Today is the day we celebrate All Saints day in the church. But wait a minute, isn’t sainthood something the Roman Catholics believe in? It’s true. When we aren’t talking about football, the most common references to Saints and sainthood are found in the Roman Catholic faith. For them, Saints are people who lived holy lives and are recognized by the church as protectors, mediators, and agents of action for God’s grace and mercy. Saints are able to comfort and intercede for us when we feel that God has become too distant, or that we have fallen too far away to approach God.
In the Reformed tradition we reject the idea that we need someone other than Jesus to intercede for us, and yet in the Apostles Creed we say that we believe in the “Holy Catholic church and the communion of the Saints.” And in many cities across the United States you can find Presbyterian churches named after St. Andrew or St. Paul. How can this be?
The simple answer, as many of you know, is that the word “catholic” means all encompassing. The original intent of this word was not to exclude but rather to include various communities that shared a common belief in Jesus as the one who revealed the character and nature of God. Eventually the church in Rome became a state power, and then there were those that realized that the church needed to be reformed in order to reveal the character and nature of God in the same way that Jesus did.
Those Reformers had no desire to leave the church. They just wanted it to fall more in line with scripture. So, there are many things that remained the same – even as many changed. Some ancient traditions have been re-instituted over time, when there is no Biblical reason to exclude them. Likewise, there are terms and language and practices that have been kept and re-invented. The idea of a “Saint” is one of those.
Saints are not simply those who have lived for God, and through whom God has done miracles. Saints, from a Biblical perspective are those who – past and present – demonstrate God’s active presence. Saints are those who live and die in the tension between the God who is revealed here and now and the God who will be revealed in the end.
That tension is apparent in our scripture readings today. In Isaiah we hear about a promise for a future held by a God who overshadows pain and loss and even death itself with hospitality, redemption, and joy! God is promising not only to meet the needs of the exiled Jews but to feed them sumptuously. And God can do this. In fact, a sumptuous feast is just an appetizer for the God who swallows up the swallower. God swallows up death itself. In this place – on God’s mountain – they can expect that God will put an end to death for… who? Everyone.
God’s people will be saved from disgrace because it is their God that will do these things – for everyone. The promise of Isaiah is that a time is coming when death shall be no more, and God will wipe the tears from every eye. The ancient Jews hearing this in captivity understood the mountain to mean a restoration of Jerusalem, but we who follow Christ know that salvation is not limited to a time or a place.
In fact, even as we wait for a new heaven and a new earth, we understand that salvation is unfolding right here and right now. This is what we believe and trust and put our hopes in, but there are times when it sure seems like salvation is a long way off.
When local politics and global crisis seem to be spinning out of control, we want to know what God is doing about it. When the fragility of life is made undeniable, we want to know what God is doing about it. And when we read this story about a Jesus who seems absent when his friend is dying, we want to know how he can be so callous as to use death as a sermon illustration!
Jesus knew that Lazerus would die. He said privately and publicly that this was going to be used to demonstrate God’s glory. So, I think we have to look at this story from that angle. When Jesus was disturbed and when he wept, surely it was because of the pain of those he loved. But perhaps it was also for something more. Perhaps it was simply because of the fact that there is pain and suffering at all. Perhaps it was because he knew that giving life in this way would move him one step closer to giving his own life away.
One thing that we do know is that Jesus is the one who gives life. He is the one who demonstrated for once and for all what God is doing about sin and suffering and death. Jesus was the one who heard the request for help, and he is the one who gives life. But what about the rest of us?
Well, we may be the ones asking for help or lamenting a loss. We may be the ones who have to say what we believe – like Martha – even when our belief doesn’t seem to be helping. We may even be the one that Jesus is calling to and telling to come out of the tomb made of old habits, old grudges, or wounds that could be brand new or old and smelly to everyone but us. Above and beyond all of that, as a community, we are the ones who Jesus commands to unbind Lazerus. We are the ones being called to demonstrate God’s active presence here and now, together. We are a part of the communion of Saints.
Last Wednesday in youth group we talked about Saints who demonstrate the love and grace of God. I told them about the pumpkin at our presbytery meeting that was decorated to look like John Calvin. Then we decorated our own pumpkins to represent people who have helped us see what God is up to in this world. It should be no surprise to those of you who know them that St. Leigh, St. Dorinda, and St. Bob were among those honored saints that night.
I did not make one, but if I had it would’ve been St. Jodi. Jodi was in the first youth group that I led many years ago. I have a Christmas ornament she made for me that reminds me of her strong faith every year. As an adult she’s always been somewhat of a community organizer and an advocate for things like co-ops and shared resources. A couple of years ago I was shocked to find out that she had opened a business selling cup cakes, and is doing quite well. She is intentionally located in an area of Asheville, NC that needs development, and she works with young women to develop and empower them through the business community.
That might be reason enough for Sainthood, given that she does all of this as an aspect of her faith and belief in God’s active presence in the world. However, she’s gotten herself in a little bit of a battle these days. Here’s how it started. Two owners of a local coffee shop began broadcasting anonymous information about their exploits with women in the community. This didn’t stay anonymous very long, and the fact that these men were selectively preying on women in vulnerable situations was not well received.
Jodi was not only a major voice of protest, she mounted a campaign with another female business owner to purchase the coffee shop and develop a new cafe that would give a percentage of sales (not just profits) to a local organization that helped women recover from abuse. She wanted to take specific actions to reclaim the space and the function of that business to move from a place of suffering to a place of healing and hospitality. In the end, the two men did sell their coffee shop – just not to Jodi. She was still able to raise awareness in her community, and she and her potential business partner raised a few thousand dollars for resources for women’s recovery from abuse. Yay for St. Jodi! Yay for God’s kingdom! Except… in the Kingdom of God, we find space for the abuser and the abused, the sinner and the saint, at the same table. Abuse is not OK. Forgiveness does not equal permission. Jesus still weeps with our specific pains and over the fact that we must endure it.
In the Kingdom of God there is redemption and hope and yes, even resurrection, for everyone who believes. And God’s people will not be put to shame when everyone sees that it is only by the power of God that restoration takes place. If you look for it, you will see that the power of God is restoring all things – even here, even now, even through you, even through me. If you listen for it taking place, God’s redemption may sound like your name being called from outside of a tomb. Or it may sound like a call to unbind someone else, so that all might be free.
Whatever you do, let it be done to demonstrate the redemption and healing that is both present and yet to come. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen!