“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

“What Endures?”

On All Saints Day, November 4, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, delivered this sermon, “”What Endures?” (The bulletin for the service is online.)

At the start of the service, In observance of All Saints Day, the names of the 39 church members who had died since the prior All Saints Day, which were printed in the bulletin, were read aloud.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, in every age you have raised up your children to live and die in faith. We confess that we are indifferent to your will. You call us to proclaim your name, but we are silent. You call us to do what is just, but we remain idle. You call us to live faithfully, but we are afraid. In your mercy, forgive us. Give us courage to follow in your way, that joined with those from ages past, who have served you with faith, hope and love, we may inherit the kingdom you promised in Jesus Christ.”

This was followed by Silent Prayer and Assurance of God’s Forgiveness.

Listening fro the Word

Scripture: Isaiah 40: 1-8 (NRSV)

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Sermon:

“We don’t usually hold memorial services on Sunday morning, but All Saints Day comes close. We gather and remember those who have gone before us, we read their names, we give thanks to God for their lives, and we proclaim that death is no match for the power of God’s love.”

“Given all that has happened in our nation in recent days, it feels as if a memorial service this morning might be appropriate. The murders of 11 Jews as they worshipped in Pittsburgh in their synagogue last week and two African-Americans at a grocery in Louisville, as they shopped – both by white extremists – call us to national grief. “

“When we gather for a memorial service we want to do three things. First, we want to name the sorrow felt by those whose loved one is now gone. Second, we want to tell the story of the person’s life. Third, to declare a word of hope about the love of God that remains strong from everlasting to everlasting: the love that endures even in the face of death.”

“Sometimes a memorial service leans more in one direction or another. When the life of a young person has been cut short, for instance, and there are no memories of a long, full life, giving voice to the anguish of the family is important. I’ve led memorial services for infants and young children, and grief is about all there is, tempered by a touch of gratitude, even for the short life of a child.”

“Ten days ago the world was introduced to little Amal Hussain, the seven year-old whose emaciated body has come to incarnate the awful tragedy of the war in Yemen, where thousands are at risk of starvation. Now Amal – whose name in Arabic means hope – has died. The anguish of her parents runs deep. In an interview her mother said, simply, ‘My heart is broken.’”

“Children so often bear the brunt of the violence of adults. They don’t have a stake in the conflicts fueled by the fear or hatred or ambition of adults. Children don’t take sides in those conflicts. Yet, they’re very much on the receiving end of the fights between adults.”

“Perhaps death like that seems distant and unconnected to us. But we are not innocent when our policies and our weapons are used to inflict violence on the people, the children, of other lands.”

“And closer to home, we are not innocent when we refuse to consider ways to curb the ease with which people can acquire the guns that kill nearly 100 people every day in America.”

“And we are not innocent when we do nothing to stem the growing racism and violence that sometimes lead to death for people of color or differing faith traditions or other nationalities.”

“A rabbi in New York City this past week sent an email to his congregants and I received a copy of it. The rabbi said he views the Central Americans heading toward our southern border to seek asylum as no different from the Jews who sought asylum here in the 1930s when they faced death in an anti-Semitic Germany. We turned them away from our shores then; have we not learned anything in the ensuing years?”

“Every anti-Semitic assault in America is an attack on all of us, and every racist assault is an attack on the values at the heart of our democracy. What makes us to be a good people is shattered by those attacks. All of us are affected by them. We cannot let them go unanswered. We cannot let vitriol carry the day.”

“That’s why so many came together last Sunday afternoon at synagogues across the country, including Temple Israel here in Minneapolis. The 1500 people who gathered there wept together in sorrow for the senseless loss of human life. The service began in silence, and then worked its way through the Hebrew Scriptures: the voice of Job, the lament of the psalmists, the cry of the prophets.”

“It was important for the city’s Jews to gather, and they did, from all three major branches of Judaism. Rabbi Zimmerman noted that the Reform and Orthodox and Conservative movements of American Judaism rarely meet together, but they did last Sunday. They came to lift their collective voices in an outpouring of anguish, and in memory of their common history: it had happened again.”

“It was important that our Jewish neighbors not be alone in their grief. Hundreds of people from other faith communities and people of goodwill came, as did our two U.S. senators, and other elected officials and candidates from both parties. I was grateful to see so many Westminster members there. We came, first of all, to weep with them. It was a memorial service, and it did not paper over the heavy sorrow.”

“But when people of faith gather for a memorial service there is more at work than grief. Healing begins even in the midst of the anguish. We felt and saw that last Sunday at Temple Israel. As we named our sadness and shed our tears and lifted our lament, something else began to emerge.”

“The cathartic moment came when we stood to hear the names read aloud. The 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh called to us, called to those assembled in that synagogue and in others across the country, summoning us to shared purpose, to renewed commitment to what this country stands for. Their deaths and those of the two Black Americans in Louisville would not be in vain if we could find our way back to the things that bring hope, the things that make us a resilient people, the things that endure. We left that service on Sunday resolved to change our communities and our nation, to work for reconciliation and renewal within the human family. We don’t have to live like this.”

“’The grass withers, the flower fades,’ the prophet Isaiah says, ‘But the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40:8)”

“That word called out to us last Sunday at Temple Israel. It was a defiant word that would not let hope be stifled, would not let us be cut off from the promise of light in the darkness. By the end of the service the entire sanctuary was singing and dancing and holding on to one another. The atmosphere in the room had shifted from despair and defeat to confidence, confidence that there are things that endure, that are stronger than hate, more powerful even than death itself.”

“We saw that same hope two nights ago, many of us. We went back to Temple Israel. It was the first Shabbat service in synagogues across the country since the shooting in Pittsburgh. At Shir Tikvah in south Minneapolis people came from the community and formed a circle of candles around the building as protection to worshippers and to push back the darkness. At the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh the building was closed still, but the faithful and their allies gathered anyway, outside to sing and pray and share the light of God, the light that endures.”

“And at Temple Israel on Friday the Twin Cities Justice Choir, including many from Westminster, sang as worshippers entered the building. We sang of resilience and strength, of courage and working for justice, of resistance against division and hatred. As the congregation that had been gathered there listening to us moved into the sanctuary for Shabbat service, we sang “We Shall Overcome,” and they sang it, as well. With people of faith and good will across the land, we sang of things that endure, of hope, of community, of love.”

“At the conclusion of Shabbat services worshippers always recite the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer. We did that at Temple on Friday. It’s the custom before reciting Kaddish to read the names of those in the congregation who have died recently, as well as the names of those who died one year ago. This Shabbat they added 11 more names, those who died in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “

“The Mourner’s Prayer, the Kaddish, recited in memory of the dead, surprisingly, does not mention death. It speaks, rather, of things that endure. It’s a prayer dedicated to the praise of God, and it concludes with this line: ‘May God who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and for all Israel.’”

“And with that last line, the worshippers at Temple Israel lifted their hearts in song and rhythmic clapping and warm embraces as they headed out into the night.”

“’’The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.’”

“Our faith as Christians is built upon the claim that God’s love, as we know it in Jesus Christ, endures. The church bears that affirmation in its very life – not only here, but as we go out into the world to be church wherever we find ourselves. God’s love endures.”

“So, at every memorial service, we name the promise again: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“On All Saints Sunday as we read the names of those who have died, we say it again: weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning.”

“And as our nation passes through this time of turmoil and distress we say it again: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined..”

“The things that endure, the things that endure, draw us to this table today, to this memorial table, where we eat the bread and drink the cup. In doing so we remember Jesus, hung by injustice and malice on a tree, and left there to die.”

“But we do not linger long in despair at the table. Instead, as we do at every memorial service, we rejoice in the life that conquers death. In the life that overcomes all that would stand in the way of God’s grace and mercy and love.”

“We may have come grimly to worship today, through the rain and the grayness of the world, struggling through the anxious shadows of our time, but we can go forth in joy, because God is Lord – and if God is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing? “

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

The Isaiah passage emphasizes two contrasting realities.

First,, “all people are grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.” Yes, every one of us is mortal. Each one of us will die.[2]

Second, the other reality is “the word of our God will stand forever.” Or, what endures? Our God’s love endures.

Therefore, in times of immense grief, like that over the senseless murders of worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue, we are summoned to “shared purpose,” to “renewed commitment to what this country stands for” and to “reconciliation.”

It also should be noted that Cantus, a well-known men’s vocal ensemble with offices and rehearsal space at Westminster, provided beautiful music at this service: “”Salvation Is Created” by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944), one of the foremost Russian composers of sacred choral music; “You {Movement 5)” by Libby Larsen, a widely performed composer and a Minneapolis resident; and “A Quiet Moment” by Jennifer Higdon, a prominent, contemporary U.S. composer.

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[1]  One of the names that was read was a friend, Cheri Register, who was a Westminster elder and church archivist and historian as well as an expert in Swedish language and literature, a co-founder of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, teacher of creative writing and a noted nonfiction author.

[2]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (April 8, 2014); Contemplations of Life and Death (Dec. 26, 2016).

How Do We Remember God?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on November 2, 2014 (All Saint’s Day).

The short answer to this question was remembering God by “joining the saints in worship, that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who have gone before us.”[1] In other words, “When we gather for worship we are not alone. In liturgy the memory of those who have said the words and prayed the prayers and sung the hymns and heard the texts comes to life.”

Another answer was remembering “people . . . who had passed on the faith” to us. This was done after the sermon by hearing “the names of those from among us who have joined the communion of saints in the past year, a roll call of part of the great cloud of witnesses. They are names dear to many of us.”

The sermon also saw “All Saints’ Day . . . as the church’s collective exercise in memory-making. It began in the 8th century when Pope Gregory III declared that henceforth the first day of November would be set aside on the church calendar to offer prayers for ‘the holy apostles and…all saints, martyrs and confessors throughout the world … who are at rest.’”

“In that time there were no rules as to how one became a saint; local bishops simply conferred sainthood as they chose. Every day was another saint’s day, and it varied from town to town. The Pope wanted more order, so he declared November 1st as the day that all saints would be remembered and venerated.”

Protestants, on the other hand, “rejected the notion that some of God’s people were more holy than others and, therefore, to be venerated. Any representation of saints was deemed heretical; in 1535 John Calvin ordered all sculptures and paintings of saints in the churches of Geneva to be destroyed. The only true saints were all the followers of Jesus.”

The “basic idea that took root in the Reformation still holds: we view the ‘communion of saints’ as the heavenly equivalent of the earthly ‘priesthood of all believers.’ When we sing “For all the saints, who from their labors rest,” we sing of all those who loved God and served God in this life and have gone on before us.”[2]

The sermon was closed with this beautiful prayer by George MacLeod, a Scottish minister who re-established the Abbey on the island of Iona, in John Philip Newell’s The Rebirthing of God [Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2014]:

  • ‘Be Thou, triune God, in the midst of us//as we give thanks for those who have gone//from the sight of earthly eyes.                                           They, in Thy nearer presence, still worship with us//in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth.                                                           If it be Thy holy will, tell them how we love them,//and how we miss them,//and how we long for the day’                                                              when we shall meet with them again.”

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[1] Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

[2] A prior post covered some of this ground in my own “musings” about saints.

A Presbyterian’s Musings about Saints

My recent investigation and writing of a post about the Roman Catholic Church’s process for the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero prompt these musings about blesseds and saints in that church and their absence in my own church, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, and its denomination, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Roman Catholic Church[1]

According to a Catholic secondary source (“Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”), a saint is “…a member of the Church [who] has been assumed into eternal bliss and may be the object of general veneration. A saint is also a person of remarkable holiness who lived a life of heroic virtue, assisted by the Church, during their pilgrimage on earth. They are as varied and exceptional as only God could create them, and each has his own distinct story.”

The veneration of saints (in Latin, cultus, or the “cult of the saints”) describes a particular popular devotion or abandonment to a particular saint or saints. Although the term “worship” of the saints is sometimes used, it is intended to mean honor or give respect. According to the Catholic Church, Divine Worship is properly reserved only for God and never to the saints.  They can be asked to intercede or pray for those still on earth, just as one can ask someone on earth to pray for them.

A saint may be designated as a patron saint of a particular cause or profession, or invoked against specific illnesses or disasters, sometimes by popular custom and sometimes by official statements. Saints are not thought to have power of their own, but only that granted by God.

Apparently under canon law, before beatification, the body of the candidate must be exhumed and authenticated and relics taken for veneration. This has produced disputes, some of which have been resolved by dividing the body. For example, St. Catherine of Sienna is entombed in Rome, but her head is revered in a Sienna basilica. Now the beatification and canonization of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen is being delayed because of a dispute whether his corpse should remain in a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or be moved to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, where he was ordained.[2]

Relics of saints are respected in a similar manner to holy images and icons. The practice of past centuries in venerating relics of saints for healing is taken from the early Church. Once a person has been declared a saint, the body of the saint is considered holy. The remains of saints are called holy relics and are usually used in churches. Saints’ personal belongings may also be used as relics. Some of the saints have a symbol that represents their life.

In 993, Pope John XV was the first pope to proclaim a saint, but it was not until the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) that the Pope claimed an exclusive monopoly on the canonization of saints. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made sweeping changes in the canonization procedure for Catholics whom are generally regarded as holy with the local bishop first investigating a deceased candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue (or martyrdom) and orthodoxy of doctrine. Then a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate “venerable.”

Beatification

The next step, beatification, requires evidence of one miracle (except in the case of martyrs). Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate. When the pope proclaims the candidate beatified or “blessed,” the person can be venerated by a particular region or group of people with whom the person holds special importance.

Although I do not know the total number of “blessed” in the Roman Catholic Church, the last three Popes have beatified 2,860 (Pope John Paul II, 1,342; Pope Benedict XVI, 843; and Pope Francis, 675 (including 124 Korean Martyrs on his recent trip to South Korea).)

Canonization

The Roman Catholic Church has over 10,000 named saints (or over 27 for every day of a normal year).

Only after one more miracle will the pope canonize the saint (this includes martyrs as well). The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not “make” a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.

The last three Popes have canonized 1,355 saints: Pope John Paul II, 482; Pope Benedict XVI, 45; and Pope Francis, 828. A source says that Pope Francis’ 828 in the first 18 months of his papacy is more than all the Popes of the last three centuries.

Westminster and the PCUSA

sermon

The PCUSA and Westminster do not have a roster of designated blesseds and saints. As a result, Westminster does not have statues or paintings of such individuals in our Sanctuary.Instead, most of Westminster’s Sanctuary’s beautiful stained-glass windows from the 1950s and 60s, made by Willet Studios, primarily depict images of the life of Jesus like the one to the right for His Sermon on the Mount that is on the north side of the main floor of the Sanctuary. Earlier windows feature Victorian and early 20th century stylized organic and geometric designs. Here below, for example, is a photograph of the large Rose Window that was installed at the back of the balcony in 1897 with the construction of our Sanctuary.

RoseWindow

Westminster, however, at the back of the Sanctuary’s main floor does have four Gospel Windows (images of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the authors of the New Testament’s Gospels). Below is a photograph of these windows.

Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Luke & John
Saints Luke & John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, there are two stained glass windows at the back of the Sanctuary’s balcony with images of prominent Protestants. One is called the “Reformation Window” with images of Protestant reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. The other is called the “Missionary Window” with images of four Protestant missionaries: William Carey (India), David Livingstone (Africa), Sheldon Jackson (Alaska) and Marcus Whitman (Northwest U.S.). Photographs of these windows are below. Finally, also in the balcony we have a window for unnamed Martyrs and another window for Jesus’ Disciples and Apostles (without names). (Thanks for the photographs to Dr. Rodney Allen Schwartz, Director of Westminster’s Gallery and Archives.)

Westminster's "Reformers' Window"
Westminster’s                            “Reformation Window”
Westminster's "Missionaries Window"
Westminster’s                         “Missionary Window”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to a comment on the PCUSA website, “In the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, we have and always will acknowledge and honor saints. Our designation as saints comes from our rich inheritance of Christ’s righteousness.” This commentator then adds the following:

  • “In St. Paul’s understanding, the title ‘saint’ belongs to all those who have been united with Christ, those who have a share in the rich inheritance as Children of God (baptism). St. Paul routinely calls the members of his churches ‘saints’ because of who they are in Christ and not because of what they have accomplished.”
  • “Furthermore, based on the teachings of the Second Helvetic Confession, and the early church fathers, Presbyterians do not pray for the mediation of the saints. We pray to God through Christ alone, and only look to the saints, ordinary people who had extra-ordinary faith, as examples and role models.”
  • “Also, as John Calvin and the early church fathers taught in regard to the mystery of Holy Communion, we believe that when we gather at the Lord’s Table and partake of the sacrament in faith, by the work of the Holy Spirit we become united in Christ and in prayer with those gathered around the eternal throne of God (which the Lord’s Table also represents) in accordance to the vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation.”

The PCUSA website introduces the subject of All Saints Day by saying, “In early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death — his or her “birthday” as a saint. By the middle of the church’s first millennium, there were so many martyrs . . . that it was hard to give them all their due. All Saints’ Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.”

The PCUSA website goes on to say, “All Saints’ Day has a rather different focus in the Reformed tradition. While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of ages past, the emphasis is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, we give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of the believers in this and every age. [All Saints Day for Presbyterians] . . . is an appropriate time to give thanks to members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. We also pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm.”

Bishop William Walsham How
Bishop William Walsham How
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

At Westminster, All Saints Day is observed by reciting the names of our most recent saints, those church members who died during the prior year, and by singing the famous hymn “For All the Saints” with words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)[3] and beautiful music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).[4] The words of this hymn in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal go like this:

  1. “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might; thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “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!”

Interestingly this hymn originally had six other verses that probably were eliminated in our Hymnal to keep the hymn of reasonable length by contemporary standards. But three of those deleted verses specifically recognize the Apostles, the Evangelists and the Martyrs as saints and thereby may suggest that only they are saints.

We also must acknowledge that the names of some Presbyterian churches include the names of saints: the Apostles of Jesus (Peter (or Simon), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas and Matthew), the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John), the first evangelist (Paul) and other Roman Catholic saints (Elmo (or Erasmus)), Stephen, Barnabus, Giles and Patrick).

 Observations

I recognize that all of us as sinners need all the help we can get in striving to live holy lives and that blesseds and saints undoubtedly provide such assistance to many people. Moreover, I believe it must be useful for many people to have blesseds and saints from their own country or ethnic group or era to connect with Jesus, who lived and died 2,000 years ago.

A church’s having blesseds and saints can also be seen as a way for the church to evangelize, i.e., to spread the Good News of the Bible. In secular terms, it is a way to market the faith. Pope Francis’ recent beatification of 124 Korean martyrs can be seen in this light.

Once a church decides that it will have blesseds and saints, it obviously needs a well-established set of rules and procedures for making such important decisions, and Pope John Paul II’s previously mentioned changes in that regard I see as a rational management response.

However, I do not understand why the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero can be seen as controversial or difficult when he had the courage to act, despite repeated death threats, as Jesus taught all of us to act (Love your neighbor as yourself).

As an outsider to the Catholic faith, I see the proliferation of blesseds and saints as perhaps interfering with Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ and God. I also find it difficult to accept the miracles that are requirements for beatification (except for martyrs) and for canonization. According to the Catholic Church, to be deemed a miracle, it happens after the death of the candidate for beatification or canonization, and “a medical recovery must be instantaneous, not attributable to treatment, [and the medical problem] disappear for good.”

In the Presbyterian version of Christian faith as I have experienced at Minneapolis’ Westminster, on the other hand, we avoid having our focus on Jesus interrupted by statues and references to the blesseds and the saints. Moreover, our sermons frequently use the faith and actions of contemporary people to illustrate important points of Scripture. In this way we help to see how Jesus’ teachings can be important in our lives today.

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[1] This account of the history and practices of the Roman Catholic Church’s blessed and saints is based upon the following secondary sources in addition to those that are hyperlinked above: http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/All_Saints_Day.htm; http://www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_saints; http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201310/how-many-saints-are-there-28027. I welcome amplification and corrections by those with more knowledge of the Catholic history and practice of beatification and canonization.

[2] Otterman, Tug of War Between Dioceses Halts a Bishop’s Beatification, N.Y. Times (Sept. 14, 2014.)

[3] How was an Anglican priest who served as Bishop of Wakefield in northern England and as Bishop of Bedford in the East End of London. He also was a poet and author of the lyrics for other hymns.

[4] Williams, who was Welsh-English, was a composer of symphonies, operas, chamber and choral music and film scores.