November 1, 2020
All Saint's Day - 2020a
Old Testament - Psalm 34 :1-10, 22
New Testament - Revelation 7:9-17
The Broken People of God
INTRODUCTION: Several years ago I bought a book called All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.
As you might imagine from the title, the book contains 365 short little historical accounts of assorted saints down through the ages. From some of the earliest believers all the way up to the 20th Century, each day of the year comes with a saint.
One of my favorites is the story of Polycarp. An early church father and highly revered, Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. His martyrdom is the oldest Christian account of such a death outside of the New Testament.
As the story goes, at the ripe old age of 86, Polycarp was ordered by the Roman authorities to curse Christ and declare “Caesar is Lord!” But Polycarp refused, saying in reply, “Eighty-six years I have served [Christ] and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
And so Polycarp was ordered to be burned at the stake. His actual burning, by the way, is a fascinating and magical tale worth reading sometime if you are so inclined.
But interestingly, my book of daily reflections also contains plenty of examples of saints who lived pretty sedate lives and didn’t actually die horrible deaths. Yes, we often see saints as those people who were martyred in some heroic and gruesome way for the faith. But saints also end up being people who live lives that, well, really aren’t that different than our own.
One such saint in my book is Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian from the 20th Century. While he is certainly considered one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th Century, Rahner hardly lived with much fame or fanfare. Or as he once said of his own life: “I do not know what’s happened to my life. I did not lead a life; I worked, wrote, taught, tried to do my duty and earn my living. I tried in this ordinary everyday way to serve God—that’s it.”
And so even though he died quietly at the age of 80, Karl Rahner is also considered a saint.
ONE: Of course, on this All Saints’ Day, it is appropriate to pause and give thanks for those who have gone before us in the faith, right? And not just for those famous folks who have a paragraph written about their lives in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but for all those people of faith who have helped to shape and form us.
For we tend to forget, don’t we? We tend to forget that sainthood, just like everything else when it comes to God, can’t be earned. Instead, it is bestowed. It is a title, in other words, given by a good and gracious God.
And so no wonder John of Patmos, in our reading from Revelation this morning, sees so many people gathered around God’s throne. Transported into the heavens while in the throws of some mystical experience, John sees a great multitude of people beyond calculation from every tribe and every nation all gathered around a giant throne worshipping God.
Decked out in fancy new white robes and waving palm branches the people are also crying out in a loud voice saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the lamb.”
Well, in my mind’s eye, I can see old John Calvin gleefully smiling at such words. For they seem to imply that salvation, in the end, doesn’t have anything to do with us. We can’t earn salvation, in other words, it can only be given. For if John’s vision is true, then it appears God is always the final owner and giver of salvation. “Salvation belongs to our God,” that great multitude of people chant, “Salvation belongs to our God.”
And if salvation can’t be earned, then sainthood can’t be either, right? It is simply bestowed just like everything else when it comes to God. And so we pause once a year to celebrate the saints of God, both past and present. Not because of their extreme piety or perfection, but because they are examples of how God’s purposes and wishes for the world, amazingly, get worked out through human beings, who tend to be, as we Presbyterians know, royal screw-ups.
TWO: In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells of a time they were observing All Saints’ Day at the church she used to serve in Denver, Colorado, called House for All Sinners and Saints.
Gazing at a table full of photos, other mementos, and names just written on index cards representing the saints of the faith for the congregants of the House for All Sinners and Saints, one name caught Bolz-Weber’s eye - the name of Alma White. You see, when Bolz-Weber initially learned about Alma White, she thought she had stumbled upon a hero of sorts.
After all, as a woman who lived from 1862 to 1946, Alma White was quite the trend setter. The first woman to become a bishop in the United States, she also founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901 in Denver, Colorado. Also a proponent of various feminists causes, Bolz-Weber, at first glance, thought Alma White was somebody way ahead of her time that she, therefore, could really honor and respect.
But as Bolz-Weber read further about Alma White, she quickly came across other aspects of her life that weren’t so, well, glowing. Turns out despite her high achievements, Alma White was also a big fan of the Ku Klux Klan, which, along with black people, meant she also didn’t have much use for Catholics, Jews, or immigrants.
According to Bolz-Weber, after learning the whole story about Alma White, she called a good friend to lament. For after initially thinking she had found a hero to immulate, Bolz-Weber was disappointed to learn of Alma’s many failings. But her friend gave what turned out to be a rather insightful reply: “E-mail me her name,” said the friend. “I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.”
And so Alma White’s name ended up on that table on All Saints’ Day at the House for All Sinners and Saints. Or as Bolz-Weber would later write,”[I]t has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners...I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones — people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time...people who are as kind as they are hostile.”
THREE: Centuries ago a Cardinal in the Catholic Church named M. Beaufort happened to be visiting a Carmelite monastery in Paris France.
While full of learned and wise souls, it was a lay brother named Lawrence who actually caught Beaufort’s attention. With no formal training or education, Brother Lawrence was assigned kitchen duty for the monastery, which primarily meant washing the dishes and keeping the kitchen clean. Striking up a conversation with Brother Lawrence, Cardinal Beaufort was astonished by the dishwasher's spiritual wisdom. In fact, Brother Lawrence, the lay brother with no training, eventually became Cardinal Beaufort’s spiritual counselor.
You see, for Brother Lawrence, it was important to try and cultivate an awareness of God’s presence no matter what task we might be doing at a given moment. So even though he was a lowly dishwasher, Lawrence did his work believing that even in mundane and small assignments God’s loving presence was available to him. All of our activities, in other words, should be seen as hallowed work imbued with God’s presence.
Or as Brother Lawrence put it in one of his letters to Cardinal Beaufort, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
And so for 40 some years that is what Brother Lawrence did. He washed dishes in that Carmelite monastery. He wrote no great theological treatises. He wasn’t known throughout Paris for his miraculous deeds and he was far from famous. And if it wasn’t for some letters he wrote to Cardinal Beaufort that we still have, no one would probably even know Brother Lawrence existed.
But in my book on saints? Well, he is the saint for January 11th.
CONCLUSION: Well, it’s easy to think saints are special people who perform great and heroic deeds, right? And sometimes there are people who do, indeed, act bravely and selflessly.
But more often than not, saints (both past and present) are just ordinary, everyday people trying to make it though yet another day. They are the broken people stumbling their way into God’s redemption. Because sainthood isn’t a title that can be garnered or earned. It’s just given. Given by a gracious and loving God.
And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.