A Sermon preached on All Saints Sunday, November 3rd, 2013
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” – Luke 6:28-30
Good morning good saints! And we are, you know. Saints. Each one of us, called to be as much by God, or so says St. Paul. We may not have realized our full stature of saintliness…yet… but it is in there. We are each and all born with the goods. We just need to live into them. So Happy All Saints Sunday. The day when we both remember the saints who have walked before us, and remember that we too are made of saintly stuff, our own selves. Each one of us. Even if we do not feel so saintly .
Like the two rotten brothers, Patrick and Sean Moran. They were about as corrupt as they come. Liars, thieves, swindlers, you name it, they transgressed it! And one day Sean up and died. Suddenly. And Patrick went immediately to visit the priest, Father Andrew. And Patrick insisted that Fr. Andrew tell the congregation at Sean’s funeral, that Sean was truly a saint of God. Well Fr. Andrew, of course, flat our refused. Sean was not a saint of God, said the priest, in fact he was the opposite of a saint of God, he was a dealer for the devil; a very bad man, a dirty rotten scoundrel. But Patrick reminded the padre that he held the mortgage on the school that the church ran for underserved youth, and if Sean was not eulogized as a saint of God, the school mortgage would be foreclosed. The priest thought for a minute and then agreed to Patrick’s request on one condition: He must sign over the mortgage for the school to the church, immediately. Which he agreed to do.
The next afternoon at Sean’s funeral, the priest stepped into the pulpit and said: we are here today to say goodbye to Sean Moran…..one of the most despicable human beings I have ever known. He was a liar and a cheat and a crook of the most depraved variety……but next to his brother Patrick, Sean Moran was truly a saint of God!
Like I said, we are all saints to one degree or another. And today’s Gospel reading from Luke gives us the path, the recipe to that saintly status; for it is the recipe for living the law of love….and that is the only law that matters. This morning’s Gospel lists the main ingredients for living and loving as Jesus did. And I think, perhaps, it is the underlying message of Luke’s Gospel as a whole. For it is the ethical imperative to love each other no matter what. No excuses. Our friends and enemies alike. The folks who care for us and the folks who do not. The folks who think like we do, and the folks who do not. This Gospel tells us simply to love each other. Full stop.
And so the author of Luke begins by hitting us squarely between the eyes with what seems to be an oxymoronic commandment: Love your enemies. And it goes down hill from there: do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. At first glance, this passage seems to be speaking to us as victims. It instructs us to put away our battle gear and answer those who hate and hurt and harm us, not with the standard issue responses of anger and retribution, even if that anger and retribution seems well deserved, but rather to respond to each other with forgiveness and love.
But how do we make that happen? How do we respond to those who cause us pain, with love and forgiveness. And with questions such as this one, I frequently turn for some advice to the wisdom of Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh who says that the basis of such love and forgiveness is not the mustering of more love and forgiveness, which is just too…..impossible and inaccessible. The recipe for love and forgiveness is rather, the absence of anger. Thich Nhat Hanh says that our anger is the thing that stands in the way of our love and our forgiveness. For when we are angry we actually become anger. We are blinded by anger, we cannot see anything else. We cannot be anything else but….angry. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the flip side of love is not hate, it is anger. But love and anger are not opposites, they are flip sides of one being, they are both a part of who we are….and so, it stands to reason, both a part of the us that is born and called to be a saint. The trick then, is not to destroy or suppress our anger, the trick is to use it…..in service to our highest calling, which is love. If we pretend that anger is not a part of who we are, we will be cutting off a part of our vital selves. Better to acknowledge and work with our anger than to deny and suppress it. Again, okay, but how?
The trick, says Thich Nhat Hanh, is to transform the energy of one’s anger into the energy for love. He says that the relationship between anger and love is akin to the relationship between compost and a patch of daffodils. For, as every good organic gardener knows they are both different stages of each other’s essential existence. There is some gross, repulsive, icky, smelly compost in every blooming daffodil, and there is a patch of daffodils in every rotten, fetid, vile, disgusting pile of compost. They are two points of a single cycle. The task is to be mindful and accepting of the inherent existence of both, and to put the compost to work to cultivate the daffodils.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book called “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” he offers this fresh and, I think, helpful, image of how we might deal with some of our anger: He writes:
If a mother is working in the kitchen and hears her baby crying, she puts down anything she is holding, and she goes into the baby’s room. Nothing is more urgent than the baby’s cries. The first thing she does is pick up the baby and embrace the baby.
Remember when you were a little child and you had a fever…and you did not feel better until your mother came and put her hand on your burning forehead? That felt so good…..That hand of your mother is your hand. The energy is still alive in your hand……Then touching your forehead with your very hand, you can see that your mother’s hand is still alive. And you will have the same kind of energy of love and tenderness for yourself. When you hear your baby of anger crying, you have to drop everything you are doing, because the most important thing you have to do is to take care of your baby, your anger.
I find this a very helpful metaphor, and an excellent metaphor for all saints Sunday. Our anger is to be tended as a child in pain, our child in pain. I heard an interview with Krista Tippet a month or so ago in which Brother Thich Nhat Hanh said: When you notice that anger is coming up in you, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to generate the energy of mindfulness, in order to recognize your anger and embrace it tenderly, so that you can bring relief into you and not to act and to say things that can destroy, that can be destructive. And doing so, you can look deeply into the nature of the anger and know where it has come from. That practice helps us to realize that not only Vietnamese civilians and military were victims of the war, but also American men and women who came to Vietnam to kill and to be killed were also victims of the war.
And so I think the first step to truly loving our enemies may be to embrace our own anger toward them. To tend our own anger toward those whom we think curse us, or hate us, or abuse us. The first step may be to acknowledge that we are building up some pretty potent compost….and turn that compost into something….beautiful.
And the way to this transformation, says Thich Nhat Hanh, shines through three little sentences. Our embrace of these three sentences will allow for us to engender that transformation, and to see the Buddha nature that lives in each of us……we Christians would say to see the Christ in every face. So here they are, the three sentences:
1. My friend, I am angry, I suffer.
This sentence must be said as soon as possible. Calmly. Peacefully. If this sentence cannot be delivered calmly and peacefully within 24 hours, then Thich Nhat Hanh recommends writing a “Peace Note” to let the object of your anger know that you are suffering. Suffering is always done in relationship. We do not suffer alone. And this sentence acknowledges that our anger is a source of our own suffering.
2. I am doing my best
This sentence means that we refrain from acting out of anger. We are taking care of our anger as a mother cares for a crying child. And we acknowledge that we take some responsibility for our anger. What more can anyone ask of us than that we do our best.
3. Please help me.
This may be the opposite of what we typically say when we are angry which is, “don’t touch me!” Please help me, rather, says that we are in this together and that we are to take care of each other. This sentence removes the posture of aggression.
This is the recipe, says Thich Nhat Hanh for transforming anger into love and forgiveness. The recipe for living into today’s Gospel commandment. My friend, I am angry, I suffer. I am doing the best that I can. Please help me. There is nothing unloving or unforgiving in these words. And, there is nothing that denies or suppresses our anger either.
It reminds me of organic chemistry. Because organic chemistry, unlike many of other sciences, seems less about math and physics, and more about navigation…..about the way things unfold….about the traffic rather than the elements of a situation. Organic chemistry is about the movement of electrons between molecules…..and the patterns of movement, the traffic patterns of these electrons under varying conditions establish the foundation of all life on earth. The organic material, the carbon, is what it is, but the flow of electrons brings out the best…..or the worst in the situation.
It seems the scientific version of the notion that we are each and all born to be saints…..that everything we need is in there, it just needs to be properly……directed. Compost into daffodils. It is much more about the flow than about the equation. How we approach and treat each other when love and forgiveness are hard, that is what makes all of the difference.
And I think that is what Jesus is saying in this morning’s Gospel. The way we love each other when love is hard……that is the measure of how well we are living into the saints that we were born to be. This morning’s Gospel ends with what we know in our vernacular as the “Golden Rule” …..do unto others. But at its core, I think it may just be the turn compost into daffodils rule. Because just as we are all called to be saints……we are all called to cultivate daffodils.
God help us to allow that through the compost in our lives, the Golden Daffodils Rule!
© November, 20013 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw