Not the Time for Rest – a sermon

Today’s sermon, which includes the announcement of my new call to Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY, is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


At some point over the past year my favorite All Saints’ Day hymn changed.  I’m not when or how it happened, but this week, when I found myself humming a hymn to myself it wasn’t “I sing a song of the saints of God” as it has been for many years now.  Instead, I’ve fallen in love with our opening hymn [at 10 o’clock this morning], “For all the saints.”  I am particularly drawn to the opening line: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…”  Especially this week, as I’ve been coming to grips with the massive amount of change that will happen in my life, and your lives, and our collective life, I’ve found myself giving thanks for the saints who have gone to rest, but I’m also finding renewed motivation to get up and go. I’m feeling like now is not the time to rest, but to go forth and make a difference in the world for the sake of Jesus, which is my word for all of us this morning.  We are not called to be saints who from their labors rest, but saints on the march, moving ever forward to confess the name of Jesus Christ to a world full of people who desperately need to hear that God loves them more than they can even begin to imagine.

As many of you have read or heard by now, this week I accepted a call to serve as the next Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  You will be stuck with me for another couple of months, but I can’t help but already be thinking about what sort of imprint I hope my ministry will leave on Saint Paul’s in Foley, and I think it is summed up well in the lessons for All Saints’ Day, especially the lesson from the Book of Ecclesiasticus.  Not that I hope to be counted among the “famous men,” if my picture never goes up in that hall of horrors it’ll be all right with me, but because I hope that our common life together will be recalled not by the names of who did this or that, but based on the work that we have accomplished together for the sake of the Gospel.  Someday, there may be no memory of any of us; we may perish as though we never existed, but the impact that Saint Paul’s in Foley has had on the world around us will never be forgotten.

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I have caught myself this week giving thanks for the saints who have adopted the students of Foley Elementary School as their own.  Whether it was teaching kindergartners their ABC, entering hundreds of students’ immunization records into the nurse’s computer, riding the Zamboni-like floor cleaning machine, making copies, escorting kids here there and everywhere, or simply providing clean socks, underwear, pencils, and paper, there are thousands of children who have had the chance at a quality education because of Saint Paul’s in Foley.

The saints who have volunteered with Family Promise also came to mind.  Whether you donated money to buy lunch meat, cooked spaghetti, ordered pizza, or spent a sleepless night on a less than comfortable cot in the Mission House, dozens of families: mommies, daddies, and especially their precious little ones, have been able to get back on their feet and find the dignity and strength that comes from having stable living conditions because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to take a risk.

Then there are the saints who spend their Thanksgiving eve and day volunteering with Turkey Take-Out.  Those who are up before the sun to prep birds, cook them, carve them, scoop potatoes and pack meals; Those who donated thousands of pounds of canned goods, and did the hard work of sorting them and packing them for delivery; Those who got up early on Thanksgiving morning to deliver meals, hopefully not getting lost along the way, in neighborhoods that appeared too nice to have hungry families and those that looked too scary for children to live there; and then gathered here at 10am to give thanks to God for his many blessings.  Thousands of hungry families have been able to enjoy a proper Thanksgiving Dinner because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to say “yes” when Dr. Lawrence called.

And how could I fail to give thanks for all the saints who give of their time, talent, and treasure to make sure that the members of this parish are able to pray, worship, serve, and share the love of God together? The office volunteers who covered for Karla and Penny, the Sunday School and Follow the Word Teachers, the readers, prayers, chalice bearers, choir members, kneeler vacuumers, altar guild members, torch bearers, cleaning teams, weed pullers, EYC leaders, swing set builders, ditch maintainers, check writers, and more cooks than you can begin to imagine.  Each week, we are able to gather in praise and worship to deepen our relationship with God here at Saint Paul’s because of saints who are willing to do the work of the gospel inside and outside these walls.

It is right and honorable to spend time on All Saints’ Day remembering those saints who now rest from their labors, but I am of the firm belief that it is just as right and honorable to spend some time giving thanks for those saints who are still hard at work spreading the love of God in a world that desperately needs it.  Today I give thanks for the almost 10 years we have, as the collect for today says, been knit together in fellowship, and the ineffable joys that have come along with it.  Now is not the time to be saints at rest, but rather today begins a new task: the work of saying goodbye, of planning for the future, and of offering to Almighty God thanks and praise for the saints at work and the saints at rest who confess the name and love of Jesus here in Foley, Alabama.  May God bless our work: past, present, and future; to his honor and glory.  Amen.

Happy Saints

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Faustina Kowalska was a nun in Poland during the first third of the 20th century.  She is remembered for her visions of Jesus as the King of Divine Mercy, and I knew nothing about her until I did a google search this morning for “happy saints.”  As you can see from the photograph, St. Faustina carried a countenance of joy.  This might be surprising to many who grew up with stern nuns in parochial school; even more so when one comes to learn that she suffered from Tuberculosis for the final eight years of her short life (she died at 33).

St. Faustina is remembered as the Patron Saint of Mercy, which is the basis of the little cartoon from happysaints.com.  As you can see, the button made in remembrance of her includes one of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel, which is the version appointed in the old Book of Common Prayer lectionary for All Saints’ Day.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed” sounds nice and religious, but it really isn’t what Matthew tells us that Jesus said during his Sermon on the Mount.  The Greek word “makarios” is better translated as “happy.”  Being a saint of God means something more than dour blessedness, it means a life of joy, living fully into the calling of God that is unique to each and every one of us. This is what makes the Beatitudes so powerful. Jesus takes circumstances which we would not normally associate with joy, and turns them upside down.  When God is there, being poor in spirit is a reason to rejoice.  With God’s comfort, even mourning is an opportunity for joy.  When we reach out in mercy, we find the joy of reciprocity.

Being a saint means following God’s will for your life, which should, by its very nature, be an opportunity for joy.  Alternatively, if you aren’t finding joy in the work you are doing to build of the Church and God’s Kingdom, then you haven’t found God’s will for you yet.  Spend some time searching out your spiritual gifts.  Listen for God’s small, still voice to guide you.  Be attuned to your emotions.  It really is God’s will that you should find happiness, even in hardship: happiness in service to God and neighbor.  That, it seems to me, is what sainthood is all about.

 

Knit Together

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I am not a knitter.  I don’t crochet.  I did a macrame piece in art class once, but I’m not sure I even remember what that means anymore.  Still, the leading image of the Collect for All Saints’ Day is not lost on me, even if I don’t know how to knit.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Being an Episcopalian, even though I don’t knit, I’ve been around a lot of knitters.  In seminary, folks would knit through class.  I chose to take notes, but who’s to say who’s right or wrong.  I’ve watched folks knit through meetings, through Bible Studies, and even in prayer.  I’ve seen knitters work meticulously on a pattern, only to have to rip out a whole row for lack of a single purl.

I’ve witnessed, first hand, how difficult it can be to hold a pattern together, which I think is why I love the Collect for All Saints’ Day so much.  Because the church is full of people, life in the church is not easy.  It requires care and attention to hold all the competing forces together.  Occasionally, it might require backing up a few steps because of a knit too many or, more often, a purl too few.  In the long run, however, the hard and painstaking work of knitting together the beautiful afghan that is the church is so very much worth it.

On the Feast of All Saints, we celebrate the work that God has done throughout the generations to ensure that the Good News of Jesus Christ continues to be lived out.  We remember fondly, sometimes, but not always, the saints who have devoted their lives to the witness of the Gospel.  We recall the giants, Saints with a capital S, but also those who died as though they never existed (more on that tomorrow).  We remember the clergy whose sermons inspired us; the Sunday School teachers whose felt board skills enthralled us; the kitchen helpers whose baked good energized us; and the servants of God of all ages and varieties who have worked behind the scenes to make the Good News of Jesus Christ known.

Like knitting, the church doesn’t just happen.  It requires care, love, and a whole lot of passion to make it happen, and as we celebrate All Saints’ Day this week, I give thanks for the opportunity to be a stitch in the larger tapestry of the Kingdom of God.

Seeing the Glory of God

Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

The raising of Lazarus strikes me as an odd lesson for the Feast of All Saints.  It brings with it all sorts of baggage around prayer, belief, and why God won’t keep/raise my loved one from death.  It occurs before our passage begins, but there is also that whole deal about Jesus delaying his trip to visit Lazarus while he is sick.  It seems to me that it invites a whole lot of sloppy exegesis by unprepared preachers, which is why I prefer the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary for All Saints’ Day.  The Beatitudes seem so well suited for a sermon on all the saints, as does, in my less than humble opinion, the lesson from Ecclesiasticus.  Perhaps there will be more on that tomorrow (nb. I know I’m failing in the blogging depart as of late.  I promise you, it’ll get back to normal soon).

Still, there is that bit in the Lazarus lesson where Jesus invites Martha to simply believe and see the glory of God that does seem well suited for a tricky feast like All Saints’.  We all struggle to keep the faith from time to time.  One thing that all the saints of God have in common is that, from time to time, we all have doubts and distractions that creep in and blind us (hence John’s reference back to Jesus healing the man born blind in chapter 9), keeping us from being able to see the glory of God as it is revealed in the miraculous and the mundane.

That blindness comes in many forms.  For me, over the past few weeks, it is been good old fashioned busyness that has kept me from taking the time to see God’s hand at work in the world around me.  Sometimes, like in the case of Martha and Mary, it is grief that keeps us blind to God’s steadfast love.  Maybe it is anger, depression, doubt, or any number of other distractions that have closed your eyes to the glory of God.  Jesus promises us that all we have to do is believe, which to me means, since I’m neck deep in James for the real life Draughting Theology, that we have to act as if until our eyes our open again.

Sometimes the life of faith really is just going through the motions of daily prayer and study, even to the point of forcing ourselves to engage the practices of devotion.  It is in continuing those habits that God will bless us with eye opening experiences.  It is in the routine of prayer and scripture reading that we relearn how to see God’s glory, that we learn to slow down and really look, that we come to understand what God’s hand at work really looks like.  May God bless you with open eyes, dear reader, and when they go blind, may he continue to show his glory to you in the habits of the faithful.

Our Sainthood Problem – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon for All Saints’ Sunday is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem.  The problem started somewhere in the late 1970s, when for the first time since 1549 and Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer, the Church decided to add names to its calendar.  With the exception of a few years during the reigns of Edward and Mary, for the better part of 430 years, the calendar of the Church included only a handful of Saints, each of whom, at the very least, were mentioned in the New Testament.  Because of the overall lack of saints in Anglicanism, the void was filled by the overwhelming number of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church.  Most us, whether we were ever Roman Catholic or not, default to the sainthood model that requires two verifiable miracles that occur after the person’s death.  Many of us are also familiar with the patronage of saints, like Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes; Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers; and Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things.  What is often overlooked is the fact that of the three, only Saint Jude actually appears on The Episcopal Church’s calendar.  We talk with affection about Saint Francis and Saint Patrick, but neither is actually titled a saint in The Episcopal Church.  If you read the most recent stuff coming out of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, it is clear that our problem with sainthood is that we are still struggling to figure out what sainthood means.

With that in mind, and in preparation for today’s All Saints’ celebration, I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to answer the question, “What makes a saint?”  I’ve come up with this definition, “A saint is a disciple of Jesus who strives to live into the Kingdom of God.”  The first thing you’ll notice is that this definition is in the present tense.  You don’t have to be dead to be a saint.  In fact, if you are waiting until you die to become a saint, you’re doing it wrong and you’ll probably never get there.  The Apostle Paul uses the word saint forty-one times in his letters.  Every single time, it is used to refer to the living, not the dead.  In fact, he uses it not in reference to special people doing extraordinary things for the Gospel, but as a way of describing everyone who follows Jesus as Lord and Savior.

So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  We could look to last week’s gospel lesson and say quite simply that following Jesus means loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, but as comforting as those words are, I feel like we need to hear more about what that look likes in real life.  Certainly we could point to the Baptismal Covenant and say that following Jesus means believing in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; being a member of a worshipping, praying, and learning community; striving to resist evil, but falling back on the grace of God when we fall short; sharing the Good News of the Kingdom; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice, peace, and dignity for all of Creation.  But if we wanted even more, there is no better place to turn than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

This morning’s Gospel lesson comes from the very beginning of that most famous sermon.  As news of Jesus spread far and wide, the crowds that followed grew larger and larger, until one day, Jesus climbed up a mountainside, sat down, and began to teach the saints what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  From Matthew 5:1 through to chapter 7, verse 29, Jesus teaches his followers about being salt and light, about judging others and loving our enemies, about prayer, fasting, and stewardship, and he sums up his teaching with the Golden Rule saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”[1]  His teaching begins, not like Moses’ mountainside sermon with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but with a description of what Kingdom people look like, and it is a very surprising and rag-tag bunch indeed: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted and reviled for following Jesus.  Being a saint means following Jesus into all sorts of unexpected situations in thanksgiving for the love of God showered upon us.

During his sermon on Wednesday, Keith shared a short poem by Nobel Prize winning author and poet, Rabi[ndranath] Tagore that in three short lines sums up sainthood for me:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted, and behold, service was joy

Sainthood is a life lived in the joy of service.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.  It doesn’t mean we have it all together. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel burnt out or tired or frustrated from time to time. It means, as I said before, that saints find joy in striving for the kingdom.  Saints do their best and let God do the rest.  The history of Christianity is full of saints who weren’t perfect but found joy in serving a God who is.

Take the much beloved Francis for example. He was the son of a rich and powerful family who had rich and powerful friends and, for a while at least, lived a rich and powerful lifestyle. As his spiritual devotion grew, so did his discomfort with his worldly lifestyle until his own Father took him to court to try to force him to remain in the family business. It was only then that Francis finally threw off all the trappings of his old life, literally stripping naked in front of the court proceedings, and vowed a life of poverty. The sainthood of Francis came in fits and starts, but it was his faithfulness and joy in service that eventually led him into ever deeper commitment to the kingdom.

The same can be said for all of us, I think. Our slow progress toward sainthood has its ups and downs, two steps forward and three back sometimes, but in the end it is in the striving that we become blessed, that we become holy, that we become saints.  As I thought about our sainthood problem, the names of saints who continue to strive after the kingdom came flooding into my mind.  There’s Bernice and Esther, who give up their Sunday mornings to make sure our youngest members know that God loves them; Franklin who, among other things, ensures that our fellowship is joyful with plenty of donuts; and Carol who was here at the crack of dawn this morning to make sure the altar was properly set for the Feast of All Saints’. There’s Lyle’ who in between teaching her young sons to read, write, and ‘rithamtic, shares the never ending stream of activities going on here through the E-Pistle; Stan who drives all over God’s creation picking up day old bread to feed the hungry; and Cassie who not only coordinates Follow the Word but puts up with me as well.  There’s Doris and Pem who drive 30 miles each way to come worship with their church family no matter how ugly the weather might be; John and Ruth who redefine what it means to find joy in the service if others; and Jim who with the faithfulness of a grandfather clock shows up at Foley Elementary to help children learn their abc’s. The list could go on and on, and it includes each one of you who gives of your time, your talent, and your treasure to build the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem, but it most certainly doesn’t lack for saints, I can guarantee that. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”[2]  Amen.

[1] Mt 7.12

[2] Lesbia Scott, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

What makes a saint? IV

Having run out of Naked Gun movies to reference in my titles, I thought I’d let the Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Talley, late Professor of Liturgics at the General Theological Seminary, bring this week long exploration of sainthood full circle.  The Rev. Dr. Talley has the distinct honor of being the only person, other than Luke the Evangelist and the Apostle Paul, to be quoted in the Criteria or Principles for Revision of the Episcopal Church Calendar.  He first makes an appearance in the 2006 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts as the guiding principles were changed during the 2006 General Convention in preparation for 2009’s Holy Women, Holy Men.  His quote falls under the heading “Memorability” in 2006 and 2009 and is included in the SCLM’s proposal for A Great Cloud of Witnesses under the heading “Range of Inclusion.”  With what I can only assume is a nod to the old Ecclesiasticus lesson of the BCP Lectionary, the SCLM writes:

“In order to celebrate the whole history of salvation, it is important also to include those ‘whose memory may have faded in the shifting fashions of public concern, but whose witness is deemed important to the life of the Church’ (Thomas Talley)” (HWHM).

I couldn’t agree more.  For a Church that up until 1979 included only those Saints whose names could be found in the New Testament, The Episcopal Church has worked hard over the last three-and-a-half decades to find appropriate ways to remember those whose lives, witness, and ministry have altered the course of Christianity.  We still only give the title “saint” to a very small handful of Biblical souls (not even the great Francis is called a Saint on our calendar), but, by and large, we have done a decent job of lifting up godly women and men who offer examples of kingdom living in a myriad of different contexts.

For me, however, the goal of All Saints’ Day isn’t to remember those who have been given space on the Calendar, but instead to lift up those “whose memory may have faded” or “who died as though they never existed” and most especially, those who this very day are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  All Saints’ Day is a day to celebrate all the saints, which is why, despite the somewhat hokey lyrics and childlike melody, it is the third verse of Lesbia Scott’s hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” that, in my opinion, does the heaviest theological lifting on All Saints’ Day.

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The 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;
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

What makes a saint? 33&1/3: The Final Insult

As part of my study for this week’s All Saints’ sermon, I’m rereading the “Principles of Revision” for the calendar of The Episcopal Church with a special interest into how it has changed over the past decade.  I’m comparing the Principles from the 2006 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts; Holy Women, Holy Men; and the proposed A Great Cloud of Witnesses.  First and foremost, it should be noted that a criteria for consideration in any of the three texts, one must be dead, though the latest incarnation does drop the 50 year requirement in favor of “a reasonable period of time.”  Sorry Archbishop Tutu, you need not apply. (For more on the dead thing, see yesterday’s post)

What strikes me, and I am not alone in this, is the shift, beginning with HWHM in 2009, away from the requirement that all those remembered on the calendar must be Christians.  In Principle #2, Christian Discipleship, in HWHM, it still states, as it did in 2006 LFF that “Baptism is… a necessary prerequisite for inclusion on the Calendar.”  This was not the case in practice however when they chose to include all four of the Dorchester Chaplains on February 3rd, including Alexander D. Goode, Rabbi and Chaplain in the United States Army who died trying to save the lives of the men aboard the USAT Dochester which was struck by a U-Boat torpedo on February 2, 1943.

Since then, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has suggested a change in policy such that “There may be occasional exceptional cases where not all of [the baptismal] promises are successfully kept, or when the person in question is not  Christian, yet the person’s life and work still significantly impacts the ongoing life of the church an contributes to our fuller understanding of the Gospel.”

We can argue whether or not these four soldiers who doing their jobs are more worthy of recognition than any others, but that’s not of interest to me here.  What is of interest to me is the changing narrative of faithful living and of sainthood.  As I noted yesterday, Paul uses the word “saint” 41 times in the NRSV, and it always refers to the whole body of the faithful, those committed to the love and service of Jesus Christ.  I have no doubt that Rabbi Goode had heroic faith, what else would have allowed him to remove his own life jacket and hand it to someone else, but what service does it do him to be included on a calendar ostensibly reserved for faithful Christians?  Isn’t this just a step or two away from the Mormon’s posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims?  It seems to me that these brave men, Rabbi Goode chief among them, can be remembered for their heroism without requiring a place on a calendar which is commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as the calendar of saints.  Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m of the opinion that at the very least, faith in Christ should be a requirement of Christian sainthood.

What makes a saint? Part Deux

Yesterday, I began to ponder my sermon for All Saints’ Day by asking the question we’ve been struggling with at the real life Draughting Theology for weeks now, “What makes a saint anyway?”  This morning, the question is still on my mind, especially after reading Evan Garner’s take on it, in which he suggests that the Beatitudes are the place to begin thinking about sainthood.  “Saints are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled,” he writes, “God’s message to them turns their condition on its head: ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'”

This is all well and good, except I think that perhaps Evan misses one key point – saints don’t have to be dead.  To be fair to my good friend and brilliant colleague, almost everyone forgets this because, as I said yesterday, we’ve been so conditioned by the Roman Catholic idea of captial “S” Sainthood.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the Pauline letters include the word “saint” in its singular or plural form 41 times and every time it is used to describe Christians who are living and breathing with dual citizenship on earth and in the Kingdom of God.

Sainthood isn’t about the great reward waiting for us in heaven, it is about bringing heaven to earth right now.  We don’t blink an eye when someone suggests that Desmond Tutu is a saint, so why do we have such a hard time thinking of ourselves that way?  The Church would do well to remind her members of their sainthood early on.  Paul doesn’t hesitate to call the Christians in Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessolonica saints and then call them to live into that reality.  Here’s where those beatitudes come in, but instead of rejoicing in the great reward in heaven, we rejoice in knowing that we have brought heaven to earth, if only for a fleeting moment.  We rejoice in knowing that we have responded to the call to work alongside our creator in making Creation a better, more sacred, place.  We rejoice in knowing that we are saints, right here and right now.

a saint hard at work sorting canned goods for the hungry at Turkey Take-Out 2013

A saint hard at work sorting canned goods for the hungry at Turkey Take-Out 2013

What Makes a Saint?

This fall, in the real life version of Draughting Theology we’re discussing the question “What makes a saint anyway?” This question is hard to distinguish from “What makes a Saint anyway?” and we find ourselves slipping back and forth between the two.  Several of our members are former Roman Catholics, a few of whom attended parochial school.  Most of our members are life long Protestants and Anglicans.  Yet all of us have been impacted by the Roman model of sainthood what with the miracles and all that fun stuff.  We try hard to avoid that narrow road, but it at least gets a mention every week.

With all that in mind, I’m beginning to prepare to preach All Saints’ Day this week and more than ever, I’m drawn to the Old Testament (Apocraphyl) passage from the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:1-10,13-14.

Let us now sing the praises of famous men [and women], our ancestors in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles;those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes–all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. 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 [women and] men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.

What makes a saint?  Surely, there are those famous women and men who we remember with varying degrees of admiration.  We recall with great fondness those who carry the title “Saint” like Francis, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  We honor with lesser feasts those lesser saints like Hilda of Whitby, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Phillips Brooks.  And on one day of the year, we recall “all the saints who from their labors rest” like Mary whose funeral we celebrated here not too long ago.  The one thing that each of these had in common is their commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Some were called to heroic sacrifice, some were called to bring the Church forward in wisdom, and some were called to sell homemade jelly with a smile and the love of God on their lips, but all were called by God to righteousness for the sake of the Gospel, which is, at the very least, a starting place on the pathway to sainthood.

All Saints Feebly Struggle – a sermon

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.