Sunday, November 6, 2005

All Saints Day: Run-of-the-Mill Saints

Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

There is something beautifully ironic about this service today.
In our annual worship cycle,
All Saints Day might well be this congregation’s favorite.
We routinely hear remarks like,
“I would never miss All Saint’s Day at Park View Mennonite.”

But the irony is, Mennonites started out in Europe,
rejecting the whole notion that gave rise to All Saint’s Day.
One of the official charges against Anabaptist martyr Michael Sattler,
was that Anabaptists “condemned the mother of God and the saints.”
Of course, the charge was overstated, and Michael replied,
“We don’t condemn the saints.
We just say that we who live and believe are the saints...
and those who have died in faith we regard as blessed.”

The icons of saints, that hung on the walls of cathedrals,
were considered idolatrous by the Anabaptists.
In 1524, the Swiss Reformers, including future Anabaptists,
went through the Grossmünster church in Zurich,
and had the icons ripped off the walls.
I’ve read that in the Grossmünster to this day,
you can see the evidence on the walls of this cleansing.

Now to add to the irony,
today, I stand in the pulpit of a Mennonite church on All Saints Day,
behind a table full of icons of some of our saints,
and two weeks from today Irene and I
will be worshiping at the Grossmünster in Zurich.

There’s also irony in the fact that Mennonite Historical Committee
is raising funds for Anabaptist research
by selling icons of Anabaptist saints
painted in the same style
as those once ripped from the walls of European cathedrals.

There’s just all kinds of beautiful irony,
that a service like this brings to mind.

I call it beautiful irony,
because in making peace with the past,
we have come to embrace the good on both sides.
The Anabaptists had noble motives,
even if their zeal went a little overboard.
There were religious abuses that had to be addressed.
At the same time, we have begun to recover some of the best
of the old tradition of honoring the blessed ones
who once lived among us,
and are now part of the great cloud of witnesses.

So how did we get to where we are today?
Well, we didn’t make the journey from there to here,
without risking some danger along the way.
We try to walk a faithful middle ground,
but there is danger on both sides of us.
The extreme on one side, is the outright worship of saints,
of misplacing the devotion we should reserve for God,
and putting that devotion on fallible human beings.
The extreme on the other side,
is destroying religious art,
and desecrating the images of persons we ought to honor,
and preventing their lives from inspiring and blessing us.

I think we’ve found the right balance at Park View,
in the way we celebrate All Saints Day,
but the danger is still there, on both sides.

Let’s take another look at Revelation 7, which was just read.
We have this amazing scene in heaven.
A scene far removed from anything we have known in this life.
Great multitudes, robed in white, standing before the throne of God,
waving palm branches, and shouting out their praises.
Then we have all the angels, and elders,
and “four living creatures,” which are described earlier
as being full of eyes, in front and behind,
having six wings,
one of them looking like a lion, another like an ox,
one like a human, and the fourth like an eagle,
and all are holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense.
This is not your ordinary, back-yard kind of moment.
This is truly other-worldly.

And this leads us to one of the dangers.
See, this multitude robed in white, are the saints.
They are the ones who have gone before.
In Rev. 7, beginning in v. 13, we have this fascinating conversation,
between an elder and John, the one writing down this vision.
The elder asks John, “Who are these, robed in white,
and where have they come from?”
John wisely answers, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”
Then the elder explains, “These are they
who have come out of the great ordeal;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
These are they.
In other words, “these are your people.”
These words were written
during a time of horrible persecution in the church.
People were being killed right and left.
They disappeared from the life of the church.
But now John the Revelator, brings the church a vision,
shows them where they are now.

And while this vision is greatly encouraging,
it presents a danger.
The danger is the people on earth,
will lose sight of the fact
that those people robed in white,
were once their neighbors.
There is a danger they will make them into some sacred beings
so holy, so far removed from their reality,
that they can’t identify with them.
The legends will grow.
And with each retelling of the story of their lives,
the lives of these saints will become
more removed, more mysterious, more magical, more untouchable.

But these saints were not super-human.
They were run-of-the-mill.
We need heroes, of course.
Heroes can inspire us. Can push us to greater heights.
But we are too quick to make other people larger than life.
We live in a celebrity-driven popular culture.
Once someone makes the cover of People magazine,
they cease being one of the us.
We imagine they were destined from birth
to become greater than other human beings.
There’s a fine line between admiring someone,
and worshiping them.
We even do that with our children.
We tell them over and over that they are special.
And if we’re not careful,
we soon have them convinced,
that they are not like everyone else.

I hate to burst a big bubble here,
but none of us are special—
none of us sitting in this room,
and none of these whose pictures are on the table.
We are all, everyone of us,
made from the same mold.
We are all human beings created from the same pattern.
And that pattern is the image of God.
We all have it.
We are, in the best sense of the word, run-of-the-mill.
And God, who runs the mill, who decided on the pattern,
loves equally everyone who comes out of that mill.
Not being special, doesn’t mean we don’t have worth.
Oh, in God’s eyes, we have infinite worth.
We are more precious, and have more value in God’s eyes,
than we can ever imagine.
But the essence of our humanity, we share with everyone else.

God didn’t create a saint,
when God brought Mother Theresa into the world.
Anymore than God created a monster,
when Osama bin Laden was born to his parents.
They both began with the same image of God stamped on their beings.
They were both run-of-the-mill.

But they dealt with that image of God in very different ways.
One embraced the image in herself,
and saw the same image in the poorest of the poor.
The other sees himself as someone special, an agent of God,
sent to render God’s judgement on other human beings.

One of them saw the need for God’s grace in their lives,
and accepted that grace.
The other one didn’t.

When we celebrate All Saints Day at Park View,
we reject the notion that these saints we honor,
were fundamentally different from any of us.
We honor them, precisely because they were just like us.
They were our friends, our neighbors, our fellow church members,
who lived by the grace of God.

And many of them, though certainly not all,
lived a life we should emulate.
They were blessed by God,
because they lived out the beatitudes.
They were poor in spirit, meek, and merciful.
They hungered for justice, for righteousness.
They made peace.
They were pure in heart.
And remembering that should inspire us.
It should make us better people.

That’s why we do All Saints Day here at Park View.
We celebrate the grace of God shown in the lives
of those who have gone before us.
We consciously call them to mind.
We name them aloud.
And by so doing, we honor them.
But we don’t make them special.
We don’t imagine they are more holy than we are.
But we honor their memory,
and allow their lives to touch ours once more.

And pray that God will help these run-of-the-mill saints,
to continue to inspire our run-of-the-mill lives,
that we might live out the ordinary grace of God
in extraordinary ways.

—Phil Kniss, November 6, 2005

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