A Sermon For All Saints, Year ABC
Copyright © 2009 Nathan L. Bostian
I bring good news from the fabled land beyond Perkins, beyond midterms, beyond papers, beyond Credos, beyond internship, and even beyond graduation: There is light at the end of the tunnel my brothers and sisters!
If I made it through, you can too! Really… Ask my professors. And I made it through with my sanity intact. Sort of. Well, I did made it through.
Today we come together to celebrate that rare and elusive creature in Christian culture: The Saint. Or, to be more exact, all Saints. Every single one of them.
In fact, you could say that today we come together to celebrate those who stand at a far bigger podium and say to us:
"We bring good news from the fabled land beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond trials, and even beyond tribulations: There is Light at the end of the tunnel brothers and sisters!
And if we made it through, you can too!"
In fact, in the readings for our Feast Day in the Revised Common Lectionary, I think we find this theme woven throughout the texts: The idea that there IS hope, there IS something beyond the struggles we face now... There IS a final "graduation", so to speak.
Whatever else may be said about our reading from Revelation- and there is A LOT that could be said- it is clear that the author wants to assure us that those who live AND die in Christ will have a place with God and all the saints.
A place where God, in all of God's fullness, will finally be at home among humanity, dwelling with the saints forever, as God "wipes every tear from their eyes" so that "death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
And whatever else may be said about the Gospel reading from John- and there is A LOT that could be said there too- it is clear that John wants to show us that Jesus has the power to assure us of this hope.
Jesus is revealed as the embodiment of the Love that is stronger than death, a Love that can literally summon the dead back to life. Jesus is the one who makes concrete, tangible, and accessible this hope for something beyond death, beyond suffering, beyond "normal" life.
And while this hope for our final "graduation" is all good, and true, and beautiful, I think it misses something important to our celebration of All Saints. Because Saints are not just a kind of "down payment" for an eventual life with Christ BEYOND this life.
Even more importantly, Saints are an invitation to Christ-likeness in THIS life.
Saints are notorious examples of conspicuous sanctity. Saints show us glimpses of what can happen when Jesus really takes hold in a person, and the Christ-life begins to take over.
Above all, Saints are lovers. Passionate lovers. Head over heels lovers. People crazy in love with God, and crazy to share God's Love with everyone they can.
Can you imagine what would really happen if the all-consuming Love of God were to burn within your heart?
Can you imagine what it might be like if the Life that brought Lazarus back from the dead began to resurrect the dead parts of your life?
Can you imagine what might happen if Jesus were to look straight into YOUR face and speak the words "Unbind her, and let her go!"
Well, if you can imagine such a thing, I confess your imagination is a bit bigger than mine. Because I can't imagine it. Not on my own.
But saints help with that. What I cannot imagine, God can. And what God imagines, God does. And I see THAT in the lives of the great Saints- those women and men who have burned with the passion of Christ's undying Love.
Most of us here know that, in one sense, we are all saints. Saints with a small "s". Scripture and Christian tradition says that all of God's people are "set apart", "consecrated", "sanctified", and "made holy". And that is what saint means: A set apart, sanctified, consecrated, holy one of God.
But, unless we are blind, it is clear to see that some of us are better at living into this than others. All God's children are saints with a small "s", but we recognize those who are exceptionally Christlike with a capital "S".
It is these men and women- these Saints with a capital "S"- who claim our imagination, as we try to envision what the Christ-life looks like lived out.
In fact, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Saint is actually CS Lewis' definition of what a Christian is. For Lewis, a Christian is a Christ-ian, a little christ, a little embodiment of the Divine Life that lives in Jesus. A Saint is a little christ.
A Saint is not primarily someone who does miracles and healings, although many saints have, while many more have not.
A Saint is not primarily a theologian who plumbs the depths of scholarly knowledge, although many saints have, while many more have not.
A Saint is not even primarily a mystic who climbs the heights of visionary ecstasy, although many saints have, while many more have not.
A Saint IS primarily a living embodiment of Love, a little christ who re-presents the Christ-life to the world.
Have you ever seen someone whose eyes radiate God's Light with every glance? Who exuded Love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and kindness and faith and humility and wisdom with every deed? That was a Saint.
Have you ever been around someone whose very presence assured you that God does indeed Love you and can use you, no matter how many flaws and foibles you have? That was a Saint.
Have you ever read a writer who did all of these things? A writer whose words leapt off of the page, causing you to imagine new possibilities of how this Christ-life can infect our lives, our churches, our communities, and our world? That was a Saint.
We tend to think of Saints as lofty and unapproachable and incredibly impractical. But I believe that the actual purpose of Saints in God's plan is humble and approachable and completely practical.
In fact, I believe Saints are a remedy for some of our most besetting sins in the Church, and in the Seminary.
And here is why: We like ideas and plans and programs and property and power. No, let me be honest. I like ideas and plans and programs and property and power.
And when I hear of "sanctity" and "holiness" and becoming a "little christ", the first thing I want to do is turn it into a study committee. Let's get together and come up with the ten main ideas about what it means to be holy.
That's step one. Step two is that we create a plan. How do we accomplish these ten concepts? What are our objectives? What are our benchmarks?
Step three: Let's create a program to accomplish it, complete with steps that rhyme, and some acronyms to boot.
Step four: Let's brand it and market it.
Step five: Let's get property and infrastructure to support the business model.
Step six: Let's clarify a contract to define who is "in" and who is "out" of our program, and make sure the power structure is clear.
Step seven: Let's fight each other over the concept, the brand, the program, the power, and above all the property.
Step eight: Let's sue each other. In Christ's Name, of course.
I know that was horribly reductionistic and completely unfair. But something LIKE this often happens, on the Right, on the Left, in the High Church, in the Low Church.
It has happened, and is happening, and will happen, anytime we reduce holiness to checklists and ideologies and loose sight of authentic holiness embodied in Christ and his Saints.
This is because it is easy to make holiness into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical. And, as any Biblical scholar can tell you, it is also easy to make Christ into something abstract, indefinite, and theoretical.
I personally love the abstract and theoretical. I love ideas and systems. But Saints stand before us as actual, definite, practical witnesses of what holiness looks and feels like.
What we need, is to see Jesus with skin on. We need to feel Love embodied. That's where Saints come in.
So Saints are embarrassingly concrete embodiments of what it means to be holy, of what it means to live God's Love.
Saints are the ones who can speak Truth to power, and minister Healing to pain. Saints remind us that our life in God cannot be formulated into a simplistic plan, nor turned into some perfect program.
Saints show us that life in Christ is messy yet magnificent, and there is no shortcut, no express elevator, no inside route to holiness. The only Way to Holiness is the Way of Christ, the Way of becoming a little christ.
In fact, I wonder what would happen if we applied this definition of sainthood to everything we do in the Name of Christ.
What if we judged everything we do as Christians by whether or not it produces saints, whether or not it creates little christs?
Do our methods of reading and explaining the Bible produce saints?
Do our doctrines and doctrinal systems create little christs?
Does our teaching and preaching and catechizing draw us into Christ or make us less Christlike?
Do our liturgies and spiritual practices encourage us to live out God's Love?
Do our efforts at outreach and programs for Social Justice create Christlike communities?
Do our leadership structures facilitate or hinder saint production?
Do our controversies and squabbles and infighting produce holiness?
What if passionate, Christlike holiness was the key criteria for how we did everything as Christians. What might change?
At this point I want to quote at length the best sermon I have ever read about saints by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. Although I disagree with him on many things, about the Saints we are in complete agreement:
"The deepest reason why the Church is weak, and the world is dying, is that there are not enough saints... No, that's not quite honest. The reason is that WE are not saints.
Can you imagine what ten more Mother Teresas would do for this world? Or ten more John Wesleys? No, you can't imagine it, any more than you could imagine how twelve nice Jewish boys could conquer the Roman Empire.
You can't imagine it. But you CAN do it. You CAN become a saint. Absolutely no one and nothing can stop you. It's your totally free choice…
If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one, and only one reason why you are not, even now, as saintly as the primitive Christians: You do not wholly WANT to be.
That insight is terrible because it is an indictment, but at the same time it is wonderful and hopeful because it is also an offer, an open door. Each of us can become a saint. We really CAN. We REALLY can.
I say it three times because I think we do not really believe it. For if we did, how could we endure being anything less?
...The human soul is a tube, like a tunnel connecting two places, heaven and earth. If the tube is open and empty and hungry on the heavenly end, to suck grace in, then and only then will the tube be full like a cornucopia on the earthly end to pour grace out.
[An] American Catholic bishop [once] commissioned one of the priests of his diocese to write up recommendations for ways to increase the number of [people] seeking to fulfill a clerical vocation.
The priest was young, but wise and holy. He concluded his report this way: "The best way to attract [people] in this diocese to the priesthood, Your Excellency, would be your canonization."
When we see a saint, we know the purpose of our own lives. Saints reproduce themselves simply by being what they are.
So why can't you be canonized- become a saint?
...It's embarrassingly simple. We have been promised, by God incarnate, that all who seek, find. In other words, "just say yes," "just DO it".
It's infinitely simple, and that's why it's hard. The hard part in the formula "just say yes" is the first word: "just". We are comfortable with Christ AND ourselves, or Christ AND our theology, or Christ AND our psychology, or Christ AND our country, or Christ AND our politics, or Christ AND culture, or [even] Christ AND counterculture;
But just plain Christ, Christ drunk straight and not mixed, is far too dangerous for us." [Peter Kreeft, How To Win The Culture War, pages 102-106]
So says Peter Kreeft. But is he right? IS just plain Christ too dangerous for us? Are we ready for Christ, the whole Christ, to infect us with His Divine Life and turn us into little christs?
We are about to approach His table once again, to partake in an ancient ritual, where we encounter this Christ in the breaking of the bread, and the drinking of the cup.
We are literally invited to the banquet table with Jesus, to drink him straight and un-mixed. With our bodies, with our mouths and our lips, with our hearts and our minds, we get to literally invite Christ once again to fill us with God's life.
Christ's invitation is here for you. He invites you to become a saint, a Christ-ian, a little christ. His invitation always stands, and never changes.
What about you? As you come forward to partake in this Holy Communion, and share in Christ's life, what is YOUR invitation to him? Amen+
AFFIRMATION: And now, with saints who have gone before, saints who stand with us now, and saints yet to come, let us affirm together the faith of the Church by using the words of the Nicene Creed…