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.

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