“A Heart of Wisdom”

November 5, 2017


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
All Saints Sunday
Nov. 5, 2017

“A Heart of Wisdom”
Psalm 90: 1-17

Before Jesus lived, the Celts celebrated the end of the summer and prepared for the coming of the dark months the only way they knew. This end of the summer celebration was on Oct. 31. Since their religion believed that evil spirits hovered over the earth, ready to pounce on them in the dark, they burned fires and made animal sacrifices to keep the evil spirits away during the dark winter days.

Later, while the Celts were practicing their traditions, Christianity was growing in the Roman Empire. As Christianity began to span over generations, there were more and more people who died for their beliefs and who were remembered in special ways. The Roman church set aside special days to remember specific persons, designating them as “saints”. When it became evident that there were more “saints” than days to celebrate, the church established a specific day to commemorate all those who did not have a special day set-aside for them.

In the 9th century – to combat the old Celtic religion in the British Isles, the church proclaimed Nov. 1st as All Saints’ Day and the night of Oct. 31st as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Today we recognize people – living or dead – who by their words and actions have show us exemplary ways to live.

St. Francis of Assisi’s father dragged him into court in the town square, enraged because his son had secretly arranged to steal his father’s valuable assets, and given them to monks to sell for support of the poor. He was found guilty. Then, as a monk himself, he angered the local bishops by creating his own liturgies, including animals in his congregation.
St. Teresa of Avila was considered a nut and way too outspoken for a woman, and shocking in her opinions.
Juliana of Norwich lost her entire family to the plague, and had visions so extraordinary no one knew what to make of them.
Mother Teresa expressed her strong doubts about God, in writing and became a nun to escape life in her small town in Skopje, Macedonia.
Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from death in World War II Germany, was a Nazi, womanizer and a drunk, who used his popular and deserved reputation as a scoundrel as a cover for what he was doing.
Nelson Mandela was considered a public enemy by the government of South Africa, which put him in jail for 27 years, during all of which he was a beacon of hope for black South Africans.

Henri Nouwen called these people “revolutionary Christians” and defines them this way: “people who attract others by their inner power.” When we meet them we want to know more because we get the irresistible impression that they derive their strength from a hidden source that is strong and rich. An inner freedom flows out from within them, giving them the ability to be moved by what happens around them with letting it shatter them. They listen attentively without getting rushed or excited. Vision guides their lives and they are obedient to it. Many things that seem of gripping immediacy hardly stir them, and they attach great importance to some things that others simply let pass.

Another theologian describes these individuals as “spirit people”. A spirit person, he writes, is someone who is radically, deeply, and fully alive. We find our own spirits touched by them, our lives enhanced by them, our beings called to a new level by them.

Today’s traditional word speaks of lives lived with deep purpose, meaning and faith. It is a prayer attributed to Moses. It will help you to understand the psalm if you realize it is a poem that alternates between praise for God and cynicism about life. It asks the tough questions about the meaning of life and ends with profound thoughts.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands! Psalm 90

Time for a confession. I have been worried all week that if I talked exclusively about saints today that when you left you might say, “Nice, sermon” and then walk out the door thinking about all those wonderful saints and never realizing the words were for you. If all we hear today are the words of wisdom given to us by others, then we’ve missed the point. We talk about saints not only to memorialize them, but also to learn from them – to incorporate their ideas and values into our own existence.

My worry has been that if I offered brilliant words and noble ideas, giving credit to those who penned them, that ultimately we would think we couldn’t every become like them and without trying just sent it off to unattainable, lofty ideal land. After all, who among us really believes we could do what Mother Teresa did? And… who among us wants to?

Perhaps the cynicism of the psalmist is not so difficult to understand. We may have all wondered aloud if our faith and our dedication to principles will pay off. At the same time, when we really think about it, we don’t fear death nearly as much as we fear coming to the end of our lives without having made a difference. It’s true! I have visited many, many people nearing the end of their life and each one of them (in his or her own manner) has processed the question “did my life have meaning?” Death is not the ultimate enemy; meaninglessness is.

Psalm 90 reminds us that our work is futile but that the important key to life is gaining a heart of wisdom. Catherine of Sienna, an Italian Dominican nun who lived from 1347-1380, and was named a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, describes spiritual life this way:

“Imagine a circle traced on the ground, and in its center a tree sprouting with a shoot grafted into its side. The tree finds its nourishment in the soil within the expanse of the circle, but uprooted from the soil it would die fruitless. So think of the soul as a tree made for love and living only by love. Indeed, without this divine love, which is true and perfect charity, death would be her fruit instead of life. The circle in which this tree’s root, the soul’s love, must grow is true knowledge of herself, knowledge that is joined to me, who like the circle have neither beginning nor end. You can go round and round within this circle, finding neither end nor beginning, yet never leaving the circle. This knowledge of yourself, and of me within yourself, is grounded in the soil of true humility, which is as great as the expanse of the circle.

So the tree of charity is nurtured in humility and branches out in true discernment. The marrow of the tree (that is, loving charity within the soul) is patience, a sure sign that I am in her and that she is united with me.

This tree, so delightfully planted, bears many-fragranced blossoms of virtue. Its fruit is grace for the soul herself and blessing for her neighbors in proportion to the conscientiousness of those who would share my servants’ fruits. To me this tree yields the fragrance of glory and praise to my name, and so it does what I created it for and comes at last to its goal, to me, everlasting Life, life that cannot be taken from you against your will.”

Saints are people who are windows in this world. The light of God shines through them so brightly that people say they have seen salvation in them, and in the household of their lives. A remarkable thing about them is that many were scapegoats early in their lives, bullied and called contemptible by folks around them. Yet, they were wise and found ways to reach out in love.

Most of us (and I include myself) prefer our saints to be heroic. We edit their stories to the nub of their heroism. We tell ourselves that athletes can be our heroes, or decorated soldiers, dancing movie stars, the beautiful and the well-dressed. But that isn’t necessarily what a saint looks like.

We love Nelson Mandela washed and in a suit. In his prison garb, and with educated South African whites warning us of his dangerousness, he was alarming to white Christians. Mother Teresa’s honest writings have been alarming to many devout Catholics. Francis of Assisi, in his lifetime, was alarming to the church leaders. What made them saints wasn’t beauty or eloquence or societal acceptance. Each of them had a heart of wisdom and found ways to love themselves and others.

Whether or not you or I are ever considered for sainthood is yet to be seen. But chances are that at the end of our lives, we won’t be known for what we’ve accomplished… so much as we will be known for those we have loved.

Resources Used:
www.patheos.com “A Short Story about Saints and Bullies” Oct. 27, 2013.