Sunday, November 1, 1998

Sermon -- 1 November 1998

ALL SAINTS’ DAY — 1 November 1998
Grace, Cedar Rapids — 8:00 & 10:15

Ecclus 44:1-10,13-14 Ps 149 Rev 7:2-4,9-17 Matt 5:1-12

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”— 1 Peter 1:15-16

One of the items in the religious news this past month was the canonization — that is, the formal raising by the Pope to the status of official sainthood —of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Carmelite nun who is notable to the rest of the world because she was born a German Jew named Edith Stein: the first person of Jewish birth to be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in — well, maybe ever. There was a certain amount of fussing about this from some in the Jewish community because Edith, or Teresa Benedicta, died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and it’s not clear whether she died as a Christian martyr for standing up to the Nazis, or more simply (from a Nazi perspective) as a Jew. Since the Nazis were perfectly willing to murder people either for being real Christians (as opposed to accommodationists) or for being Jews, it may not matter that much; it seems to me that both the Christian and the Jewish communities can and should claim her. But it’s not my point to talk today about St. Edith, or St. Teresa Benedicta (I’m not quite sure which is proper; personally, I kinda like St. Edith), but to use this as an All Saints’ Day launching device to talk about being a saint. (By the way, the Romans may not have canonized a Jewish-born saint before, but we have: I refer of course to the Blessed Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, a Lithuanian Jew who studied to be a rabbi but ended up emigrating to the United States and becoming an Episcopal priest instead, went to China as a missionary, translated the Bible and Prayer Book into Mandarin and became Bishop of Shanghai. We celebrate him on October 15. But I digress.

In the Episcopal Church people are commemorated in the liturgical calendar — the closest thing we have to a canonization process — because it seems like a good idea and the General Convention signs off on it. This is more or less the way the Church recognized “saints” for the first millenium — consensus and custom. Since the middle ages, and especially since the counter-reformation, the Roman Church has developed a rather elaborate process for declaring saints, that involves lots of investigation into the proposed saint’s virtue and orthodoxy, etc. In itself this is probably a good thing: I recall that 35 years ago there were people who wanted to canonize Jack Kennedy by acclamation; but it has subsequently turned out that the presidential adventures in the Lincoln Bedroom in those days make more recent escapades in the Oval Office pale by comparison. (I’m digressing again, aren’t I?)

Anyway, one of the criteria for canonization by Rome is that you have to have two authenticated miracles attributed to your intercession. (In the case of St. Edith I think there was only one, but she got credit for having been martyred by the Nazis, as well she should.) The theory here apparently is that it is evidence that you are really in heaven if your intercessions with God can produce a couple of miracles. This is a tricky thing to prove, since it’s not the kind of thing that is easily subject to double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials. In St. Edith’s case, the miracle was a little girl in Boston with a fatal liver condition who was healed following her parents’ appeal to the Blessed Teresa Benedicta for her prayers. (I’m not quite sure where the referral came from on that one; St. Edith is hardly a household name among Boston Irish Catholics.) This whole business makes me a little nervous. I certainly have no doubt that Teresa McCarthy, now a healthy teenager, was healed by God’s grace, and maybe Edith Stein had a hand in it, but I’m real uncomfortable with a God who says “Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy’s prayers aren’t good enough, but if they can get Edith Stein to sign off on it, I’ll heal their daughter.” Or all the “Venerables” and “Blesseds” praying up a storm in the heavenly courts for one more miracle so they can move up to Sainthood. Reminds me of bells tinkling and Clarence getting his wings. More seriously, it scares me to think that somewhere out there are other parents who also sought the intercessions of Blessed Teresa Benedicta and not necessarily in vain, but whose children died anyway; they’ve got to be really bummed out this month. Our Roman cousins, poor dears, they try hard and they mean well, but they really do still have a difficult time breaking the old superstitions, and I don’t think they have really yet gotten it right about “saints.”

Part of their problem, and our problem too, is that we see the saints as some sort of official religious churchy people. (And indeed, many of the “Official Saints” are just that, because those are the sort of people whom other official religious churchy people are likely to canonize!) And we aren’t official religious churchy people (well, I guess I am, though I try to be fairly sassy about it; thank God I don’t make my living doing it; you aren’t official religious churchy people) and so you say, well, I guess I can’t be a saint and there’s no real point in aspiring to sainthood. Even though we come in here once a year and sing a song of the saints of God who are all folk like me and I mean to be one too, but we don’t really believe it the other 364 days of the year. And so we settle for “okay.” But God calls us to be holy.

And of course the word “saint” means “holy” — it’s French (you knew that) and comes from the Latin sanctus. But that doesn’t help, because although we probably know that “holy” means something like “belonging to God,” we still have the notion that being holy really means being religious and churchy, and although we are religious and go to church and stuff like that, we do have real lives, after all! But being holy does not mean being religious. It means being holy, being God’s person, which is a very different thing indeed. It means being committed to the Reign of God right in your real life, right in your real world. Religion is meant to be an agency and instrument of the Kingdom of God, and sometimes it is, and often enough it is not, but in any case it is a derivative reality, not the Thing Itself. The Church, when she is being true to her vocation and identity, is the extension of the Incarnation, the Body of Christ continuing his mission of proclaiming and enacting God’s Reign in this world. But often enough we are not true, and never fully true. Our call to holiness, to saintliness, is our call to be fully true to God’s Reign and to the embodiment of God’s Reign in Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ not as an object of religion but as the Lord of the world.

Monday, February 16, 1998

Sermon -- 15 February 1998

6th SUNDAY after the EPIPHANY — 15 February 1998
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:00 & 10:15

Jer 17:5-10 Ps 1 1Cor 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26

I’ve mentioned before that I, like many of you, subscribe to some internet e-mail discussion lists. One of them is the Anglican Music list, inhabited largely by organists, choirmasters, choir members, and some clergy, and it mostly talks about church music, but understandably wanders off into general liturgical issues. (That’s often quite interesting, as it’s a fairly international list — not only Americans but Canadians, English, Australians, South Africans, and others.) A few weeks ago somebody said something about Eucharistic Prayer C. This immediately provoked a chorus of derisive hooting and hollering (electronically speaking!) about the “Star Wars” prayer, so called of course from the paragraph:

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. By your will they were created and have their being.

Evidently this is considered insufficiently Cranmerian language; and of course it isn’t Cranmerian language, which is in part the point. I don’t know what the critics’ problem is. Granted, my fields are theology and history, not literature, but I think I have a decent ear for the English language, and I like this paragraph. I found it particularly ironic that those very days the critics were poking fun at the phrase “this fragile earth, our island home,” an international conference on global warming was shamelessly whining “We won’t clean up until you do!” Christians need to read the newspaper as well as the Bible.

But I digress.

We have, I think, only in this past century come to have any idea how vast the expanse of interstellar space really is. “Galaxies, suns…” In our own galaxy there are hundreds of billions of stars, of suns. That’s hundreds of billions. Do we have any grasp at all on a number like that? We simply cannot imagine it. (Unless you are an astrophysicist, or unless you work for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.) Hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. And there are a hundred billion galaxies. We just absolutely do not have a clue about this universe in which we live.

In fact, to deride Eucharistic Prayer C as the “Star Wars” prayer is very seriously to miss the mark. Now, as far as enjoying science fiction goes, I imagine I am in the top quartile of the population. I’m not really a serious “Trekker,” but I’m certainly a fan, and my VCR clicks on at 6:00 every night to catch the reprises of the first four years of “Babylon 5.” I really like that stuff. But I don’t kid myself: it’s all baloney. It’s fun, but it’s baloney. Because the folks in these stories go galavanting all over the galaxy with warp drives and jump gates and who knows what, giving the impression that interstellar space is a place where a couple hundred years down the line human beings (and assorted other sentient beings as well!) will be cruising around like we today cruise back and forth on I-80. It will never happen. And I say this not because I am shortsighted about the possibilities of technology or have no vision of the future of humankind, but because, even though I’m a historian and theologian, I do know a little about physics. And the world of Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, and the rest, is a world that very seriously has absolutely no clue about “the vast expanse of interstellar space.” We will look — we will look at a universe very much of which we can see only as it was billions of years ago in the dawn of time itself — but we will never go out there. This fragile earth is our island home. (Oh, a few people will eventually go poking around other parts of our own solar system, and that’s fine, I’d love the chance to go myself, but that’s it. Humankind as a whole is island-bound. Do the physics. Run the numbers. Don’t bother to pack your bag.)

And for this immensely, unimaginably, incomprehensibly vast expanse of interstellar space that is our universe — and for any other universes there may be — it is still the truth that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Our understanding of this physical universe — tentative and rudimentary though it is — must inform our understanding of God and who God is. All too often, as J.B. Phillips chided us a generation ago, “our God is too small.” Certainly a lot of the “religious” talk and argumentation we hear around us in a variety of contexts appeals to a very small and often quite petty God. And I suspect this is one reason why some people in the scientific community — and some non-scientists who nevertheless have some genuine scientific appreciation — have difficulty with traditional religious expressions: not because they do not experience a certain religious awe as they contemplate the universe, but because the only God of whom they have ever heard — from us — is a trivial deity altogether inadequate as a cause to so wondrous an effect.

The God in whom we believe is the God by whose will “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” was created and has its being. I don’t mean, by the way, that we should rush to plug “God” in every time there is an aspect of the universe we don’t yet understand. God is not a “God of the gaps” in our knowledge. “God” is not an appropriate answer to genuinely scientific questions for which there is in principle or will be and should be a scientific explanation. Science, however, cannot answer the question, “why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” God is the One by whom and through whom the universe exists at all, and exists as it does rather than otherwise. And with all due respect, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” do not know this God, at least not very well, in part because they do not really know “the vast expanse of interstellar space.”

And yet, and paradoxically, this God who cradles billions of light-years in the divine hand holds also every quark of every particle constituting each of the billion billions of atoms in each of the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies. And this hand is at work in the world about us, and holds and cradles us. And God whose mind encompasses the vast expanse of interstellar space knows also each of us more intimately than we know ourselves, and loves us with that divine love that powers galaxies and suns, and has become flesh and lived and lives among us to draw us into that love, and is known to us in the breaking of bread.