Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus, the truth

Homily notes for the Last Sunday after Pentecost  (Christ the King, 11/22/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Jesus answered, "You say that I king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 
Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" 
WHAT IS TRUTH
Pilate’s response is interesting (unfortunately, it is missing from today’s reading), "What is truth?" Indeed, what is truth? That is a question for the ages. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, politicians, poets, and priests have been searching for the answer for all of human history.

What is Jesus answer? You might think that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, might have an eloquent soliloquy in answer. But, no! Instead, what we get from Jesus is silence. Jesus, always so determined to rebuff the cynical and self-congratulatory questions of the Pharisees – always ready with quick response to the silliness of the disciples – often ready to answer a question with a question….now, Jesus has nothing. Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question. He just stands there in silence.

Silence is nothing new in the scriptures. The Psalmist prays, "For God alone my soul waits in silence" (62:1) and "Be not silent, O God of my praise" (109:1). In the book of Revelation, when the Lamb opened the seventh seal "there was silence in heaven" (8: I) – creation itself coming to an end with a new creation about to begin. The silence that has always intrigued me the most, however, is this silence, the silence of Jesus before Pilate. “What is truth?” It seems to be a question tailor-made for the great Rabbi.
While Jesus does not answer the question here, he does address the question elsewhere in the Gospel. "What is truth?" “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). 

Jesus doesn’t claim religion to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim what people teach about him to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim the Bible or the Church or some system of ethics or theology to be the truth. These all bear the imprint of the truth. They are all individual truths but that is not what Pilate was after. Pilate wasn’t in search of this or that truth. Pilate was after THE truth – the truth about who we are and who God is – the truth about being and about life and death and about eternity.

It is the truth that is The Word, spoken at creation and made flesh in Jesus. It is also the truth that can never be captured by words or doctrine or creed because it is too big or too far beyond the capacity of our language. But it is also the truth that will constantly beckon. “What is truth?” Look to Jesus.

THE TRUTH IN STORY AND ACTION
Jesus told stories to describe the truth. Stories often serve well where descriptions will not.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan. This is truth.

Then there’s another story about the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Lost Brother, the last we know better as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You know the story where the wayward son returned home to be welcomed by his father with great celebration “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” This is truth.

Jesus life was truth, his actions and relationships with the people he knew. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus gave sight to the blind. Jesus expelled demons. This is truth.

And do you remember Jesus last sign involving a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, who had died. Jesus was brought to where Lazarus was and there he wept. But this would not be the end for, as he told Martha, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Instead of being the end for Lazarus, Jesus commanded that the stone of the tomb be taken away and Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out.” “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44). This is truth.

MATTHEW 25
At 2:34 am, in the middle of what was a beautiful sleep, I was rudely awakened by a cat jumping on top of me. I can usually fall asleep without much trouble, even after an event like that, but this night I was having trouble because a passage of scripture was swirling through my head.
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
I can count on one hand when scripture strikes me so deeply in the middle of the night that it just must be added to my homily. But it happened this night. Maybe it was because I was preparing for Christ the King and this was last year’s Gospel selection or maybe I was considering the murals that line our Church (depictions of the same commands found in Matthew 25). In any event, there was the passage. And then it struck me: This is truth.

We’ve all signed agreements before, with cellphone carriers, cable companies, or banks. Have you read the fine print? Honestly, it’s maddening and so much so that most of us probably don’t even bother. If you ever do read it, however, you will find rule after rule and addendum after addendum. Then will notice that amidst the rules and addenda are a great number of asterisks that add numerous caveats to the rule and addenda.

When I got the first proofread copy of my dissertation back from my director, the email accompanying it read, “It looks good except for a few notes, which are marked by red asterisks.” It looked as though my director had bled all over the dissertation.

Asterisks mark the exceptions.

NO ASTERISKS
Please know, before I go any further, that I am preach from a place of searching – hopefully humble searching though not always, if I am honest. I don’t have a soapbox. I don’t have a policy paper. I’m preach, today, from my knees. While I am searching, I do know that my faith and what propels me to act are based on the above verses in Matthew as well as on the similar command in Micah 6:8,
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Whatever our politics or ideologies or persuasions, even if they are vastly different, I longingly hope and deeply believe that we can common ground in the desire to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. While our ideas of justice, mercy, and walking with God may differ, we can at least meet quietly and listen carefully, praying together and searching for the truth.

That being said, there is a war going on. There is a war with bombs and guns, blood and death that is taking its toll on our humanity. There is also a different kind of war that is equally as real and just as deadly: peace against violence, hope against despair, courage against fear, love against hate.

We are all there, I imagine. I am there, right in the middle of it. Something struck me, though, as Matthew 25 floated through my sleepy brain.
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36).
There are NO asterisks.

Jesus didn’t say, “For I was hungry, and you fed me.*
* First show me your tax statement so I know that you aren’t mooching off the system.
Jesus didn’t say, “I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.**
**But you smell of liquor and tobacco. Get sober. Then I will give you a drink of water.

Jesus didn’t say, “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.***
***But I can’t be sure that you are a real refugee. Huddle up with your hungry children under this tattered blanket and make yourself comfortable out in the cold. Unless you can prove you’re a Christian because then, of course, you are welcome.

No!!! There are no asterisks in Matthew 25.
I don’t have the answers. I am a broken man looking out on a broken world. There are times when I want to gather my house and shutter the doors, hiding from the wretched brokenness. But I refuse to give in to despair. I refuse to lose hope. I cannot give up on my broken self and this broken world because God did not give up on us. Even though we turned against God and betrayed God’s trust and even though we turned against one another, God has called us to return. God did not give up, sending prophets and sages, giving us a righteous law, and, the, in the fullness of time sending the Son, Jesus, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

The Good Samaritan could have walked right on by and would have been more justified than the priest or the Levite but he stopped, bandaged the wounds, and cared for the man. The father could have refused the son when he returned home but instead he welcomed him back. I refuse to give up on the brokenness of the world because when Jesus taught us how to pray he said, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

It would be easy to sweep our arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare with Chicken Little, “The sky is falling.” Instead, I choose to be stubborn and look with hope. There is life right here before me. I believe that God has not yet given up on us gathered here nor on this world. Instead of shuttering my doors, I choose to point my children in the direction of hope: to the life right before them, to the opportunity for peace, to the presence of Christ in their midst.

I do this because my faith is bound in a man who gave himself in bread and wine for a hungry world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Messiah who gave himself as living water for a thirty world.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Lord who healed the sick and bound up the broken-hearted.

I do this because my faith is bound in the King who set the captives free.

I do this because my faith is bound in the Middle Eastern family – a man, woman, and baby, who were once refugees themselves.

I am a Midwestern man who grew up on Florida’s east coast, who’s soul hungers and thirsts, who is in need of freedom and healing, whose soul is need of refuge.

I don’t have the answers but I believe that Jesus came as witness to the truth. The truth that God has wrapped our wounds…that God has welcomed us back after a long sojourn…that God has fed us, given us drink, covered our nakedness, healed our wounds, set us free, and given us refuge. No asterisks.

I pray the words of the Psalmist, together with our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, “Be not afraid.”

I pray love and peace and courage to us all…with no asterisks.
                                                                

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Jesus Movement

Homily notes for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost  (Proper 28B, 11/15/2015)
with the Celebration of New Ministry for Deacon Ray Perica
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)


On November 2, 2015, the day after his consecration and installation as the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael Curry gave a stirring video message to the Church. Watch the video or read the transcript that follows.

video
"God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way. He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love. He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending. That’s why, when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words, “Follow me.”
"Follow me," he said, “and I will make you fish for people."
"Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.

"Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel story of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Mary Magdalene and some of the women go to the tomb to anoint his body. When they get there they find that the tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and there is no body there. Then they see and hear an angel who says to them, “This Jesus of Nazareth whom you seek, he is not here, he has been raised as he said he would be and he has now gone ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him. It is in Galilee that the Risen Lord will be found and seen for he has gone ahead of us.”
Galilee. Which is a way of talking about the world.
Galilee. In the streets of the city.
Galilee In our rural communities.
Galilee in our hospitals.
Galilee in our office places.
Galilee where God’s children live and dwell there.
In Galilee you will meet the living Christ for He has already gone ahead of you.
"A few years ago I was in a coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, just a few blocks away from our Diocesan House there. While in line I started a conversation with a gentleman who turned out to be a Mennonite pastor. He had been sent to Raleigh to organize a church in the community on the streets without walls. As we were talking over our coffee, he said something to me that I have not forgotten. He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is."
THE JESUS MOVEMENT
So, what does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement. That is, indeed, the question of a lifetime, isn’t it? It is, at least, the question of the Christian lifetime. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement?

I must thank Bishop Curry for his bold witness and for reminding me of the theme that my preaching should take. He has, indeed, given me a framework for decades to come. I say “remind me” because, of course, the Jesus Movement (though I never framed it in so few yet precise words) is what drew me to ordination in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder.

What does it mean to be in the Jesus Movement? That will be fodder for many sermons to come and, I am sure, Bishop Curry will elucidate his understanding as time passes. For now, let me stick with the obvious. Being in the Jesus Movement means following Jesus, not in a moralistic sense or dogmatic sense but in a way that emulates Jesus – in a way that moves like Jesus moved. Again, that is a big topic which we will explore together over the coming weeks, months, and years.

For today, I would like to address Deacon Ray, for whom we are having the Celebration of New Ministry at this Eucharist. So here are three ways that the Deacon can and should be an example of what it means to be in the Jesus Movement.

WELCOME EVERYONE 
First, welcome everyone. Our Gospel narrative is the beginning of Mark 13, the so-called “Little Apocalypse,” in which Jesus is revealer of the coming future and heavenly reign. Apocalyptic literature is full of stark imagery and metaphor, symbols for the coming future. It is often called the literature of the dispossessed, arising out of an oppressed or alienated people. The Book of Daniel (our first reading today) came out of a Jewish group circa 165 BCE who were under the oppressive thumb of the Seleucid kings. The book of Revelation (the quintessential New Testament apocalyptic) came out of Christian persecutions during the reign of the Emperor Domitian circa 95 CE. Mark uses his apocalyptic to address Christians who have undergone suffering in the name of Jesus and will expect even more. The first Christians constituted a tiny minority of the Roman empire and necessarily placed their hope in God’s vindication, finding a reason for Jesus suffering and their own suffering in the 'soon-to-be-glory'.

Moreover, it is no accident that this “Little Apocalypse” comes immediately before the passion and the resurrection of Jesus, the one who himself was dispossessed of freedom and life to show us the way to find it. As well, the “Little Apocalypse” comes after Jesus' ministry among the people. Jesus could have told the apocalyptic story earlier in his career but he chose to wait until the very end. He waited, I think, until after he had invited all the other dispossessed to the party.
  • Remember the four women we talked about last week: one an enemy, one in a state of unholiness, one a widow, and one who dared enter the men’s club to honor Jesus. Jesus welcomed them all. 
  • Remember the man with the unclean spirit, the leper, the paralytic and blind Bartimaeus. Jesus healed them and welcomed them. 
  • Remember Simon, Andrew, James and John, all poor fishermen. Remember Levi the despised tax collector. Jesus welcomed them.
The point is: Welcome everyone. Welcome the highest and the lowest. Welcome the shy and the outgoing, the young and the old, the bold and the timid. Welcome them all because Jesus did. Welcome them all because we all need to be reminded of God’s love and the soon-to-be-glory.

PRACTICE LOVE AMONG THE OUTCAST
Second, practice great and wonderful love among the outcast. Bishop Brewer called upon you at your ordination "to show Christ’s people through your life and teaching that in serving the helpless, they are serving Christ Himself." This doesn’t really need a lot of elucidating, does it? It’s constant in the message of Jesus and the Letters. Moreover, if you will serve at this church you will be reminded of it every time you step foot in the sanctuary. You see the murals on the walls surrounding us. Dowing Barnitz has created beautiful reminders of the commission in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, and comfort the sick. 

This kind of activity is exactly what Jesus did. When the five thousand were hungry, Jesus didn’t take the apostle’s advice and send the people away. Instead, Jesus had them sit down and, with seven loaves and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd. When the sick and hurting came to Jesus, Jesus didn’t just wish them well and send them on their way. Instead, Jesus healed them.

Find out who in our community is in need of healing, who is in need of being made whole. Bring their needs to our attention and, as the author of Hebrews wrote, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

TELL THE STORY OF LOVE
Third, tell the story among us. When Jesus came among us, Jesus proclaimed the good news of redemption and release. Jesus came among us to tell us the story of God’s love for each one of us. Ray, tell the story among us of how God loves you. It’s good news and we want to hear it. Deacon Joan, tell the story among us of how God love you. It’s good news and we want to hear it. All of you gathered here, tell the story among us of how God loves you. It’s good news and we want to hear it.

And then tell the story out there in the world. Tell the story of God’s love. Tell the story of our love. Tell the story because its great news and you want to shout it from the mounttops.

NOW IS THE TIME TO GO
Bishop Curry finished his video message of November 2, 2015, with this challenge.
"Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

"This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.

"God bless you, and keep the faith."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Embodied Faith - Total Surrender

Homily notes for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost  (Proper 27B, 11/1/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

When I was a kid (maybe 10 or 11) our family went on a road trip from Melbourne to Cleveland. It was a long drive with a lot of stops on the way. At our first stop to get gas, just as he was getting out of the car, my brother found a penny on the ground right there next to the gas pump. Yeah, I was a little jealous at first but then I found a penny right there on the walk leading into the store.

It turns out that a lot of people drop their pennies and don’t go searching for them. Together, I think we found five pennies at that one stop. My brother and I made little competition for the rest of the trip, seeing who could find the most pennies on the ground.

What is a penny? It’s the lowest amount of money on the totem pole. It’s the smallest unit. It isn’t even divided. A nickel can be divided – there are five pennies in a nickel. A dime can be divined – there are two nickels or ten pennies in a dime. But a penny is all by itself. Only gas stations seem to know how to divide a penny with their 9/10 of a penny added on to every gallon. People almost see pennies as worthless.

But Ben Franklin assured us, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

We are told, “It’s worth every penny.”

In Jesus day, a penny could purchase two sparrows for the Temple (Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?”)

Sir Thomas More asks us, “A penny for your thoughts?” (Four Last Things)

Thomas More was the first to publish this particular saying though was not likely the one to actually coin the phrase. It might be much older. The idea, I think, is very much present in today’s Gospel narrative where the widow offers her copper coins to God through the Temple treasury.

Indeed, the poor widow in the story shows unbelievable and uninhibited vulnerability by offering all she had to live on. Widows in ancient Israel had no inheritance rights and, while a levirate marriage might have been arranged for some, most widows relied on their children or on charity. So giving over her last two lepta (the smallest monetary denomination in circulation at the time) to the Temple was a true sign of sacrifice and trust.

THE WOMEN IN MARK'S GOSPELIt was, to use the colloquial definition of a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It was her sacrament to God. It was her outward sign of the inward trust that she had in God her protector. It was a posture of total self-giving.

This is a kind of trust emblematic of the women whom Jesus encounter’s in Mark’s Gospel. There are five episodes of interest.
  • In the first (Mark 5:24b-34), there is a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus cloak. The woman certainly knows that her ritual impurity would make any she touches impure as well. Nevertheless, the woman stretches boundaries, reaching out in faith. She knows, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
  • In the second, (Mark 7:24-30), a Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus in Tyre seeking healing for her daughter. In the very act of approaching Jesus, the woman stretches and even crosses boundaries – a landed Greek property owner approaching an itinerant Jewish preacher was unheard of. But she does approach Jesus and when Jesus rebukes her (an expected reply in first-century androcentric society), the woman stretches boundaries even further with her courageous reply. In the end, Jesus capitulates to her enduring faith.
  • The third episode is the story heard today where the widow offers everything she has to God.
  • The fourth episode (Mark 143-9) comes immediately before the last supper discourse, almost as a prelude to the narrative of Jesus’ passion and death. In it, a woman (again unnamed) approaches Jesus in the home of Simon the leper and pours “expensive ointment, genuine nard” over Jesus’ head. The woman in this scene again stretches boundaries by entering what would have been an all-male gathering and touching Jesus, not to mention the exuberant outpouring of precious and expensive nard. She also stretches boundaries, however, as one who recognizes what is coming in the life of Jesus, showing tremendous devotion to her Rabbi and Lord. This, in other words, is clearly an anticipation of Jesus’ death, the woman seeing and accepting what the disciples did not.
  • Finally, there are the women at the cross, among them Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome but others as well. Though they were at a distance, they at least had the faith and courage to be there.
In the end, the stories of the women in Mark’s gospel are all stories of embodied faith.

THE FAITH OF THE WIDOW
The widow in today’s story approached God boldly. “This is all I have,” she seems to say. “So here it is. What do you want me to do now? Here is my penny for your thoughts, God.”

That is the very definition of embodied faith – giving every good gift back to God, trusting that God has a plan.

It’s the faith of the widow at Zarephath who trusted the word of God as spoken by the prophet Elijah.
“Do not be afraid… The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
It’s the faith of Jeremiah,
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
It’s the faith of Paul who wrote to the Philippians, 
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13).
It’s the faith of the Angel who spoke to Mary, 
“Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
It’s the faith of the widow who broke open the doors of something new, challenging those who said her two pennies were not enough, that they could not do a thing. She paid no attention and entered the Jesus movement, walking with God and trusting in God. Ultimately, the widow understood that it wasn’t about her pennies. It was about herself, about the total giving of herself over to God.

I SURRENDER ALL
American artist and musician Judson W. Van DeVenter, who wrote the lyrics for the classic hymn, “I Surrender All,” once wrote,
“For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life.”
Worship is essentially our response to God’s love, generosity and graciousness. What is worship? Is it generous and gracious like the widow’s? Does our worship reflect the widow’s selfless act of vulnerability? The Gospel narrative, once she has given her all, has Jesus saying to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”

The widow’s gift was truly amazing. The gift of the two coins is a beautiful presage of Jesus’ last days: the suffering, the passion, the via crucis, and the final total self-offering of Jesus on the cross. Like the women, Jesus stretches and crosses the boundaries. In his final act of self-giving love Jesus has crossed or, rather, eliminated that proverbial boundary between heaven and earth. The boundary is no longer.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Jesus has shown us the love of God that awaits us. Jesus has shown us the unmitigated, uninhibited, and endless love of God that awaits us if we but surrender ourselves to it.

Van DeVenter’s Hymn speakS well:
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Saint - it's all in a name

Sermon notes for the Feast of All Saints (11/1/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

THE FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate all of the Saints. Such a commemoration of God’s holy and faithful has been happening since the earliest days of the church when the lives and witnesses of the martyrs were remembered and honored. As the church moved through time and place, while martyrs still gave their lives in witness to the faith, it was recognized that there were also many others whose lives were ought to be recognized as examples of righteousness and holiness. The Feast of All Saints has been widely observed in Christian communities since about the year 600 CE and on the first day of November since it was fixed in 735 CE.

As you all know, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Not to understate it but the whole subject of Saints was always before us. My Italian grandmother had a virtual altar on here dresser full of pictures of saints, statues of saints, and holy cards. They were, for her, a sign of the great comfort of the enduring truth of God’s Word and a constant reminder of the life of love to which she was called. At every funeral and on every special day, the saints were called upon, mediators and examples of holy life.

When I was in the second grade, I was allowed to become an Altar Boy. It was in the eighties when trading cards were still a thing. Naturally, among the Altar Boys, trading cards became popular. Now, we didn’t trade baseball cards, we traded holy cards, with saints pictured on one side and brief biographical sketches or special prayers written on the back. I know, I was cool. Oh, how I desired the Saint Thomas Aquinas! I never got one.

With all of my exposure to the saints, I learned that they could be examples of holy living. Some demonstrated lives of prayer, of self-giving, of charity, or of faith. The saints were demonstrations of how God and Jesus wanted me to live. At the same time, however, I also got the impression that the saints were folks who lived perfect lives. Now, I knew all too well that I could not do that so the saints were certainly not “just folk like me,” as Lesbia Scott’s great hymn proclaims. The saints on those holy cards and on my grandmother’s dresser always looked so pious and righteous. Maybe if I could just imitate their pious posture, I could be a saint too. It didn't work.

As I began to read the Bible with much more seriousness later in life, I discovered that that the Greek word for saint, hagios, appears forty-four times in the Pauline epistles, each time referring to the Church or its members. That’s right, Paul’s “holy ones” (hagios) are in the Church – alive, not dead. Paul seems to indicate that the saints are in the church. Yes, we are called to be God’s saints.

But how can this be? Saints were perfect pictures of piety and we are certainly not. So what makes a saint a saint?

The answer, I think, is all in a name.

IN THE NAME "CHRISTIAN"
First, being a saint is found in the name “Christian.” This is the primary sense of the term and from which any other understanding of saint will flow.

We are saints because we bear the name Christian – followers of Christ and children of God by baptism. In the introduction to his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints (hagios): Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul acknowledges the Christian status of the Roman Church by applying to them standard titles. They are “beloved” because they are God’s people and they are “saints” (hagios
“not primarily because of a moral quality of their lives but through their membership of a people of that is ‘holy’ because of its closeness and dedication to God” [Byrne, Roamns, Sacra Pagina 6 (Liturgical Press 2007) 41]. 
The same title is used to address the churches at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. Paul further reflects upon the saints in his letters to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, and to Philemon. In all of these places, sainthood is a construct of grace, being loved and chosen by God.

The point is: We are saints because of the incarnate presence of God among the people. It is God, fully holy and intimately present, who came in the flesh and who indwells the Church. It is that presence that permeates the entire community of faith, making God's people holy. It is, in other words, God’s presence not our behavior that makes us saints.

Isn’t that good news! We know all too well that our humanity is fragile, far from reaching its perfection. Except that God has perfected us, our having been justified “by God Himself through His grace” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q100, A12). In his famous hymn, former slave ship captain John Newton brings home the reality of God’s grace that makes sainthood possible:
"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."
On our own we will disappoint but with God's loving grace we can grow to the highest heights of human expression.

IN THE NAMES OF THE "SAINTS"
So we are already saints; but, at the same time, we are not yet saints. It’s that mysterious Christian conundrum of already-not-yet. So, on another level, being a saint is found in a life lived in the grace of God and for God’s glory.

In the lesson form Revelation today, God calls out, "See, I am making all things new." So, you see, while God has already justified us in Christ Jesus, thus making us saints, there is also a process. This is what Thomas Aquinas refers to as the acquired virtue, that side of justification by which the person is being made right (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q100, A12). Many years ago, not long after my ordination, I was on a retreat and had expressed some frustration with myself as a spiritual leader, particularly that hadn't done enough and was too slow in developing a spiritual life worth sharing. During some down time, a woman – a matriarch in the Church – came up to me and proceeded to pin a button on my shirt. I looked down and read the button, "Be patient, God is not finished with me yet!" Words that I could truly take as my own.

The Bible and Christian tradition are full of stories of the already-not-yet.
  • Jacob stole a blessing from his blind father that was meant for his brother Esau. He then ran off to conquer the world and become fabulously rich. He would be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the guarantor of the covenant.
  • David married Bathsheba only after having her husband sent into battle to be killed. King Solomon the wise would their child and Davidic throne would be the sign of covenant.
  • Peter would deny Jesus three times and Paul would persecute the nascent Church only to become the two great apostle of Rome.
  • John would let his pride take hold, requesting (with his brother) the seat of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. John would be the one Jesus entrusts to care for his mother, Mary.
  • Francis would grow up in a wealthy family in Assisi, abusing his status and position and treating others quite badly. He would found one of the preeminent Christian orders, dedicated to the poor and the outcast. 
  • Ignatius of Loyala was a captain in the Spanish military, a killer by trade. During a period of convalescence, after reading the lives of the saints and a treatise on the life of Jesus, he swore to lead a life of self-denying labour, emulating the heroic deeds of Benedict and Francis.
  • John Newton was captain of a slaving ship but would inspire William Wilberforce to become one of the great champions of the anti-slaving movement in England.
Examples of holly conversion are countless in number. Origen, Augustine, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dominic, Francis, Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta all have stories of the already-not-yet of sainthood.

We who are already God's Saints through grace are called now to allow the holy presence of God to continue the work of justification in our lives. We are the already-not-yet that need to be transformed by the loving grace of God. The Church has recognized a great many of those who have gone before us, called the Communion of Saints and the Great Cloud of Witnesses, as examples and models to follow. They are doctors and queens and shepherdesses on the green. They are soldiers and priests and martyrs. They teach us and guide us and model for us what it means to be transformed into the image of holiness and righteousness.

It’s all in a name, you see.

Justin, Hippolytus, Felicity, Benedict, Catherine, Clare, Dominic…At my confirmation, I took the name of a saint. After months of research and an essay for Sister Ida Marie, I took the name of Francis – the medieval giant who preached to the birds, converted wolves, and walked naked through the streets. Plus, it was a good way to honor my Uncle Frank who was also my godfather. At my ordination, I chose two names, Ignacio and Polycarp, the first to reflect my veneration of Ignatius of Loyola and the second because Polycarp is just a cool dude with a cool name.

IN THE NAME ALBAN BARRET MICHAELIt’s all in a name. Today, we will welcome another into the household of God. At the beginning of the baptism I will say, “The Candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented.” The Parents and Godparents will respond, “I present Alban Barret Michael to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.”

As is my custom, may I offer some advice to Alban Barret Michael - “Bear” as he is known.
Bear,
I just have one piece of advice today: Live into your name?
Live into the name “Christian.” Above all, know fully and completely that you are beloved and already a saint by the grace of God. Nothing can take that from you! So live into the name “Christian” and be loved.
Live into the name your parents chose for you. Alban Barret Michael is a powerful name. It will be, I hope, a strength for you as well as a challenge.
Alban is traditionally recognized as the first Christian martyr in England. A soldier in the Roman army, Alban gave sanctuary to a Christian priest who was fleeing the persecutions of Diocletian. Having been converted by him, when the soldiers came to Alban’s house, Alban dressed in the priest’s garments and was himself martyred in place of the priest. Live into the name “Alban.” Be for others a place of sanctuary and, continually dying to self, be a sign and giver of life for those around you.
Michael is the archangel, powerful agent of God who wards off evil from God’s people and delivers peace in the end. Michael means, “Who is like God?” This is a question, not a statement. Be the answer. ”Who is like God?” Alban Barret Michael is like God – loving, gracious, strong, an agent for peace
And you will find inspiration to be Michael in our parents. Derek means “ruler of people.” You will grow to know your father and he doesn’t fit the world’s vision of a ruler of people – laid back, chill, a listener before a talker. But Saint Bernard notes that the three most important virtues are humility, humility, and humility. Your father fits the bill and that, indeed, makes him the perfect “ruler of people.” Bear, right now, you sit in your father’s lap. When you grow, you would do well to sit at his feet (proverbially, of course) and learn from his humility.
Laura Ann is such a fitting name for your mother and is most fitting as a baptismal example. Laura is an old Latin names that comes from the Laurel plant, the branches of which were used by the Romans as a sign of victory or honor. Ann comes from the Hebrew "Hannah," which means grace. Laura Ann – the victory of grace. It is the victory of God’s grace signified in baptism and it is the victory of grace found in the love of your mother and father that will be our shield and your strength.
And then there is Barret. I searched high and low for a Saint Barret but could not find one. So, here it is: you will be Saint Barret – the ”Bear”, gentle and strong, curious and resolute, wise and discerning. You will be Saint Barret, graced by God as God’s beloved.
Amen.