Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hallowed and human

All Saints Day 2009
Revelation 21:1-6a

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This service is more about song and scripture and silence and symbols,
and less about a sermon . . . so I will be brief.
Though brief, some words are necessary, because . . .
if we celebrate All Saints Day,
without thinking clearly and carefully about what we are doing,
it can be hazardous to our spiritual health.

The reason it can be hazardous,
is that on All Saints Day we walk a tightrope,
between the divine or holy,
and the human or earthly.
We walk the rope with a balancing pole in our hands,
wobbling between these two realities.
If we’re not careful we fall off one side or the other.
We need hold the two together simultaneously.
On All Saints Day we celebrate both the hallowed and the human.

The church has a history of falling off the rope, on both sides.
The Reformation in the sixteenth century
was an attempt to get back on the rope.
Because the church had come to venerate the Saints so much,
that it bordered on idolatry, and magic.
They were not like us. They were holy.
Icons and statues became the object of people’s worship.

So Protestant Reformers,
including the first Anabaptist reformers,
participated in a radical cleansing of the sanctuaries,
ripping the icons off the walls and burning them,
pulverizing statues of the saints,
and essentially stripping the worship spaces,
destroying all the religious art they could get their hands on.
Thus falling off the rope on the other side.
They scorned these reminders
of the saints who had gone before them,
to the extent that they failed to see themselves
as part of a larger stream of Christian history,
and they missed out on the spiritual benefits
of remembering and honoring the faithful ones
who have gone before us,
and whose lives still have the power to teach us.

So here we are in a Mennonite congregation,
as spiritual descendants of the icon-destroying Anabaptists,
trying to walk the rope between the hallowed and human.

When we celebrate All Saints Day at Park View,
we reject the notion that the saints we honor,
both the saints of old—St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Francis—
and the recent saints of our own community—
Ruth, Bob, Mary Florence—
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 ordinary human lives
that were hallowed—made holy—by the grace of God.

That’s why we do All Saints Day here at Park View.
We celebrate the hallowed grace of God
revealed in the very human lives
of those who have gone before us.
We call them to mind.
We name them aloud.
We honor them.
But we don’t make them special.
We don’t put them in a holier place than we are.

We need heroes of the faith, of course.
Heroes inspire us, push us to greater heights.
But in a celebrity-driven culture,
we are too quick to make other people larger than our lives.
We tell our children over and over that they are special.
But if we’re not careful,
we soon have them convinced,
that they inhabit a world
somewhere above those who are not special.

I hate to burst the bubble,
but none of us are special.
Unique, yes. Loved, yes. But not special.
We are all, everyone of us, cut from the same mold.
That mold being the holy, divine image of God.
We are all human beings with a hallowed imprint.
We are daughters and sons of God,
and we are children of the earth.
Hallowed and human.

That’s why we celebrate this day.
It’s not about our holy ancestors and their great accomplishments.
It’s not about us, and our potential to be great.
It is about the wonder, the mystery,
of God’s choice to put God’s own holy image
into the likes of us human beings,
and then to dwell with us.

In Revelation 21, at the end of the service today,
we will hear these words,
which should cause us to fall on our faces in gratitude:
A voice came from the throne of God,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.”

Our calling on earth is not to strive to reach God in heaven.
Our calling is to receive, in deep gratitude,
God’s striving to be with us,
God’s desire to make his home with us.

It is not our striving that creates saints, past or present.
It is not our doing that brings together the hallowed and human.
It is God’s design, and God’s doing.

And for that, in amazement and wonder, we,
“Sing with all the saints in glory,
sing the resurrection song!”

—Phil Kniss, November 1, 2009

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