Our postulant, Rob Schoeck, returns to remind us that the work of Saints, then and now, is to live by faith—no matter what.
To listen to this sermon, click here.
Today’s readings provide us with what I believe is a very clear theme; death and new life. The readings from Revelation and John’s gospel reinforce this theme and of course this is a very suitable theme for today as we celebrate All Saints. As we celebrate one of the major feast days of our liturgical calendar we remember all of those saints who have come before us. As Mark so eloquently put it in an email sent out two days ago, “…All Saints makes us mindful that the church of God is a single church that gathers both in heaven and on earth, and that we are always united to the saints that have before us in worship.” So it is no surprise that the men and women who established the Revised Common lectionary would pair these readings together. It is through their life and death in Christ that those who have gone before us are raised to new life. It is through our life and death in Christ that we will be given new life.
For the past few weeks I have been thinking and praying about how these passages, this theme, and the feast of All Saints all tie together in a way that is relevant to our community’s context as we find it today. Even for an experienced preacher this is not an easy task. In fact some people, including my homiletics professor and perhaps even the priest of the parish might advise against taking on such a daunting task, but I will give it a try and we will see how I do.
So, what is a saint? Is it a person’s words either spoken or written that makes a person a saint? Is it their actions in the world? Is it the way they order their lives? Are saints only those who have lived and died in Christ or do they walk among us? Would you recognize one if you bumped into them on the street? There is no clear-cut answer to these questions. We know from the Roman Catholic tradition that there are specific criteria that must be met during a multistage process for a person to be officially canonized and considered a saint in their church. In the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion the last saint since the English Reformations that was officially canonized was King Charles I after he was beheaded at the request of parliament for treason. Yet even now there are those who would argue that he shouldn’t be considered a saint and should just be considered a martyr.
So it would appear that since the Reformation there have not been any saints formally canonized. Does that mean that there hasn’t been one person that should be considered a saint since then? Towards the back of the BCP there is a calendar of feast days commemorating saints. There are others who would by my standard be considered saintly, but they are not “officially” recognized as saints. In this list we find all sorts of people who have born witness to Christ and committed their lives to the teachings of Jesus. We celebrate the disciples and many apostles. In the past two weeks alone we celebrated the lives of St. James and Saints Simon and Jude, all three of which were among the original twelve apostles. Yesterday we remembered Richard Hooker, the preeminent Anglican theologian whose writings helped to define the theology of the Church of England during those critical years after the separation from Rome. We remember kings and queens who made significant contributions to the spread of Christianity throughout their lands. We remember priests, deacons, and lay people who lost theirs lives for their faith. We remember missionaries who left everything behind to spread the gospel all over the earth. We don’t just remember people from centuries long past, but also those whom can be considered contemporaries, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King Jr. As you can see we remember a lot of different people from all walks of life who each did amazing things.
I believe that saints are not just great figures in the long story of God’s relationship with humanity, but that there are saints that have been and continue to be a part of our community here at St. John’s. As the collect for the day tells us, “God has knit together his elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ.” The new life that these saints enjoy and that has been promised to us has been given to us because of faith in Christ. The reading from Revelation points to what awaits us. “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God.” There will no longer be distance between God and us. The next part of the reading really drives the point home. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Those are some very powerful images that elicit feelings of peace and comfort. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty sweet to me. All of the struggles of this life will be no more. All of the injustice of this life will be no more. All of the pain of this life will be no more. All of the worries, the fears, and the anxieties that keep us from fully living into our lives with Christ, will be no more. Despite their fears, their doubts, and the uncertainties of their time, the saints from our community held true to their faith in Christ. If we follow their example then we are guaranteed to join them. I can say this because of the gospel story.
In the gospel reading today we find Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. He is back in Judea, even after being warned by his disciples that by returning there he was risking the wrath of the religious authorities. Nevertheless, after receiving word of his friend’s death he journeys there. He is so moved by the loss of his friend he is compelled to bring Lazarus back to life. I believe that he does this to once and for all reveal his divinity to everyone by doing something only someone who is of the Father could do, and that was to give life to the dead. In his prayer Jesus specifically tells God that he is doing this so that everyone will believe. There were still people who feared his divinity. They feared his radical message that was turning the religious status quo upside down. The people in the crowd doubted him and questioned his abilities. Even Mary doubted him because Lazarus had been dead for four days and she thought that even Jesus could not bring him back. Jesus response says it all. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” For those in the story the glory of God was revealed through the resurrection of Lazarus. For us the glory of God will be revealed through our faith in Christ and that glory is what awaits us after the first things have passed.
Because I have been in seminary for the last year and a half, I have been more involved in the issues facing the larger church. Seminaries across the country are finding new ways to educate and form people for ordained ministry in a rapidly changing church. We constantly hear of the fears, the doubts, and the uncertainties that surround the future church that we are called to serve. I have heard people say that the church is dying. There are those who believe that if we do not grow and continue to have churches and diocese leave the national church then the larger church with all its history and all its tradition will be washed away. I do not agree with this sentiment at all. The church is not dying but evolving. This has been always happening since the very beginning. And it will continue to evolve long after we are gone. The wider church is currently discerning how new models of ministry involving both lay and ordained leadership will help us to continue our mission in a rapidly changing world. The old models of the generations before us no longer apply. The world outside these walls is just not the same. If we do not evolve in ways that reflect the world around us then we will become irrelevant. In order to still be relevant in today’s society and culture we as the wider church have to continue to tear down the walls that have been erected keeping some people on the inside and others forced outside. We have to leave behind the fears and misunderstandings that prevent everyone from becoming a member of the body of Christ.
We too here at St. John’s are in a time of discernment. This is a period of time for intense spiritual reflection on the mission of our community, envision on our future. What is our mission? What is our mission to each other? What is our mission to the world beyond these walls? How will our mission respond to the ever-changing world around us? How will we do this given the resources we have? It is a time to prayerfully consider these questions and even some of the more difficult questions. Is our mission tied to this building? Are we being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us by the saints of this community who have come before us? Like Lazarus we must loosen ourselves from that which binds us up. We must confront our fears, our doubts, and prayerfully offer them up to God so that we can be open to the opportunity that lies before us. We have the opportunity to live out our mission with each other and within the wider world in a very different way. We cannot be reactive to the ebb and flow of our financial resources or other perceived limitations. We must be proactive. We must rise up and take a stand. We must show the world that we can model a new form of ministry that dispenses with the outdated models. We must live out a ministry that responds to the needs our time and circumstances. We have the opportunity to be an example of ministry that works for other parishes of similar size and with similar resources.
Over the past year and a half I have had numerous opportunities to speak about St. John’s as my home parish. I have reflected and written about my experiences during my life here at St. John’s. I talk about our Average Sunday Attendance, our operating budget, and the various demographics that can define us. I talk about the fact that the priest of the parish is only quarter-time; though I know he does more work than the quarter time he is compensated for. I talk about the fact that we are just one of eight Episcopal parishes in a city whose population cannot realistically support all eight parishes. I talk about these things and I am met with the same response…”how do your community do it?” How do you all do Christian Ed? How do you all do outreach projects? How do you all do fellowship? How do your community do it? I too am amazed and my response is that we are filled with the Spirit. My dear friends, we do all these things. Week in and week out, 52 weeks a year, we do it. They are amazed that not only do we manage to do this successfully, but that there are many other parishes in this diocese in the same situation that we find ourselves in.
If we are to be true followers of Christ then we must do so without fear. Without fear of failure or fear that we do not have the ability to do so. We must not back down out of convenience or apathy. By the waters of our baptism we have been filled with the Spirit, sealed and marked, as Christ’s own. God has chosen us, each and every one of us to be his children. Because of his unconditional love for us our fears and doubts will be wiped away, like a mother who wipes the tears of her crying child.
So too must we, like all the saints who have come before us, stand up, use our voices, be the Christians we are called to be and on the last day we will be like Lazarus and be raised up in Christ. We must continue the efforts of those who came before us. What is your vision for the mission of St. John’s? What will be our collective vision of our ministry in the world today? Amen.