01 November 2009

Sermon for All Saints Day - "On Sainthood"

What is a saint?

Would you consider Lazarus a saint? He’s listed among the commemorations our church observes, according to the list in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. On July 29th, we remember Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, all three of whom figure large in the gospel of John. So the ‘official’ word from the church is that, yes, Lazarus is a saint, as are Mary and Martha. But what do we know of Lazarus that would suggest he is a saint? The Roman Catholic church believes Lazarus, Mary and Martha wound up in Provence, France, and that Lazarus was the first Bishop of Marseille. The Eastern Orthodox church believes Lazarus lived in Cyprus and became the first Bishop of a city called Larnaka. But folks, there are a LOT of bishops in the church, and a great many of them accomplished deeds worthy of commemorations, but the ‘official’ commemorations don’t list very many of them. So if Lazarus is a saint, it isn’t because of the quality of his ministry, whether it was in Cyprus, France or anywhere else.

Now, of course, the traditional answer would be that Lazarus is a saint because he has gone in to the rest of death and waits, like all the beloved dead, for the day when God will fulfill God’s promises about heaven and earth. But here’s the thing: even though Lazarus occupies a special place in the history of the church, that place has not been given to him because of his great works of faith. There are plenty of people who also rest in the sleep of death whose accomplishments have far outstripped Lazarus – wouldn’t we want to consider them saints as well?

No, it seems that Lazarus is not a saint because of who he was or what he did. And he’s not a saint for being dead. So, then, why would we consider Lazarus a saint? The only answer that remains is this: Lazarus was raised from the dead and set free by Jesus. No work of his own to celebrate, no death in which to hide any longer: Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, unremarkable resident of Bethany, is a saint for this one reason: Jesus called him out of death and set him free into life. And if that’s the definition of sainthood, then it isn’t just Lazarus who’s dealing with a new world: you and I will find things changed as well.

A saint is someone who has been raised and set free into new life in Jesus Christ. Period. Don’t believe me? The New Testament is filled to overflowing with words about the ordinary saints God has called into being:

· Second Peter 2.9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

· Acts 9.32-35: 32Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. 33There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. 34Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” And immediately he got up. 35And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

· Ephesians 2.19: 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

· Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians all begin with some variation of this phrase: Paul, an apostle, to those called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What if sainthood isn’t something you earn, and it isn’t what you become after death? What is being a saint is a matter of right here, right now? Peter and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are unified in this belief: we are saints now, in this life, because in his own resurrection Jesus has broken heaven into our world and started, already, the remaking of all creation into the glorious reign of God. And if this is true, then everything changes for us, doesn’t it? The whole world is different as a result. Everything matters a whole lot more.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce, in which he described a picture of life after death. Everyone lives in a grey city, where everything seems washed out and used up, lifeless and drab. But for some reason, there’s a bus that takes people to a place filled with vibrant, terrible life, with huge beasts that cavort and romp around them, where everything is so solid and real that the grass cuts the feet of those who are newly arrived. Some of the folks are terrified in this new place and clamber back onto the bus, going back to the drab world because they can’t stand the reality of the new world. But others come to see that it is themselves who must be changed, and as that happens the new world becomes a place of wonder and delight. I’ve loved this story for years, but I wonder: why would Lewis write it as though it were only after death that it happens? I think that sainthood, in this world, is much the same: terrifying at the start for the vibrancy and depth with which we begin to see the world, but in time, wondrous and beautiful, deeper and wider and more achingly real than we could ever imagine.

I started writing this sermon Friday morning at Café Diem, where I was also waiting to see my daughters come trick-or-treating with their day care groups. It was the first trick-or-treat for Alanna, and the first time Ainsley picked out her own costume, and I wanted to see it happen. There in the coffee house, writing my sermon and waiting for what was to come, it occurred to me that this is really what the life of sainthood is all about. We live in this world, where there is much work to do, work that matters a great deal. Yet we also live with an eye toward the future, knowing that at some point, God will reveal the full creation as it is meant to be, and we will rejoice with gladness as a result. Understanding sainthood doesn’t make this world less important: as God’s saints, we are given new eyes with which to see the world, eyes that recognize the wonder and beauty in the simplest, most ordinary things.

We celebrate the saints today, living and dead. In a few minutes we’ll remember those who have gone before us into death, not necessarily because of their great deeds, but because of the great love with which they lived in our lives. Conversation over a cup of coffee; hugs and kisses at bedtime; shared meals and laughter and tears and prayers: these are the signs of sainthood as much as any miracle, if not more so. And having lived among the saints, we begin to realize that every moment is holy, that life itself is God’s first great gift to the saints. Here in this place, as we remember the baptism that brought us into the community of the saints, as we share the meal where Christ is present for all the saints, the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back and we see that to be a saint is to know, in this moment, that heaven is breaking into this world. Hear now, in this moment, that you are God’s saints, raised out of death and set free in the holy creation of God, now and forever. Amen.

Holy Now

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now

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