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A Sermon on The Gospel For All Saints - Year A
Matthew 5:1-12
"Role Models" - by Rev. Foster Freed

The following sermon is one of many by the Rev. Foster Freed of the United Church of Canada that will be presented on this site over the next few months and years. Foster is one of best preachers I have been privileged to hear in my years of ministry. Foster is the pastor of a large and growing congregation (Knox United) located in Parksville on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia.


"Role Models"
A Sermon Preached at Knox United Church, Parksville, B.C.
For All Saints Sunday
by Foster Freed

Matthew 5: 1-12

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

This morning, I am going to try something I've always wanted to try my hand at. I am going to pretend that I am the Pope.

I suspect I hear some of you thinking: how does that make this morning different than any other morning, Foster?

I had better explain. What I mean is that I want to do something that is specifically associated, at least in the Catholic Church, with the Papal office: especially the present occupant of that office, John Paul II. By which I refer to the process by the which the Pope participates in the "creation" of new saints. And notice that I used the word "participate": it's not accurate to say that the Pope creates saints all by himself. Nor, for that matter, is it really accurate to say that the church "creates" a saint; rather that the church tries to acknowledge on earth those whom God has already acknowledged as saints in heaven.

Those caveats aside, it would be hard to ignore the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, under John Paul's leadership, has sainted many a saint. A process that I have watched from afar with, I must confess, a wee bit of envy. Not because I would necessarily wish to replicate the Catholic approach to the saints lock, stock and barrel, but because I don't think we Protestants do nearly enough to acknowledge and to celebrate our saints.

Which is what I want to do this morning. Not by presuming to name anyone as a saint, but by taking the far more humble step of nominating a small handful of Protestant saints. Four 20th century figures: three of them clergy/one of them lay; two of them men/two of them women; two of them from United Church of Canada/two of them from other Protestant denominations. And all four of them, in my humble judgment, worthy to be considered for sainthood. Sainthood: in God's one, holy, universal church. And so, without further ado, I present my first candidate: a candidate who (were they a Roman Catholic) would be nominated for sainthood in the category of "pastor": indeed, someone whose achievement is inseparable from the fact that they served as a pastor.

And to understand this particular pastor's story, I want those of you who have seen photos from the time of the United Church's founding in the 1920s: I want those of you have ever looked at such photos to think back to what you typically see in such photos, like the photos taken in Toronto, at the Mutual Street Arena on that fateful day in June 1925, when the United Church of Canada came into being. Photos of the ordained and lay delegates who met in Toronto to bring the United Church into being. 1925. When you think about it, really not all that long ago, as human history goes, as the Church's history goes. But when you look at those photos, what do you see? What you tend to see in such photos, especially the ones that depict United Church decision makers, is an unbroken sea of male. A sea of guys. A sea of men.

Lydia Gruchy was born in 1895, in Paris, France. Her family became homesteaders in Saskatchewan. And, I suppose, it is possible that Lydia--had it not been for the First World War--might have chosen to spend her life on a farm, no doubt somewhere in Saskatchewan. The war changed all of that, however. A brother, a brother who had been planning to become a minister, was killed during the war. Lydia resolved to devote the rest of her life to the church. She studied theology at St. Andrew's College in Saskatoon; when she graduated in 1923, she did so at the head of her class. But, unlike her fellow classmates, she could not go on to be a minister. Ministry was only for men.

That didn't stop her. Such things rarely stop God's saints. She simply went ahead and began performing the duties of minister in widely scattered communities across Saskatchewan. On an average Sunday, she might hold four or five separate services, driving the long distances between the communities. Her dedication was such that it made all sorts of United Church people begin to ask some very tough and searching questions. In 1936 the United Church amended its manual, so that women could be ordained. In November 1936, in Moose Jaw, Lydia Gruchy was ordained into the ministry of the United Church of Canada: serving the church until her retirement in 1962. And while I can think of many 20th century pastors, many 20th century Protestant pastors who served with integrity and made a difference to the Body of Christ during their time, I can think of no one more worthy of being nominated as a saint than the United Church's own Lydia Gruchy.

My second nominee is also a pastor, although I am not nominating him so much as a pastor, but rather as a founder: as someone who helped to found not only a church, not only a denomination, but really a whole movement.

Most of you will likely have never heard of this particular saint. His name is William J. Seymour: a black man, born in 1870 in the deep south, Louisiana, the son of former slaves. Raised a Baptist, as a young man he became deeply impressed by those who taught that there would be a rich outpouring of God's Spirit prior to the end of time. In 1906, Seymour, who was then living in Houston, Texas, was invited to come to Los Angeles to pastor a small Baptist congregation.

After a series of controversies over his belief in a coming dispensation of the Spirit that would include speaking in tongues, Seymour and a small group of followers began holding services in a former Methodist church, that had most recently served as a tenement and a livery. That ramshackle building, at 312 Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles, was destined to become one of the most influential churches of the 20th century.

During that first summer, the summer of 1906, a quiet revival began to take shape on Azusa Street. By the time fall came, and the word began to spread of Christians speaking in tongues and of signs and wonders being manifest at the Azusa Street church, that quiet revival had turned into a large scale revival. And while it would be simplistic to suggest that William J. Seymour and the Azusa Street Church were the sole roots of the Pentecostal movement (the famous Welsh revival actually came first), nevertheless, the importance of Azusa Street--where black and white and latino worshipped side by side in 1906!--the importance of Azusa Street cannot be underestimated.

Nor, I hasten to add, can the importance of the Pentecostal movement be underestimated. Some of you will have seen the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which featured an article by Philip Jenkins, on the church of the 21st century. That article was excerpted from a book, The New Christendom, which will shortly appear in our church library. In that book, Jenkins bemoans the fact that standard histories of the 20th century have much more to say about fascism, Nazism, and communism than about the Pentecostal movement. But, as Jenkins points out: "today, Fascists or Nazis are not easy to find, and Communists may be becoming an endangered species, while Pentecostals are flourishing around the globe. Since there were only a handful of Pentecostals in 1900, and several hundred million today, is it not reasonable to identify this as perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century?" Which is why I have no hesitation in nominating one of the founders of the Pentecostal movement, a humble black pastor by the name of William J. Seymour, as a 20th century Protestant saint.

My next nominee will likely be far more familiar to most of your ears. Once again it's a pastor, but one who really never served in that capacity. But this gentleman, or so I believe, deserves to be regarded as a 20th century "Doctor of the Church". Someone whose writings can and perhaps will help to shape the church of the 21st century.

And I confess that I refer to someone who affected my own faith journey in a very personal way, although I never met them. Nevertheless, whenever I am invited to explain how it is that I became a Christian, this person's name always figures in the story. Because I had wanted, from my late teens onward, to read the New Testament; and yet, because I was Jewish, reading the New Testament somehow seemed disloyal. And so I needed an excuse, a pretext: one that came my way when I was studying literature, reading a famous book by a famous Canadian literary critic who insisted that one could only begin to comprehend the history of European literature, by first becoming acquainted with the magnificent literature of the Bible: Old and New Testament.

That literary critic was, of course, Northrop Frye. He was born on July 14th 1912 in Sherbrooke Quebec. He grew up in Moncton, New Brunswick, in a home that was actively Methodist for his first 13 years, and then became actively United Church at the time of Church Union in 1925. Graduating from Victoria College (the United Church College at the University of Toronto) in 1933, Frye then studied theology at Emmanuel College, the United Church seminary in Toronto. But although he was ordained, he never entered active ministry. Why? Partly because he would have hated dealing with all of the administrative trivia clergy get to deal with. But, also, because he heard another calling. And so off he trundled to Oxford, where he earned an advanced degree in literature, returning in 1939 to the English department at the same Victoria College (the United Church's Victoria College) from where he had received his first degree and in which he was destined to teach for the remainder of his life.

And I think it is quite wonderful that Frye, who devoted so much of his life exploring the treasures of European literature, returned to the theme of the Bible at the end of his life. Not once, not twice, but three times. Nor is it inappropriate to notice that the third of those three books--The Double Vision--began as a small series of lectures Frye gave at his old seminary (Emmanuel College) on the occasion of the United Church's 65th anniversary. In that slim book, Frye speaks movingly of his hope for the future church: a Christianity (and I quote), that "would be neither an inglorious rearguard action nor a revolutionary movement creating suffering and death instead of life more abundantly. It would be a Christianity of a Father who is not a metaphor of male supremacy but rather the intelligible source of our being; it would be a Christianity of a Son who is not a teacher of platitudes but a Word who has overcome the world; and it would be a Christianity of a Spirit who speaks with all the tongues of men and angels and still speaks with charity." Northrop Frye, scholar though he was, never lost his heart for the church: never lost his heart for the sublime beauty and profound truth of the Gospel. And so I nominate him as a 20th century Doctor of the Church; I nominate him as one of Protestantism's most learned saints.

Fourth and final saint. This one not a pastor; this one certifiably a lay-person, a lay-woman. A woman who was overshadowed by her far more famous younger sister. And yet, a woman who deserves to be remembered in her own right: to be remembered as a saint, indeed to be included in that most rarefied category of saints. To be remembered as a martyr.

Betsie ten Boom was born in 1885 in the Dutch city of Haarlem. Some 50 years earlier, in 1837, her grandfather had begun a watch shop in the old section of the city. Betsie's father Casper inherited that business, and carried on the family tradition: not only a tradition of fine craftsmanship, but also a tradition of devout participation in the Dutch Reformed Church. Indeed, the ten Boom family's religious practice included a strong belief in the equality of all human beings before God, a belief that was manifested through their close ties to Haarlem's Jewish community.

In November 1941, on a wet Haarlem morning, a neighbouring shops--that of a Jewish furrier--was ransacked by four Nazi soldiers. For months, Betsie, her father, and her younger sister Corrie, talked about what they would do in the event that their Jewish neighbours needed help. Now they were put to the test, and they instinctively protected their Jewish neighbour. Thus began nearly two and a half years of service with the Dutch underground, sheltering and saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish men, women and children. In February 1944, the Gestapo finally caught up with them; Betsie, Corrie and their father were arrested. Their elderly father died within days of his arrest; Betsie and Corrie were placed first in Scheveningen prison, then moved to a Dutch internment camp, and were finally moved to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp in Germany. Corrie managed to survive that ordeal; alas, Betsie died at Ravensbrueck in December 1944.

Corrie, who tells of these events in her book The Hiding Place, has no hesitation describing Betsie's remarkable holiness. When the sisters learned, for example, that they had been betrayed to the Nazis by a man named Jan Vogel, Corrie asks Betsie: "Don't you feel anything about Jan Vogel? Doesn't it bother you?" To which Betsie replied: "Oh yes, Corrie! Terribly! I've felt for him ever since I knew--and pray for him whenever his name comes into my mind." On another occasion Corrie and Betsie watched a concentration comp matron beating a prisoner. "Oh, the poor woman," Corrie cried. "Yes. May God forgive her," Betsie replied. Once again Corrie realized that Betsie had been praying for the souls of the brutal Nazi guards.

Without any hesitation I nominate Betsie Ten Boom as one who should be acknowledged and celebrated as a saint, a martyr, a 20th century Protestant martyr in God's one, holy, universal church.

And I nominate Betsie in the same spirit in which I nominated Lydia Gruchy, William J. Seymour, and Northrop Frye: which is to say (and this is the really important part of this sermon so listen up!) I nominate them as saints and I commend them to you as saints not so that you will turn them into heroes (God forbid!), but so that you will recognize them as role models. Notice the title of this sermon! Role-models!

And frankly, if all we do with saints is turn them into heroes, place them on pedestals so that we can look up to them: frankly, we are likely much better off without them. But if we remember that the saints are offered to us as role-models, people worthy of our imitation, people we are--believe it or not--capable of imitating (in the strength of God's Spirit) then and only then:

....then and only then can it truly be said that the saints are good for us. Inspiration for us. As we seek, you and I together, as we seek to live the new life that is ours through the God who came to us in Jesus.

Glory be to God. Glory be to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God in the Church and in Christ Jesus, from generation to generation. Now! And for ever more. Thanks be to God!

copyright - Sermon by Rev. Foster Freed 2002 - 2005
          - page by Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks - 2005
          please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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