Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King Sunday

November 25, 2012

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37


+ I hope you all survived the Thanksgiving holiday. Obviously you did. I am not planning any funerals for this coming week. I did, even though I had a pretty rotten cold. But, if you’re like me, you might find such times a bit hectic, especially when it comes to family. In these last few days, I had some family members around. Last night a few of us went out for supper. As we were talking at a local restaurant, I was getting a bit annoyed because the food was very slow in coming. Finally, I made some comment, like, “This is ridiculous!”

One of my family members turned to another and said, “Yup. There’s Jamie and his infamous impatience.”

Infamous impatience! I was not happy to hear that!

I said, “Excuse me, what exactly do you mean, ‘infamous impatience?’”

They then proceeded to share instances throughout my life when my impatience at certain things became a sort of family joke. After my initial frustration over being fodder for their stupid jokes, I realized, finally, that they might be right. I think I might be a bit impatient at times.

But is impatience as bad thing? Well, impatience—and more correctly—longing, are the theme words for the Church season that we are about to enter.

Today, of course, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the End of one Church Year—Year B. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent and Church Year C begins. And Advent is the season of anticipation—of longing. And dare I say, maybe a fair share of healthy impatience.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we might get a bit impatience about that for which we are longing. Certainly, our journey as followers of Jesus, is filled with anticipation and longing. We know, as we make this journey, that there is an end result to our journey. We know there is a goal. But we might not always be aware of what that goal is or even why we’re journeying toward it.

But today, Christ the King Sunday, get a glimpse of what we are anticipating. Today, we commemorate Christ as King. We are invited to see this King coming to us on clouds, and on wheels of burning fire. I, for one, love the drama and the splendor of such an image. In our readings today—especially our readings from the Prophet Daniel and Revelation, we too, with Daniel and the Apostle John, get a glimpse of what it is we are hoping for, what we are striving for. We also see clearly who it is who has ultimate control of our lives. We see a glimpse of the One we, as Christians, recognize as Christ—that Alpha and Omega—that Beginning and End—that One coming to us on the clouds.

But the Christ we see in our own collective vision this morning is not the humble carpenter, the amazing miracle worker, or the innocent newborn baby we are anticipating in a month’s time. The Christ we encounter this morning is coming to us on clouds, yes, but he also comes to us while standing in the shadow of the Cross—an about-to-be condemned criminal—engaging in a conversation with Pontius Pilate about who he is. The Christ we encounter today is crowned, yes—but he is crowned with thorns.

It seems a long way from the King we find in our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from Revelation—this defeated, beaten young man. But it is the same Christ—the One who will come to us in our anticipation, who guides us and guards us and who, in the end, awaits us as well.. The Christ we encounter today is Christ our King, Christ our Priest, Christ our ultimate Ideal.

We, on this Sunday and in the coming days of Advent, are faced with eschatological reality. Uh oh. There’s a word for us on this Christ the King Sunday—eschatological. It’s a strange word that always trips us up, whether we understand what it means or not. Eschatology is just a fancy Greek word for the “end things.” It is a word that invites us to think about THE END.

As we enter Advent, which, although a beginning, we realize it is also a time of preparation for the End. And there is an End waiting for all of us. There is an End waiting us all collectively as the Church. And there is an End waiting each of individually. And eschatology, Christ the King Sunday and Advent are all about both that collective End and our own personal End.

The King we encounter on this Sunday, the King that awaits us at the end of our days, is not a despotic king. The King that we encounter today is not a King who rules with an iron fist and makes life under his reign oppressive. This King not some stern Judge, waiting to condemn us to hell for what we’ve done or who we are.

But at the same time the King we honor today is not a figurehead or a soft and ineffective ruler. Rather, the King we encounter today is truly Jesus, the one we are following, the one who leads us and guides us and guards us. The King we encounter today is brother, and friend and King and Savior all wrapped up in one.

And his Kingdom, that we anticipate is our ultimate home. We are citizens, at this moment, of that Kingdom. That Kingdom is the place wherein each of belongs, ultimately.

You have heard me say in many, many sermons that our job as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to make that Kingdom a reality. You hear me often talking about the Kingdom breaking through into our midst. That’s not just fancy, poetic, homeletical talk from the pulpit. It is something I believe in deeply.

The Kingdom—that place toward which we are all headed—is not only some far-off Land in some far-away sky we will eventually get to when we die. It is a reality—right here, right now. That Kingdom is the place which breaks into this world whenever we live out that command of Jesus to love God and to love one another. When we act in love toward one another, the Kingdom of God is present among us.

Again, this is not some difficult theological concept to grasp. It is simply something we do as followers of Jesus. When we love, Christ’s true home is made here, with us, in the midst of our love. A kingdom of harmony and peace and love become a reality, when we sow seeds of harmony and peace and love. . And, in that moment when the Kingdom breaks through to us, here and now, we get to see what awaits us in our personal and collective End.

As we prepare for this END—and we should always be preparing for the END—we should rejoice in this King, who is the ruler of our true home. And we should rejoice in the fact that, in the end, all of us will be received by that King into that Kingdom he promises to us, that we catch glimpses of, here in this place, when we act and serve each other out of love for one another.

The Kingdom is here, with us, right now. It is here, in the love we share and in the ministries we do.

So, on this Christ the King Sunday, let us ponder the End, but let us remember that the End is not a terrible thing. The End is, in fact, that very Kingdom that we have seen in our midst already. For us the End is that Kingdom—a Kingdome where there is a King who rules out of love and concern for us.

“I am the Alpha—the beginning—and the Omega—the End,” he says to us.

But in our End, we truly do find our beginning. What a glorious King we have!

“To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.





Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Eve

November 21, 2012
St. Mark's Lutheran Church
Fargo

Matthew 6.25-33


+ For those of you who know me, it’s probably not hard for you to guess I was not your typical little boy when I was eight or nine or ten years. For various reasons, I was not your typical little boy. We won’t get into too many of those various reasons.

But I was not typical for one big reason. From about the age of seven or eight, I was a chronic worrier. I worried about everything. You name it, I worried about it. Every rational and irrational thing you can think of, I worried about it.

Around the time of my eighth birthday, there was a huge hotel fire during a blizzard in Breckenridge, Minnesota. About twenty or so people died in that fire. For years afterward, that fire worried me. Every time my family and I went on a trip and stayed at a hotel, I couldn’t sleep, afraid that a fire was going to break out. Whenever my father was gone on a trip, I worried that the hotel he was staying in was going to catch on fire.

That was just one of many things I worried about at the time in my life. I worried about getting on the school bus (I worried it was going to crash—there were no seat belts on the stupid thing!), or swimming in the swimming pool, or whatever.

Well, eventually, all that worrying began to wreak havoc on my body and I started developing very severe stomach problems. At first, it was thought that I was having some kind of problem with my appendix. Then the doctors and my parents starting being concerned it was something more serious. Finally, one very insightful doctor figured it out. He realized I had an ulcer. There I was, nine years old, and I had an ulcer. And it was believed at that time that it was a result of all that stupid worrying.

And worrying is a stupid, stupid thing. In tonight’s Gospel, we find Jesus addressing the issue of worrying. Obviously, there were some in his immediate circle of followers and friends who were worried. And he addresses their worries. But he addresses their worries in a way that leaves little doubt. There’s no sugar-coating here. There are no parables about worrying here. He’s quite blunt. He’s to-the-point.

“Therefore I tell you,” he says, “do not worry about what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

And then, as though to drive it all home, we repeats that command, “Do not worry” two more times in this passage.

For us, as followers of Jesus, he is essentially telling us that there is no room in our lives as Christians for worrying. Worrying is not an option for us, who believe, as followers of Jesus, that God is ultimately in control.

For me, as a child, my worrying became almost a kind of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Worrying was my way of controlling what seemed to me to be uncontrollable in my life. Bad things happened, and I didn’t understand why. Bad things happened and I couldn’t control those bad things from happening. Worrying about my fears was a way for me to control my fears in some way. If I worried enough, I rationalized, maybe what I feared would not happen.

But the fact is, by worrying about our fears, we give our fears ultimate control. When we worry about our fears, we make idols of our fears. When we worry, we have not put God in that place God deserves in our lives. Worrying goes hand-in-hand with fear. And fear is not an option for us as followers of Jesus.

This presidential election earlier this month was a prime example for me of how fear is still an issue in many adult’s lives. A very dear friend on mine—a man who is very intelligent and a faithful church-goer—became almost irrational in the days leading up the election. He was certain by the day the election rolled around that if one particular candidate won (or was re-elected), every terrible, horrible fear that could be imagined would be brought on this nation. And, he further feared, he would eventually lose his job, his benefits, essentially his future. I don’t think the two presidential candidates went into the election worrying as much as my friend did. He’s over it for the most part now, but it was shocking for me to see how much fear a person can live under in their lives.

For us as Christians, the fact we don’t need to worry about our fears is that we know—no matter what life may throw at us, no matter what bad things happen to us in this life (and they WILL happen to us)—ultimately God is in control and it will all, somehow, work out in the end. Don’t ask me now how, or in what way. But it will all somehow work out in the end.

When we take a good, long, hard look at the things that are worrying us on this Thanksgiving Eve, we simply need to change our perspective. We need to look at the big picture. The things we are worrying about tonight will probably not be worries for us a year from now. Or five years from now. Or ten years from now. And, let me assure you, fifty or seventy-five years from now, they will definitely not be worrying you.

But a year from now, or five years from now, or ten years from now, or fifty or seventy-five years from now, God will still be in control. And good will always triumph. That is the consolation we have. That is why Jesus is saying to us, again and again, do not worry.

Do not worry.

Let us, on this Thanksgiving Eve, not only hear, but heed those all-powerful words of Jesus to us.

“Do not worry.”

As we gather to consider all that we are thankful for, all the gifts we have been given in this life, all the love that has been given to us and those whom we have been fortunate to love—when we think about all that God has granted to us in this life—why would we worry? See, how God has truly provided for us. See how God has provided for us exactly what we have needed at this time and in this place. See how God has provided us with all the goods we didn’t even have the frame of mind to ask for.

Or to put it in the words of Jesus, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you…”

God knows our needs before we ask. Our job, as followers of Jesus and lovers of God, is to trust in that goodness of God in our lives. And when we do, we will see that goodness in our midst. That goodness will be evident all around us in all that we have. And when we recognition it as such, we will know what true thankfulness is.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

25 Pentecost

Stewardship Sunday
November 18, 2012

Mark 13:1-8


+ Today, of course, is Stewardship Sunday. I personally sometimes get a little tense about this time of the year. I am a priest who does not like asking people for anything if I don’t have to. I think that’s a good thing to have in your priest.

And luckily, here at St. Stephen’s, we only make appeals like this once a year. And what’s doubly great about St. Stephen’s is that this appeal to consider giving, not only from our financial gifts but also of our time-and-talent, is truly heeded. We don’t have to make appeals throughout the year.

But what I’ve come to enjoy about Stewardship time is the fact that it is a time to celebrate St. Stephen’s. Now, one of my duties as Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s is to be a kind of cheerleader for the congregation. And I love doing it. So, as most of you know, I sent out a letter a few weeks ago doing just that. Most of your received that letter.

For those of you who didn’t get the letter, I simply mentioned this fact that five years ago, the membership of St. Stephen’s was 55 members. The Average Sunday Attendance at that time was 24. Our current membership is 121. Our ASA is now about 45.

As I was writing the letter, I happened to post a Facebook update with those same statistics. Between the Facebook update and the letter (which I should mention, I sent to a few people who are not members of St. Stephen’s), I received many responses. Most were overwhelmingly positive. Numbers like these are very good, and people know the good numbers mean healthy congregation.

But…there were a few grumbling responses, mostly from clergy, who wanted to stress to me that the church is more than just numbers and that unless we are stepping outside the walls of the actual church building, we’re not really doing any ministry at all. And one response was from a person who felt that “bragging” about St. Stephen’s accomplishments while other churches struggle and decline is not being very gracious or Christian.

The fact is, these numbers reflect more than just growth. These numbers reflect life and vitality. And anyone who thinks we don’t do ministry outside these walls, just doesn’t know anything about St. Stephen’s.

I don’t think any of us—myself included—can fully appreciate what is happening here at St. Stephen’s. In a world in which we hear stories of churches losing membership, losing direction, in a world in which we hear of churches alienating people, of ostracizing people, of churches that deny Holy Communion and other sacraments (like Confirmation) to people for their stances on social or political or personal issues, we are a church who is, this morning, celebrating.

We are celebrating our growth. We are celebrating a bright future. We are celebrating who we are as a fully-inclusive, fully-welcoming church. And we are celebrating what God is doing through us.

As I wrote in my letter, when anyone asks me what the “secret” of our success is, I say, two things. First, the Holy Spirit. We do need to give credit where credit is due. And second, it is that we welcome radically and we love radically.

Now, people—people in the CHURCH—are shocked by that. And I, in turn, am shocked that people in the Church are shocked be that. This is not rocket science. This is not quantum physics. This is basic Christianity.

Basic Christianity, as we live it out here at St. Stephen’s, is nothing more than following Jesus in his commandment to love God and love one another as we love ourselves. It’s just that. And what shocks me even more is the Church—the larger Church—just doesn’t get that.

I recently overheard, first hand, at a church gathering, some parishioners at another church sharing with me an almost-snobby attitude about some people who had visited their church recently. What shocked me was the attitude that these church people felt those visitors weren’t good enough for that church. They weren’t liberal enough or conservative enough, they weren’t members of the right political party, they weren’t dressed the right way, or talked the right way or acted the right way. And not long after these responses, they actually wondered aloud why their church wasn’t growing.

I said nothing, and, I’ll be honest with you, I’m happy I didn’t. Because I know that if I had, it wouldn’t have made any difference. They aren’t ready to do at that congregation what Jesus is asking of all of us who follow him.

To love—fully and completely. To love—radically and inclusively.

Here, at the St. Stephen’s it is not a matter of politics (we don’t care what party you belong to), or how you dress (the only one who is expected to dress up here is me—and that’s my own expectation more than anything), or the way you talk (or don’t talk), or what your sexual orientation is, or whatever. Here, it’s just a matter of coming here. Of being here. And of being with us here. And being here as one of us. I don’t see that as all that radical. I see that as fairly basic.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” These words of Jesus are especially poignant for us on Stewardship Sunday as we look at our own future as a congregation in a larger Church that is often at war—at war with its own parishioners and at war with itself to some extent. But Jesus uses a very interesting description of these fears and pains—images of war and their rumors. He calls them “birth pangs.”

And I think “Pang” is the right word to be using here, for us and for the larger Church. Those of us who are here—who have experienced pain inflicted on us by the Church, who have been on the receiving end of those church people who believe we don’t belong, we who have a love-hate relationship with this human organization called the Church, we know what pangs are.

So…what is a pang? Well, a pang is more than an ache. It is a pain. It a deep down, excruciating pang.

When else do we hear that word, “pang” used? It is used to describe hunger. When we’re hungry we have hunger pangs. But Jesus uses it appropriately here. He talks of birth pangs.

I have heard many women tell me that there is nothing quite as painful as the pangs of giving birth. I remember my mother saying that, when she went through it for the first time at age eighteen, with little or no preparation for what she was going through, she said, she thought she was going to die. She said that the words that went through her mind as she experienced those birth pangs were, “I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” But the question I used to always have for her was this: “If it was so terrible, why did you go through it three more times?” She said to me, “Well, when the baby arrives and you’re holding this little precious being in your arms, you just sort of forget it. You forget the pain you went through…until the next time.”

Jesus uses the right image here to describe what we are going through now and in the future. Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Yes, there will be moments when church leaders and church attendees will say and do hurtful, war-like things.

But the words we cling to—that we hold on to and find our strength in to bear those pangs—is in the words “do not be alarmed.” Jesus is being honest with us. We will suffer pangs. But there is a calmness to his words.

“Do not be alarmed,” he says. This is all part of our birth into new life.

As you have heard me say many, many times from this pulpit: The Church is changing. This Church is just going through major birth pangs. But that is not something to despair over. Rather, be assured. Take comfort. Yes, we are going through the pangs, but once we have weathered these pains, once we have gone through them, we will have something precious in our midst.

We will have a Church more along the lines of what Jesus intended the Church to be—a place in which everyone, no matter who they or what they are is not only welcomed, but loved. Loved, fully and completely. And this is why we do not have to be alarmed.

If we allow these fears to reign in our lives, if we allow the pain to triumph, then we all lose. If we live with our pangs and do not outlive them, then the words of Jesus to us—those words of “do not be alarmed”—are in vain.

In the face of these things, do not be alarmed, he is saying to us. Why? Because in the end, God will triumph. If we place our trust—our confidence—in God, we will be all right.

Yes, we will suffer birth pangs, but look what comes after them. It is a loving and gracious God who calms our fears amidst calamity and rumors of calamity. Our job is simply to live as fully as we can. Our job is to simply do what we’ve always been doing here at St. Stephen’s. To welcome, to accept, to love.

We have this moment. This moment was given to us by our loving and gracious God. We must live it without fear or malice. We must live it fully and completely.

So, let us do just that. Let us live this moment fully. Let us LOVE boldly. People are going to say: St. Stephen’s is just that rebellious church that keeps pushing the boundaries. So be it. We are. We ARE pushing the boundaries. We are pushing the boundaries of love and acceptance. We are pushing the boundaries of what the Church should be and could be. And we are all doing it together—not just here in church on Sundays or Wednesdays, but in the very lives we are living in the world throughout the rest of our week.

So, let us, on this Stewardship Sunday, continue to do what we’ve been doing. Let us welcome radically and love radically. Let us, in our following of Jesus, continue to strive to be a powerful and visible conduit of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

It’s already happening. Right now. Right here. In our midst. It is truly a time in which to be grateful and joyous.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stewardship Letter

November 8, 2012
St. Wilibrord

Dear St. Stephen’s family,

Five years ago, the membership of St. Stephen’s was 55 members. The Average Sunday Attendance at that time was 24.

How things have changed! Our current membership is 121. This past Sunday, as we celebrated the Baptism of our own Leah Elliott, there were over 50 people in church. At no point during this past year (even during the summer) did our attendance slip below 30. And almost every Sunday brings new visitors.

This not just good news; this is incredible news! Whenever I share information like this with colleagues and others in the wider Church, they are as shocked and amazed as I am often am. In the wider Church, numbers reflect growth and vitality.

But, for us, it is more than a matter of numbers. It is a matter of a congregation that has come together and is doing wonderful and transformative things in the name of God. As we look around us, we see a congregation of changing faces, of a church building that is being updated, of ministry that is reaching beyond these walls to the farthest stretches of the world.

Of course, a common question I am asked is: what’s the secret of our success? My first answer is always, of course, the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is most definitely at work in our congregation. God’s Spirit, as we all know, is a Spirit of renewal and life. And it is this Spirit feel in our midst when we gather together and it is this Spirit that empowers us when we go out and do ministry in the world.

My second answer is this: we are simply living out the Gospel. This is a congregation that has been committed to following Jesus’ message of loving God and loving one another, and, in doing so, being radically welcoming to every single person that comes through our doors. This is what makes the difference, and this is what makes us who we are.

We have so much to be thankful for at St. Stephen’s. It is an exciting time for us. New people are finding a home and a family at St. Stephen’s. Those of us who have been here for years are finding ourselves renewed and recharged, as well as confronted with all the changes and challenges of a growing congregation. And all of us, together, are doing ministry in whatever ways we can.

All that is happening here at St. Stephen’s is something to celebrate. This is a time in which we should be giving thanks to God for this church home, this church family and these opportunities to do the ministry of loving God and one another in worship and service.

On Sunday, November 18, we will all have an opportunity to celebrate these blessings God has granted to us. On November 18, we celebrate Pledge Sunday. Pledge time is the time in which we take a good, long look at our selves as a congregation and what we are doing in our own lives to help St. Stephen’s live even further into this growth and life we are celebrating.

That Sunday, the Vestry of St. Stephen’s will host a dinner after the 11:00 am celebration of Holy Eucharist. That dinner is a way for your Priest-in-Charge and your Vestry to thank you for all you have done for St. Stephen’s this year. At that meal, you will be given a packet that will contain your pledge card and your Time and Talent sheet. Your pledge card is an opportunity for your consider what kind of monetary pledge you would like to make to St. Stephen’s. As you know, ministry and the practical upkeep of our physical building is not done without finances.

The Time and Talent sheet is a way for you to consider pledging from your time and talent. What ways can you pledge from the gifts God has granted you in areas such as personal expertise? Are you an artist? Are you good at social care? Are you mechanically inclined? These are ways in which you have been blessed by God and, recognizing them as blessings, they are ways in which you can give back.

More than anything, know how grateful and humbled I am to be serving you. I am truly blessed by God to be serving a congregation that is excited about what it is doing, that is renewed by its energy and committed to its following of Jesus. Thank you for all you have given to me.

-peace,
Fr. Jamie+



Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Sunday

The Baptism of Leah Elliott

November 4, 2012

Revelation 7.9-17


+ As some of you know—and some of you might be shocked to hear—but I am “off the hooch.” Due to some intestinal issues I’ve been experiencing, I am not drinking alcohol (except for the wine at Holy Communion). And haven’t for about two weeks. It’s been a very good thing, of course. It’s good to take a break and sort of purify one’s system.

I have a fairly active social life, so I of course still go out on a regular basis to some of the finer drinking establishments around town. I have an active social life and, let’s face it, I do a lot of ministry at those places. And I have been exploring the wonderful world of “mocktails.” Lord!

But I realized that one thing I have an issue with now is some of the behavior in those drinking establishments. I’m not saying that from a judgmental perspective. I’m simply saying it from the perspective of a kind of tired frustration. Or maybe it’s envy.

This past week, I went out with a good friend of mine and at the next table there were a group of young men who were being a bit loud, shall we say. Nothing obnoxious or ridiculous. Just loud. But for some reason, it just of grated on me and I kind of grumbled about it.

My friend, who is not a regular church-goer, said to me: “I hope now that you’re sober, you don’t start getting all judgmental.”

It was a good wake-up call for me. As we sat there, and I realized we were a nearing the Feast of All Saints, I looked at these young men and saw, in our midst, saints. These are what the saints are, in our midst sometimes. And I quickly got over my grumpiness.

Today, of course, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. This is Sunday in which we celebrate the saints. By saints, I don’t mean only our loved ones and others who have passed on to the “nearer presence of God.” I am talking about all the saints—past, present and future.

First of all, lets’ talk a bit about the saints. As most of you know, we do a very good job of commemorating the saints here at St. Stephen’s. Every Wednesday night, at our Mass, we celebrate and commemorate a different saint. And I have found that, oftentimes at the supper afterward, or the days after the mass, the discussion about these saints continues.

Most of us probably think veneration of saints is almost an exclusively Roman Catholic practice. Certainly, Romans Catholics seem, in some ways, to have the market cornered when it comes to saints. But we Episcopalians do have our saints too, which we often commemorate on Wednesday nights. We name many of our churches after saints—like our own, after St. Stephen the Martyr. We commemorate their feast days. And we recognize our contemporaries as saints.

We find most of our saints in the supplemental book we called Holy Women, Holy Men. I have issues with some of the people who are included in this particular book (I don’t understand why we commemorate some of these people—but that’s my issue) For the most part thought, it’s helpful book and one I always encourage Episcopalians to purchase a copy for themselves and read through it daily. Here we find a wide variety of saints, reflecting in many ways the wide variety of people in the Episcopal Church.

Now, unlike the Roman Catholics, we don’t invoke our saints—we don’t pray to them. We do, however, look to them as examples of how to live out our Christian lives. Saints like St. Stephen of the German Abbess and newly minted Doctor of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen or the newly canonized Kateri Takakwitha or the Episcopal priest and missionary James Lloyd Breck, or the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion, Florence Li-Tim Oi help us to see that even ordinary Christians can sometimes do extraordinary things.

We do, though, have to ask ourselves: Why? Why commemorate saints? And are there still saints? If so, who are these saints who live and work beside us?

More often than not, you’ll think of some exceptional person you knew who truly lived a “Christian life.” Some of us might think of our mothers, or our fathers or some priest or a missionary we knew at some time or some social worker. Certainly, I think is many of my paternal grandmother or even my own father as down-to-earth examples of regular people who just quietly lived their faith.

But I have to ask: do any of us think of ourselves as saints? Can any of us look in the mirror and, with all honesty, see a saint looking back at us? The fact is this: you should. Because, we too are the saints of God. We don’t necessarily have to do extraordinary things. We don’t need to perform miracles, or die for our faith, or be nice and sweet all the time.

To be a saint, we simply need to live out our faith as followers of Jesus to its fullest. And we need to hope in the fact that this life is not all there is. Yes, we need to live this life to the fullest and make the most of it—that’s what the saints teach us again and again. This life is an opportunity to do good, to serve God and one another, and to bring about goodness. It is an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of God. But, in this life, we also hope for the life that comes after this—the life of absolute wholeness. The life that will never end.

That’s the wonderful thing about All Saints Day. Today is a day we get to reflect on where we’re going as Christian saints. We are a part of a much larger Church than we can even imagine. The Church is so much more than this church on earth. It extends far beyond our imaginations and our conceptions. The larger church exists in that place we, as Christians, strive toward. The larger Church is the one that dwells in that so-called “nearer presence of God.” I think we very rarely ever give heaven a real serious consideration.

In today’s collect, we prayed to God to “give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…”

In the original version of this collect the word “unspeakable” was used instead of Ineffable.

“May we come to those unspeakable joys”

Either way, that, I think, is the key to what we are longing for in our lives as followers of Jesus. We have no clear picture of where we are going as we follow him. Scripture does not paint any crystal clear pictures for us of what heaven will be like. Yes, there’s a good amount of poetic language, written by people who imagined only the most beautiful place for heaven—with streets paved in gold and crystal buildings all about.

In today’s reading from Revelation, for example, we find some gorgeous images of heaven—of multitudes of saints standing before the throne of the Lamb of God with palm branches in their hands and their robes washed white by the blood of the Lamb. It’s a beautiful image and one we can cherish and hold close when we think about heaven. But ultimately these are vague symbol-heavy images for most of us and ones that are hard to wrap our minds around.

But in our collect today, we hear words given to our hopes. That idea of ineffable joys—of joys that leave us speechless, joys that are beyond our understanding, awaiting us—that is what we are hoping in. And that is the place to which Jesus I leading us who follow him. That is where the larger church is participating at this very moment in its unending worship of God.

We know that this goal—that place of heaven—is the place to which we are headed. To some extent—and I am not talking about predestination here—we, in a very real sense, as followers of Jesus, as people who profess, and in professing, believe, know the end of our story. We know that heaven awaits us, with its unspeakable joys, and we know that if we keep our eyes on that goal, then that goal will be our reward. Certainly, we also know the beginning of own individual stories. We know what we have done up to this point in our lives as saints. We are fully aware of the joys and the hardships we have experienced up to this point in our lives. It’s the middle part of the story—the part of our lives that we are living now, as we speak—that is for the most part unwritten. And this is where the mystery of our lives lie.

The mystery doesn’t lie in our ultimate goal. We know it’s there. We know we are slowly—day by day, moment by moment—headed toward that place. The mystery of our lives is in the right here and now.

It is in that foggy, gray area between this moment and that moment we arrive in our True Home. It’s sometimes a very difficult story. We have no idea what awaits us tomorrow. We have no idea of the hardships that lie ahead for us around the next corner. But we do know that beyond those unseen hardships, lie joys beyond words for us. And with that goal in sight, we know one other thing: we know that we are taken care of. Through it all, God is here with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey, following Jesus, toward that place. And Jesus, as we follow him, lifts the “veil” to give us a glimpse of that place. This is our heritage. This is where our stories will find their completion. We know this because we have been promised this in our baptism. By our baptism, we have been told that this heritage of saints is our heritage as well.

Today, Leah is going to be reminded to reminded of that heritage as she is washed in those waters of life. This is what it means to be a saint—to be washed in those waters of a life that will not end.

So, who are the saints in our lives? They are the ones who know that they are “taken care of.” Or to use the language we hear today in the book of Revelation:

“the one who is seated on
the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and
thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the
throne will be their
shepherd,
and he will guide them to
springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every
tear from their eyes.”

They are the ones who know that both the beginning and the end of the story are already finished. They know how their story is going to end. And that the ending will be glorious and beautiful. It’s what they do with the middle of the story that makes all the difference.

But there’s one more hitch to the story. The message of All Saints Day is that the end isn’t really the end of the story at all, but actually a whole new beginning. Our journey doesn’t end simply because we die. Our journey goes on, but now on a whole different level. We continue to grow.

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a wonderful prayer from the Burial Service that describes death as growing from “strength to strength.” With it comes a sense that our growth in that place will continue. This is our story and it really is a wonderful one, isn’t it?

Who are the saints among us? We are the saints among us. Today—All Saints Sunday—is a celebration of ourselves just as much as it is a celebration of those who have gone on before us.

So, let us celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us. Let us celebrate those saints who have paved the way for us on our path toward that goal of heaven. They are celebrating today, in that place of joy and light and beauty, before the throne of the Lamb.

But also, let us celebrate ourselves today, because those ineffable joys—those unspeakable joys—await each and every one of us as well.