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For All the Saints

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on All Saints Day, November 1, 2015.

Texts:     Isaiah 26:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44


For All the Saints

Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed together we affirm “the communion of saints”, but we don’t really talk about it very much.  All Saints Day provides an opportunity to correct this tendency; let’s take advantage of this opportunity.

Today we remember those who have died in the past twelve months and we affirm our faith that upon their death they experienced unimaginable joy, which is promised also to us. Each year on this day we name them, light a candle for them, sing and pray. Guided by the Word and sacrament, song and prayer, we release them into the great narrative flow of God’s divine intrusion into human life and death.

For the story of the people we love who have died belongs to the great narrative of salvation announced all through scripture, today by the prophet Isaiah in particular, and generations after Isaiah by a pastor named John (of Patmos), the writer of Revelation. This narrative promises us that one day God will wipe away our tears and replace them with unending joy.  Pastor John of Patmos shared his vision that God will dwell among us, wiping away those tears and removing us from all pain and sorrow. Death no longer casting long shadows, and all things will be made new (Revelation 21:1-6).

Between these announcements, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, delivering this promise for all to see. I love David Lose’s observation that Jesus accomplishes this miracle in two parts: first is Jesus’ command to Lazarus to come out; second is when Jesus commands the community to unbind him. Lose explains that Jesus does this in expectation that the community participate in and complete this miracle: “Jesus who has the power to heal, to feed, to restore, to bring to life, to redeem seeks to involve us in these actions and, indeed, even expects us to complete them.” Lest we fret that any and all miracles are confined to the pages of scripture, Lose counters that by including the community in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus  this signals God’s intent to continue to do miraculous things and to do them in us, with us, and through us. (David Lose, “The Communion of Saints” October 28, 2012

All Saints Day also celebrates God’s divine intent.  For saints aren’t only those who have died or what I call those “Capital ‘S’ saints (Saint Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint Teresa, Saint Paul, etc.) whose lives are studied and commemorated, saints are also first and foremost those God declares holy. And the good news is God has declared God’s people holy–that’s you and me folks!  Now, this doesn’t mean we get to phone it in and slack off on our faith and service.  Luther long ago noted we are saints yes, but we are also sinners—both/and—…  So our merciful God offers us encouragement when we despair in our sin, declaring us to be saints, lest we become convinced that we don’t matter or that we can’t make a difference.  God calls us holy, saints, right now … not because of anything we have done or will do, but because of who God is and what God has done.

Our word “saint” comes from a Greek word meaning “sacred” or “holy ones,” which itself comes from a Hebrew word meaning “set apart” for God (Lose). When we’re baptized, each of us is set apart, named, called, commissioned by God to be partners and co-workers– people God will use to achieve God’s will and purposes. On the last page of your worship bulletin I’ve shared a word study† of scripture passages containing the word saint. I wanted to put this in front of you at least in this moment (you could also take this with you as a reminder) so that you can see the diverse scripture references to a saint showing them to be anyone who does the sort of things we already do and/or are in the process of doing.  Allow me to just go ahead and say these out loud (only the bold words):

Saints love the Lord – (Ps.31:23) “Love the LORD, all you his saints.”

Saints love one another – (Eph.1:15 ) “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints….”

Saints serve God – (Rev.5:10) “You have made [these saints] to be a kingdom … serving our God…”

Saints serve the Church – (Heb.6:10) “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints….”

Saints call on Jesus – (1 Cor.1.2) “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours….”

Saints pray – (Rev.8:3) “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne.”

Saints work hard to keep commandments and have faith – (Rev.14:12) “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”

Saints do good works – (Rev.19:8) to Christ’s bride, the church, “it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

Saints have high ethical standards – (Eph.5:3) “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints.”

Saints are humble – (1 Tim.5:10) “She must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.”

Saints witness – (Rev.17:6) “And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.”

Saints have a ministry – (Eph.4:12) “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….”

Saints share that ministry – (2 Cor.8:3-4) “For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints….”

Saints welcome and help others – (Rom.16:1-2) “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you….”

Saints share resources and offerings – (Rom.15:26) “for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”

Saints endure persecution and martyrdom if they are called to it – (Acts 26:10) Paul’s confession: “with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.”

†compiled by Thomas L. Weitzel published in his blog, “Saints Alive” an extensive essay/All Saints Day worship service, under the sub-heading “The Bible’s Job Description for a Saint” found in the larger section entitled, “5. Reprise: Why Do We Remember Saints?”)

When we are baptized, we are “set apart” for God. This celebrates God’s promise to use our unique talents, abilities, interests, strengths—even our weaknesses, to further God’s will. This unleashes God’s blessing into the world, in and through our otherwise anonymous lives, opening all aspects of our life to God’s invading grace.  Our daily routines, our different roles and identities (parent, spouse, child, citizen, employer, employee, co-worker, volunteer, friend, and so on) are vehicles through which God can do “holy work”. Indeed, Lose says “there is precious little in our life that can’t be a place where God is at work to heal, comfort, and restore.”

To say this another way, any work we do in faith can be called holy, that is, work that is set apart and called holy because it is done in God’s care by God’s flawed, imperfect people. Even so it seems to me too few of us are willing to believe that anything we may do could ever come close to being “holy” or “sacred” in God’s or anyone’s eyes. We save words like “holy”, “sacred” and “saints” for Sunday morning and on the campus of this (or any) church. But the good news of the gospel is that even the most ordinary, monotonous doings of our everyday life has the potential at any moment to be transformed, “holy”, through God’s gracious care for the world AND THE PEOPLE God loves so much.  Whether it’s caring for a child every day, or caring for a loved one with dementia/Alzheimer’s; whether it’s “only” washing dishes or clothes, or looking after someone or some neglected need or issue; whether it’s being the one person who befriends a kid in school no one else talks to … or teaching Sunday School; whether it’s visible and noticed or not, any scenario of our lives, every scenario of our life can be the “place” where God establishes a holy presence.  Because God prefers and chooses to make things sacred not in spite of us, but because of us and through us.  God is ready and able to transform any place, any situation, any moment.

Lest we think all of this talk is “nice” but is clearly referring to someone else (anyone else but me), note how St. Paul begins his letter to the church in Corinth–by any and all accounts a congregation of bickering, fighting, back-stabbing, morally challenged, arrogant knuckleheads—by addressing them as saints!  When I lived in Philly a priest who befriended me used to say to me, “Every Saint has a past; Every sinner has a future”  St. Paul is an excellent example of his funny affirmation of faith.

And lest we think any particular sin or person seems beyond God’s redemptive interest or touch, remember Paul (Saul).  And remember also Paul’s challenge to his own congregations (articulated best in his letter to the Hebrews): “Be imitators of me … imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” of God” (Hebrews 6:12). No matter how old or young we are today, no matter what our situation or station in life, God can and will use you, us, to be God’s eyes and ears, hands, legs and feet; pioneers and examples of the faith.

And so on this and every All Saints Day as we remember those who have lived and died in the faith, as their life and their faith live on in us, let us also understand that we are now their legacy.  And God can empower us to aspire and commit to living as faithful witnesses and servants in honor of those we love. For the Lord will surely continue to bless us with the grace and love needed to be the saints that God sees in us and has called us to be.