Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Saints': 1 November 2007

All Saints: 1 November 2007
(Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15/Psalm 149/Ephesians 1:15-23/Matthew 5:1-12)
I believe…in the communion of saints.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Personal evil confounds us. Two teenage boys – children – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enter Columbine High School with legal weapons of mass destruction and murder 12 of their classmates, one of their teachers, and wound 23 others. When the initial shock and sorrow abate enough that we can begin to think, we turn to questions like Why? and How could this happen? and What could possibly turn children into murderers? Several contributing factors were proposed by a commission of law enforcement agents, mental health professionals, and representatives of the Columbine community and other communities where school shootings had occurred: school cliques; bullying; and the desensitizing effect of violent video games, films, and music among them. Underneath all the analyses lies a basic assumption: Something went wrong here. Killers are made, not born. Evil is a matter of nurture gone terribly wrong, and not a matter of nature.

Personal evil sickens us, particularly evil directed against the most vulnerable in society – children. Sexual abuse of children is especially abhorrent to us – and troublesome from the standpoint of justice. We know, based on extensive records, that pedophiles are serial criminals. If we let them out of jail, they will victimize other children. Rehabilitation – at least the kind conducted in jails and medical offices – doesn’t often work. But here, in the presence of this kind of evil, we are not as likely to ask about causes or contributing factors. We seem more likely to think that some people are born with sexual perversions and that such tendencies are truly part of who they are, so that they are unable to change. This type of evil is born, not made. This type of evil is a matter of nature gone terribly wrong, and not a matter of nurture.

Of course I have over-simplified the nature of evil here. But I’ve done so to make what I think is a valid point. Evil confounds us. It begs for an explanation and our society – deprived of the wisdom and language of the Christian community -- has no definitive one to offer. Sometimes we conclude that evil is a matter of nature and sometimes that it is a matter of nurture. Are evil people born or made? The debate continues because evil confounds us.

I am equally confounded by good. A bright, articulate, successful college student leaves behind a promising career to live with and advocate for the homeless in Philadelphia, becoming, in effect, one of them. Almost no one notices. No commissions are convened to ask Why? or How could this happen? or What could possible turn a self-absorbed college student into homeless advocate? A brilliant doctor sees Haiti for the first time and loses his heart there, giving up a lucrative practice for the challenge of eliminating HIV/AIDS and pneumonia in the third world. Why? How could this happen? What could turn a recipient of the American dream into a third-world champion?

Good confounds us. It too, begs for an explanation, but no one seems to notice. In many ways good is much more a societal threat and embarrassment than evil; we tend to avert our gaze from it. People seem to expect great evil, but not great good and we don’t quite know what to make of it.

I believe in… the communion of saints we Christians say in the Creed, and on this day we celebrate All Saints. And so, we are called upon to notice good, to give an explanation for extraordinary good, for the presence of saints among us in this and every time: Who are they? and How did they come to be this way? and What could possibly explain how they turned from “ordinary people” into champions of faith and virtue and love? Is it nature or nurture? Are saints born or made?

As with so many either/or questions the true answer is, Yes. Are saints a product of nature or nurture? Yes. Are saints born or made? Yes. There is no contradiction here – paradox and mystery, certainly; but contradiction, no.

The church at Corinth was a mess by anyone’s measure, and Paul knew that better than most. What a burden that church was to him: doctrinal confusion, divisions, lawsuits among believers, drunken and gluttonous celebrations of the agape meal – the Eucharist – gross sexual immorality, fellowship at pagan feasts. It would have been easy to write this group off as a failed attempt at Gentiles doing church badly. And yet, Paul knew better. He didn’t write them off; he wrote them a love letter – tough love, yes, but love nonetheless.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:1-3, NRSV).

Of course you picked up on the greeting: Paul called these very flawed and struggling Christians saints – holy ones in the Greek of Paul’s letter. How could he? How could he seriously use the language of sainthood to describe these people? Paul could call the Corinthians – flawed as they were – saints because he knew that saints are born, or more truly, saints are born again, born of water and the Spirit. You are saints, Paul could write them, because

[But] you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11b, NRSV).

The Gospel is proclaimed, the wind of the Spirit blows, faith is kindled, and sinners enter the baptismal water. Saints emerge. There is new creation. There is new birth. Saints are born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13, NRSV) and they are children of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the nature of sainthood: new birth in Jesus Christ.

Just as birth is the beginning of life, new birth is the beginning of sainthood. And just as we grow into the fullness of our humanity, so too must we grow into the fullness of our sainthood. The Corinthians still needed much growth.

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations (1 Cor 3:1-3)?

In Corinth we find saints behaving badly, behaving not according to their true spiritual identity as saints, but according to human passions. They had not ceased to be saints, but they had not grown as expected and intended. The Hebrew writer encountered a similar condition among his charges.

11 About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. 12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; 13for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

6Therefore let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith towards God, 2instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement (Heb 5:11-6:2).

Infants, these two writers call the saints, because they both knew that saints aren’t just born, saints are made. Sainthood depends both on nature – the new birth in Christ – and nurture – cooperation with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in fellowship with the church. Growing up into sainthood is not hard: fast, pray, give, serve, obey, deny yourself, take up your cross, lay down your life. Well, OK, maybe it is hard. But it’s not all that mysterious. We know the way because others have walked it ahead of us and we have their witness.

Hebrews 11, part of that witness, is often called the roll call of the faithful. It starts with a description – not really a definition, but a poetic description – of faith:

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Heb 11:1-3, NRSV).

And then it continues with examples of faith – the roll call of the faithful – with examples of Old Testament saints: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab. The writer is on a roll now, saints gushing from his pen onto the parchment and he has to force himself to stop and catch his breath.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect (Heb 11:32-40, NRSV).

No infants these. We look up to them, as we should. They are our examples, our mentors in the faith. And we could add others to the list: Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, Stephen, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Perpetua, Justin, Francis, Clare, Mother Teresa, John Paul II – all those who have grown up in the faith, who have moved from their new birth as saints into the fullness of their vocation as saints. These saints were born, yes; but they were also made by presenting themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God, their reasonable service of worship.

Hebrews tells us that these sainst are with us still, as a cloud of witness to cheer us on in our own growth into sainthood.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:1-2, NRSV).

These saints – those in heaven and on earth – form one family, one communion. We are in this great adventure of faith together; your name joins theirs in the roll call of the faithful. In a profound expression of the communion of saints, the writer of Hebrews says,

39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect (Heb 11:39, NRSV).

These great heroes of the faith, these great saints, cannot reach perfection, cannot attain the fullness of their sainthood apart from us. We are truly in this together, in this communion of saints.

Are saints born or made? Yes. Are saints the product of nature or nurture? Yes. It is no contradiction to state, You are a saint, now become a saint. We must become what we are because we live in the between-times or, as Robert Benson might say, between the dreaming and the coming true. We are already saints, but not yet perfected in our sainthood, so we still must grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation as the saints of God. And we must look to those saints who have gone before and those who are still present with us as a great cloud of witnesses strengthening us and urging us onward toward the high calling that is ours in Christ Jesus.

I believe…in the communion of saints.


On this most fitting night, we consecrate an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary written by the hand of our sister Susan. Why do we have icons in our church when so many others do not? Simply because we truly believe in the communion of saints. We believe that these whose icons adorn our worship are alive to God and to us, that they surround us as a cloud of witnesses – witnessing to the glory of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to move men and women beyond their birth as saints toward the fullness of their sainthood. These saints we honor – Mary among them – are not different in kind than we are; we, too are saints. But perhaps – likely – they are different in degree, farther along in maturity than we are. Their icons remind us of their presence with us and their example for us. Mostly their icons remind us of Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours, the author and perfecter of the faith shared by this great communion of saints.

The Blessing and Hallowing of Icons

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Trisagion (repeated three times)
Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

Blessed are you our only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who dwells in light unapproachable from before time and forever, whom no one has ever seen or can see.

Praise the Lord for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

May your favor, O Lord our God, rest upon us.
Establish the work of your servants’ hands –
yes, bless the work of your servants’ hands.

O Lord our God,
who created us after your own image and likeness;
who redeems us from the ancient curse
through your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, through whom also, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
we are renewed in your likeness;

send forth, we pray, your blessing upon this icon,
and with the sprinkling of Holy Water
bless and make holy this icon unto your glory,
in honor and remembrance of your saint,
the blesséd Virgin Mary;
and grant that, as you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth,
we may in our earthly pilgrimage always be supported
by their witness to your power and mercy
and so run with perseverance the race that is before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith;
with whom you are blessed,
together with your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit,
both now and for ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Sprinkling cross fashion the icon with Holy Water, the Celebrant prays:

Hallowed and blessed is this icon
of the blesséd Virgin Mary
by the grace of the Holy Spirit,
through the sprinkling of Holy Water:
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Collect of the Blesséd Virgin Mary
Almighty God,
with grace you have made the blesséd Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your only Son;
by the same grace,
hallow our bodies in chastity
and our souls in humility and love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Blesséd are you, O Virgin Mary,
for you believed that what was said to you
by the Lord would be fulfilled.

Blesséd are you, Mary, the Lord is with you:
through you we received our Redeemer,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blesséd are you, O Lord Jesus Christ,
King of heaven and earth.
We praise you for your virgin birth;
You are the Father’s only Son,
With God the Spirit, ever one. Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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