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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Holy Ones of God (Sermon for the Feast of All Saints)

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at St. Mark's Church, Newnham, Cambridge
All Saints' Sunday, November 4, 2006
at the evening Eucharist service

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Tonight we draw to a close our celebrating the feast of All Saints, a day we set aside for marking these great forebears in the faith. Coming originally from a Christian tradition that didn’t value the saints, I’m grateful for the role they play for us Anglicans, as examples of God’s grace and holiness.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes they can seem so exalted or otherworldly that they hardly seem fit to serve as examples. When we consider the powerful witness of St. Francis, selling all he had and devoting himself to serving others, rebuilding the church, embracing lepers, who can fail to be inspired? And who can fail to be intimidated?

Well, Francis and others are great examples, but we may risk getting sidetracked if we allow ourselves to think only of these sorts of Christians as saints. The truth is, all Christians are called to be saints. All Christians are saints through the work of God. The Apostle Paul addressed his letters to ‘the saints’ or ‘those called to be saints’ – he didn’t mean that they were just for special exalted Christians, but for the entire Christian community.

So if saints aren’t meant to be exalted and otherworldly, and if we’re all meant to be saints, it seems worthwhile to ask just what that means. What is the defining characteristic of a saint? The defining characteristic of a saint is holiness.

Of course, holiness is not terrifically popular these days, and this must surely be in part because of its misuse by Christians and others. Most likely, we would hear about holiness these days when someone is accused of being ‘holier-than-thou’. If someone is called ‘holier-than-thou’, it means they are self-righteous, that they separate themselves from others in order to look down on them, perhaps that they are overly concerned for their own purity. This is how holiness has mistakenly come to be seen; you can see how it would put people off.

But the fact is, friends, that’s not holiness at all. Holiness doesn’t focus on oneself, isn’t preoccupied with remaining pure. After all, Jesus was holy, and he made a point of welcoming and embracing all sorts of people considered unclean and unacceptable. Keeping the example of Jesus in mind, we can see that holiness is a way of living out the love of God in the world, a way of life that focuses on loving God and loving others. It’s something that the Holy Spirit is working out within us.

So often, just having a definition doesn’t help us to grasp something in the way that having an example does. So I’d like to introduce you to three other Christians tonight who might serve as examples to us of holiness, for us to meditate on for our own lives.

First, I’d like to introduce Maximus. He lived in the Roman Empire, in the seventh century. He was a monk in Northern Africa, and a prolific writer. Near the end of his life, he weighed in on an important doctrinal matter in a way that put him at odds with the emperor. The emperor had him imprisoned, humiliated, and put on trial. Under intense scrutiny, at one point Maximus proclaimed, “May God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I alone am saved. But I prefer to die rather than to have on my conscience that I in any way at all have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.” In this, we hear Maximus’ great love for others, for he wasn’t willing to exalt himself or condemn. And we also hear his great love for God, for he also wasn’t willing to compromise the truth to smooth things over. He wasn’t willing to kill for the truth, but he was willing to die for it. Living out the love of God in this way, we can see true holiness.

In the trial, the Emperor’s agents found Maximus guilty, and in consequence cut out his tongue and cut off his right hand so he could neither teach nor write anymore. Shortly thereafter, he died from his wounds. In time the church saw the wisdom of what Maximus taught, and came to agree with him. Because of this, he is known as Maximus the Confessor, and many churches hold him as a saint in the conventional sense.

Someone not usually celebrated as a saint in the conventional sense is Dirk Willems. Dirk was an Anabaptist Christian in the sixteenth century, in the Netherlands. At the time, it was illegal to be an Anabaptist, and so people called thief-catchers were enlisted to go around and capture them so they could be imprisoned.

It was a cold winter night when they finally caught up with Dirk. Running away with all his might, he skittered out onto an icy lake with a thief catcher in hot pursuit. Dirk got to the other side safely, only to hear cracking ice and a splash behind him. After a moment’s hesitation, he turned around and ran back out to save the thief-catcher who had fallen through the ice. Dirk pulled him out, saving his life. Although his pursuer now wanted to let him get away in peace, the thief-catcher’s master insisted that Dirk be put in prison. Shortly thereafter, he was burned as a heretic.

Even though it was at great risk to himself, Dirk Willems turned back to save someone that most would consider an enemy. In this love for an enemy; we can see the holiness of God, who in Christ drew near to us even when we were enemies and far away, that we might be saved from death.

The third person I’d like to introduce tonight is a twentieth-century American Christian, Clarence Jordan. Clarence was a brilliant man, with two PhDs. With all his talent, he could have done whatever he wanted: what he wanted to do was serve the poor. In the 1940’s, in Americus, Georgia, he founded Koinonia Farm, an integrated community for poor whites and poor blacks. You can imagine how well this idea went over in the American Deep South at the time. They experienced constant resistance, boycotts, violence, and intimidation – much of it from fellow Christians.

One day in 1954, the Ku Klux Klan, a white racist organization, had had enough. They attacked the farm, chasing away the residents. They riddled Clarence’s house with bullets; every other building they burned to the ground.

The next morning found Clarence out in the field, hoeing and planting. A reporter came out to do a story on the tragedy. Clarence recognized his voice from the night before; the reporter was a Klansman. The reporter said that he assumed, of course, the farm would close. Trying to get a rise out of him, the reporter haughtily asked "Well, Dr. Jordan…you've put fourteen years into this farm, and there's nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you've been?"
Clarence stopped hoeing, turned toward the reporter … and said quietly but firmly, "About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don't think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We're staying. Good day." Beginning that day, Clarence and his companions rebuilt Koinonia and the farm is going strong today’, fifty-two years later.* In Clarence Jordan, we are also able to catch a glimpse of the holiness of God, who cares for the poor, who works for reconciliation among his creatures, and who is faithful despite our resistance.

In each of these stories, we see someone touched and formed by the holiness of God: loving others enough to suffer for the truth; loving others enough to save the life of an enemy pursuer; loving others enough to continue doggedly working at reconciliation, even in the face of setbacks and resistance. In these people, and in the women and men we hold dear as saints, we see the holiness and sanctity of God.

And we are blessed to know people like this ourselves: the parent who cares patiently for a disabled adult child; the person who watches out for an elderly neighbour; the family who opens their home to a foster child; the person who gives generously and sacrificially to the homeless shelter; the colleague who values collaboration more than getting ahead; the man who faithfully visits the sick in hospital, refugees, and those in prison; the woman who has prayed for years for her friends to come to faith. In the love of these people that we encounter day to day we see the holiness of God.

Friends, we not only rub up against these people: we are these people. The Spirit is working in our lives already, kindling in us God’s love for those around us, for the world, for God himself. As we grow in this holiness, I believe this helps us shed some light on Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes that we heard this evening.

If we have come to know the strong embrace of God’s love in Jesus Christ, if we are being made holy through the Spirit to love others, then poverty, hunger, weeping, exclusion seem light by comparison. We can endure them and still know blessedness. What are they compared to embodying a holiness that allows us to love others deeply? And yet without this holiness, we can have it all and still be quite woeful. For that blessedness, that holiness, is none other than the unsurpassable privilege of participating in God’s love for the world. That, sisters and brothers, is the key – the key not only to the Feast of All Saints, but also the key to the life of all the saints. Amen.

* Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat, Word Books Publisher, 1987, pp. 188-189.

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