How dare we call ourselves Saints? No, not the New Orleans kind, but the kind of people that strive to be holy because God is holy. Well, the church has consistently done that ever since it started reciting the Apostles’ Creed some 1500 years ago:
“I believe […] in the Communion of Saints”
Yeah, from that crying baby in the church nursery to the 101 year-old lady and everybody in between, God considers us all Saints. Now God doesn’t do that in a Catholic kind of way:
“In Catholic terminology, the communion of saints is thus said to comprise the church militant (those alive on earth), the church penitent (those undergoing purification in purgatory in preparation for heaven), and the church triumphant (those already in heaven).”
Instead the Reformation has stressed the Priesthood of all believers, which basically means that there are no Saints that are more saintly than any other Saint.
That’s why Martin Luther on the occasion of All Hallows Eve (Halloween is the evening before All Saints Day) in the year 1517 made the point that was spelled out in Scripture before:
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and the Lamb!”
(Revelation 7:10 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 1 November 2014)
That was revolutionary news back then: In order to graduate from purgatory to heaven your deceased relatives needed your help. Namely the church wanted you to pay cold hard cash for a letter of indulgence to shorten their time of suffering. It was like the church owned a treasure chest of salvation and you had to buy in, for yourself and everyone you cared for. Luther spoke out against the practice of indulgences because: Salvation does not belong to the church but Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and the Lamb! God gives salvation for free to everybody!
That still is revolutionary news today: There are churches out there that will tell their people that they have to believe or act or love or be a certain way or they will not get saved. They put pressure on you for not giving enough money, for not following their moral code. They tell you they know how to “get saved”.
The Good News of Reformation Day / Halloween / All Saints Day is this:
You are a Saint! You are saved no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey!
Dost Thou Speak King James? And if ye offer a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the Lord, dost thou offer it at your own will? No, really, on a scale of 1-10 with ten being God-like: How Holy Art Thou? How do you rate your own Holiness? That is the challenge that the Holiness Code offers with its motto:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
(Leviticus 19:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 26 October 2014)
God is a 10. That’s easy, nobody and nothing could possibly be holier than the Holy One! But God does not just rest there in all God’s Holiness. God picks, elects, drafts, calls up God’s chosen people: first Israel and eventually all the peoples in Christ Jesus. That includes you and me. And the charge to God’s people remains in effect: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” If you did not rate yourself to be a 10 on the Holiness scale you got your work cut out for you!
How do I do that – become more holy? Forget most of the religious knowledge and practice you have learned over the years! Yes, the Holiness Code has some religious and cultural stuff listed but that is mostly common-sense or general moral practice. At its core the Hebrew word for “holiness,” “kedushah” (Hebrew: קדושה) has the connotation of “separateness”. So since God is separate from the world so God’s people are supposed to be special. That is in our everyday dealings and not a flashy worship kind of way.
Holiness does not show when you are in Sunday best but working towards a farmer’s tan. Here is an example from Leviticus 19:10
“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
The way you go about to your day job shows how much you are attuned to the Divine and the people around you. When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment all he could think of was the summary of the Holiness Code from Leviticus 19:18
“love your neighbors as you love yourself.”
Learning to speak King James and saying the most beautiful prayers and thinking the most pious and righteous thoughts is so easy but are you willing to work on your Holiness the hard way? Do you dare being separate, special, holy?
Every old song used to be a new song. Karl Vaters wonders who the first worship director was who said “hey, I like that new song John Newton wrote,” before introducing Amazing Grace to the church. Whoever it was, he probably had to deal with complaints from church members who didn’t think it was as good as the hymns they were used to singing. “In six verses the name of Jesus isn’t mentioned once, but it says ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘I’ thirteen times! Today’s songs are so self-centered and shallow!”
The 1941 hymnal that we use at St. John’s United Church of Christ is kinda like that: It has countless numbers of hymns from 1930s and 1940 because they were the most popular songs back then. The church has a long tradition of hiring the greatest musicians of the time and commissioning the most extravagant compositions. And every time the “new hymnal” is introduced the generations who grew loving the previous ones get up in arms. Remember what that was like when the 1941 Hymnal was new? It was a radically new approach! Nobody could have ever imagined that Evangelical Christians and Reformed Christians could ever merge into the one Evangelical and Reformed Church. Well, they did and they even came up with this new 1941 hymnal celebrating their unity combining favorites of both traditions for a new era. After all that’s what the Psalmist charges God’s people to do:
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.”
(Psalm 96:1-2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 19 October 2014)
St. John’s United Church of Christ has been working toward getting a new hymnal for quite some time. A group of musical experts has been assembled and charged with giving the congregation a feel for what is out their until we come closer to a phase of deliberation and a process of decision making. Stay tuned.
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things.
(Isaiah 25:1 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 12 October 2014)
Isaiah sounds so joyful. He is raising his hands, maybe jumping up and down because he is so happy. He’s praising God with all he’s got. Maybe a few tears mixed in with that big fat smile on his face. Pure excitement. That is beautiful thing: “I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things.” As long as things are merry and bright that’s fine. But what if Isaiah’s mood really depended on God’s input? What if our feelings depended on other people’s actions? It may sound innocent to say: “You make me happy!” But what about: “You make me sad!”?
In reality happiness, sadness, anger, joy, frustration, fear, confidence are not things anyone can give you. They are your reactions to what life throws at you. At the very core everybody is in charge of their own emotions and we all decide which trigger we allow to push our buttons. Nobody can make me mad unless I decide to react to them in a made manner.
Again Isaiah: “I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things.” Here the prophet says: You, God, are allowed to stir up my heart, to shake my soul, to transform the way I look at myself and the world around me. I will allow your actions to have an impact on me.
Whom do you allow to push your buttons like that? The way your parents treated you does not have to determine how you will live your own life. Yet you may embrace what you learned from them and allow them to have an impact on your future. Same with God: Isaiah remembers the wonderful things he has experienced with God in the past and he decides to let that be the guide for a bright future.
Can you join Isaiah in inviting God into your life like that?
My future is determined by Your past!
My actions are consequences of Your actions!
My future is Your praise!
I am hunting the good stuff that You provide!
I hope that the church may be able to look at itself that very same way: That the glorious past of our church is not just our good old days but that they are reasons to celebrate God’s past. They don’t have to determine what our church’s future may look like. No past ever has and ever should be recreated. So let’s hunt the good stuff for God’s future!