Ordinary Saints

+ A sermon for All Saints Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 3, 2019 +

Text: Luke 6:20-31

Audio: LINK

What does success look like to you?
How can you tell that someone is successful?

For so much of my life I have been told implicitly or explicitly that success is defined in certain ways such as the accumulation of wealth, achieving ambitious goals, or reaching the heights of your career.
We have ways of recognizing success: who’s who rankings or lists of the richest people, awards shows and prestigious prizes, important positions or titles or even sports championships.
I’m sure we can all name a list of people who fit into these categories, who are successful in business, in politics, in sports, maybe even in academia.
And there’s a sense that the people who achieve success are doing everything right, that they’ve figured it out, that perhaps they have even been blessed by God.

Which means there’s a corresponding implication that those who are not considered successful have failed in some way.
That they’ve failed because they are not rich, they have not climbed the corporate ladder, or they have not gained notoriety.
They’ve failed because they are ordinary.
Sometimes we even call these people losers or unfortunates, we don’t notice them in public life or as we pass them on the streets, perhaps we even wonder if God has blessed them too.

successAnd so we strive to be successful. We strive for this understanding of success.
We strive to make sure we don’t become a loser.
We amass wealth in material goods and investment accounts, we hold ourselves to impossible standards, and we work long hours at our jobs craving promotions or bonuses or notoriety.
And when we achieve some modicum of success, when we are able to buy a house or a fancy new car, when we are able to show that we are more than ordinary, we feel like we have been blessed.

So when we hear Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel, we may feel a little taken aback.
When we hear him proclaim that the poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the reviled are blessed, we may wonder what he means.
And when we hear his warnings to the rich, the well-fed, the happy, and the well-liked, we may be surprised or even offended.
Jesus is turning our understandings on their heads!
He is completely flipping our ideas of success and blessings.
He is claiming that those who we would call losers are experiencing God’s blessings.
And he absolutely is—just as he has throughout his ministry.
But what’s more is that he is lamenting those who we would call successful.

For nearly a year now, we have been rooted in Luke’s gospel and in this book especially, we hear about God’s vision for a new creation.
We heard the song of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, who dreamed of a day when the hungry will be fed and the rich sent away, when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly lifted up.
We heard Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth when he announced his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed.
And for much of the past two months we have heard Jesus parables warning us about amassing wealth, hording material possessions, holding private feasts, and not recognizing our need for community.

So perhaps Jesus’ words this morning shouldn’t be surprising to us, but they are admittedly uncomfortable.
He is inviting us to evaluate our lives in light of God’s unfolding reign.
And he is lamenting that most of us are missing out of the fullness of this new creation, this new community.
Because while these binaries are not always helpful, while there are certainly times that we hunger and feel the sting of hatred and mourn—especially on this day, if we’re talking rich or poor, fed or hungry, respected or reviled, I’m going to guess that most of us find ourselves among those Jesus is warning.
A warning not to rely too heavily on our own ideas of success.
A warning that reminds us that we need each other, that we can’t do it on our own.
A warning that our own strength, our own wealth, our own possessions can never save us or make God love us but they serve as a barrier that is separating us from our siblings.
A warning that we have a responsibility to care for our neighbors and for the whole creation.
A warning that no matter what we may try to tell ourselves, we are fully reliant on our God.
And while these warnings may sound like Jesus is ready to condemn us to our fates, that he’s ready to write us off, I hear a deep lament, a longing, even, that we would understand that we don’t need to try to be successful as the world would demand of us.

“The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas

I hear a vision of a day where we dismantle all the binaries and no longer try to classify people as successful or losers, ordinary or extraordinary, in or out.
I hear a longing for all people to embrace the fullness of community that he is proclaiming, a community of mutuality and love.
I hear Jesus’ hope that we would understand how God’s success is not like our definition of success but is rooted in the love of God that is meant for the wellbeing of creation and life for all people.

On this All Saints Sunday, I worry that all too often we apply our human definition of success to classify saints as well.
We see being a saint as a sort of honor roll, those who have gotten an award for doing everything right. We think about the all-stars like St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Theresa, St. Francis and St. Patrick.
But as Sister Joyce Rupp writes, the saints are not only those people “who have been canonized by the church, but all people whose lives reflect the goodness of God. Saints are not perfect people. They have their faults, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses. They have their own struggles and difficulties. Even the canonized ones are noted to have been difficult to live with because of some unique mannerism. Yet, the saints are people of integrity. They have a central focus at the core of their lives: the love of God. They consistently choose to act out of that central reality, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary their lives may be.”
Being a saint does not mean that we are perfect, it certainly doesn’t mean we have it all figured out, but it means that we strive to center our lives in the love of God and make that love the basis of everything we do.

The Table of Remembrance at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Nov 3, 2019

Today we are remembering and giving thanks for and celebrating with all the saints.
That is why our table of remembrance today will include not only those all-stars, those extraordinary saints who may seem more successful and gained more fame, but the ordinary saints we have known, who made God’s love known in our lives.

If you have been in my office, you have surely seen icons of saints all around the room.
Most of those icons are surrounding the Eucharist Table this morning reminding us of the great cloud of witnesses that join us in this heavenly feast.
And while I have icons of some of the more famous ancient and modern saints, one of my favorites is right there on the end there—Blessed Mother Olga of Alaska.
When my friend gifted me that icon, I admit I had never heard of Mother Olga and I imagine that most of you have not either.
blessedolgaShe was the wife of a Russian Orthodox priest in her Yup’ik village of Kwethluk and served as a midwife for unnumbered women in a place without doctors and was a refuge for victims of abuse.
She is seen in her icon with a bowl of water and a towel, ever ready to serve and help anyone in need.
One Orthodox priest remembers Mother Olga by saying that she was not remarkable in a few things, but faithful in all things. He writes that there “was not a person in her family, her community, tribe, and her Church that was not touched in some way by her generosity, love and kindness.”
I love that icon because it reminds me that we need not perform miracles or heal injuries or change the world to be a saint of God.
By all measures Mother Olga was an ordinary person.
She was a native woman living a simple life in a small village at the edge of Alaska.
But in following the example of her Lord Jesus and using her life to emulate his love, she filled her village and its people with an extraordinary love that radiated out into the entire world.

This year, All Saints Sunday has a particular potency for me, and I imagine for many of you as well.
We as a congregation have bid farewell to three members or former members in the past year and we are still feeling the sting of one of our sisters leaving us just a couple weeks ago.
This year I also helped lay my grandfather to rest just as I’m sure we are all holding people on our hearts this morning who have departed this life.
It may be that none of these people were known to the wider world, none of them won major awards or were on the lists of who’s who, but they hold a deep and abiding place in our life.
They helped us experience the love of God in our lives.
They embodied God’s love that is for each of us and shared it with us in tangible and life-giving ways.
But on this All Saints Sunday we also celebrate the two brothers we baptized this year and how those waters have joined all of us into a communion of saints that is so much larger than ourselves, so much larger than this congregation, but spans all space and time. unnamed (3)
How when we gather at this table, we feast not only with each other but with Mary and Peter and Paul, with Mother Olga and Mother Theresa and Francis, and with Lorene and Gay and Susan.
All Saints reminds me how we are all connected, how by showing love to each other we send ripples of love beyond what we can see and radiate God’s love to the whole world.
This day reminds all of us that this is the saintly life to which our Lord has called us.

After his message of blessings and warnings, our Lord has invited us to root our lives in the love of God that he has proclaimed to us.
He says to anyone who will listen to love our enemies, do good even to those who hate you, bless all people including those who curse you, and to pray even for those who do us harm.
He calls us to root our lives on peace and generosity and to embody God’s love just as we hope to be loved.

As Lutheran Christians we believe that in the waters of our baptism, God has enveloped us in the fullness of God’s love, claimed us as children of God, joined us to Christ’s death and resurrection, and proclaimed that we are saints – God’s holy people.
We also trust that when our baptismal journey is complete and we come to die, we are again enfolded in that same love and made alive together in Christ’s resurrection.
But in the meantime, along the winding pathways of our journey of faith, Christ is inviting us to cling to that love that has claimed us, to make it the cornerstone of our lives, to use everything that we have been given­—all our resources and wealth and possessions—to proclaim God’s love in word and deed as we live into our identity as saints—ordinary as we are—who yet never cease praising God and loving and serving God’s people in extraordinary ways.

May it be so.

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