Year A; All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2020
In elementary school, I could not take tests without panicking. I would instantly feel the anxiety of performing and forget everything I learned. Some people call that “choking.” Yes, I choked before I took a test.
My mother shared this information with the teachers and suggested that another word might help, maybe if you called the exam a “quiz…”
My grandmother, Mammy took a different approach with me. She stayed with us frequently because she lived alone. She knew about my anxiety. On test day, I would gather my books, walk out the door and hear the words of my grandmother calling out to me, “Clear mind, steady hand, pure heart.” Those words didn’t help me much at the time. But I knew she was pulling for me.
Years later when I wrote my spiritual autobiography for the Commission on Ministry as I explored a call to the priesthood, I wrote extensively about Mammy’s kindness and faith. That her influence was so central to my call to ordination was a surprise to me because her four grandchildren, my siblings and I thought of her as a “doormat” to her bullying older brother, her overbearing mother-in-law, her only child and slightly spoiled daughter, and her very depressed husband. She was always coming to the aid of her friends and family and never thought of herself.
And we mocked her religion. She was SO religious, we thought. She had prayers written out everywhere. I still have prayers in her handwriting located in the pages of my first bible, and she had a little cardboard box of bible verses rolled up on little pieces of paper that she drew from and read once or twice a day at meal time.
But in adulthood I realized that her quiet and kind and loving care of her grandchildren, her family and friends was a result of her faith and her purity of heart. Mammy was my “saint.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus taught eight Beatitudes to his followers. The translation of the word “beatitude” can also mean “happy,” not in the sense of “happy-clappy,” but in the sense that living the faith of Jesus brings deep joy even in tribulation. “Oh, how happy are the pure in heart…”
In Pope Francis’s 2018 apostolic teaching on holiness in everyday life entitled, “Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World,” his words are meant to encourage ordinary Christians like you and me and “Mammy” to nurture the love and kindness that God places in the heart.
He focuses on the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” when he writes, “Certainly there can be no love without works of love, but this Beatitude reminds us that the Lord expects a commitment to our brothers and sisters that comes from the heart…This Beatitude speaks of those whose hearts are simple, pure and undefiled, for a heart capable of love admits nothing that might harm, weaken or endanger that love. The Bible uses the heart to describe our real intentions, the things we truly seek and desire, apart from all appearances. ‘Man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.’”
On All Saints Day, we do celebrate important Saints; the Saints with a capital “S.” Our own patron Paul, the writers of the Gospels, “and one was a doctor and one was a priest…” and all those martyrs of the faith.
We remember giants of the faith like Martin Luther King, Jr. and a selfless Saint Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal Divinity School seminarian who saw the struggle for Civil Rights in the south, left seminary and traveled there to participate in seeking justice for all. He was shot to death at a grocery store when he and two black teens went in to buy soda. The deputy drew a shotgun on them, Daniels pushed the teens out of the path of the bullets, and he was shot dead.
We celebrate giants like Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who inspire us in their social activism, faith, mystical union with God and sacrificial behavior. As a parish, during Lent, we have even studied the lives and writings of Bonhoeffer and Day during these four years of division, injustice and chaos in this country.
But today is a day I want to turn our attention to the “Mammys” of the world. The saints with a little “s;” the unknown influencers of faith in our lives. You can meet them everywhere, the pure in heart who love to do Jesus’ will, the kind-hearted living faithfully and who struggle to make things right for their friends, loved ones and strangers, especially now in our high-pitched feeling of anxiety about the election, the pandemic, the continued shooting of innocent black people and the increasing fragility of the earth.
It’s breath-taking, really, to witness how many pure-hearted people surround us. If we look, we will see that many are active in our lives on a daily basis: The person at the grocery store who cheerfully prepares the food cards for me at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning for the morning distribution to our neighbors. She is proud to help me purchase those cards for our neighbors.
There are now nearly 100 people who have come to us on Wednesday mornings for food and gas cards. These are people who are struggling to make ends meet every day. And yet, they cheerfully let me demand that they wear a mask. There are a few who even let me speak to them frankly about sobering up. One woman last week went to the store, bought a thank you card and proudly returned to St. Paul’s to give it to me saying, “I got as many signatures as I could.”
This is kindness that is simple and godly.
Fred Rogers had a kindly pure heart demonstrated in the work that he did for children, teaching them goodness and kindness and making friends with people who are different. I’ll never forget that, after the 911 attacks, I first learned of his quote about the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
That is true. There are many helpers. There are many who are pure in heart, who are kind and to whom we look for inspiration.
You might be troubled like I am because of the many credible reports in the news of scary things that may happen after the election. There is a high-pitched anxiety about many unknowns regarding militias and a take-over of the election results. It’s all cause for anxiety.
And so, we look for the helpers. We look for the pure in heart.
I believe that the pure in heart are all around us. They are folks like you and me; good people who love God. Good people who love their neighbor and go out of their way to help them; people for whom Christ died and rose again and who, like you and me, are called “beloved children of God.”
They are like Fred Rogers, my grandmother who was not at a doormat, after all.
They are you and me. Just look in the mirror and see the love that comes from YOUR heart!