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.
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.
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.
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.