K. Dean Myers
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Sunday, October 30, 2011 | 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
20th Sunday after Pentecost | Reformation Sunday All Saints Celebration
Lectionary: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 and Matthew 23:1-12

The Texts

Today’s sermon began life as “The Re-formation of Scripture,” and ended up as “The Re-formation of Sainthood.” The two topics are intertwined on this day that we celebrate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and following centuries, and on which we also remember the saints who have preceded us. But I realized I had to do one topic or the other, and the other won out.

The lessons inspired my original intentions, so they may seem to have little to do with “saints and sainthood.” But those saints are in there; you just have to listen very carefully!

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (to sainthood, you see).

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Matthew 23:1-12

23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (saints again, right?).

I

Who are “the saints”? – and the right answer is NOT the NFL’s New Orleans franchise. Remember where you are!

Again…who are “the saints”?

The Protestant Reformation returned the church’s understanding of sainthood to something closer to the understanding held by the early church than was being put forth by the late-medieval Roman Catholic Church. This return to earlier conceptions was driven in large part by the reformers’ commitment to scripture rather than to tradition as primary bearer of God’s revelation. Thus, “The Re-formation of Scripture” led to “The Re-Formation of Sainthood,” and a lot of other “re-formations” as well.

The move was from understanding saints as an officially identified, canonized and sanctioned few to understanding saints as all the people/children of God – as the holy masses residing in God’s realm both in this life and in the life to come. Saints were not those proven to have done miracles on this earth and so apparently able to do miracles from heaven and therefore prayed to in times of crisis. Saints were now ordinary disciples who lived extraordinary lives, even if not miraculous ones.

“All Saints’ Day” is not a day to catch any “saints” missed in the official lists. It is a day to recall all the children/people of God, both living in the here and now, and living eternally in God’s presence.

II

Who are the saints?

The saints are not just “good” people if by “good” we mean “they did no wrong.” Sainthood is not a negative moral category, belonging to those who get through life with a clean slate by never doing anything (or much) that’s bad. That’s because simply doing nothing bad is not as important to sainthood as is doing some things good. Sainthood is not about those who closet themselves away from the world and contribute nothing to it. (At least I don’t think it is; more on that later.)

Saints are those whose living shines a holy light into the world around them, such as is depicted in traditional religious art’s haloes. They give forth an aura that points beyond themselves to the Christ they are following. When others see them, they want to follow Christ, too.

Saints are those whose living makes a positive difference to others. Saints need not be physically, emotionally, spiritually or even morally perfect, or even above average. Few are. They can be severely disabled, handicapped even, in one or more ways – but nonetheless there is something about them that says they live not just for themselves, but for others. There’s a love inside them that shine through the cracks in their life’s armor to brighten the world.

III

Who are the saints?

Just us in the church? Or just believers in Jesus Christ? Can anyone not in the church, who does not profess Jesus in words, be a saint? Can we who are in the church and who know how to say “the right” words about Jesus take it for granted that we are numbered among the saints?

We Presbyterians know how to fight about those kinds of questions, in part because of our tradition of “predestination,” or “election.” We hold that we are God’s because Christ has chosen us to be God’s; “you did not choose me, but I chose you,” and the like. Nothing we say or do can force God to “elect” or to “un-elect” us. And we cannot know for sure who is in and who is out.

A decade ago our fight about salvation was fierce and growing long. Our Presbyterian Office of Theology and Worship produced a short pamphlet called, Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderfully concise account of such issues. It includes one marvelous paragraph that I think answers the “who’s in and who’s out” question as clearly and graciously as I can imagine. It even qualifies my earlier statement that “Sainthood is not for those who closet themselves away from the world and contribute nothing to it.” The paragraph suggests I may be wrong about; I cannot be too sure…listen:

Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for “by grace you have been saved though faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [I Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine. [Presbyterian Church (USA), 2002]

Thanks be to God!

Say it with me: Thanks be to God!

IV

Who are the saints?

You, me, us individually and us together, the church, this church, when we live as if we are saints. Grateful to God, saints do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Saints forgive, and saints accept forgiveness. Saints worship, saints pray, saints sing, saints speak of and for Christ. Saints offer Christ as the way, truth and life for all people, inviting others to follow him with them, but never judging, lest they be judged. Saints practice patience, seek understanding, speak truth to power, love God, self, neighbors, and yes even their enemies and those who persecute them, even if just by being annoying. Saints are generous toward the needs of the church and the needs of those beyond the church as well. Saints are good citizens, practicing a patriotism that submits to a Christ who died for all people, for all nations, out of love. Saints do everything they do as if they are saints – because for all they know, they are – patiently trusting this life and whatever life is yet to come to the faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

V

Who are the saints?

Today, they are those who fully know the blessings and the joys of eternity with Christ – who are in his complete care (no death, no pain, no crying, and so on); who have closed the book on their earthly chapters and who now live the chapter that has no final page in God’s presence. I don’t claim to know all the details of saints’ existence beyond this world…who they are with and in what form, what paves their cities’ streets, and so on… all I know is that they are blessed and joyous beyond my imagination. Which is really all I need to know until it is time for me to know the whole story.

VI

Who are the saints?

They are “all those saints who from their labors rest.”

And they are also…well, just look around you…right now…you can actually see some saints…can’t you?

Amen.

Advertisements