Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sermon -- 1 November 2009

ALL SAINTS DAY — 1 November 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Wisdom 3:1-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11:32-44

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.

If we look at the Calendar of the Church Year in the front of the Prayer Book (that’s pages 19–30 for those who would rather page through the Prayer Book than listen to me!) we see the listing of those saints’ days that are Major Feasts together with a whole lot more that are called Lesser Feasts. The Major Saints’ Days celebrate figures from the New Testament; the Lesser Feasts are commemorations of people a few of whom are Scriptural but mostly are post-Biblical, including some even of our own generation. (Well, at least of my generation!) And as we look through them, we note that these were pretty much all people who were famous, or at least in retrospect historically significant.

And yet: “sanctity” (or “sainthood”) isn’t supposed to be about being famous, it’s supposed to be about being holy.

Although, in order to be celebrated by others for being holy, at some point one’s holiness has to be well known!

How does one get to be recognized officially as a “saint,” or at least make the list in the front of the Prayer Book?

As you may be aware, the Roman Catholic Church has rather an elaborate process for canonizing saints (that is, putting them on the official list). One of the criteria is that you have to have at least two verified miracles ascribed to your intercession, which is proof that you really are in heaven and thus a Real Saint, not just cooling your heels in purgatory like the rest of us. (No, don’t ask me to defend that theology!)

See, here’s how this scenario goes: Blessed Fred and Blessed Susie are both on the track to sainthood, they each just need one more authenticated miracle. The Joneses have a critically ill child, and they appeal to Blessed Fred for his prayers. The Rodriguezes also have a critically ill child, and they appeal to Blessed Susie for her prayers. The Jones child is suddenly and inexplicably healed. The Rodriguez child dies. The Pope by and by canonizes Saint Fred. Susie languishes among the merely Blessed. The Rodriguezes are pretty thoroughly bummed out. They picked the wrong Blessed. But they aren’t nearly as bummed out as the Stanislawskis, who also had a critically ill child and who appealed both to Blessed Fred and to Blessed Susie, but their child died anyway.

Does anyone else share my profound discomfort with this whole scenario `and what it implies about God?

There are three ways of looking at what a saint is:

1. A saint is somebody famous. Well, I think we understand that that’s not necessarily the case, although as a matter of fact in order to become an official saint (with a day in the calendar) you do have to have gotten yourself noticed by the folks who make these decisions. But when we sing a song of the saints of God and we mean to be one too, we probably don't mean primarily that we want to be famous and have a day in the calendar, and so we can still be in the running to be saints even though we probably won’t be well known or have a day in the church calendar.

2. A saint is somebody very religious and churchy. Well, this can be a little off-putting, because most of us are not very churchy most of the time (although we go to church and work in the church), not very religious (not that we aren’t faithful believers, but our lives are lived in the secular world), yet an awful lot of the saints in the calendar are religious and churchy folks, monks and nuns and priests and bishops and theologians. And this isn’t too surprising, really, since the folks who make the decisions about recognizing official saints — whether it’s the Pope or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church — are to a great extent religious and churchy folks themselves. But we understand that being a saint is not necessarily to be religious and churchy, and so we are still in the running for sainthood, and there is still not any reason why I shouldn’t be one too.

3. A saint is somebody who is morally perfect, or at least mostly so. Aha. This one catches us. This is the one that is operative in the protest, “Hey, I’m no saint!” (as if sainthood were too lofty to be aspired to by mere us). Here’s where we feel cut off from the whole sainthood business. Because we are sinners. We are a long way from moral perfection. Oh, we are repentant sinners, I hope, recovering sinners if you will, but still obviously sinners. And thus we are the opposite of "saints," as in the self-evident polarity of “saints and sinners.”

Well, the fact of the matter is, the saints were sinners too. And not just before they became saints. I don’t want to suggest there is no connection between moral virtue or righteousness, and sanctity or holiness. On the contrary. But sainthood, sanctity, even holiness, is not defined primarily by moral perfection. St. Jerome, the great fourth-century theologian and translator of the Latin Bible, was a notorious grouch. His contemporary St. John Chrysostom (one of my personal patrons, by the way, his feast day is my birthday), the great preacher and Patriarch of Constantinople at the end of the fourth century, was a virulent anti-Semite. St. Bernard, the great medieval monastic reformer, teacher and writer, also preached a Crusade against the Muslims. (Thanks a lot, Bernie, that was very helpful!)

My point is not to deconstruct the great saints of our tradition, but just to observe that it is not moral perfection that distinguishes them from the rest of us. We are, after all, not justified by our own works, but by the grace of God. And that’s what marks out the saints — they are beacons of God’s grace, even in the midst of their imperfections. The love of God shines in their lives, even with all their warts and all.

And that is our vocation as well — whether or not we are ever well known in the church or the world, whether or not we have some position in the institutional church or in organized religion, even as our lives continue to be an ongoing struggle against our besetting sins and moral flaws — to be nevertheless people through whom God’s love shines to enlighten the world.
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.
And so, by God’s grace, may we all.

[“I sing a song of the saints of God,” words by Lesbia Scott; Hymnal 1982 # 293.]