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.)

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.

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.

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.
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.

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