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All Saints Sunday — Proverbs 3, 1 Corinthians 1

In 1971, at a church in Washougal, Washington, Everett Chance preached a remarkable sermon— remarkable, because Everett Chance did not believe in God.*

Everett Chance and his brother, Irwin, grew up in Washington state where their father somehow made a long career of playing minor league baseball. Their mother, meanwhile, devoted herself, and thus her children, to Jesus Christ in the form of their local church. 

In college, Everett left the faith for the antiwar movement. Eventually, Everett escaped to Canada to avoid the draft, yet he came back in 1971 to speak at his family’s church. He came back to compel the church to help free his brother, Irwin, from the “care” Irwin was receiving at a military hospital. 

Up until the day he got drafted, Irwin Chance held his church’s consecutive Bible Memory Verse record and also the consecutive Sunday School attendance record— and that turned out to be the problem for Irwin could never forget what he learned there about Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies. 

In Vietnam, an Army captain to whom Irwin was assigned ordered Irwin to shoot a young Vietnamese boy who’d been taken prisoner. Likely, the boy had killed a solider with a booby trap, yet Irwin couldn’t shake the knowledge that not only was this boy an enemy he was supposed to forgive, this enemy was still just a child, too. What would Jesus do?, Irwin contemplated.

As Everett Chance described it in his sermon, in that moment his brother went from being a U.S. soldier to a Christian soldier. Irwin attacked his captain with a tube of toothpaste. 

The real problem, however, began afterwards. 

In the brig, Irwin sat peacefully, singing hymns and reciting memory verses and praying prayers. The Army psychiatrist sent to examine Irwin, seeing him babbling to and about Jesus, concluded that Irwin was psychotic and prescribed a course of electric shock treatments and sedatives. 

Driving all night from Canada, Everett burst into the Sunday service of his family’s church determined to persuade the congregation to protest Irwin’s treatment. Stepping into the pulpit, Everett said: 

“The reason I came here, to Irwin’s God’s House, is that his trouble started here. I’m not trying to place blame. This whole situation is a compliment to the staying power of what gets taught here. Irwin, after he left here, kept on keeping your faith right up to the day he was drafted. And every letter we got from him, even from ‘Nam, was a Christian letter— the letters of a man who couldn’t reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with what was asked him. 

He’s still yours. That’s the crux of all I’m saying. He still believes every blame thing he ever learned here, and he still tells me I’m nuts when I try to tamper with those beliefs. It is the songs you sing here, the scriptures you read here, it’s his belief in this House and its God, that those doctors are out to destroy. It may be hard for you to believe it but the U.S. Government considers your faith a form of madness.” 

And then, like a good preacher, Everett offered the congregation an imaginative alternative: 

“You know, you folks have your own doctors and shrinks. If some of you caused enough fuss, I bet you could arrange for a Christian examination of Irwin by doctors who could see his faith for what it is, see that he’s not crazy. He’s a Christian.”

———————-

No doubt few of us would describe a soldier attacking his commanding officer with a tube of Colgate as having made a wise and prudent move, yet few of us could deny that pouncing upon an unjust superior with a tube of toothpaste is exactly the sort of odd, crazy witness for which we remember those Christians the Church has named saints. 

Notice how the Book of Proverbs today personifies wisdom: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” 

It’s wisdom with a capital W. 

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an attribute.  

Wisdom is but another name for the God whom the Jews, out of reverence, refuse to name. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs tells us in chapter nine. 

The reason that the fear of the Lord is beginning of lowercase-w wisdom is because capital-W Wisdom and the Lord are one and the same. 

“By Wisdom, God founded the earth,” Proverbs 3 says today. But then in the New Testament Colossians 1 declares, “In Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…” 

Thus, from Easter onward, the ancient Christians identified the Old Testament’s personification of Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ, the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. 

Which means, the Wisdom which the Old Testament commends us to seek is the way of Jesus Christ, a way which, the Apostle Paul reports to the Corinthians, can’t help but appear as foolish to the so-called “wisdom” of the world.

Because Christ’s whole life, from creche to cross was one of suffering sinful humanity, that phrase “Christ crucified” refers not only to the crucifixion but to Christ’s entire ministry—  especially so to Christ’s Kingdom teaching which compels the kingdoms of this world to crucify him. 

That “Christ crucified” is a wisdom that appears as foolishness to such a world is not an unfortunate failure of communication, for the Apostle Paul tells us today that “Christ crucified,” the way of Jesus, is God’s way of destroying the world that builds crosses.

You see—

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an odd option among options in the world. 

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an alternative, counterintuitive lifestyle you can choose from other lifestyle choices as though the difference between being a Christian or a Buddhist is like the difference between choosing an iPhone or an Android. 

Rather, the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God. 

Visiting the prisoners in prison, as our Kairos volunteers did last weekend, is not a good thing to do nor is it a means for you to get in God’s good graces.  

It’s God’s offensive against a world where people of color make up nearly three-quarters of the prison system, yet only a third of the overall population.

Feeding the immigrants among us, as Betsy does at our Mission Center every week, it isn’t charity.  

It’s God’s assault against a world that refuses God’s command to “Treat the immigrant residing among you as native-born.  Love them as yourself.”

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s patient offensive against a world aligned against God. 

It is the power of God, Paul says in verse 18, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” That’s a quote the Apostle Paul lifts from a battle scene in the Book of Isaiah. 

As the Bible understands it, the incarnation of Jesus into the world is an invasion of territory controlled by an enemy, and to incarnate the way of Jesus Christ in your own flesh is to press the battle lines and continue the advance.  

Therefore, sainthood is not so much about piety, but about power. 

———————-

Saints are those who exemplify better than others a story that will appear foolish to the world because it is, in fact, the story by which God is destroying the world. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power, because sainthood names our participation in a cosmic conflict. 

Don’t buy it? 

Listen to these other verses from our opening hymn, For All the Saints: 

“O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold” 

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong”

Such martial language may sound problematic to you if you’ve forgotten the heads-up that came at the very beginning of your baptism, when you were asked on behalf of the whole communion of saints:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…reject the evil powers of this world? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

And here you all thought coming to church was about connecting with spiritual truths or enjoying your forgiveness or finding fellowship. 

Maybe, you came looking for Jesus to lend a little meaning to your life— good for you. 

Well, what’s Jesus have in store for you? 

A fight— conflict on a scale so cosmic you hardly seem to matter at all. 

———————-

It’s important to note that today we’re not simply remembering all those who’ve died. 

We’re remembering all the baptized who’ve died. 

As Paul implies at the top of 1 Corinthians, all the baptized are saints in that, through baptism, we die the only death that really matters; therefore, baptism frees us to live in a manner that is not determined by the fear of death. 

It’s necessary to have death behind you in order to join God’s campaign, for the most potent weapon in the Enemy’s arsenal is the fear of death.

The church is a hospital for sinners, the cliché goes. 

But it’s more like a field hospital, a MASH unit, surrounded by the enemy, where your wounds are bound up so that you can join the fight and contend against the Powers who would rule this world by hate, envy, and violence. 

It’s by God’s grace that God doesn’t so much solve your problems as God conscripts you into something bigger than yourself and against problems much, much bigger than your problems. 

St. Paul says in Ephesians that, “Before the foundation of the world, God chose us in Jesus Christ so that we might be holy.”

And the word holy in scripture is the same word from which we get the word saint.  

It means different. 

Odd. 

Saints are those whom God has made odd in a world that has made God its enemy. Saints are those who are different in that they know that the wisdom of God— the way of Jesus Christ— which the world finds foolish is in fact a power. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

And power is always also necessarily about conflict. 

The saints are those Christians who produced conflict by refusing to let everyday Christians like us off the hook and, instead, insisted that because the way of Jesus is a power in the world, Jesus should be taken at his word. 

That is, the saints are those who show us to what our faith has committed all of us. 

I mean—

We love to stick statues of St. Francis of Assisi in our flower beds and remember how the birds and the beasts loved him. 

We forget how the rich and the powerful hated Francis for his refusal to compromise on what Jesus Christ taught about money and violence. 

Likewise, we love to teach our kids a reassuring, congratulatory version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream sermon, but we prefer to forget that he died prophesying against war and poverty.

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

It’s about living in an odd, different manner that locates where true power lies. 

Rome understood that it’s about locating where true power lies.

Why else did Rome kill so many of us?

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord was to profess that Caesar is not. 

To rescue newborns abandoned in the fields to die (as the first Christians did) was to insist that the significance of life lies not with the authority of the government, but with the Giver of Life. 

And to pray for your enemy, to forgive your enemy, to practice the habits necessary to produce (possibly) love for your enemy…well, that proved at odds with an empire that had a stake— and still has a stake— in telling you, “These are your enemies. Go kill them.” 

Even if Christians in America don’t understand it, Caesar sure did. 

It’s about power. Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus had paid it all. 

Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus taught the Golden Rule. 

No, Caesar did not kill Christians for singing some early version of Amazing Grace nor did Caesar kill Christians because Christians believed Christ taught what Mr. Rogers taught. 

Rome martyred Christians because Christians (back then, at least) understood that the preaching and teaching of the one who had forgiven all their sins by grace is not simply a prologue to the passion story. 

It is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world. 

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world.

That’s bad news if you think you’re in charge of the world. 

And, it’s uncomfortable news if you’re comfortable with those who think they’re in charge of the world. 

But, if you’re willing to live with death behind you, if you’re willing to attempt an odd and different life, a life lived as though it’s good news, you’re a saint. 

———————-

Towards the end of his “sermon” delivered to his brother Irwin’s congregation, Everett Chance turned from the congregation to God:

“Unlike Irwin, I don’t even believe in God. It’s a little odd, for that reason, that I’d have such strong feelings about God’s House. But I do. I feel— because I love Irwin very much— that it’s crucial for me to at least try to address the One whose House Irwin believes this to be. Since I don’t believe in Him, I’m not sure my words qualify as prayer. But I feel I must say directly to You— Irwin’s dear God— that if somebody doesn’t hear our family’s cry, if somebody isn’t moved, not by be, but by You God, to sacrifice some time and thought and energy for Irwin’s sake, then his mind, his love for You, belief in this church, are going to be destroyed. 

It’s that simple, I think. 

Which puts the ball in Your court, God. Not a hopeful place to leave it, to my mind. But that’s where a saint like Irwin would want it. And for the first time in my life. I hope it’s Irwin, not me, who’s right about God and God’s church.”

Irwin got released from the psychiatrict hospital after Irwin’s church did exactly what Everett told them to do— or, rather, what God told them to do.

———————-

If the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God, if the wisdom that appears foolish is in fact a power, then that means the third to the last line of the Apostle’s Creed— the communion of saints— is the key doctrine of the Church. 

“I believe in the communion of saints” is the necessary predicate to everything else we profess in the creed.

If the cheek-turning, grace-giving, enemy-loving way of Jesus Christ is the patient way God is getting back all that belongs to God, then saints are not optional. 

The Holy Spirit continues to use ordinary churches to produce saints because God needs them. 

The story of Jesus Christ must produce lives that demonstrate the truthfulness of the story of Jesus Christ; so that, through such witnesses— through the way of Jesus Christ— God might finish God’s work of redemption.  

But— Irwin’s a good example— no one can choose to become a saint.

Saints are made. 

So, come to the table because the most reliable way to learn how to live with death behind you is to receive in your flesh the foolishness that is Christ’s broken body and blood.

* This story is from the novel The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I chose not to note that in the sermon because I didn’t want the fictional naure of the story to cause people to discount it. If saints are those whose lives story the gospel for us then the lives of those in novels can serve the same purpose.


In the Church, the aftermath of Halloween is known as All Saints Day. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints Day was his favorite holy day. All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews, “To dust we came and to dust we shall return” and that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (i.e., those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us) who themselves surround our Great High Priest who has sat down from his once-for-all finished work of redemption.

The ancient script for the dearly departed says thusly for all of us. Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaims, “Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. As in baptism ___________ put on Christ, so now is he/she in Christ and clothed with glory.”

Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor holds out her hands and voices Jesus’ promise: “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ. The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints.

Therefore, the Church, rightly understood, is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. 

The same communion to which we belong.

And so:

Death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they. We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they. We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely. Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than the old lady in the pew next to yours asking you to pray for her.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ. Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another. Indeed I do so every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and poured out wine and declare: “…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…”

Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:

 

‘Can we pray to the saints?’

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It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.

Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.

 Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.

Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.

Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

SONY DSC

 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

Can We Pray to the Saints?

Jason Micheli —  October 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

SONY DSCJohn Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is Friday and will be celebrated in my church on Saturday and Sunday, chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon I wrote with David in mind. Actually, it was David’s question: ‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

———————————————–

Psalm 145: The Company of Heaven

 

‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

 

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

 

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

 

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

 

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

 

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

 

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

 

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

 

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

 

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

 

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

 

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

 

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died.

 

He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

 

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night.

 

And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

 

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

 

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

 

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

 

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

 

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me: ‘Will they be able to talk to me? Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

 

It’s a good question.

 

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

 

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

 

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

 

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

 

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

 

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

 

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

 

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

 

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

 

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

 

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

 

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

 

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

 

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

 

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

 

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

 

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

 

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

 

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

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As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

 

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

 

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

   

     When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

 

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

 

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

 

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

 

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

 

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

 

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

 

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

 

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

 

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

 

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

 

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

 

     So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

 

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

 

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

 

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

 

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

 

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

 

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

 

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

 

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’