Sermon – November 5, 2017 – All Saints Sunday

All Saints Sunday


Saints and Heroes

I trust that an appropritate time of mourning has passed for Cub fans that we can discuss the fact that the Houston Astros won the World Series. Took seven games and was fun to watch, even for a Twins fan.  Of course, the reason they prevailed is that they did things together better than the others.  Pitcher pitched well.  Defense was excellent.  Hitters delivered.  Reminds me of a story.  One day a baseball team came to play a game.  Just as the game was to begin the catcher for the home team arrived and hurried into his pads.  The center didn’t show up at all, but later sent his regrets.  The third baseman likewise didn’t show up either, because he had been up late the night before.  The shortstop showed up late, forgot his glove, couldn’t play, so he went home.  Two of the outfielders went away on a little weekend trip, but called back to say they were there in spirit.  No one knows what happened to the 1st baseman.

So, when the pitcher went to the mound he looked around for his teammates, and his heart sunk, because most of their positions were empty.  But the game was announced, the visiting team took the field, the stands were full.  So, he saw there was nothing to do but pitch the ball and hope for the best.  Well, you can imagine what happened since the poor pitcher also had to cover 1st base, third base, short and center field.  Well, when the absent members of the soundly defeated team heard that their team had lost, they all made the decision to replace the pitcher!

One player does not make a baseball team.  This little parable points out a truth about the saints.  The saints are a community, a fellowship.   John Ylisivaker, a contemporary Lutheran hymn writer who wrote our beloved baptismal song, “Borning Cry”, also wrote a song called, “One saint ain’t”.   That didn’t make the hymnal, but the song is a reminder that the saints are part of communities, families, fellowships.

In our understanding, the saints are those who believe, those who constitute the body of Christ, the church.  You and me, our parents our pastors, those who have brought us here in Jesus’ name.  Individually, we are remarkable or not, competent at something or not, successful or not.   The constituting fact of our sainthood is that we are the children of God.   We remember them as saints because Jesus has declared them so.  He gives a description of the beloved, and not a prescription.  We are the communion of saints, those who gather in celebration of that faith and try to practice what we preach in our daily lives.   On days like today, All Saint’s Sunday,  we honor those who have contributed to that communion because of the ways they have strengthened us, taught us, carried us in our own faith journeys.  Today we are reminded that the saints are those who declined to make their faith a private affair.

On a day like today I think of my father.  He was one of the Greatest Generation.  He was WW 2 veteran, an able church nursing home administrator, a good fisherman, a father who succeeded at some things and failed at others.   In small ways and big, he demonstrated for us that faith can uphold a family and a community, and that without it some questions are too big, some hurts too deep, some battles too hopeless.   These are lessons I would not have learned without him.  Dad was a saint.

I think of Evelyn.  She was an older woman of indeterminate age; she was never real forthcoming with me about that.   She spent most of her adult life either on the streets as a homeless woman or as a patient in a mental hospital.  When we met, she was a ward of the city, living in a second-rate nursing home.   She had nothing.   I picked her up every Wednesday and took her to the church for Bible study and a meal.  It was important for her to be there, because it was where she was seen and treated as a whole person.  It was where she could confirm and express her faith. It was what she had that the streets or the psychiatric ward could not take away.  I know of no remarkable things she did in her life, but she had persevered and the reason was the strength and the comfort she drew from a Christian community and from her faith.  Because of her, it was easier for me to understand grace, to believe that not a sparrow falls but that God makes note of it.   Evelyn was a saint.

The struggle of Martin Luther King was fundamentally a religious one, against hatred and separation and violence.  He taught us about persevering, leaning on faith, about self–sacrifice, about gathering common, faithful people against evil.  He was a saint.

The idea of saints is not much in vogue these days.   We prefer heroes with all the attending glamour of that designation.  We can find them in several venues, sports, business, entertainment, the military.

In all these cases, heroes are identified by common characteristics, often their aggressiveness, their ability to triumph over another.  They are often brash.  And they are rewarded with the military currency of rank and medals,  the sports and business currency of fame and, well, currency.    In one way or another, the heroes of our time model for us is the ability to triumph over another.  There is a last man standing sort of ethic.

It is not so with the saints.  Listen to the words of Jesus.  Blessed are the poor.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the peacemakers.   Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.   Blessed are those who look beyond themselves.

There is a striking difference, almost a mirror opposite of the cultural heroes and the notion of the saints, the believers.   What does that tell us?  That the church is out of whack?  Yes, a little. . . ..When the church is healthy it is always the case that she stands on the edge of the prevailing culture, probing, providing an alternative.

This matters, to recognize this distinction.   Heroes are role models.  So are the saints.   It matters because it causes us to discern who are the saints in our lives, and it causes us to remember who we are, from whom we came, and who we mark as our heroes, as our saints.   It matters when we find ourselves facing a choice of good and evil, or when we’ve got to find our way through a crisis, or when we are trying to live our lives fully, trying to take care of one another, and our community. . . . .   It matters because it reminds us that the last one standing, stands alone.

We honor the saints today, those of the present time and those who have died, not specifically so much for their deeds as for the faith that sustained them, that faith they passed on to us.  This matters because now we are the saints, and our challenge is to pass on the ethic and idea of the kingdom of God as expressed by Jesus—blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness–, as lived by Jesus, for others, in faith, in sacrifice–, as promised by Jesus–you will be comforted, children of God, given mercy, rewarded.

And when we do that, when we stand in that faith, under this cloud of witnesses to that faith, then it is not just the last man standing, but all of us standing together, the communion of saints, with one another, for one another, in Christ’s name, until Christ comes.   Amen.