Sunday, November 2, 2014

Phil Kniss: No heroes in heaven

All Saints Day 2014
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3

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Michael Sattler,
one of the most influential early Anabaptists,
was executed as a heretic in 1527.
Among the formal charges, for which he was convicted,
was this, and I quote,
“Anabaptists condemn the mother of God and the saints.”

The charge was trumped up, but contained at least a tiny kernel of truth.
Anabaptists didn’t condemn the saints.
They just said saints weren’t who people thought they were.
The saints, Sattler argued in his defense,
are those who are alive and believe.
Those who died in faith are called, not saints, but the “blessed.”

Regardless, we’ve come a long way.
Once Anabaptists were so critical of the elaborate church traditions
involving saints and sainthood,
that people generally assumed they “condemned the saints,”
and that was at least part of the reason they were burned or drowned.
Today, Park View Mennonite,
and many other Mennonite congregations,
embrace All Saints Day as a meaningful tradition,
and an opportunity for the worship of God,
as we remember and honor those gone before us in faith.

No, in case you’re wondering,
I don’t think we’ve sold out and forsaken our roots.
But yes, there is a little irony in this service of remembrance,
when we honor the saints gone before us,
and light candles in their memory,
and even put some of their icons on display, so to speak.

Now, certainly, there can be no question that what we are doing
has real value and meaning to us and our loved ones.
By having this service, and reading the names,
we make sure that those who died are never forgotten;
we acknowledge that we are not self-made individuals,
but part of a larger community of believers
that stretches across time;
we admit that who we are today is directly connected
to who we were in previous generations;
we make sure that our history as a church is not forgotten;
we allow our past to inform our present,
even as we move to new places that some of our forebears
could not have imagined.

So, without a doubt, we all recognize the inherent value
in celebrating this day the way we do.

But we are also taking on some risk in doing so.
We risk engaging in hero worship,
instead of the worship of Almighty God.

There is true error—true, serious, theological error—
in making the saints into otherworldly heroes and demigods.
There is error in assuming we need them to stand in for us before God,
because we earthbound humans are somehow incapable
of deep communion with God.
There is error in misplacing the hope we should have in Jesus—
whose resurrection, and whose sending of the Spirit,
makes possible our union with God—
and putting our hope instead in the saints,
and on some magical powers they must have now,
that we don’t have available.

That is the error that the Anabaptists reacted strongly against,
and which earned them the accusation of being saint-haters,
which of course they weren’t.

But then, we also must admit, I believe,
that our Anabaptist forebears were also in error on some points,
along with many other reformers,
who took the extreme step
of ripping icons and religious art off the walls of the churches,
and tearing down and smashing the statues of saints,
not to mention destroying church organ pipes
and other musical instruments,
as they stripped Christian worship bare,
removing nearly everything 
that couldn’t be expressed rationally, in words.

In their effort to dismantle the magical thinking
that had developed around the saints,
and elevate the spoken and written word,
some Reformers got rid of most artistic, aesthetic, and emotional
components of worship in the process.
What a shame!
They could have condemned the magical thinking.
They would not have had to destroy religious art,
and desecrate images of honorable persons,
and keep their lives from inspiring and blessing us.

I think we strike a good balance today,
in how we celebrate All Saints Day at Park View.
But we still need to be attentive to the danger.
We are still prone to hero worship.

Take Revelation 7 for instance, which was just read.
John paints a scene from heaven.
A scene far removed from anything we know in this life.
Multitudes, robed in white, standing before the throne of God,
waving branches, shouting praises.
There’s a host of angels and elders and “four living creatures,”—
which John described earlier as being
full of eyes, in front and behind, having six wings,
one creature looking like a lion, another like an ox,
one like a human, and the fourth like an eagle,
and all are holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense.
Far from ordinary, this is an other-worldly vision.

So we are therefore tempted to think of this scene
as completely disconnected from us.
But John tells us differently, here in Revelation.
“These are your people,” we are told.
This multitude robed in white, are the saints—
from our own community who have gone before.
V. 13 says, “These are they
who have come out of the great ordeal;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The “great ordeal” was an obvious reference to John’s readers.
It was the horrible time they were in the middle of, right then,
during a period of great persecution of the church.
Christians were being killed in huge numbers,
just disappearing from the life of the church.
But here John paints the church a picture,
showing where they are now.

It’s a picture to encourage the persecuted church.
But taken out of that context, it presents a danger.

Much later, people begin to think of the martyrs
less as “our people,”
and more as sacred angelic beings,
holy, void of any earthliness.
And the legends start to grow.
With each retelling of the story of their lives,
the lives of these saints become
more removed, more mysterious,
more magical, more untouchable.
And soon, there are heroes in heaven.
But precious little humanity.

Heroes are good.
Heroes have their place.
Heroes can inspire us.
Can push us to do more and be more.
But we dare not make them larger than our lives.
There’s a fine line between admiring someone,
and worshiping them.
Especially in our celebrity-driven popular culture.

I’m fine with heroes,
in terms of mentors and strong models of good character
whose lives inspire us,
who push us to greater heights.

But we have a problem when heroes get larger than life,
when they achieve demigod status—
in the realm of the living or the dead.

In the land of the living,
when we make one of our own a demigod—
be it actor, politician, or athlete—
we set godlike expectations on them they can never fulfill.
But they try anyway, once the fame gets to their head,
and much of the time, they crash and burn,
and we all lose out.

In the World Series, we just saw
a 25-year-old farm boy from small-town Kentucky,
pitch better than any World Series pitcher in history.
I wasn’t rooting for the Giants,
but it was one amazing performance, and great to watch.
Now, sports writers are casting Madison Bumgarner
as nearly super-human.
But where will it go from here?
We all know his 0.25 World Series ERA won’t keep up.
Will he stay grounded in his human identity? 
rooted in his family and community?
Or will our hero-worship start to change him, and disappoint us?

It’s also a problem when we make heroes of those in heaven.
But in a different way.
If we assume the saints who went before us were special,
in the sense of not being like us,
then their lives can’t really shape ours.
We are off the hook.

But, no. We are all, everyone of us,
made from the same mold.
Saints above, and saints below.
We are all human beings created from the same pattern.
That pattern is the image of God.
And we all have the breath of God.
And we have it equally.
Regardless of race, gender, tribe, or social status.

We all have infinite worth.
We are all precious in God’s eyes.
We are all children of God,
whose ultimate worth is always and only in God’s hands.
As the apostle said in today’s reading from 1 John 3,
“We are God’s children now;
what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

So we will celebrate All Saints Day at Park View.
But we will not make the claim that there are heroes in heaven.
We reject the idea that these saints we honor
are fundamentally different from any of us.
We honor them, precisely because they are just like us.
They are our friends, our neighbors, our fellow church members,
who lived, and live, by the grace of God.
Which is the only way any of us can live a flourishing life.

We honor them and remember them
for how they have formed our lives.
My formation as a human being, and a follower of Christ,
did not start on the day I decided to follow Christ.
It began before I was born.
The line of people I came from—saints and scoundrels—
all shape me and my walk with Christ.

Some of them taught me by example.
They showed me how to walk in grace.
Some I knew personally, and learned from directly.
From others, I learned indirectly.
It passed down to me through multiple generations.

And I must admit, I was also formed, and am still being formed,
by those who carried awful woundedness in their lives.
We talked about healing last Sunday.
Some of the healing we need, is generational healing.

I assume that in the list of names we will read aloud
in just a few minutes,
will be some names that conjure up vivid and painful memories
for some of you here who are their descendants,
or were otherwise impacted by their woundedness.

These were not all saintly people in the way they lived their lives.
Let’s just be honest about that.

But, saintly or not, we are deeply, and forever, connected to them.
We did not start from scratch.

The story of our formation in Christ
will always be incomplete,
if we don’t somehow, give an account
of how we have been formed by those we have come from.

That’s why we do All Saints Day here at Park View.
We call to mind those who have gone before.
Not to worship them.
Not to vilify them.
We call them to mind.
We name them aloud.
We honor the grace of God that was active in their lives,
even if that grace was never fully realized.

We don’t make them special.
We don’t make them heroes.
We don’t imagine they are more holy than we are.
But we honor their memory,
and allow their lives to touch ours once more.

So now, we enter into a period of contemplation,
of listening, of prayer.
Enter into this in whatever way you feel led.

We are first going to hear the list of names read,
all 186 Park View members & attenders who died
since our founding 61 years ago.
Follow along with the insert,
listen, remember, and give thanks to God.

As soon as the reading is over,
you are all invited to come to the front and light candles,
while an ensemble sings.

We light these tealights, on four different stations here at the front,
because of the multitude of others in our cloud of witnesses,
saintly and otherwise,
who many of us are thinking of today,
who were not named aloud,
because they were not part of the congregation
at the time of their death.
On this day, we also make space to remember them,
and honor their memory,
through the lighting of candles.

I do want to name aloud one person whose death touched us
this past year, who was not part of the congregation, so is not listed,
Doyeon Ki, who was preparing to study at EMU
and living with Jeongih Han and her daughters.

Now, listen to the names, and prayerfully remember.
When the reading is finished, come up as you are ready,
adults, youth, children,
and light a candle, prayerfully remembering
these and others who helped form who you are today.
The first reader may come now and begin

—Phil Kniss, November 2, 2014

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