November 3, 2019
Stepping Into Sainthood – November 3, 2019
Stepping Into Sainthood
Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019
Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
We’re celebrating the feast of All Saints this morning. And I think that raises a question that often comes without a good, clear answer: What does it take to be a saint? What gets you into the club of that cloud of witnesses we remember today?
I hope to be able to give you an answer to that question. But first, I want to share with you the story of a saint you’ve probably never heard of, unless you come to the Friday noon Eucharist and his feast day happened to come up. This saint’s name is Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, and his feast day was a couple of weeks ago.1
He was born in Lithuania in 1836 and grew up a devout Jew. As a young man, he moved to Germany to study to be a rabbi, but he found Christianity instead. At 23, he left Europe and came to America, intending to be a Presbyterian minister. Instead, his journey took him to the Episcopal Church. He went to seminary, and as soon as he was ordained, Schereschewsky heard God calling him to move again. This was the mid-19th century, a time of witness and evangelization in Asia for the Episcopal Church; so Schereschewsky set out for China, learning Mandarin while he was on the ship. Once in China, in addition to serving as a priest, he translated parts of the Bible and the Prayer Book into Mandarin. Eventually, in 1877, he became bishop of Shanghai but also began translating the Bible into another Chinese language, Wenli. He kept going until Parkinson’s disease forced him to resign as bishop, but even then he didn’t retire. Instead, though limited in his movement, he spent the next 20-plus years translating Scripture into Wenli, typing 2,000 pages with one finger of his disabled hand.
Yeah, that sounds like the story of a saint. But I’d invite you to hear it as something other than a story of holy accomplishments. When we think about what it takes to be a saint, we usually start listing achievements or miracles or acts of service, as if sainthood came from earning enough points on a scorecard. Instead, think about this aspect of the story of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky: He never stopped moving. Certainly, his travels bear that out, but so does his spiritual journey. Even when he couldn’t move physically, he never stopped moving forward toward a life with God at its center.
That’s what I think it takes to be a saint: choosing a journey of transformation, a journey of heavenly intent.
Actually, I would say that a journey is also a good way of understanding God’s promise to the saints, the promise of eternal life. Again, we often think of that in terms of achievement – getting to heaven, where presumably the journey stops. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I think it makes more sense to see eternal life as a work in progress, a story in three chapters. And, by the way, you can see each of these stages in that great hymn we’re singing this morning, “For All the Saints” (Hymnal 1982, 287)
Chapter 1 is now, as we live in the kingdom of heaven that’s among us, as Jesus said; and we see it in those moments of blessing when we’re able to transcend ourselves and live out the call we heard in today’s Gospel reading – what the Greeks called kenosis, the call to empty ourselves. What’s that look like? Well, Jesus said, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. If someone strikes your cheek, give them the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt, too. Give to everyone who begs from you. In a nutshell, do to others as you would have them do to you. Eternal life, Chapter 1, is all about the blessedness of giving ourselves away.
Chapter 2 is what we usually imagine as heaven – the paradise of blessed rest. It’s the stage of eternal life we see in that glorious window in the columbarium, appropriately with saints at rest all around it. As the window says, it’s a stage of deep thanksgiving, with the peace of God ruling in our hearts. Sounds pretty good to me.
But even that’s not the end, for there is no end to this story, just the next chapter. Chapter 3 is our real hope, the fullness of joy, the end time that’s not an ending – when God brings earth and heaven back into the unity God intended in the beginning, with all of us saints rising into life and relationship richer and more rewarding than we ever knew possible. That’s the life that goes on, the journey that literally never ends.
We start off on that journey toward heavenly transformation right here in this pool of baptismal water. Though the pool is small, its power is vast. As we’ll pray in a few minutes: In it, we are buried with Christ in his death. “By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 306). And when we take these steps of dying and rising again, we’re marked with the sign of the cross, in oil blessed through ancient apostolic prayers, to help us remember what we heard in the reading from Ephesians: that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. In ancient times, a ruler marked his seal on what belonged to him, what received his protection and shared in his power. And so it is with us. We are we sealed by the Holy Spirit as a pledge of our inheritance as the people who belong to God, the saints in light.
After those first few steps through this water of baptism, for the rest of our days, God yearns for us to keep moving along a journey of joy. If that sounds familiar, it should – it’s the theme of this year’s stewardship season, “discovering joy in the journey.” I believe that’s actually God’s longing for us: that we would keep moving toward heavenly transformation, not because it adds points to our scorecard or because God can’t do holy work without us, but because it delights God to see us coming closer, just as it delights a parent when your child runs into your arms.
Well, if we saints are on a journey, then we probably need a map – maybe even an app to download onto our hearts so we can see where our blue dot is right now, compared with our heavenly destination. You can map a journey from many different perspectives, but I like the one that guides the spiritual assessment we’re making right now as a congregation. So, this is my shameless plug, where I ask you to take the Spiritual Life Inventory. There’s a link to it in the e-newsletter you received yesterday; you can find it through our website; and there are paper copies in the entryway. This inventory will help us find where we are on our collective spiritual journey and – more important – how we can serve you better as you take your own heavenly path.
It’s a journey that starts with exploration – exploring a life with God – and moves through stages of growing that relationship, and deepening that relationship, and eventually finding that our life has God at its center, the focal point of all our work and relationships. If the journey of a saint takes those four stages – exploring, growing, deepening, and centering yourself in relationship with God – then St. Andrew’s needs to be guiding people intentionally along the path through those four stages. That’s what this assessment process will help us build – our capacity to be the map, or app, that helps you chart your heavenly course. So, please, take the assessment and help us serve you better.
So, if the journey of a saint takes those four stages – exploring, growing, deepening, and centering yourself in relationship with God – then where are you? That will be the next spiritual inventory we’ll offer, in the new year, when you’ll get the opportunity to learn where you yourself stand in your journey. But even at a gut level, without looking at a personalized map, I’ll bet you have a pretty fair sense of where you are. Are you exploring a life with God? Or growing a life with God? Or deepening in life with God? Or living with God at your center?
Wherever you are, if you’re leaning into the call, you’re a saint. Now, your saintly journey doesn’t have to merit a special day on the calendar. You don’t have to travel from Lithuania to Shanghai, or from being Jewish to Presbyterian to Episcopalian. You don’t have to translate the Bible into different languages or type it out with only one finger. You just have to take a step.
So, what’s yours? If you find God in prayer with others, we’ve got Morning Prayer at HJ’s three times a week and contemplative prayer on Thursday evenings. If you find Jesus especially present in the Eucharist, try out the 45-minute service on Fridays at noon. If you find God in serving others, you’ll see opportunities in the bulletin every week. If you find God in study and conversation, we have more than a dozen classes and groups, from Bible and book studies, to the aptly-named “Christian Journey,” to groups of married couples, to the Back Porch Alliance. And, if you find alone – on a walk, or reading Scripture, or over a cup of coffee – it only takes setting aside a few minutes a day. Wherever you find God, if you’d like to talk about what’s next for you, Mtr. Anne or Fr. Jeff or Deacon Bruce or Jean Long or I would love to help you discern what that may be.
Whatever it is – just take a step. Aspiring to sainthood is simply leaning forward and running into the arms of the God who loves you more than you can imagine … at least more than you can imagine so far.
1. For Schereschewsky’s story, see http://satucket.com/lectionary/SIJSchereschewski.htm or, for more information,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Isaac_Joseph_Schereschewsky.