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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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All Saints 11/04

          You know how there are stories that circulate on the internet, maybe they get passed around by email?  It happens on clergy sites too.  There is one about two brothers who lived in a certain town, it could have been Ishpeming I suppose, I don’t think so though.  But these brothers were known to be involved in crime and corruption, drugs and gambling, perhaps other kinds of vice.  Some thought they were connected to one of the large organized crime families but of course no one could prove it.  The bottom line was, both of these brothers, due to their illicit activities were very wealthy and they flaunted it. 

          No one in town was too sad when the older brother died somewhat unexpectedly.  The problem for the younger brother was the funeral.  Neither of them ever attended any church, it wasn’t like the Corleone family in the Godfather who went through the motions of being good Catholics.  The younger brother had to find a priest or minister who would do the funeral because he wanted his brother to have a proper send off. 

From articles in the paper he knew the Lutheran church was trying to raise money for some needed repairs, a new roof or something.  So he went to the pastor and explained his dilemma, even candidly acknowledging that some of what the pastor had heard about him and his brother might be true, but he said, “If you’ll do the funeral, and if you’ll say my brother was a saint, I’ll write you a check for $50,000.  That ought to pay for a new roof, new furnaces and anything else you might need around here for awhile.”

The pastor wasn’t sure about this, but after some thought he said, “I’ll do it.  But,” he said, “I want the $50,000 up front, paid in advance.”  The younger brother agreed, the check was written and the day of the funeral arrived.  The church was packed with some rather shady looking characters who arrived in large vehicles as well as with many people from the town who were curious, wondering what any self respecting pastor would say about this guy that everyone knew was no good. 

It was a normal funeral, the usual hymns, Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, scripture readings and then the sermon which wasn’t the usual.  The pastor was brutally honest highlighting the horrible things the man had done, how he had been greedy and corrupt, carousing with women, gambling and drinking excessively, the whole nine yards.  Everyone then became focused on the younger brother.  They didn’t know about the bargain that had been made, they just watched as the younger brother slowly fumed at the harsh words of the pastor who in his estimation wasn’t keeping his part of the deal.  They wondered what was going to happen and then the pastor concluded with a booming crescendo proclaiming, “Yes, this man was a no good, dirty thief, a criminal…but he was a saint compared to his brother.”

I don’t think that any of us would be likely to consider either of these brothers as saints.  I tell the story because I think it highlights how when we think about saints, it tends to involve comparisons of one kind or another.  The comparisons in this story are rather odious but still, when we think about saints, that’s what we do.  We have that idea of what a saint is, someone who is particularly virtuous and selfless, someone who is a model of faith, whatever it might be, and then we compare.  Those who compare favorably are thought of as saints.

 In part I suppose we do that because for those who are officially canonized by the church as saints, that is what is done; they’re the ones who really compare favorably.  It doesn’t matter that when you study any of these official saints you find that they are all flawed characters, witness the revelation a couple of months ago about Mother Theresa’s doubt and experience of God’s absence.  She wasn’t this pious little meek do-gooder woman who felt uplifted by God all the time.  She was wracked by doubt about the very existence of God.  Nonetheless, even knowing all that, people who are really good and really faithful still tends to be what we think of when we think of saints.

But those canonized saints who despite their flaws still do well when compared to others are not what today is all about.  They all have a day on the liturgical calendar even if we don’t pay much attention unless it happens to fall on a Sunday.  Today is a day we don’t play comparisons, because everyone is included.  On All Saints Day we remember all those who have died in the past year whose funerals were somehow connected to this church and no comparisons are made, no list of virtues or accomplishments.  Today is a day to reflect more on their core identity, our core identity as children of God, an identity which makes us, in one of Luther’s most brilliant insights, simultaneously saints and sinners.  You can compare all you want, but for everyone, that’s the bottom line; saint and sinner.

That is perhaps why we get the Beatitudes for a gospel text on All Saints Sunday.  It’s difficult to play comparison games with the Beatitudes because they are so upsetting to normal sensibilities.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who weep and so forth.  They create an unreal picture of things, but that’s exactly the point.  It is a poetic vision that renders our comparisons useless.  In these Beatitudes Jesus doesn’t glorify poverty and suffering as something we should strive for, but he invites us into his kingdom which really does represent something radically different from the way the world normally sees things and does things.  We’re invited into deeper communion with him, the merciful God who loves and seeks out the lowly, who invites everyone to the banquet and proclaims them to be saints.  As saints all are invited to see the light of this new age, this inbreaking kingdom, invited to dwell there and reflect on what it means.

The beatitudes are so unreal that they defy explanation; they defy explanation but they sure give you plenty to think about.  The words of instruction that Jesus gives after the Beatitudes do the same thing.  The first inclination is to say that this just doesn’t make sense.  He can’t really mean all this or he sure can’t be talking about this world because none of this makes sense or works in this world.  Do good to those who hate you.   Turn the other cheek.  Give to everyone who begs from you.  Come on.  You mean we’re supposed to be walked on and taken advantage of? 

Like I said, all this defies explanation so I’m not even going to try.  I’ll just remind you that you are a saint.  You are invited to think about what that means, what this life of Beatitude that Jesus describes means.  I can’t say for sure what you’ll come up with, but however you define sainthood, whoever you think of as being particularly saintly, however you try to emulate those people, I think you will find that all of this still has something to do with grace.  No one earns their way to sainthood.  No one makes themselves a saint and it’s not about comparisons.  Sainthood is something done for you by the grace of God.

Earlier, some names were read and the bell tolled.  It occurs to me that in the end, that’s the story for all of us.  Someday, sooner or later, here in this church or in some other one, our names will be read and a bell will toll.  In some ways, it’s the most perfect, honest funeral that we’ll have.

For all the people whose names were read today, I did their funeral sometime during the past 12 months.  At that time I talked about them, who they were, a little about their life, what was important to them; but not today.  Today the bell tolls once for everyone.  There’s no explanation, no comparison, no one more saintly than anyone else, no one gets three or four rings because they were real good.  A name is read, and the bell tolls; once.

Some All Saints Sunday it will be my name.  Some All Saints Sunday it will be your name; and the bell will toll, once.  But we know that that ring is a sound of grace and that that grace is sufficient because we are saints.  By the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are saints.  One toll of the bell is enough.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”


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