We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”