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!

Impossible demands Incredible love

Mark Wahlberg is known for his acting prowess in films like “The Perfect Storm”, “Italian Job”, “The Fighter” and will star in next year’s “Transformers” sequel. He recently gave an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan about the transformation in his life – from being a brawler and coke addict as a teenager to being a faithful Christian who now starts each day going into a church to pray.

Piers asks Mark Wahlberg, “What do you pray for?” He basically answers by saying he wants to be the best person he can be – responsible, a good neighbor, father, son, and servant to God.

On one level, I appreciate very much when popular, culture icons like Mark Wahlberg give public testimony to the Christian faith. His example gives a positive impression to the power of prayer, especially among younger people. “What do you pray for?” seems to strike a chord, since it is fashionable for skeptics who question God’s loving existence to point to unanswered prayer. Have they considered the very goal of prayer?

In the Gospel of John, one of the first words recorded out of the mouth of Jesus when he meets up with a couple of his disciples are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Apparently Jesus, too, recognizes the significance of, first off, identifying what it is we want, or expect, from God.

We may feel like the early disciples of Jesus did, then, when they asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to say what has become known as the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” – the paramount prayer of Christianity.

So, what does Jesus tell us to ask for? In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4), the first thing we ask for is “Thy Kingdom Come”. Perhaps this can give us a clue to the aim and nature of our Christian prayer.

In the interview, Mark Wahlberg says that he would rather give favours than receive favours. It is natural, is it not, to want to believe that our redemption and transformation will happen as a result of our good efforts? Even prayer becomes about telling God what we want and desire, about actualizing our dreams for a better world and life by our energy and efforts and eloquence.

There is much in this Gospel text to suggest that our growth and maturity rests with our initiative: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v.9-10). We resonate with those words, don’t we? They roll off our tongues easily enough! And we tell ourselves to buck up!

Yet, how many times have we given up on prayer because what we asked for so diligently hasn’t come to pass? We may have prayed and prayed and prayed for release from some kind of bondage or for someone else’s well being. And whatever it is continues to burden our lives. The issue remains unresolved.

This conundrum might be best described with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God for forgiveness. But this forgiveness, it seems, is conditional upon our ability to forgive ‘everyone’ indebted to us! “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

That’s a tall order! Yikes! Have I forgiven – truly forgiven – others who have hurt me? And not only the one person that first comes to mind – but everyone who has ever hurt me? If not, will God forgive me?

Right after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells a rather weird story about going to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread. Notwithstanding the awkward position in which you would be putting your friend in the middle of the night, why on earth wouldn’t you have something as basic as bread in your house at any given time?

Why would you be all out of bread in the first place? In a culture devoid of corner stores and open-all-night Seven-Elevens, you would think folks in Jesus’ day would plan ahead and have food stored up. Obviously a subtext of Jesus’ story here is the irresponsibility, laziness, short-sightedness, and sinfulness causing you to go to your friend in the first place.

How many times have I withheld grace or forgiveness from someone because I have felt they haven’t done their part enough to deserve my help?

On one hand I admire the person going shamelessly and boldly to the friend. It takes guts to interrupt someone, especially at night. Perhaps we can learn from this the trust and confidence you have in your friend to help you. Similar to the trust and confidence we are called upon to place in God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the writer John expresses it this way: “I write the truth to you because you already know the truth” (1 John 2:21). We receive these words of Scripture and the word of God in Jesus Christ not because we don’t know it or don’t have it. We receive the words telling the truth of Jesus today because the truth and presence of Jesus already resides within us – at that deep level, in our hearts. The bible’s message is given to us to remind us, to help us re-member, what is already living within us.

And so with confidence, boldness, and shamelessness, we approach the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:13) with our pleas for help – even when those requests are misguided, selfish and born from our own weaknesses.

And this is the point, I believe, of the Gospel. Ultimately it is not about our efforts to make something of prayer and our relationship with God. Rather, it is about a God who will help us, no matter what. Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to offer us the help we need in order to live out the truth of Christ within us for the sake of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). Such is the incredible love of God even in the face of impossible demands.

While God receives all our prayers, however tainted with our ego compulsions, fears and neediness, the power of prayer resides in ‘thy kingdom come’ – which some ancient transcripts translated as “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Such a rendition is worth considering, because it is consistent with the last verse (13) of the text: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I wonder about the positive changes we desire for our lives. I wonder about how we shall pray for the good things we seek for ourselves, those we love, the church, and the world around us. What do you pray for? – the Holy Spirit? – the deep yearning for an experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness? – that our lives be transformed according to love of God for us and for the world?

Will we pray for, and in, God’s will?

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come” are we willing to let ‘my kingdom’ go? (Richard Rohr).

What do you expect from God?

Good things! Good things, for the sake and love of the world, in Christ Jesus.