One was a soldier, and one was a priest, one was slain by a fierce wild beast…..
Today we celebrate one of the best days in our church year–the Feast of All Saints. Besides the really big days—Christmas and Easter— All Saints is one of my two favorites, along with Epiphany. It’s our annual opportunity to remember all those who have gone before us–the well-known saints like Mary the Virgin and Mary Magdalene; St. Francis and St George who slayed the dragon. We also recall those who aren’t saints in the strictest sense, but nonetheless were people of courage and conviction–people like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King.
We remember as well those who are less famous–not so much remembered by the church at large, but who nonetheless had a deep and profound faith: our own loved ones, those who worked for the building up of the church, even right here, who helped this parish to grow and flourish. Every culture, age, and place raises up its own saints—people whose hearts are aflame with the light of God, and who by their words and actions are able to draw us, as well, closer to God’s radiant light.
The church, typically, has come to see the saints as people whose lives are complete and have been received into God’s greater glory. But in the Bible, all Christians are considered saints–those who have died, and those living and sharing God’s love with the world. I like this expanded understanding–saints are not only the few who have successfully completed a lengthy canonization process, but really are the millions who have loved God and witnessed to God’s love for the world with their words and with their lives.
Given this expanded understanding, I wonder, can you think of any saints you have known personally? Are there people in your life, now or in the past, with a special ability to draw others into the heart of God? Who seem to put the needs of others before themselves? Or who stand up against oppression so that others can know the peace, hope, and healing that God intends for us all? Do you know anyone like that? Do you know any saints?
For me, a few special people come to mind. Some have died, parishioners we have known and loved right here at Emmanuel, and some are still living. One such, for whom I give thanks, is the Rev. Jane Gould, the rector of St. Stephen’s Church in Lynn—but notably only through today, her last Sunday in the parish. Because very soon she’s moving on to St. Luke’s Church in Long Beach, California. I think Paul LaSpina remembers Jane from their days at Church of the Epiphany in Winchester. One infamous Jane in Winchester story has her as a young and very pregnant priest going into Labor at the altar on Easter Sunday morning. If I remember the story correctly, she made it through the service and to hospital before the baby came.
Yesterday, at our diocesan convention, we honored Jane for her tireless, visionary ministry in our diocese, and it only seems appropriate for me to honor her this morning, as well, because her impact on my own life and ministry has been nothing short of profound. The perfect reflection for an All Saints celebration.
I first met Jane just about 20 years ago, when I was in seminary and in search of a field education internship site. At the time, Jane was the Episcopal Chaplain at MIT, and that chaplaincy seemed especially interesting to me—it is a combined Lutheran-Episcopal ministry and at the time I was 25, so not far off in age from many of the students. I knew nothing about math or science, really, which ended up being fine. That time and place in ministry was absolutely life-changing for me, and Jane was a big part of that, along with the interesting, geeky, unusual students, whom I came to love. What I especially appreciated about Jane, besides her always fun-loving nature, was the respect she showed her students—whether the MIT students for whom she was their pastor, or me, her intern. Although I was just 25, without much experience, she treated me like a fellow minister and was enthusiastic about my ideas, which undoubtedly were half-baked some of the time. I can honestly say that the two years I was at MIT was the most fun I have ever had in ministry.
Most important, as I reflect back on it, was Jane’s philosophy that interns like me should have some ministry all their own, without a supervisor looming in the background. Mine was a Bible study. I lured students there with free pizza and soda, or pop, as I call it. It started out rather slowly. I think the first week only one or two students came. But over time, it grew to as many as 20 or more, each week. Can you imagine, 20 MIT students leaving their labs and math problems for pizza and Bible study on a Monday night? Jane let us use her office—students sat in chairs, on the sofa, on the floor. After studying the gospels of Mark or Luke, we moved on to the epistles, with a series called “Pizza, Paul, and Pop.” They were never too convinced by Paul, I am afraid. His arguments just weren’t logical enough for MIT students, but we had fun. Jane wasn’t there for it, unless I was sick or had to be away on occasion, but as a good mentor, she created the space for me to flourish.
It was while I was at MIT that I first applied to be accepted into the ordination process here in the Diocese of Massachusetts. I was turned down. The bishops and the Commission on Ministry didn’t really give a reason—I think mostly it was my age—but it was absolutely devastating. Jane was, for me, a tower of strength—consoling, encouraging, and prodding me along, helping me make the right choices for the future. She was close to our late Bishop Tom Shaw, and I have no doubt that she advocated behind the scenes, so that eventually I was accepted a few years later. When the time finally came for me to be ordained at the cathedral, Jane was one of my presenters, standing alongside me. A few years later, she visited Emmanuel on what was, I think, my third Sunday here—9 years ago—to show her support. What a gift.
Jane’s ministry at MIT was powerful and profound. She mentored divinity students like me. She coordinated a program called the Technology and Culture Forum, drawing together people from across the university and beyond to consider issues of ethics and science. She was a caring pastor to students in what must be the most difficult and competitive university in the world. She encouraged the Episcopal and Lutheran community there to participate in the Common Cathedral homeless ministry on the Boston Common one Sunday every month—sharing in worship, making sandwiches, being present and exposed to the realities of life on the streets.
Not long after I left MIT, Jane did, too—moving on to an even more challenging ministry in Lynn, where she has been for 17 years. St. Stephen’s is a unique place—it’s a grand old building, though not as grand as it once was. It houses the whole kingdom of God. On Sunday mornings they worship both in English and in Swahili. They are the home to refugees from the Sudan, and Spanish-speaking youth in their Kids in Community summer camp. Recently, they’ve begun a Kids in Community after school music program, and they opened their doors to a program called “Be You”—a youth group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens. Knowing of the high suicide and homelessness rates of these teens, the parish wanted to provide a safe space for them. It took time for the teens to trust that a church would welcome and not judge them, but now it’s home. Hearing that the Lynn Public Schools had eliminated summer school for elementary-age children, the parish organized college-age mentors and committed volunteers to provide tutoring in literacy and math, so that the most vulnerable students would not lose grade levels during the summer. While Jane would never take sole credit for these extraordinary ministries, they undoubtedly are due to her leadership and vision which, just like back at MIT, is always focused on lifting others up, helping the people of God to claim their own ministry, their own discipleship, and their own voice.
In our diocese—at conventions and whenever people gathered—Jane pushed and prodded on issues of justice and inclusion, whether it was about racial justice, equality for women and LGBT persons, or against gun violence and poverty. Wherever there was a microphone, you could expect Jane to be there. And most importantly, you could be sure that wherever Jesus stands, Jane Gould would be standing alongside him, speaking truth, challenging powers, lifting up God’s people. I know for a fact that I would not be here with you today if it were not for Jane. She is my hero. She will always be one of the most special saints in my life, just as I know you have special saints in yours.
You know, we often say that “so and so” is no saint, or that we are not saints. When we do that we make a disclaimer about our lives or suggest that because we are not perfect, God wouldn’t choose us to spread his love. But this, really, is messed up thinking. None of the saints were perfect—not Mary, not Paul, not Peter or Francis. They were, and are, all human. But they also knew that whatever their frailties or shortcomings, God still needed them. God still wanted them. God still used them–to live holy lives, to spread the gospel, and to shine with the light of Christ. And through their examples, they call us to do the same, right here, and right now.
Yesterday, at our diocesan convention, Bishop Gates ended his address by sharing the words of Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian from Episcopal Divinity School—30 years before me, 20 years before Jane Gould. Daniels was martyred in 1965 in the civil rights era. I shared the some of the same piece with you this summer, on the anniversary of his death. It makes sense to reflect on Daniels’ words now, again, on All Saints Day. Describing his ministry in Alabama, he wrote:
“This is the stuff of which our life is made. There are moments of great joy and moments of sorrow. Almost imperceptibly, some men grow in grace. Some men don’t. The thought of the Church is fraught with tension because the life of the Church is caught in tension. For the individual Christian and the far-flung congregation alike, that is part of the reality of the Cross.
“We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have men who are willing to reflect on the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another we are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings... Sometimes we confront a posse, sometimes we hold a child. Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, sometimes we must stand a little apart from them. Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity, and in that we share with men everywhere. We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.”
Daniels was killed a few months after writing this, shot while saving a fellow civil rights activist. If our faith tells us anything, it is that we don’t need to be rich to care for the poor and the weak, we don’t need to be powerful to share the love of God, and we don’t need to be kings to build the kingdom of God.
On this Feast of All Saints, may we be inspired by the examples of the saints all around us, and then shine just as brightly with the light and love of God.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell