Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sermon: All Saint's (2 November 2008)

Sermon: All Saint’s (2 November 2008)
(Revelation 7:9-17/Psalm 34:1-10, 22/1John 3:1-3/Matthew 5:1-12)
Making Saints – Capital “S”, Italics

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

It is late in Holy Week – only two days before Passover (Mt 26:2) – and Jesus reclines at table with disciples and friends: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Simon, and the twelve among them. Three gospels recount the events of that evening; only Luke seems not to have known the story.

6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? 9For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ 10But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13Truly I tell you, wherever this good news* is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her’ (Mt 26:6-13, NRSV).

This extravagant outpouring of resources – a year’s wages used up in a matter of seconds – confounds the disciples. I empathize with them; it puzzles me a bit, too. Leaving asides Judas’ hypocritical, self-interest – he simply wants to pilfer the disciples’ common treasury for the value of the ointment – leaving this aside, his expressed concern for the poor rings true to us, doesn’t it? Here’s Tim Rice’s take on the event from Jesus Christ Superstar – Judas confronting both the woman and Jesus.

Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive

Should have been saved for the poor.

Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe

Three hundred silver pieces or more.

People who are hungry, people who are starving

They matter more than your feet and hair (Everything’s Alright)!

Given that rationale, Jesus’ response approving the woman’s behavior seems almost callous: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” What are we to make of this?

Feeding the poor is a good thing, a Christian thing. The Law, the Psalms, the prophets, the Magnificat, the Sermon on the Mount: all these speak of God’s requirements for generosity and justice for the poor. Yes, feeding the poor is a good thing, a Christian thing. But, so too, is proclaiming the Gospel, which is exactly what the woman was doing in wondrously extravagant, symbolic and prophetic action – anointing Jesus for his immanent burial. This story all comes down to this: Which has higher priority for the community of Jesus’ disciples – proclaiming the gospel or feeding the poor?

Frederica Mathewes-Green offers this take on priorities in a recent Frederica Here and Now podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

[I]n contemporary Christianity, whether Orthodox or otherwise … it is very fashionable to talk about social justice, economic justice, bringing justice for the poor, and that sort of thing. If you can say, “I’m doing it for the poor”, then you get this automatic halo. And that has become extremely fashionable. I think it’s because, in the eyes of the world, the Church has nothing to offer. We’re just annoying and we’re in the way and we probably believe the world is flat, and all of that stuff. But the one thing that we can do is, wouldja just get over there and at least take care of poor people? Make yourself useful. Be good for something. So, the world approves Christianity whenever we say that we are for helping the poor. And that begins to take this disproportionate amount of our concept of what we should do, and what the purpose of the church is. The Church is here to bring the Holy Spirit into this world, and to spread the presence of Jesus Christ. And one of the main things that Jesus will do is to care for the poor. But we get the cart before the horse because we are seeing what the world will approve. We’re seeing what the fashionable thought is. And if it was a debate between someone who was taking a strong social gospel line and someone who was saying, “No, the most important thing is saving souls, we have to preach the Gospel, preach Jesus Christ, bring people to Him. Even the poor. Let the poor have the Good News preached to them, is what Jesus said. He didn’t say, let the poor get wealthy.” That would not really be an even debate, because fashionable opinion leans so heavy on one side (
thought.html#entry2477972, accessed 10/28/08).

What Frederica points out so well, here, is the extent to which the church allows the fashionable opinions of the prevailing culture to influence its understanding of the gospel and to establish the church’s priorities. The gospel and the purpose of the church may include feeding the poor, but that is neither the essence of the gospel nor the highest calling of the church.

The gospel account and Frederica’s essay prompt me to reconsider this fundamental question: For what purpose(s) does the church exist? Frederica summarizes her answer in this statement: “The Church is here to bring the Holy Spirit into this world, and to spread the presence of Jesus Christ.” While I agree in part, I think I would express the church’s purpose a bit differently.

The church is that unique, Spirit-assembled community – Spirit-assembled, Spirit-sealed, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-empowered community – that exists (1) to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, through symbolic prophetic action, through obedience, and (2) to make saints out of sinners. Proclaim the gospel and make saints; that is what the church is for.

Now, sometimes the church feeds the poor, but not because the world says it’s a good thing for us to do. We feed the poor because doing so is a proclamation of the gospel, a proclamation that Jesus is Lord and that a new world order – the Kingdom of God – has been inaugurated – a kingdom in which those who fear God receive mercy, in which the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts, in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty (cf Luke 1:50 ff). Filling the bellies of the hungry is one way the church proclaims the gospel to the poor and to the world. Even so, the church has to remember that food is not the deepest need of the poor. Jesus himself came not primarily to feed the poor, but to bring good news (gospel) to the poor (cf Mt 11:5).

Sometimes the church feeds the poor, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes, instead, the church pours out its resources in extravagant – and the world would say wasteful – acts of adoration for the Lord Jesus, prodigal proclamations of the gospel: towering cathedrals, glorious stained glass windows, sublime icons, candles that go up in flame and incense that goes up in smoke – all wasteful, extravagant gifts of lovers for the Beloved. These, too, are proclamations of the gospel – proclamations that Jesus is worthy of the best we have to offer in architecture, music, art, and the rites and rituals of true and beautiful worship. Sometimes like the woman at Bethany, we are momentarily blinded to the plight of the poor from gazing at the glory of Jesus, and we can do nothing but pour out our ointment and let those criticize who will. Such acts as these are also proclamations of the gospel, and this is why the church exists: to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, through symbolic prophetic action, through obedience – through acts of mercy and through extravagant acts of worship.

But, the church also exists to make saints. In fact, I think I could mount a convincing argument that making saints is the primary purpose of the church – its raison d’etre, its reason for being. The church proclaims the gospel to make saints. The church pours itself out in extravagant acts of worship to make saints. Whatever the church does, it does, or should do, to make saints. On this All Saints’ Day it is fitting that we think about the church’s role in making saints.

The phrase “make saints” sounds a bit strange, and in one sense it is. After all, saints are born – really reborn as we are taught in scripture – born in the water of baptism. If you have been baptized into Christ – in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – if you have been sealed with that same all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, then you have been born anew; you have been reborn a saint. While we might be hesitant to claim this title for ourselves, scripture shows no such reticence. Saint is the word scripture consistently and unashamedly uses for all those in Christ Jesus, for all those reborn as children of God.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1a, NRSV).

In one sense you are never more a saint than in that instant you step dripping wet from the water of baptism.

But, in another sense, there are saints and then there are Saints. You know what I mean: while you wouldn’t mind walking up to the “pearly gates” of heaven with me, who wants to be in line behind Mother Teresa? Robert Fulghum recounts a dream – a nightmare, really – of that exact scene. He’s in line behind Mother Teresa as they approach St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Peter looks sadly at Mother Teresa, shakes his head, and says, “Sorry, Mother. You just should have done more.” Well, I may be a saint – I am, in fact, and so are you. – but Mother Teresa is a Saint, capital “S” in italics. We know the difference, don’t we? There’s Peter, James, and John, and then there’s Susan, Betty, and Mary Kathleen: all saints – not different in kind, but different, perhaps, in degree. While all were born saints in baptism, some were also made saints in the fellowship of the church.

Perhaps it would help to think of “saint” as a verb. We were sainted at our baptism. We are being sainted in the fellowship of the church, and we will be sainted completely in that great day of Christ’s return. Sainthood is a process and some are farther along than others. We know the beginning – baptism – and we catch just a glimpse of the ending:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10, NRSV)!

In the between times we hold to John’s promise and press onward.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themsleves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3, NRSV).

It might not matter so much just where you are in the process, but it does matter very much in which direction you are moving. And that is where the church comes in, because, while saints are born, Saints – capital “S” and italics – are made in the communion of the church.

How does the church make saints? First, the church must call us to sainthood – all of us. The church must continually remind us saints-in-training that we must truly be in-training, there is always more to the Christian life than we are currently experiencing. If I could name just one problem with the Western church it would be this: the “I’ve got my ticket punched for heaven and that’s all that matters” mentality that says once you have prayed the Sinner’s Prayer on Sunday (and perhaps have been baptized, though that seems optional nowadays) life can pretty much proceed as normal on Monday, and on all the days to follow. No. No. When we have been reborn as saints we have just begun, and life can never and must never be normal again. St. Paul is adamant about this.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal (or become perfect, alternate NRSV reading); but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [Do you see that? Because I have become a saint, I press on all the more to become a saint.] Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind (Phil 3:12-15a, NRSV).

The church must teach that sainthood is not optional for some, but is expected for all – that sainthood is not exceptional, but normal. The church must hold out hope and awaken passion for sainthood. First, the church must call us to sainthood – all of us.

Next, the church must provide training for sainthood. You know, it’s one thing to walk a few minutes once or twice a week for a little fresh air and exercise. No particular equipment is required and the activity is not very strenuous. Of course, you don’t expect to lose a lot of weight or lower your blood pressure or cholesterol with this minimal effort. But, if you decide to get serious about exercise – if you make it your goal to get in shape to run a marathon – then you must train, seriously, with discipline and with firm commitment. You’ll seek out experts and learn from them. You’ll train with a group who will encourage, support, and challenge you. Running a marathon is not magic, but it requires hard work, discipline, and the collective wisdom of the running community. Becoming a saint is not magic – it’s grace, all grace from beginning to end, but it’s not magic. It requires hard work, discipline, and the collective wisdom of the church. It requires training. The church must provide training for sainthood. And it does if we will accept it. For two millenia the church has borne consistent witness to disciplines and practices that form saints – practices like prayer, sacred reading – immersion in the Word – obedience to that sacred Word, fasting and feasting with the faith community, breaking the bread of life and lifting the cup of salvation, confessing sin and repenting of it again and again, worshipping in season and out of season, and keeping on keeping on even when you feel like quitting. None of this effort is an attempt to earn God’s grace or acceptance; it is rather the response of those who know they have already received God’s grace and acceptance through the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the response of those called to sainthood, to transformation into the likeness of Christ, to ever fuller participation in the divine nature. Sainthood results from a life of discipline, a life of training. As Father Greg Blevins notes in a recent essay in his blog VagantePriest, sainthood (theosis is the Orthodox term for such transformation) “begins here and now with conversion, incorporation into Christ by way of the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and participation in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is renewed in the Mysteries of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. It is pursued by way of prayer, fasting, and alsm-giving.” The way of sainthood is a way of discipled participation in the ongoing life of the church. The church must provide training for sainthood.

And the church must become the Spirit-filled community that supports the believer in the never-ending struggle toward sainthood. Saints are not made in isolation, but in community with other saints-in-training called the church. This is the blessed communion of saints that we proclaim in the Creed: the body of Christ in this and every place, in this and every time, in heaven, on earth, in this age and in the age to come – that great cloud of witnesses that cheers us on toward victory:

12Therefore, 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.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners,
so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Heb 12:1-3, 7-13, NRSV).

Are we ready to take our place among this great cloud of witnesses? Are we ready to hope for sainthood, to strive for it, to submit ourselves to the training and discipline of the church to achieve it?

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'


1 comment:

FrGregACCA said...

Excellent homily. We are called to become Saints, and theosis is but another word for "sanctity".