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“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”
Matthew 5: 1-12
November, 5, 2017 (All Saints’ Sunday)

I adore All Saints’ Sunday.  In all fairness, I have probably said the same thing about Advent, Christmas, and Easter, but, honestly, I do love All Saints’ Sunday.

When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., one of my colleagues took off All Saints’ Day to run in—guess what—the New York Marathon.  He was entitled to do that but his decision always baffled me.  Today, we remember those dear ones who have died, not only during this year but through the years.  We imagine our loved ones standing before the heavenly throne and singing with us, “For All the Saints,” and our tears flow freely.  Who would skip All Saints’ Day for a marathon?

It is not always easy, though, to detect the saints, especially the living ones who are sometimes a bit too close for our comfort.  How is it possible to spot blessedness in the weepy ones, in those who opt for peacemaking instead of belligerence?  Who would ever think to look for a saint in the pathetically persecuted for the gospel’s sake?  We stand clear of these bedraggled ones.  Perhaps that’s why my colleague might just be running in this morning’s marathon and not worshiping at his church.

I love All Saints’ Sunday because it is a breathtaking opportunity to see one another as God sees us and not as we often see one another.

When I was sixteen, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Triadelphia, West Virginia, to apply for my learner’s permit.  I had thoroughly studied the driver’s booklet: I knew the speed limit in school zones and was clear how many 3.2% beers one could slug down before being hauled off to the drunk tank. The officer overseeing my test said, “Take off your glasses and read the third line on the eye chart.”  Ever obedient, I took off my glasses.  Rather than saying, “E, U, W, Q,” I said, “What wall is the eye chart on?”  Exasperated, my tester said, “Okay, Miller, put back on your glasses and never, I say never, put the keys into the ignition without your glasses hanging on your nose.”

All Saints’ Day is when we put on our “saints’ glasses” and God points us in the right direction; otherwise, saint detecting can be exhausting and exasperating.

Have you ever gone saint-detecting in your Bible?  Saint Peter, for instance, whose likeness hangs here on the altar wall, denied ever having known Jesus the very night before he was crucified. Saint Mary Magdalene was said to have been possessed by seven devils.  Saint Paul—on the mosaic wall behind me—before being struck by lightning at his conversion, boasted that he was quite adept at killing Christians.

On and on the shabby parade of saints goes, even beyond the Bible, among all the baptized—the very definition of a saint.  Saint Augustine, who influenced Martin Luther, said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now.”  Saint Francis, before he gave away all his earthly possessions and started talking kindly to birds, was one of the great playboys of the Western world.

And it isn’t just the fancy-schmancy saints.  There are the pesky ones, those saints who sleep beside us, work in our office, and sit near us on Sunday morning.  Most of these saints are not particularly well known and they sometimes drive us crazy.  But you know them: your mom always thought you were the at center of the world even when you kept her awake all hours of the night wondering where you were; your Sunday school teacher captivated you with the story of David and Goliath when you were six years old; your eleventh grade English teacher said you would excel one day when almost everyone else called you a scalawag teenager.  They touched your life and yet only you and a few relatives will visit their graves after their funerals.

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday.  Leading up to that special day in our life together, we have heard wonderful stories told by Kathy Yates and Time Cage and in a few moments by Lois Rimbo of saints who taught them how to be generous so that church’s like this could flourish.  Next Sunday, you and I will be invited to continue this grand tradition of sainthood.  Saints here at Holy Trinity, for the past 150 years, have delighted in being generous to Christ’s work.  Look at this breathtaking altar, these jaw-dropping mosaics of the saints, this gorgeous building, these beautiful stained-glass windows—all gifts from saints like you.

I have been blessed to know a host of generous saints during my lifetime as have you, big-hearted people who had the strange priority and joy of giving lavish gifts to Jesus. I think of Frieda Hightower, a single woman—many called her “an old maid.”   She had been abused as a kid, lived in a dull apartment, wore clothes that she likely purchased at the Salvation Army, and drove a twenty-three-year-old rusted-out Buick Skylark.  Her only extravagance—and it was excessive!—was that she was the biggest giver in our church.  I always assumed she was one of those people who, when they die, are discovered to be multimillionaires with thousands of dollars hidden in the mattress.  But, not Frieda.  When she died, we discovered she was penniless.  She had literally given everything she had to her church.  Her greatest delight, in what was a rather lonely life, was spending a fortune on the gifts in the form of yearly pledge to her church.

You would never have guessed Frieda was a saint.  It required saints’ glasses to do that. Remember: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Apparently, many of you decided not to run in the New York Marathon.  You have navigated through police barriers and large crowds to wind your way into this holy place, teeming with sainthood, both living and dead.  We are an odd lot to be called saints; we might never call ourselves saints.   But with saints’ glasses, we suddenly see that we have been made exquisite saints by the power of God.  May this be your greatest delight.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Saints Unveneered and Not Airbrushed”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
“Saints Unveneered and Not Airbrushed”
All Saints’ Day Sermon
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Luke 6: 20-31

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When most of us think of saints`, we think of the big ones, like Saint Paul and Saint Peter, Saint Luke and Saint John, Saint Matthew and Saint Mark.  There are also the saints who have gone through the elaborate canonization process carried out by the Supreme Pontiff of Roman Catholic Church in Rome that requires two certifiable miracles; in that regard, we think, of course, most recently of Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

And then there are those saints who, though not Roman Catholic, are giants to us.  Saint Martin Luther King, Jr., Saint Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and our own beloved Saint Martin Luther come quickly to mind.
All these saints have an honorific feel to them.  You might say they are the giants of the faith. They are the people known worldwide and who make us proud to call ourselves Christians.

But, most of us have never known a single one of these famous people.  The saints we know are the ones who sit in the cheap seats, the ones we just heard about in Saint Luke’s gospel: they are the poor and hungry, the ones who weep and who are hated by others, they are cursed at, abused, slapped in the face.  We know these saints well.

At least for me, whenever I hear the word “saint,” it is hard to think of myself.  Is it like that for you as well?  It almost unthinkable that we are saints.

Our baptism was our canonization process.  The only certifiable miracle then, and now, is that God called us by name, overlooked our rascally sinful nature, and said, “I love you.”  That was and is enough for our sainthood.

That is so hard for us to imagine.  The saints we think of are the ones for whom churches have been named, who appear in our stained-glass windows, and after whom we have named our children.   But you….me?  We are saints?  It is almost unimaginable to say, “I am a saint!”

My favorite definition for a saint is Frederick Buechner’s: “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”

These are the saints we know: the ones who come fluttering into our lives.  We love them and, yes indeed, they infuriate us.  We rub shoulders with them and we run from them as fast as we can.  We feel guilty as can be when they die and we weep at the emptiness we feel now that they are gone.  There was and is not anything stained-glass about these saints—ever—and we know that!  It is why we find it so hard to imagine that they or we are saints: we know ourselves best and we know how miserably we fall short of the glory of God.

And yet, in the prayers of thanksgiving you make this night, in the names you have inscribed in the book of names (if you haven’t done so yet, please write the names of those you love in the book of names after you receive communion), in the pictures that stand at the altar—these are the saints who have touched you most deeply.

We tend to idolize the big times saints, the famous ones.  They have been airbrushed by history and veneered by popular piety.  The saints we know, the ones baptized in churches in places like this, are a complicated combination of brilliance and imperfection, tenderness and cussedness, compassion and arrogance, selflessness and egotism, rages and kisses.

And yet it is theses saints who have been dropped into our hands from heaven.  Their beauty, I imagine, the uniqueness, is the astonishing and yet quirky combination of flaws and brilliance all at once.  In our Lutheran tradition, we call them saint and sinner… all in one breath and all loved by God.

On this holy evening, we keep thinking of those we love.  They have infuriated us and broken our hearts and yet on this night, we realize there is something much more powerful afoot.  Tonight, these people are saints simply because God has loved them and called them by name.

These are the blessed ones, just like you and I.  We are God’s people who come fluttering into this world and, by God’s grace, touch a life or two and one day, on a night like this, someone will say of us, “She was a dear saint; he was a blessed man.”  Oh, for all the saints.  Alleluia.