Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Sermon All Saints Day 2018

Sermon All Saints Sunday – November 4, 2018
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

What is a saint?
The Greek word for ‘saints’ is hagiois, or ‘holy ones.’
A saint is a holy person,
in much the same way as a sanctuary is a ‘holy place.’

But the word ‘holy person’ only says so much.
We may think of a goody-two-shoes who never laughs,
or a monk meditating on a mountain.
We need a little bit more context.

Some of us know that the Catholic Church will occasionally ‘make’ a saint.
The formal name for this is canonization.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says
that when the Church canonizes some of the faithful
they solemnly proclaim that they practiced heroic virtue
and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.
If you look at some of those whom the Catholic Church has made saints,
you will see that few of them were goody-two-shoes
and not many of them were monks on a mountain.
The Catholic saints run the gamut
from the warrior Joan of Arc
to the teacher Thomas Aquinas
to the Nazi resister Maximilian Kolbe.

We can define saints as does the Roman Catholic Church;
or we can see saints as world-renouncing monks on a mountain
or moralistic prigs we can’t wait to get out of our presence.
But, as I have mentioned before from this pulpit,
my favorite definition was offered by the satirist Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary,
which defined a saint as ‘a dead sinner, revised and edited.’

Ambrose Bierce was an agnostic and a fierce critic of Christianity.
However, I think he was right,
but not in the way that he thought he was.
See, it all depends on who is doing the revising and the editing.

If we take this definition,
and apply it to the story of the raising of Lazarus,
we find Jesus fulfilling the definition
in a way Ambrose Bierce would never have expected.
Jesus takes a dead man and revises him and edits him.

I find it intriguing, and revealing,
that the gospel writer uses the word ‘dead man’ in this passage.
Martha is the sister of the dead man.
The dead man comes out of the tomb.
It is Jesus who names him again
with the name that he had been given at his circumcision.
His name, with his life, is given back to him.
Quite a revision indeed!
Quite an editing to his story.
No longer a dead man, but Lazarus.
The friend of Jesus again,
the brother of Mary and Martha again.

Nowhere in this passage is Lazarus named a ‘saint,’
but according to Bierce’s definition, he is a saint.
Or perhaps we need a more reverent definition.
A saint, a holy one,
is a sinner whom Jesus raises from the dead,
one in whom Jesus’ Spirit is active and living.

Not all sinners are saints,
but all saints are sinners,
in whom God is doing the work of revising and editing.      
Now we may not see the work of Jesus in every saint.
The one in whom the Spirit is active and living may not be as evident to us
as we would think it would be.
And so it may be that there are more saints than the Church knows about.
The ones we do know about we celebrate.
They were not always goody-two-shoes,
nor were they necessarily mountaintop monks.
But they are examples for us,
not because they were perfect,
because they show that God the Holy Spirit
can work in human beings to make them holy.

Well, then, that’s the saints.
But what about us?
What about we who wouldn’t consider ourselves saints?
Well, let’s think about this
in terms of the definition offered by our good friend Ambrose Bierce.
A dead sinner, revised and edited.

Are we sinners –
we have sinned
and we cannot free ourselves;
death and sin are two sides of the same coin.

Are we dead?
We will die, certainly.
From the moment we are born, the one certainty is death,
and when no one remembers our name,
we will become nothing more than a corpse, a skeleton;
an anonymous dead man, a dead woman.
Even those whose names are known to history
are only talked about,
they are never addressed if they are alive.
We may speak about Caesar, Cleopatra,
Washington, Napoleon and Victoria,
but no one speaks to them.

And so, as the ancient text from the Mass from the Dead says,
Media vita in morte sumus –  In the midst of life we are in death.

Dead sinners –
who will revise and edit this story of us?
Who is the one who calls a corpse by name,
who addresses a dead person as someone alive?
It is the same one who commanded the dead to live again,
and by his Spirit we are being vivified, made alive.

God calls us by name –
and calls us son, daughter –
his son calls us brothers and sisters.
Can it be that when we acknowledge and call to mind our sins,
when we seek to turn away from them and to God,
when we receive the forgiveness God offers us through Christ,
and when the threat of the grave looses its death-grip on our imaginations,
that God is doing the work of revising and editing?
Could it be that he does not stop doing this
even if we are ignorant of it?
Even if we are not wholly on board all the time?
Even as we did not create ourselves,
we do not work our re-creation.
All we can do is trust that the great editor
will make us who we are meant to be.

And finally, God revises the ending for us as well.
Instead of the anonymous darkness of the grave,
instead of being forgotten, we are remembered, we are named.
The vision of Isaiah, the vision of Revelation
is the vision of resurrection.
Lazarus was raised into the old, dying world
as a sign of the resurrection into the new, living world,
the world that Christ has won for us and all the saints.
Thanks be to God!