The title of our message today—and the idea behind it—comes to us a courtesy of a tweet from Pope Francis. Early on Monday, he sent out a message, saying:
“Let’s look at the ‘saints next door’ who, with simplicity, respond to evil with good, have the courage to love their enemies and to pray for them.”
The phrase saints next door really resonated with me. In his tweet, the phrase was in quotations marks, as though he meant that to extend to anyone, anyone at all, who might qualify as the “neighbor” Jesus told us to care for. I love the idea that we should feel grateful for the good people around us. And if we don’t already feel grateful, we should look for opportunities where we can. This not only trains our minds to look for the good in others, but it helps us feel less alone as we face this crazy time. It reminds us to pray for one another as a unified source of strength and protection along the way.
As I reflected on the tweet, driving in to work that morning, I thought first about how consistent it is with our own Friends practice of looking for the best in others, believing everyone has inherent value. In our tradition we have George Fox’s beloved phrase, “that of God in everyone,” that reminds us that there is a bit of the divine in each and every child of God, and thus every person we meet anywhere on the planet is our equal and worthy of respect, kindness, and compassion.
As I thought about it, the next obvious connection was that our poor hurting world would look a whole lot different right now if we were able to see our neighbors as saints—as people on our side, hoping to make things better, praying for the common good, for Godly understanding, and reaching out in love to those they don’t know or understand. I wonder why it is so hard for us to do this. When we always have the choice of seeing others as saints or sinners, why do we so often choose to see people’s short-comings, the imperfections, the things that cause distrust? Is there something we just inherently misunderstand about one another? An opportunity we’re missing? It can become quite a challenge to see “that of God in everyone” when the whole world seems to be upside-down and there appear to be so many angry and bad actors making the uncertainty more fearful and danger seem more real.
I take comfort in the fact that ours is not the first generation to live through this kind of tumultuous and difficult time. When George Fox was a teenager, it was a time of change in the church, which had great power in their society. Although he was raised in a faithful family, he himself found the teachings of the church empty, the rituals cold. He’d been a serious child all his life, with a yearning for a real living faith that wasn’t about large sanctuaries, abundant offerings, or outward shows of piety and power. At the age of 19, Fox went through a kind of spiritual crisis. In his Journal, he wrote
“The Lord, said unto me: ‘Thou seest how young people go together in vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all. Then at the command of God, the ninth of the Seventh month, 1643, I left my relations, and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old.”
That early inner stirring told George he needed to pull away from the give-and-take of his normal life for a while and stay as close as he could to God in prayer. One source I found said that contributing to Fox’s sense of urgency was the hollowness he saw in the lives of those serving the church. Second was an idea that he deeply believed that was vastly different from church teachings—it is an idea that continues to set Friends apart today: We see a life lived with Christ is a life of unfolding possibility, continuing growth in truth as spirit guides us into more and more light. The faith young George Fox instinctively sought was about a living, loving relationship with God. In contrast, the church of that time—and some churches today–focused on the depravity of mankind, the shame of the fall, and the power of evil and temptation in peoples’ lives.
George’s time of seeking bore fruit. We know this story well. Feeling despondent and without hope for his searching, when he was still a young man, in 1647, he heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and he wrote, “when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”
If you’ve read passages in George Fox’s Journal, you know that he had deep insight and a great desire to live out what God opened to him. He’s been described as a “mystical genius,” a savant gifted in creating a movement of light in a time just crying out for a sacramental faith. But George Fox’s gift wasn’t intellectual or organizational—he didn’t intend to create a church or a movement—but rather a gift of the heart. He discovered the divine light within his own soul, and that discovery brought so much goodness, so much peace, such a sense of transcendent love and right order that he spent the rest of his life doing what he could to help others find it too.
Fox’s intention was to turn believers from what he felt was a mistaken, empty path and help them see they could have a real, living, ongoing relationship with Christ Jesus, their inward teacher, if they chose. Fox understood what they were missing—and what they could have instead—because he had lived it and found it. God had placed in his heart a yearning for it.
But to inspire people in the right direction, he had to speak the truth wherever it was called for—even at his own peril, even if it didn’t go well. Over and over again, Fox spoke out at great risk and especially in the early years, he was often jailed or threatened or run out of town. Over time, though, his teaching did go over well, and people heard the life and truth in what he shared. Hearts were stirred. Something resonated. And the community of early Friends grew rapidly, reaching 100,000 during Fox’s lifetime.
I think Fox’s instinct at understanding where people were in their faith is fascinating. In two interesting incidents in Fox’s Journal, we get a glimpse of this insight. In one case, his perception falls on unhearing ears. In the other, it makes a difference.
First, Fox was sent for by a lady who was with her teacher at her home. He wrote,
And they (were) both very light, airy, people and too light to receive the weighty things of God. And in her lightness she came and asked me whether she should cut my hair. And I was moved to reprove her and bid her cut down the corruptions in her with the sword of the spirit of God. And so after I had admonished her we passed away; and, after, she made her boast in her frothy mind that she came behind me and cut off a lock of my hair, which was a lie.
What a funny story to include. And wouldn’t that be a shocking thing to hear? Perhaps you ask a question you think will be flattering to a celebrity passing through town and hear, “Cut down the corruptions in your own life with the sword of the spirit of God!” It’s hard to imagine how we might react. Maybe we’d say, “Oh, I was just joking anyway,” and then when he left, mutter “Well, somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning!” But Fox had picked up that the lady had motives other than God and he felt compelled to speak the truth as he felt it.
In another interaction, Fox meets a man he thinks is far too frivolous for the serious work of the kingdom. Here is the story:
And this captain was the fattest, merriest, cheerfullest man and the most given to laughter that I ever met with so that I several times was moved of the Lord to speak to him in the dreadful power of the Lord and yet still he would presently after laugh at anything that he saw; and I still admonished him to sobriety and the fear of the Lord and sincerity. And we lay at an inn at night and the next morning I was moved to speak to him again, and then he parted from us the next morning. But he confessed next time I saw him that the power of the Lord had so amazed him that before he got home he was serious enough and left his laughing. And the man came to be convinced and become a serious and good man and died in the truth.
In both of these cases, Fox saw clearly the focus of his neighbors’ minds and emotions. He knew they had the potential to be the “saints next door,” but so far, they were missing the chance. He could see from their outward behavior that their hearts weren’t yet turned toward God. And he did what he could to change that.
In 1649, as he was listening to a priest give a message at a church in the town of Nottingham, George Fox got to his feet and interrupted the sermon. The scripture the priest had used as the basis for his message was 2 Peter 1:19—also our New Testament scripture today–which says
“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The priest was making the point that Scripture was the “sure word of prophecy, by which all doctrines, religions and opinions were to be tried,” but Fox got to his feet to say the passage was referring not to Scripture, but to the Holy Spirit. Fox reminded everyone listening that the Holy Spirit was the one “which Christ has said shall lead his disciples into all truth.” This is a very important distinction because the Holy Spirit is about relationship, ongoing companionship, leading us day by day into deeper understanding and a heart more open to God.
For his interruption, Fox was arrested and taken to jail as a vagrant troublemaker. He was placed in the lowest dungeon of Launceston Castle, a place called Doomsdale, where witches and murderers were typically held. Fox didn’t begrudge his time there, however. He used the opportunity to turn the minds of his jailers and fellow prisoners toward God. On the wall of the dungeon, Fox wrote, “I was never in prison that it was not the means of bringing multitudes out of their prisons.”
All this power, all this light, all the potential to see and know the clear light in souls who didn’t even know it yet themselves, was borne of Fox’s conviction and experience that the Holy Spirit helps and guides each of us—always—as we learn to live with more love and light ourselves. In our Old Testament scripture for today, David shares this same idea in Psalm 119:
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
We could interpret word here as scripture or as Christ, who John tells us was the word of God. But this idea of David’s is all about relationship. The light of God is traveling with us, lighting each step we take. Our first response is to quiet our hearts and step away from the swirling influence of the outer world for a time, so we can allow ourselves to listen deeply for God. A big part of the secret to seeing the “saints next door” in our own lives involves discovering and making space for that relationship of grace to develop in our own hearts. We are each learning to live with more light and love, but our learning is gradual and takes place on our own—or perhaps more accurately, on God’s–timetable.
If we see something in our neighbor that makes us pull back, that perhaps sows seeds of distrust, perhaps instead of defaulting to judgment we could choose to pray for them, asking God to help us see the other person as he sees them. We could pray for their good, that they would feel deeply loved by God. If we have neighbors worrying about financial matters, we can pray God will give them comfort and provision. For those battling illness, we can pray God’s wholeness and health present with them—right now!–as a natural extension of God’s love.
We can make it our work, a work of love, to pray for all the saints next door—on our street and in our neighborhood, in our town, country, continent, and planet. Whoever needs it, whomever God puts on our hearts. Let’s pray for an immediate, knowable, intimate, loving relationship with God, one that will lead our whole world into more and more light. When we can do that—or maybe simply when we try—we’ll understand in a real and living way what George Fox meant when he wrote,
“This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.”
- OT: Psalm 119: 105
- NT: 2 Peter 1:19
- Pope Francis’ Twitter feed: @Pontifex
- Gleanings from George Fox, by Dorothy M. Richardson: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/57926/57926-h/57926-h.htm