Sunday, November 02, 2008

All Saints

In 2003, St. Teresa of Lisieux’s bones were dragged to Halifax. The first stop in her cross country tour. Hundreds of people stood in line for hours to venerate the skeleton of a dead French peasant woman, known in Catholic circles as ‘The Little Flower.” She was very popular among maritime Catholics. A church was named in her honour.

I have to admit, I was tempted to stand in line with my catholic friends to share a moment with St. Teresa. A temptation I shared with our council president, who spit out his coffee when I told him.

“Y’know, there was a Reformation for a reason!” he snarked as he refilled his mug.

But I was more sociologically curious than spiritually compelled. I knew Teresa’s bones had no divine power, I knew it would be more like visiting an open grave rather than standing at a gateway to heaven. But I wanted to see why so many other Christians would stand in line for so long simply to gape at a pile of bones.

They are called “relics.” A relic could be a body part, a chunk of cloth from the Saint’s shirt, a book the saint kept on the bedside. Anything connected with the life of someone the church has identified as a “Saint” – capital S.

When some Saints died, their followers hid the body so that mobs wouldn’t snatch the remains, hack it into pieces, and run off either to sell for a sturdy sum, or keep for their own personal devotion. Relics were popular. And big business.

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it on a whim. But neither was he trying to start a revolution. He just wanted to start a conversation.

He chose October 31st 1517 as the day to nail his ideas to the city bulletin board because he knew the church was going to be filled the next day – the Festival of All Saints. He knew that the Elector of Saxony, Fredrick the Wise, was going to pull out all his relics to display for worshippers to venerate. And he charged a heavy entrance fee to get through the church door.

This was nothing new. Fredrick did this every year. In fact, it was VERY popular. When you think about it, it was a win-win for everyone. The money collected at the door didn’t go to Fredrick or the local church. The money went to Rome to keep the ecclesiastical machine running smoothly.

And the church authorities promised that paying the fee and venerating the relics shaved off 127, 800 years off purgatory. Since the average Christian was terrified of ending up in Hell, or even purgatory, they gladly paid a hefty charge to gawk at St. Cyprian’s nose hair if it meant a better shot at entering eternal bliss the moment their eyes closed in death.

From a 500 year distance you can see why Luther was so angry. Salvation as a financial transaction. The desecration of a body. The worship of objects rather than God. Certainly, this wasn’t what God wanted for Christians.

I used to find the whole idea of relics creepy. But then I realized that we’re not so far off.

I was 10 years old or so when my parents took my brother and me to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. I ground to a halt when I saw, on display behind glass, Bobby Clarke’s well worn hockey stick. The stick he used to record his 119th point, establishing a team record for the Flyers.

Bobby Clarke was one of my favourite players and I remembered that game, even though I was five years old at the time. Standing there ogling, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at Bobby Clarke’s ACTUAL stick from THAT particular game!

I stared at that stick like a Wittenberg peasant venerating St. Jerome’s big toe. I ran my hand across the glass wishing it wasn’t there. I wanted to caress the wood, grab it with my two tiny hands, as if tactile experience would give me some divine hockey power, connecting me to Bobby Clarke’s greatness.

Of course, that’s silly. Bobby Clarke’s hockey stick has no more power than any other dead tree branch. But it had power to me - and over me. And I wonder almost 30 years later, that if Luther were living today, if he would nail his 95 theses to the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If not the Hockey Hall of Fame, then maybe the movie theatre, or the Internet. Or anywhere celebrities are venerated. After all, Saints were really celebrities. If there were a National Enquirer 500 years ago, St. Dominic’s face would have been on the cover. E-Talk daily with Ben Mulroney would have interviewed St. Clare, probing her as to what was going on between her and St. Francis.

I think the council president at the church in Halifax bristled at my thinking of going to visit St. Teresa’s bones because he understood in HIS bones, that as Lutherans, we know that there is no such thing as a “capital S” Saint. As Lutherans, we confess that all Christians are made equal. As Lutherans, we know that we aren’t made holy by anything we’ve done, but we are made holy by what God has done for us in Jesus.

He knew that there are no first class Christians, and other Christians pining way in the back. He knew that any miracles Teresa might have performed were from God and not by the power of any human being. He knew that God worked through all people, not just a few select Christian superheroes.

This means that God can work through you. God not only can, God DOES work through you. Not because you have achieved some moral purity. Not because you have prayed or read the bible. And not because you have gone to church.

God works through you because God has chosen to work through you, whether you like it or not. God works through you because you are baptized, set free from the tyranny of sin and death and called to be God’s hands and voice in the world.

And it’s my job to help you see where God is working through you and in you. And God IS working among you, HARD.

It came up when we started batting names around for next year’s church council. And a lot of the names that popped out at us were of folks already doing something for the church, using their gifts, helping Christ’s church do its job.

Our growing Stephen Ministry and fledgling ChristCare Small Group Ministry require a lot of hard work. Sunday School and Ecumenical Campus Ministry, choir and Creative Fingers, worship and ELW, synod and conference committees, so many people are active in so many ways. And this doesn’t factor in all the ways you are using your gifts outside of the church.

And we do all this because we want to see Christ’s church thrive. But we also know, that while God has given us gifts and talents, it is really God who works in and among us, growing us from the inside out.

We know that its not our WORK that joins us to the great cloud of witnesses by our FAITH, our faith unites us to those who’ve gone before us, stewards of God’s mysteries who passed down God’s message of life and salvation through the centuries until we find it in our hands, passing it to the generations that are to come, in hope that, one day, all the world may, with all the saints of every time and every place, the baptized of every generation proclaim “Salvation Belongs to our God!”

May this be so among us. Amen.


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