All Saints: Angels with Dirty Wings

Jason Micheli —  November 5, 2017 — Leave a comment

For All Saints Sunday I continued our lectio continua through the Book of Exodus with chapter 17.

“Renew our communion with all your saints, especially those whom we name before you…” 

Wait just a minute, are we sure this is the right list?

I don’t want to talk smack on the dead, but do these folks really qualify to be called saints?

Isn’t that a little like giving participation trophies to everyone?

I mean, Chuck Kincannon- a great Dad and a moderate poker player but a saint? Chuck sang country songs in a soprano voice just to embarrass his teenage daughter on dates.

Chuck never slayed a dragon like St. George or drove off a plague of snakes like St. Patrick.

And Bud Jordan- this is a guy who got drunk- I mean, over served- with his shipmates in Italy and stole a village fishing boat after they’d missed their ferry back to board their ship.

In 13 years, I don’t think I ever saw Bud wearing a shirt anywhere else but here at church, and in those 13 years I don’t think a Sunday went by that Bud didn’t shamelessly hit on Heather Shue, who compared to him was young enough to be his protozoa.

I loved Bud, but isn’t it a bit much to call him a saint?

And Dwight Newman, good doctor with a good ear for music, but I don’t think Dwight ever walked out of worship without a cranky word about Dennis, which, let’s be fair, is true for half of you.

Often the paraments on All Saints are red to remind us of the blood of the martyrs.

If a saint is a champion of the faith, a person of exceptional piety, do these guys and gals really make the cut?

Their halos aren’t any bigger than yours, and- let’s be honest, I’ve known you for over a dozen years- on your best days, your halo is dinged up and dirty.

Claudia Debus, a wonderful and warm woman, she died having never forgiven her parents. They weren’t much of saints either.

Diane Brooks, when her husband’s death from cancer was followed immediately by her own cancer diagnosis, her daughter just in the 6th grade, she confessed to me she’d lost her faith.

She confided to me over coffee “my faith has been wrung out of me.”

And today we call her a saint, a champion of faith?

Walt Wilson- a few years ago I had to take out a restraining order on him after he became abusive to members of our staff.

One of the other people on our list today took his own life. He so did not believe in the sanctity of his life that he counted it loss, but today we count him a saint.

Really- if saints are exemplars of righteousness, then are these the names we should be reading?

Of course, in a way, they’re in good company.

If you wipe away the stained glass sheen we apply to the saints of the church catholic, then you discover that they’re no different than the saints we name here today.

St. Thomas Aquinas spent his whole life writing volume after volume of theology, but before he died he declared all our God-talk as no better than straw. Worthless.

St. Augustine was a horn-dog in his pagan youth and when he converted to Christianity he completely abandoned his common-law wife and their son. In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts- just imagine that as a statue in your garden.

St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Terminus episodes of the Walking Dead seem Christian by comparison. One of my heroes, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life- in addition to his wife. Twenty years into her mission, Mother Theresa of Calcutta wrote in her diary:

“Where is my Faith- even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness- My God- how painful is this unknown pain- I have no Faith- I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.”

That’s pretty depressing.

Still, Mother Theresa is better than Moses. He murdered a man and buried him in the desert. And Moses is better still than the saints he helped rescue.

They’re worse than you complaining about guitars vs. organs- in our passage today, they’re 24 hours out of Egypt and already they’re complaining to God about the accommodations.

Saints?

500 years ago this week, Martin Luther, who had a mouth dirtier than mine and a prejudice against Jews that would make Richard Spencer applaud, nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, provoking the Protestant Reformation.

1 of Luther’s 95 theses was a protest against the medieval Catholic Church’s teaching on how a saint was made, a protest against who the Church said qualified to be called one.

If you look at church art from the era- and the reason that Luther and the Protestants tore it all down- saints were always painted as having larger halos than everyone else. The bigger halos reflected the Catholic teaching that saints are those heroes who can stand before a holy God based on the merit of their own righteousness.

Saints got the bigger halos because they were the champions of faith, persons of exceptional piety, examples of extraordinary virtue.

Nonsense.

Martin Luther said that whenever you start evaluating yourself, measuring your vice and virtue relative to another, you’re in the territory of the Law not the Gospel.

According to the Gospel-

Saints are not those people who’ve earned bigger halos.

Saints are not those people who can stand before God better than us because of what they did.

Saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not role models of righteousness. They’re not people who are good or do good; in fact, according to the Bible our goodness is usually an obstacle to God’s grace not evidence of it.

Are some of the saints examples of godly living and models of righteousness? Are some of them good people who’ve done good with their lives?

Sure.

Of course.

Obviously.

But that’s not what makes them saints.

Saints are not people running after God; they’re people that God in Jesus Christ has mowed down, killing them and making them alive again with his word, with water, with wine and bread.

Saints are saints because God has sainted them, sanctified them, declared them something they are not apart from Jesus Christ: holy and righteous.

That’s what the word sanctus means, from which we get the word saint. It means holy.

Saints are not role models of righteousness. Saints are those who know they are not righteous

Saints are those who know they are not righteous in themselves but trust-

pay attention-

they have been declared righteous by God.

That’s how the Apostle Paul can address his letter thus: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…”  Read the rest of the letter. The Church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than an Anthony Scaramucci family chapel.

     And yet Paul calls them saints.

Saints are not sinless role models of righteousness. Saints are sinners who know they are the latter and not the former, who know that, on their own, they don’t deserve any sized halo. Saints are sinners who know we’re no better than rocks that God’s got to crack open himself if anything life-giving is going to come out.

Saints are not those who champion the faith. They’re those who know that Christ is the friend of sinners.

Saints are sinners who know they are not righteous but trust that by the blood of the cross God credits Christ’s righteousness to them.

Which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying what the Apostle Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said on the Pet Sounds album (himself a pretty spectacular sinner). 

The Apostle Brian Wilson sang: “God only knows what I’d be without you…”

That kind of credit to whom credit is due, that’s All Saints.

Luther tore down all the icons with the outsized halos because it grates against the Gospel.

Saints do not become saints by their faith or their merit.

     They are made saints by the merit of Christ’s faithfulness alone.

Christians do not become saints. Really, saint is but another word for Christian. Christ makes saints by becoming our sin so that his righteousness might be reckoned to us. We do not become righteous; his righteousness is credited to us.

It’s called All Saints Sunday for a reason. All of us, we’re all sinners that God calls saints. All of us who trust this promise.

Whether you feel or seem or act like one or not.

     Because God forbid that the truth of the Gospel would hinge on how you feel or seem or act or on the strength of what you believe.

Mary Karr, the Catholic poet, writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.”

Even though she’s a Catholic, what Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Reformation doctrine simul iustus et peccator, which is a fancy Latin catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.”

That is, we are always simultaneously sinful and justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We do not ever advance beyond the Ying/Yang of that simultaneity. We are all always and at once saints and sinners. They’re not at all mutually exclusive terms.

Like that guy tells McCauley Culkin in Home Alone said, we’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.

And this is not a disappointment or a deficiency, it’s the Gospel.

It’s the good news:

 you never will be more perfect than you already are in Jesus Christ.

Sure, you’re a sinner- no need to lie or pretend you’re someone you’re not. Sure, you’re a sinner, but simultaneously you have all of Christ’s righteousness already.

Just as bread and wine can convey God’s grace without God’s grace destroying the creatures of bread and wine, so too, Christ’s righteousness can convey to you without destroying you.

So that-

Simultaneous to your poverty- your doubts and your unbelief, your mistakes and your bad character, your apathy and your infidelity- simultaneous to your impoverishment, you already possess the full riches of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther said the gift of Christ’s righteousness to sinners- it’s like two people who each possess 100 gold coins.

The one may carry them in a dirty paper sack, the other may keep them in a gilded fortress.

But for all that, no matter the condition of the vessel, each of them possess the same entire treasure.

One may look rich, the other like a pauper, but they both possess everything.

The gift we’ve been given, Christ’s righteousness, it’s ours, all of it ours, whether your doubts are like mustard seeds or as mighty as a mountain, whether the faith you carry it in is like a castle or a crappy sack, whether you’re a lot more sinner than you feel a saint- it’s yours, Christ’s righteousness, all of it.

Already and for always.

What makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel, isn’t the message: Do better, be better, believe better.

The message of All Saints isn’t:

Shape up, God’s disappointed in you.

Be like those guys with the big halos.

The All Saints tagline isn’t the Army’s- we’re not exhorting you to be all you can be.

That’s the Law speaking not the Gospel.

No, what makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel isn’t even the message: Become what you already are. There’s no becoming necessary.

What makes All Saints Gospel is the message: You are.

Now. Already and forever. You are: Holy and righteous.

You are: a saint.

You are now the Bride of Christ betrothed by his blood- whether you feel like it or not.

Such that as Steven Paulson says, you might as well shave your legs and put on lipstick because he’s already made you his beloved.

All Saints is about the objective comfort of the Gospel.

All Saints is about what the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s Church calls the “sweet comfort” that the truth and measure of God’s righteousness given to you in Jesus Christ is not determined by the strength of your faith or the severity of your failures.

It’s true about you whether you feel it’s true or feel it’s false, no matter how much you sin, no matter what your sin- God calls you a saint.

The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians that that is your “inheritance.”

Notice, he doesn’t say it’s your wage or your reward.

That you have to earn.

Paul says it’s your inheritance.

An inheritance is earned by another and, my wife is an estate lawyer- she’ll tell you- inheritances are given.

Freely given.

And once they’re given- they’re the last and final word. It is finished.

An inheritance is given away.

And Ali will tell you, they’re given to all sorts of motley people who manifestly do not deserve them.

Speaking of Ali-

A couple of weeks ago, Ali and I both were talking about my book and my cancer at a church in Los Angeles.

And at one point, the pastor asked Ali: “Now that you’ve had this brush with death and grown so much closer to God and each other, how has Jason changed?”

And Ali thought a bit and offered a couple of answers of how she’s seen my faith deepened.

But then she paused, and smiled shyly just a little, and she said:

     “Of course, in a lot of ways, Jason is still the same asshole he was before.”

A couple of weeks ago, in that church, everyone laughed.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, imperfect people like me and Bud and Chuck and Diane and Claudia and Walt and whoever you lost this year whose name will be read in a different church, and, don’t kid yourself, you- we should say “Amen.”

Because…God only knows what we’d be…but in Christ he’s called us…saints.

 

 

 

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