You can listen to my sermon here, or read on. Just remember, what gets typed and what gets said aren’t always the same.
There are two hymns that must be sung every All Saints’ Day. I mean, there isn’t any rubric or church canon on the matter, but by the proclamation of Steve Pankey, every All Saints’ Day should bring with it the singing of hymn 287, “For all the saints who from their labors rest,” and the hymn 293, “I sing a song of the saints of God.” Both are moldy oldies, but both are great examples of good theology being tied up in good hymnody, and both couldn’t be more different.
“For all the saints…” is a high and lofty hymn, reminiscent of the lessons we heard from Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21. It speaks of saints triumphant, warriors in the fierce strife, streaming through the pearly gates from every corner of the globe, singing praises, loud Alleluias, to God on high. Every time I sing this hymn, it makes me think of those famous saints whose names comes easily to our lips: Saint Paul, Saint Francis, Saint Augustine, or Saint Mary Magdalene. It brings to mind what I, for many years, associated as the primary quality of all the saints: holiness. Saints have to be holy, it is the #1 most important and perhaps only true requirement of sainthood. When we think of saints, we often picture the scene, elsewhere in John’s revelation, of the great multitude that no one can count, standing before the throne, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands and crying out praises to God Almighty. We envision the heavy hitters: Apostles and Martyrs: those whose lives we have little hope of actually emulating. We picture their holiness as perfection, a level of devotion to God that we couldn’t even imagine achieving. The opening half of the fourth verse of “For all the saints…” says it so well, “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine…”
We feebly struggle, but the truth of the matter is, so did they. The list of human beings who were perfect is remarkably short, and includes only one name: Jesus. The rest of us, well as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not even as William How penned the lofty poetry of “For all the saints,” could he fail to mention that we are all in the same boat. Verse four concludes by drawing to our minds the opening verse of Psalm 24 as it says, “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.” You see, sainthood isn’t about a small group of people who have been set apart to be regarded as better than the rest of us, instead, sainthood is the condition of all who feebly struggle, all who hope after the new heaven and new earth, all who seek first the Kingdom of God. Or as Lesbia Scott put it in “I sing a song of the saints of God,” “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
The saints of God are folk like Martha and Mary: two women who knew that Jesus was the Son of God. Two women who knew that he held within him power of life and death. Two women whose certainty had turned into expectation that Jesus would save their brother, Lazarus, from death. Mary and Martha are names that we remember. They should probably be included in that list of white robbed saints that I named earlier. Clearly, they were close with Jesus, and yet even Mary and Martha feebly struggled with what it meant to be a disciple of the Son of God. The asked the same questions we ask, “why weren’t you here?” “How could you let this happen?” “Why didn’t you fix this sooner.” Yes they, like us, are saints of God, and I mean to be one too.
So, if being a saint isn’t about being perfect, then what is it about? Second only to holiness on most people’s list of saintly qualities is probably dead-ness. It seems that in order to make your way onto a calendar of saints, or even to be remembered on All Saints’ Day, you’ve got to be dead. Maybe not slain by a fierce wild beast, but dead. Here again, we make bad assumptions about sainthood. Saint Paul uses the word we translate as “saint” (hagios, which literally means “holy ones”) 44 times in his letters. The term appears 62 times in the New Testament as a whole. And it is most often associated not with the Apostles, not with great people who had died, but with the Church and its members going about the day to day business of following Jesus. Returning again to “I sing a song of the saints of God,” “They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, they world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea…”
If it isn’t about being perfectly holy and it doesn’t require being dead, then what is it that makes a saint? I think sainthood is summed up in the story of Lazarus’ return from the grave and it is quite simply, “participation in God’s ongoing miracle of resurrection.” Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend and demands that the stone be rolled away. He doesn’t lay a hand on the stone, instead inviting those who have been weeping and wailing to take part in what will be his greatest miracle. Once the stone is rolled away, Jesus doesn’t walk into the tomb and lay his hands on Lazarus. Instead, he shouts to his friend, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus has a part to play even in his own healing, his own resurrection. Finally, as the still bound Lazarus stands before the awed crowd, Jesus invites them again to take part in the miracle of resurrection by commanding them to “unbind him.” Jesus invites every member of this amazing scene to participate in this miracle. Every person standing in and around Lazarus’ tomb helps raise him from the dead. Sure, Jesus is the one with the supernatural power over life and death, but even in this pivotal moment in his ministry, Jesus offers an invitation to participation in the Kingdom of God.
This realization, that God invites us to participate in his ongoing miracle of resurrection, caused my friend David to blog this question, “What other miraculous things does God intend to do in our communities in us, with us, and through us. Perhaps these things are huge – directing our efforts to ending hunger or providing shelter for homeless children and adults. Or maybe these things are smaller – providing a listening ear to a colleague or friend who is struggling and feels alone. Either way, God wants, I believe, to continue to do miraculous things and continues to want to do them in, with, and through us.”1
This is an important message for All Saints’ Day. It is an important message for stewardship season. It is an important lesson for those of us who are slogging along, feebly struggling to figure out what it means to live into the Kingdom of God. God invites us to participate in his miraculous acts. Sometimes, it is our simple act of listening that brings about miraculous healing. Sometimes, it is our simple act of giving that brings about miraculous growth. Sometimes, it is our simple act of being a calm presence that brings about miraculous restoration. All of our simple acts of faith are building blocks toward the miraculous action of God in saving, redeeming, and restoring the world.
Once I started thinking about sainthood as our response to God’s invitation to participate, I began to saints popping up all over the place. Some examples were really small while others are life altering. On Wednesday evening, I ran across a small story from a high school friend, Jodie, who shared the story of her daughter on trick-or-treat night. At about 7:30 Wednesday night, they found that someone had cleaned out the “Please Take One” candy bowl on their front porch. A few kids were still out and about, and when the door bell rang, her daughter went to the door with her own trick-or-treat bag and handed her candy to the last few kids who came to the door. It may not seem like much, but Saint Riley participated in God’s miracles of resurrection by sharing her joy with others. Then there is the example of New York City Police Officer, Arthur Kasrzak, who, having helped seven family members to the safety of the attic, drowned taking one last look in the basement as Hurricane Sandy filled his Staten Island home with water. Sometimes, participating in the kingdom is a small act, while other times, it is life altering.
Each of us, if we take the time to look, has dozens of opportunities to take part in miracles every week. God places opportunities to exercise our sainthood in front of us “in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea.” Where is God inviting you to help perform a miracle? How is God inviting you to exercise sainthood? When have you missed the chance to place a building block in the Kingdom of God? We all have a roll to play: be it high and lofty, or down and dirty, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too. Amen.
1http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=636 (accessed 10/30/12).