessing because at this point cooking is not exactly in my gift cluster. When we have hosted the annual Christmas Open House, many of you have arrived early to decorate and prepare food. When we have needed additional funds for the burgeoning college ministry, many of you have covered the costs for the Thursday Night Dinners. When I have found myself in occasional bouts of melancholy or anxiety that bite at my heels when I least expect it, many of you have given me the encouragement and support I needed in that moment. In short, again and again when I have needed help, saints like you have done just that.
Again, All Saints Sunday reminds us anew that we all need one another. Over and over again I have seen members of Christ Church visit one another at the hospital, prepare receptions and help make arrangements when a loved one dies, anonymously give money to those in financial straits, and celebrate with one another at milestones like baptisms and weddings and confirmations and graduations. Over and over again I have seen members of Christ Church, do as scripture tells us, “rejoice with those who rejoice (and) weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15)—or as we read in today’s passage, express in myriad ways “your love toward all the saints.”
And all this love toward all the saints is a response to all the love of God given us in Jesus Christ—love that forgives, love that heals, love that lifts you up, love that is there when you hit your breaking point, love that is with you on the couch when you are embarrassed and helpless, love that never ends.
At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples, who like you and me were themselves riddled with weaknesses, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) and the next day did just that on the cross. God could not love you any more than that. And in response we are called to give that love away, to share this love toward all the saints—as the Apostle John wrote, “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
Finally, on All Saints Sunday we remember the saints who have died, and are reminded that even now we still unified with them in the communion of saints, and that one day we will see them again. What saints do you want to see in heaven? You will, because God’s love is stronger than death.
My favorite All Saints hymn was written by an Anglican bishop William Walsham How, “For All the Saints.” The final two verses describe what we read in today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians as “the hope to which (God) has called you…the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints”:
But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day
The saints triumphant rise in bright array
The King of glory passes on his way
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
Alleluia, alleluia (Hymn 287 in The Hymnal 1982).
In the meantime, on this All Saints Sunday keep an eye out for those who need your help, those who need somebody to lean on, and remember God’s love toward all the saints, including you.