Good morning. I read a fascinating editorial last weekend anticipating All Saints Day—and in a secular newspaper, no less! The Roman Catholic church is apparently considering sainthood for a man who was executed in 1957. Jacques Fesch was accused, found guilty, and eventually guillotined for killing a police officer in the course of a robbery three years earlier. A year after his conviction, while he was in prison, he underwent a profound conversion that began a season of radical amendment to his life. He spoke of his experience by saying, “the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.” The archbishop of Paris began the canonization process twenty years ago, and there is some hope that one day this man will be named a saint.
Saints—the holy ones, the elect, the baptized, the heroes of our faith—they are understood in a variety of ways. Basil the Great said about them in the fourth century: “The Spirit is the dwelling place of the saints, and the Saints are a place for the Spirit to dwell, as in a home, since they offer themselves as a dwelling place for God and are called God’s temple.”
We might say that saints are those who find a home “on the way,” in the course of following Jesus. And sometimes the encounter is very much like being seized by the throat. It must have seemed that way to Lazarus, and probably to the people standing around as he emerged from the tomb: “unbind him, and let him go!” Jesus’ own experience was no less shocking, even though the words in translation seem a bit tame: ‘Jesus was deeply moved. He was greatly disturbed.’ ‘He began to weep.’ In the Greek it says something more like he was “gut-wrenched.” Jesus was in breath-stopping agony at the death of his friend and the grief of his sisters.
Saints are those who are vulnerable to the gut-wrenching pain of this world. Some of us have to be seized by the throat or thrown into the tomb before we can begin to find that depth of compassion. And perhaps unless we are, we won’t leave our comfortable narrow lives—or our remarkably nasty ones—to wake up and begin to answer that pain.
In the early church, baptism was meant to be that kind of life-altering encounter. New saints spent three years in the readying, and then were taken in the dead of night into the crypt, stripped naked, and drowned—only to emerge filled with new breath, doused with sweet-smelling oil, and given a new white robe. What you and I do on Sunday mornings today sometimes seems a pale imitation, yet it can have every bit the same effect. Two weeks ago I met a 40-something man I baptized and confirmed two years ago whose life has taken a remarkable turn—from ordinary daily dullness toward meaning and deep compassion and an awareness of God in every part of his life, and the willingness to change his community into something that looks a good deal more like the dream of God.
When we remember our baptisms in the sprinkling in a few minutes most of us will probably cringe. We don’t like to get wet. But I hope and pray that you and I can welcome those surprising drops as a tiny reminder of what is meant to happen to us, over and over again, day after day after day. Die to the old, be unbound, come out into abundant life in service to the world. Wake up, and notice the suffering around us.
It is the willingness to experience that pain which more than anything else marks us as saints. The pain of the whole world—those who agree with us and those who might be called enemies. The pain of creation, abused for our pleasure. The pain of a six-year old child in Ghana, sold into slavery, to bail a fishing canoe and repair nets for 100 hours a week so that his parents might eat.
When Wisdom insists that souls of the righteous are at peace, it can only be in a world where those divisions and evils are ended. It is a dream of shalom, when all peoples and all creatures have come home at last. But it is also a dream that can be at least partially realized in our own day. Whenever two children make peace on the playground, the saints can rejoice. Whenever two or three fish-slaves are set free, shalom abounds. The hope of the saints is without bounds, for it insists that shalom is possible in this life, and not only at the end of all things.
There is a fascinating line in the midst of that Wisdom reading that says, “in the time of their visitation they will shine forth and run like sparks through the stubble.”
In the time of their visitation—is this the visit of God among the righteous? Or is it an occasion when the saints show up? The word that’s translated as visitation might also be translated oversight, or realm of service. In Greek, it is episkopeis. When the saints turn up, or when the Spirit makes a home in the saints, then the saints begin to burn and set the world alight. Their oversight, their ministry, their ability to see and influence and pastor the world, is set afire. All the saints are meant to run like sparks through the stubble, through that dead and no longer fruitful stuff, the dross of this world. You and I are supposed to get lit and set that flame to burning by our willingness to be vulnerable to the suffering around us.
In western Oregon for decades the usual way to clean up the fields after a crop of grass seed was harvested was to set the stubble afire. Clouds of noxious smoke filled the skies, and often drifted for dozens of miles. Air quality issues have led to other ways of controlling the smoke output, but burning is still the very best way to sanitize the fields and get rid of the stubble. What do you think? Can we make holy smoke?
The episkopeis of the saints, their ministry, cleans the fields of that which cannot survive in God’s dream of shalom, it burns away whatever limits that dream or cannot contribute to it. The ministry of governance, whether in the legislature, the polling booth, or in raising a child, is meant to prepare the ground for a new and abundant crop of life. Most of us here this morning will have an opportunity to exercise that kind of ministry on Tuesday. Will you consider your vote as an act of “running through the stubble?” Would that we might all be able to answer, “I will, with God’s help.”
Let the pain of this world seize us by the throat. Listen for Jesus calling us all out of our tombs of despair and apathy. May the shock of baptismal dying once more set us afire. This place we call home is meant to be a new heaven, a new earth, a holy city, a new Jerusalem. It is the sparks in the stubble that will make it so.
Turn inward for a moment and greet the spirit planted within you. When we come to the peace, turn to your neighbors and greet the saints, the fire-lighters in this field. Welcome, saint! Burn brightly and transform this world into God’s field for life, full measure, pressed down and overflowing, meant for all humanity and all creation. Burn!