We all feebly struggle

A friend of mine from seminary is fond of saying that it is through our hymns the we best articulate our heresies.  His particular point of interest was in the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The herald angels sing” and the line, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see,” which bears the weight of the 2nd century gnostic heresy.  Gnosticism was built on the idea that creation is evil and God is good, and so Jesus couldn’t have actually been both God and human.  Rather, either the Christ was a lesser god that had been sent to earth, or that he was God, veiled in flesh, but not actually incarnated.  Anyway, it fits the meter and is a classic hymn by Charles Wesley, so we sing it every Christmas, without fear.

Another example comes around on All Saints’ Sunday when we sing “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” in the midst of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.”  While not quite rising to the level of heresy, this line tends to add to our misunderstandings about sainthood.  It probably actually means that while we continue to struggle on earth while those who have gone before rest in God’s eternal glory in heaven, but the popular understanding of sainthood has been so muddied by Roman Catholicism that it tends to feed this idea that saints are some sort of other worldly Christians, the likes of which we will never attain.  It is not uncommon for me to be talking with someone about sainthood, be they a regular church-goer or totally de-churched, and they will bring up the need for verifiable miracles, beatifications, and canonization.  These are the things of news stories, as we hear about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa making their way through the process of sainthood after their deaths.

The reaction to this often goes one of two ways.  Some are in awe of the faith and good works that have been done by people like Mother Teresa.  “We feebly struggle, but they in glory shine” indeed.  They are enamored with their religious celebrity and wonder if they could even be half the Christian these saints were in their lives.  More often, the response is confusion.  They’ve read the stories of Teresa’s struggle with doubt or know about John Paul’s role in covering up the child abuse scandals, and wonder how anyone could think of them as better than any of the rest of us.  The most critical response to the concept of sainthood is often tied in with a very popular reason for not going to church these days, “They’re all just hypocrites anyway, preaching one thing and living another.”

My response to this criticism is to admit, readily and fully, that we all feebly struggle.  Whether we are talking about Saint Francis, Mary Magdalene, Howard Surface, or Mary Jo Cook, the life of faith is for all of us, a daily struggle.  As Mother Becca said last week, every morning, as foot hits the floor, we must make the choice to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect, far from it, but it means that as we feebly struggle, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to redeem us, and the Father’s love to sustain us.  The church is full of hypocrites, and the communion of saints is full of them too, which is why we set aside this Feast of All Saints, to give thanks to God for the grace that carries all of us sinners.

We are living in an era in which the news is full of famous men who claim to follow Jesus but seem to have become famous mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Violent misogynists and anti-Semites have become the famous men of our time, and it is the work of the Church this All Saints’ Sunday that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on the righteous and godly women and men who have lived the struggle and “have perished as though they never existed.”

See, what makes you a saint isn’t the amazing things you do, but rather what God is doing through you.  In the New Testament, when Paul writes about the saints, he uses it as a synonym for disciples.  There, he doesn’t even mean those who have already died in the faith, but rather all who have ever sought the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  While it is the custom here at Christ Church to list, by name, the saints of this parish who have died in the past year, the list of saints properly includes all of us as well.  In a deeply counter-cultural move, we name as saints not only those whose names are written on monuments or carried in the news, but also regular folk who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

The reality of All Saints’ Day that the Ecclesiasticus lesson names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have lived in the faith of Christ.  It is especially our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, and those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.  In a world that prefers to name the infamous, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy examples those who might have become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

For we who remain on earth, sometimes feebly struggling to follow the Way of Love, All Saints’ Day is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Gospel.  As Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, so All Saints’ Day challenges us to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world?  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity?  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  With God’s help, these choices must be made daily, if not hour by hour or minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” puts it, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  Dear saints of God, as we walk through the struggle of this great ordeal together, what will you choose?  Will you choose sainthood?  Will you choose blessedness?  Will you, with God’s help, choose the Way of Love in Kingdom of God?  Amen.

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What makes a saint?

Some 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, the common understanding of sainthood is stilly mostly influenced by Roman Catholicism.  We might vaguely know about the need for miracles, or that the process involves steps like beatification and canonization.  These things often cloud the broader understanding of what actually makes a saint.  Rather than it being about religious celebrity or those who have made significant impacts or even those who were martyred for their faith, in the New Testament, sainthood is simply a synonym for discipleship.  When Paul writes about the saints, he isn’t even necessarily talking about those who have died in the faith of Christ, but rather all who have sought the kingdom and its righteousness.

A seminary classmate of mine was fond of saying that our hymns best show our heresies.  This was usually in response to that line in “Hark! the herald angels sing” that invokes the gnostic heresy when it says, “veiled in flesh, the godhead see.”  “For all the saints,” one of the classic All Saints’ hymns might not tip-toe into heresy, but it certainly exacerbates our profoundly misunderstood theology of sainthood in the line, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  Even those saints that we honor with specific feasts like Francis, Nicholas, or Mary Magdalene feebly struggled from time to time.

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The saints of God

The life of faith, the only qualification necessary for the title of saint, is a daily struggle.  It requires us, as Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world.  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity.  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  These choices must be made, with God’s help, daily, if not minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” says, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Dear saints of God, what will you choose this day?

For ALL the saints

It is time for my annual plea for my Episcopal readers to petition their bishops for the use of the old Book of Common Prayer All Saints’ Day lectionary.  I do this not because of my general disdain for the RCL, which I readily embrace, but because, quite honestly, the Ecclesiasticus reading is just too good to miss, and as one of few Protestant denominations that holds the books of the Apocryphal to be sacred texts, we shouldn’t forego an opportunity to read from it.

What makes a random lesson from a random book worth writing the Bishop for?  It is because we need a vibrant and deep understanding of sainthood in times like these.  Our news cycle is full of stores of famous men, mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Daily, we endure an almost constant barrage of the names of men who are famous for doing despicable things.  Violent racists and anti-semites have become the famous men of our time, and it seems reasonable that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on those who “have perished as though they never existed.”

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It is the custom here at Christ Church to hold a service of choral evensong on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day.  During the service, a necrology is read.  There, in the midst of sacred space, in the middle of our worship of Almighty God, we pause to remember those whose names are not written on monuments or carried by the news, but regular folk who have lived their lives seeking the Kingdom of God.

You see, the reality of All Saints’ Day that Ecclesiasticus names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have died in the faith of Christ.  It is our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.

In a world that prefers to name the infamous men, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy exemplars those who might become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

We are All Saints – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


The first time I think I really understood what was happening on All Saints’ Day was actually a few years after I had been ordained, and it came to me while standing in a Christ Episcopal Church, of all places.  It was the evening of all All Saints’ Sunday at Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida.  I had been invited by their Youth Minister to preach and celebrate at their evening service.  Before the service began, we were socializing in the Parish Hall where the walls were lined with pictures of dead, old, white guys.  I read the names, noticing that they appeared not only on the plaques below those pictures, but on buildings, parks, and hospitals around the city.  I took a moment to give thanks for their lives, their witnesses, and their generosity before we moved into the sanctuary for the service.  As I sat in one of the choir stalls, listening to the lessons being read, I was deeply moved by the lesson from Ecclesiasticus, a wisdom book from the Apocryphal, a set of texts written between the Old and New Testaments that are included in some Bibles.

I was initially taken aback by the lack of gender inclusive language, which is odd in the New Revised Standard Version.  “Let us now sing the praises of famous men” caught my ears, even as I had missed it in reading the passage all week, and I heard the whole text in a new way.  I listened as the author spoke of their majesty, valor, and intelligence, and I thought about those pictures in the Parish Hall.  I heard tell of musical talents, skilled writers, and great resources, and I pondered the names etched on plaques installed on pews, organs, windows, classrooms, and sacred vessels in the several congregations I had served.  I pondered the reality that we very often, if not constantly, are singing the praises of famous men, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, why we needed All Saints’ Day to add to that ongoing and generational honoring.  And then, as if for the first time, I heard these words, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

And suddenly, All Saints’ Day made sense to me.  Yes, today we take the time to honor and remember all those saints whose names live on forever, but even more so, we take the time to recall all the myriad saints who may not be remembered by name, but whose example lives on in the hearts and minds of faithful disciples from generation to generation.

Common usage of the word saint makes us automatically think of the beatification and canonization process in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Our minds tend to immediately go to the need for a couple of miracles as we contemplate why hardware stores need Saint Sabastian to be their patron or how Saint Isadore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet.[1] What we lose in all that is the reality that sainthood, both biblically and etymologically means nothing more than being a follower of Jesus.  At the beginning of several of his letters, Saint Paul addresses his audience as saints.  The Greek word he used is hagios, which means “to be set apart” or “holy,” and in every instance, Paul uses it to describe all the followers of Jesus in a place.  “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…”[2]  “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”[3]  “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus…”[4]  The examples go on.  What we learn from Paul’s use of the word hagios, is that in the early church, the concept of sainthood was not reserved for the especially religious, nor even for the dead, but in fact, all of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord are included among the saints.  Etymologically, our English word “saint” follows this pattern.  It comes, as most churchy words do, from a Latin word, sanctus, which is the translation of hagios.  We are the saints of God because we are set apart, and made holy, not of our own doing, but by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

This all comes together beautifully today as we 1) celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, 2) Baptize Merritt and Brody, and 3) give thanks for another successful stewardship campaign.  Both this morning and at Evensong tonight, we will name before God saints whom we have loved but see no longer.  Some of these saints truly are famous men and women, legends in their own time.  Others were the quiet sort, busy doing the work of building the Kingdom in ways that many of us will never know.  All of them had their flaws.  None would have accomplished sainthood on their own, and yet each of them held fast to their faith in Jesus.

As we look back on the saints who have built Christ Church in Bowling Green to be what it is today, we also look forward with hope for what we are to become, with God’s help.  [At 10 o’clock] this morning, we welcome two brand new saints into the body of Christ.  We will join with Brody and Merrit in taking the vows of sainthood as the Episcopal Church as interpreted them.  We will promise to remain a part of this community in worship, fellowship, and prayer.  We will commit to working toward the restoration of all relationships by resisting evil, sharing the Good News, loving our neighbors, and striving for justice and peace.  In our prayers, we will seal them with the Holy Spirit and mark them as forever set apart in Christ Jesus.  Today we make Brody and Merritt saints, not because of anything they have done or by anything we can do, but by the grace of God and in keeping with the commandment of Jesus to teach and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Finally, then, we celebrate the commitment of saints, both now and in ages past, who have made a financial contribution to the ongoing work of building the Kingdom as the Christ Episcopal Church Bowling Green branch of the Jesus Movement.  With the help of saints whose names we remember like Porter Sims and the Gaines, Cole, and Covington families, we are able to enjoy some flexibility when it comes to our finances here, but the vast majority of the work we do is because of saints whose names we may never know who give faithfully and sacrificially, some twenty dollars a week and others tens of thousands of dollars a year, to the building up of the kingdom of God right here in Bowling Green.  For the faithful stewardship of saints past, saints present, and saints to come, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we give thanks.

All Saints’ Day is a powerful reminder that we are not in this discipleship thing alone.  The path we walk has been walked by countless others who through faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, excitement and apathy, have called on Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby have been set apart as holy and blessed.  Today, as we welcome Merritt and Brody into the communion of saints, as we commit financially to another year of walking together, and as we remember both the “famous men [and women]” and “those who perished as though they had never existed,” I am grateful to be walking this journey with each of you, my fellow saints, in the path of God’s beloved children.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.aggiecatholicblog.org/2012/09/top-20-odd-patronages-of-saints/

[2] Romans 1:7

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:2

[4] Ephesians 1:1

The Great Multitude

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“After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

The Revelation of John gets short shrift in many Episcopal circles.  It shows up on nine different Sundays in the three year lectionary cycle, an average of three times a year, but I can probably count on none fingers the number of times I’ve heard Revelation preached on a Sunday.  If I’ve heard it, it was probably in the context of the Burial Office wherein the latter half of Sunday’s lesson (in the BCP lectionary) is one of the six recommended New Testament lessons.  I say all this not to condemn my fellow preachers, but to convict myself as well, since over the last decade, I’ve been preaching roughly 50% of the Sundays every year.

I wonder why we are so Revelation averse?  It probably has something to do with the wider Christian culture’s seeming obsession with it.  Episcopalians tend to shy away from stuff that makes us seem “like them,” to our detriment.  Even more likely is the reality that we just don’t have much training in the topic.  Seminary electives on apocalyptic literature, while available, are probably taught every three years, and are certainly scarcely registered for.  With such vivid imagery, most of which must be taken metaphorically, it seems downright dangerous to tackle Revelation not having done your homework.  So, rather than take the time to dig in, we opt for safer texts like Ecclesiasticus, 1 John, or Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes.

If ever there was a safe Sunday on which a preacher might tackle some of the broader themes in Revelation, All Saints’ Sunday might be it.  We are already dabbling in that place where we can’t speak from any real knowledge.  Though we say, every Sunday (I hope), that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, it is hard to really grasp what that means.  So, when faced with a lesson in which John is given a glimpse of the heavenly city, with the great multitude that no one could count gathered around the throne, maybe we take shot at it, confessing that no one really knows what it means to be a part of the Church Triumphant, and yet giving thanks for the millions of Christians who have paved the way for us to one day take our place in that heavenly chorus that shouts “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

For me, the image of the Great Multitude is a comforting one, as I ponder not only those great heroes of the faith who are included, but the countless number of faithful disciples whose faith has impacted my own, without either of us knowing it.  I think of the arthritic hands I’ve seen knitting prayer shawls, the careful reverence of a pall being placed upon a casket, the hours priests have spent in their studies crafting sermons, and the hundreds of breakfast casseroles I’ve consumed over the years.  I think of faithful volunteers in elementary schools, food pantries, Sunday liturgies, and backpack blessings.  I think of all those folks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, I give thanks for their dedication, and I look forward to that day when I don my white rob and take my place before the throne to join the chorus, making a joyful noise for the Lord of our salvation.

For all the saints who from their labors rest

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via CatholicLane.com (I really hope Popes wear the triple tiara in heaven)

One of the peculiarities of the life and ministry of an ordained minister is the role that place plays in one’s ministry.  Having taken a new call at the first of this year, I am no longer a priest in Foley, AL, but a priest in Bowling Green, KY.  This means a lot of things.  Personally, it means that the beach is no longer ten minutes away, fresh seafood is not readily available, and October mornings in the 30s.  Professionally, what has struck me most profoundly is the immediate switching on and off of pastoral relationships.

While I still pray for and love the people of Saint Paul’s, I am not longer their pastor.  In a social media world, it means being very careful about how I reach out to posts of illness and loss.  It means that I won’t officiate the funerals of people with whom I had long and fruitful relationships.  On the other hand, here in Bowling Green, the move means an immediate beginning to relationships.  I step in to long-term health issues, family dynamics, and restorations.  Reasonably, it takes a while to build these relationships, and sometimes, life short-circuits them.  Officiating funerals in the early stages of one’s tenure is an interesting experience.  I may not know the deceased at all, perhaps we only met a few times, maybe health problems meant that even if we did meet, we were never really able to know each other.

While I may not be able to offer the same sort of personal reflection that I used to in Foley, my role these days isn’t all that different than it once was, to share the good news of the hope of the resurrection in Christ Jesus.  My job at a funeral is to offer thanks to God “for all the saints, who from their labors rest,” while at the same time ensuring that even in our grief the name of “Jesus be for ever blessed” and highlight “their rock, their fortress, and their might.”  Because in the end, the Feast of All Saints’ is less about the millions who have followed the way of Jesus, even Popes in triple tiaras, but the Savior whom they followed in life and in whose rest they now live eternally.

Happy All Saints’ Day, dear reader!

Holy and Blessed

You might recall that last week, we heard the LORD instruct Moses to inform the Hebrews that they “should be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”   You might also remember that I read that commandment from God in a pretty hard-line sort of way. We ought take these words from God seriously, and strive for holiness, while understanding that it is simply impossible to do it on our own.  I doubt that the guys-drinking-scotch-in-a-smoke-filled-room who settled on the Revised Common Lectionary had it in mind, but this Track Two Old Testament lesson for Proper 25, Year A prepares us nicely for the Gospel lesson on the transferred Feast of All Saints’.

This Sunday, we return to the Sermon on the Mount and lesson we heard way back in Epiphany.  Jesus, seeing that a crowd is beginning to gather around him and his message, hits the pause button and invites his closest companions to come up the mountainside for a crash course in the basics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The lesson appointed for All Saints’ (BCP and RCL) is the opening salvo in that message of hope, grace, and love, and it is, quite simply, as mind-blowingly impossible as last week’s mountaintop conversation between God and Moses.

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This week, instead of focusing on holiness, the message of God is pointed toward blessedness.  Sometimes translated as “happy,” this ideal that Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is a helpful one as we consider what it means to be included in the list of the saints of God.  We who are called to be holy, with God’s help, are, also by the grace of God, able to find happiness and contentment, to receive blessedness, when we find ourselves poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering for righteousness.  That is, when we are most aware that the world is not as God intended it to be, we are also the most blessed, able to see the world through the eyes of God.  Equally so, when we are merciful, pure in heart, working for peace, and even suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake, we find ourselves blessed.  In our work to fulfill the baptismal covenant (All Saints’ is a proper Baptismal feast, after all), we find the purpose for which we were created.

As with holiness, blessedness is not something we can accomplish on our own, which might be the first and only real lesson we need to learn about sainthood.  It is all grace, which, come to think of it, would work quite well for those who are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Wittenberg Door as well.