By Peter Tupou
RUCC Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries
Scripture: Isaiah 58: 9-12
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Sermon Title: “My Saints”
I no longer believe in Superheroes. I believe in the average, everyday person who lacks superpowers but who does the right thing when called to do so. I believe in ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I believe that love overcomes hate and that the light drives out the darkness, and that today, we are called to be in that number! (When the Saints go marching in).
In the name of God who creates, who redeems, and who sustains. Amen.
The scripture lesson this morning reads, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and God will say, Here I am.” I’ll admit I did a little bit of crying myself when I started to think about what I would say this morning. I’ve been avoiding the pulpit my whole life, but coming from a family of preachers (generation upon generation), I can’t help but see the irony in words of the French poet Jean de La Fontaine – “A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it”.
And so on my spiritual journey I find myself anxiously standing here before you. Not only am I speaking to a new church family that I’m still getting to know, (which to me is a little bit like going on a first date – you don’t want to give a bad impression on your first date), but it’s also All Saints Sunday, where we come together in part to remember our loved ones who have passed. And of course the huge neon-fluorescent-glow-in-the-dark elephant in the room (or donkey), is the Election, so if the Spirit moves me, I may say there aren’t any saints on the ballot this year.
But as important as all those things are, this morning I’m going to talk about me. I’m going to talk about the Saints in my life, and how they’ve informed me to be the person I am today. So let me rewind a bit. I was born in New Zealand where my mother and father met, then shortly after I was born, we moved to Tonga where my sister was born and where we grew up, thus why I’m wearing my traditional Tongan clothing. This is called a
ta’ovala, usually made from the indigenous plants in Tonga, specifically the pandanus palm and the hibiscus tree, but I think mine is made from recycled plastic, and so we wear it at formal occasions as a sign of respect for the land. My family then immigrated from Tonga to the U.S. in search of the American dream, in search of a better life, but more so access to higher education which at the time we didn’t have in Tonga. So we came and for the most part we did our best to fit in – we attended a mostly white Methodist church in Pomona, and then moved to an all Tongan church in Ontario when numbers in the local Tongan community grew to allow for sustainability. I went through cub scouts and boy scouts, and took my younger sister to her girl scout meetings. I learned the pledge of allegiance, joined the chess club, the band, and the choir! So I would say, I had a Tongan-American childhood.
Like most American kids I had a fascination with superheroes. Some of you, like me, may have been part of that small but thriving sub-culture of comic book collectors. Pop culture today seems obsessed with them as is evident by the adaptations of DC Comic favorites Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. And the 13 Marvel Comic movies since 2008 which include Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor. And there are 8 more movies scheduled for release over the next 3 years! Why this captivation with superheroes? Why does it seem that people are more excited to see the opening of the next Thor movie, than the next satellite launch by NASA. Why do kids dress up as superheroes, rather than real life heroes? I was reminded of this last week during our Halloween festivities when little Cai came dressed up as the cutest Captain America I’ve ever seen. At Cai’s age, my favorite superhero was Mighty Mouse (Here I am to save the day), I’m not dating myself because they show re-runs of all those old cartoons. Sorry John not old, I meant “classic” cartoons. So I’m wondering again why this fascination?
I think part of it may be human nature – that we need someone to look up to. Aristotle points out, that “we yearn to do the good but need an example to know what the good is”. Part of it may be the attractive narrative of overcoming evil. The narratives of working together to overcome an impossible foe – of overcoming your Goliath. A narrative of the savior that perhaps you once aspired to be. Their plight reminds us of our plight, and their triumph perhaps gives us hope that we too may triumph.
But are there any real superheroes, because I no longer believe in them. What I do believe in is the average, everyday person who lacks superpowers but who does the right thing when called to do so. I believe in ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I believe in the real life heroes who fight the good fight everyday in small ways, and in their own way, and I call these people Saints.
Last year, I was fortunate to meet one of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann. And Brueggemann describes Saints in three specific ways. He says –
Saints are where the Light comes from –
I was an acolyte at Pomona First United Methodist Church, and at a young age I understood the symbolic significance of my task, perhaps a little more than a 9 year old should’ve. After all, it was my sole responsibility to bring Jesus into the church, on a little candle wick and place him on the altar. Then I had to be bored for an hour usually sitting by myself until the service was over before I could then take Jesus out into the world, again on that little wick of wax. If I walked too fast Jesus would die, if I didn’t keep pushing the taper up, Jesus would get snuffed out, so you best believe I did my utmost due diligence in making sure that Jesus never died while I carried him. My father however did die of a heart attack when I was 9, and I specifically remembered one Sunday after he had passed, where it was my turn to be the acolyte. Of course I was feeling sadness and confusion, along with feeling very disconnected and alone. During this particular Sunday service, my mother was sitting with my sister far enough away that I couldn’t see them, which further added to my gnawing sense of isolation. Instead of listening to the sermon, I was distracted by the way the light shone in through the stained glass windows above me, specifically through the depictions of St. Mark and St. Luke in the windows across from me, all lit up in a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors. I was stunned by its beauty, and something deep within me instinctively reached for that light. As I metaphysically stretched my spirit into that space, the light bathed me and I felt its warmth, and to this day, I believed that light was my dad come to say goodbye, one last time. It was a powerful moment that left me with peace, and would impress upon a secret relationship with the divine. Saints are the ones whom the light comes upon us, as I’m sure there have been Saints not only in this church but in your life, through whom the light has shown.
Secondly, Brueggemann says saints are those that value others –
Saints are people who know the primal language of the “other”. My grandfather (my mom’s dad), who we all called Papa, was the Saint who taught me about this language of the Samaritan, the language of the other. Of showing compassion to my neighbor. It was always a special treat when Papa would take us out to a restaurant to eat. Mostly because it meant that we didn’t have to eat rice or Ramen noodles, but he would always order more food than we could eat, just so he could give it away to someone else who was hungry, which he often did. My Grandpa never told me this is what you should do. He never once sat me down and said, “Peter, If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” The prophet Isaiah said that, but my grandpa lived it.
If you look at many media outlets, it’s a good chance you will be informed that many of us in this country should be fearful of the “other”, that we should build a wall that
separates us from them, that All Lives Matter despite those that happen to wash up on our shores because they are fleeing a war torn Syria, that all lives matter despite the Big Oil Corporations desecrating the sacred ground of our Native American brothers and sisters in North Dakota and potentially contaminating their water, that all lives matter despite the numbers of mass incarceration and police violence which show that Black Lives don’t matter to us at all. Saints like my grandpa, are kind and generous toward others and they respect people who are not like us – others of different race, different age, socioeconomic class, culture, ethnic community, or sexual orientation. Because saints know that the “other” may be where God meets us.
And thirdly, Brueggemann says that saints are those “where death smells and they stay” –
Interestingly Tongan culture has taught me that evil spirits have a specific strong scent. It’s almost like an overbearing sickly sweet perfume. And it’s common knowledge in Tonga that when you smell that scent, you start praying or start running! But Brueggemann says that Saints are those who do not run and hide when they smell death. They are unafraid of suffering, and they stay present in love and mercy where there is dying, illness, and violence. Isaiah says “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Whose water never fails. This past week, it was reported that over 500 Saints heeded the call for Clergy at Standing Rock, to become water protectors, to become witnesses, and so clergy from all faith traditions and denominations traveled to Standing Rock in support and solidarity with the Lakota people in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Appropriately, I was reminded last week of a Frederick Douglas quote, “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.”
I understand that we often pray waiting for God to act on our behalf, but what if God is waiting for us to act on God’s behalf. Is it enough to just gather on Sundays in worship? Is it enough to stay politely silent in fear of causing offense? Is it enough, to just show up and take a seat?
In school I learned about other saints that “prayed with their feet”. I learned about William Wilberforce who fought for the abolition of slavery, Jane Addams who fought for the needs of children, public health and a woman’s right to vote, Rosa Parks who did so much more than just take a seat, Fannie Lou Hammer who was so “sick and tired of being sick and tired” that she became a champion for racial equality, Oskar Schindler who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, and many more saints like Dorothy Day, Harvey Milk, Desmond Tutu, real saints who faced real adversity, and whose wonderful and amazing stories at the core was simply doing the right thing when called to do so.
My saints are those who look forward to risk, and not backward to safety. My Saints are those who look forward to the future, where God always meets us.
One saint I didn’t mention in that list was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many of you are familiar with his words because you were here while he was fighting the good fight. Some of us are familiar with his words perhaps due to thousands of FB shares and retweets, one of my favorites being “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin along with Malcom X were saints for many people during the Civil Rights movement. They fought for justice – a justice of resistance, a spiritual and moral understanding that there is a higher law. They fought for the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless who lived in the streets. The same streets today that are still killing our black and brown bodies. The same streets today where women have to drive to another state to have a medical procedure. The same streets today where people are struggling to eat, and yet we throw away 50% of all our produce. The same streets today, just like those here in Redlands, where children are homeless.
The lives of these saints of the Civil Rights Movement, reinforces what Isaiah is saying in this morning’s scripture – that if you feed the hungry, if you meet the needs of the neediest, then God will guide you. That you must stop casting the blame and speaking badly of others. If you move your feet when you pray, then God will show you the way. If you help others, God will help you. God calls us to remove the yoke of burden – and for me that’s a clear call to fight all systems of oppression like institutional racism, to fight systems that tell us who we can and can’t love, to fight systems that oppress the poor and the disabled. Isaiah tells us, if you put your faith to action, God will answer your call, and You will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets (that we) live in.
I can’t wrap up this sermon without mentioning the most important saint in my life, and I kept this for the end because I figured I’d be a sobbing mess. I am the man I am today, mostly because of this saint who has shown me the meaning of unconditional love. People often tell me that I have a huge heart, and that’s because she filled it every day. She once admitted to me she had to pray for forgiveness because she loved me more than she loved God, and I can honestly tell her now, that it’s because she loved me so, that I came to know the love of Christ. I love you mom. Thank you for everything.
Last week, I was in South Central with some of our young folks who are here this morning, to hear the Rev. Traci Blackmon preach about an Afro-Semitic Palestinian born on the wrong side of the tracks, who repairs all breaches and calls us to do the same. I stand up here with blessed assurance that my saints – my father, and my grandfathers, and their fathers, all who were Methodist ministers, are standing with me this morning. That those saints who have passed from my eyes but not from my heart, are standing with me
now. And they tell me that I too must stand up for, and stand with, those who have called for help. That we stand in our own way, either on the front lines of protest or in the classroom, from the pulpit or from the pew, from the streets or from the voting box. From our hearts, we must stand together. But don’t stop praying either! The problems we face may not be ordinary, but then again, neither are we. May we stand together and hear the call of that Afro-Semitic Palestinian born on the wrong side of the tracks, for us to live up to our full humanity. And only then can we expect the light to drive out the darkness, and only then can we expect love to overcome hate. May we stand in God’s righteousness where death cannot harm us. May we stand together in God’s light and heed the call for peace and justice for all. Amen?
For all the saints who from their labors rest, may we then stand to face the task at hand. God, we are called to be your hands and your feet. When the drums begin to bang, when the trumpet sounds its call, may we heed the call and stand up for the oppressed, just as Jesus stands for us, and may we continue to fight the good fight, as nobly as those saints of old.
In Christ name we pray – Amen.