Preached by Rev. Diane Tait-Katerberg on November 5, 2017.
Joshua 3: 7-17
Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-38
1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13
Matthew 23: 1-12
Called To Be Saints
One of the hardest parts of writing a sermon is writing a title for it. And it’s especially hard because quite often you have to write the title before you write the sermon. And as Carol can tell you I was still writing the sermon very late so it may or may not exactly fit the title.
Today is one of the days that we are piled up with celebrations. This is the first Sunday in November and it’s one that we recognize as All Saints Sunday. It’s also the day that we are remembering those who fell in war, so it is Remembrance Day.
There are many things that we can celebrate but I decided that I would focus on the idea of Saints even though I’m not using the readings from All Saints Sunday. I called the sermon “Called to be Saints”. Now, if I saw that as the title of the sermon in some other church’s bulletin or with some other preacher, I’d probably start to squirm, because that word ‘Saint’ makes me uncomfortable. It suggests to me sometimes that is someone who’s life is exceptional, someone who is unbelievably good, someone who’s too good to be true…maybe even a martyr.
Now this congregation took its name from a saint, Saint Andrew. St. Andrew was one of the first of the disciples of Jesus, along with his brother Peter. He was one who was martyred. He died on a cross, crucified by the Romans in Petrus, in Greece. He is the patron saint of Greece, Russia, Romania, the Barbados and Scotland.
But being a saint like that is not about me. But I am called to be a saint, and so are the rest of you here. Not because I am better than everyone else, not because I’m a martyr, not because of any particular thing that I did or will do. My saintliness, if I have any, and yours, is not of our own making. Saintliness is of God’s making. It is of God’s calling and God’s equipping, and all of us who are gathered here are called to be saints.
I started by looking up the word ‘saint’. I wondered where it came from. Actually, before that I wondered how many times the word saint is used in the bible. There wasn’t a clear answer because several different words can be translated as ‘saints’ and the highest number that I got was 89 times. The word ‘saint’ was not normally used in the Old Testament. They didn’t have the practice that I’ve been talking about, and naming people as saints, or calling them saints.
Most of the words ‘saints’ were found in the New Testament and it seemed to be a name that is applied to a whole community of people…those people who call themselves “followers of Jesus.” The “People of the Way.” The people that we call “Christians.” The faithful, the believers. For example, Romans 1: 7, starts out “Saint Paul writing to all of God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints. Grace to you and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. So I give you my greetings, saints of St. Andrew’s. Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Now, somewhere along the way certain branches of the church began to use the term ‘saint’ in a different way. It was no longer about a group of people, but it began to be about individuals. People began to call certain people “saints.” Some who had done what people perceived as miracles, some who had been helpful, and some who had lived exceptionally “good” lives. And they began to call on these special people to intervene with God on their behalf.
But that’s not how I found it being used in the bible and it’s not how we, in the reformed churches understand saints. So, what does it mean for us to be called saints?? Well, our texts help to guide us. I turned particularly to the book of Joshua, not only because I love the story of crossing the river, although my favorite passage is what follows next, but because this passage is also about a shift in leadership and about identifying God’s gifts to people.
Moses had died. For the people who were a part of the Exodus and those who lived after that time, the “Israelites” at that time, Moses was their leader. The one God had appointed to guide and advise them. Under Moses’ leadership, amazing things had happened. So, if they had been people to use the word saints the way that we do, he would most likely have been St. Moses, I’m sure. But that didn’t happen. Now Moses is dead and Joshua has become the new leader. Moses was the one who trained and prepared Joshua, but Moses always made it clear that Joshua was God’s choice, not just Moses’. Moses always told Joshua not to be afraid, but to be brave and courageous.
Following Moses would be a tough act to follow. We find them at this point, gathered on the banks of the Jordan river, looking across at the promised land. Perhaps they were remembering the stories about crossing the Red Sea when they escaped from Egypt and slavery. There, they had been pursued by the Egyptians. There, the enemy came from behind. But this time, what they fear, is on the other side, the Canaanites.
Now they have a new leader. Will he be up to the task? Is he God’s choice? Will they be up to the task that God is laying before them? So God spoke to Joshua, to assure him. And Joshua in turn, spoke to the people. Joshua told them that this was God’s direction, what they were about to do, and through them God would do amazing things. As God assured Joshua, “I will be with you. I will not fail you, I will not forsake you,” so that assurance is also ours. We are part of a community of people who are called by God, and empowered by God. It’s not our doing. What we do, we do because God empowers us and equips us. Not for our own sakes, nor for our own glory, but for God’s.
We are called to be saints. To not be afraid, but to trust God to empower us for God’s purposes. I think that’s the only requirement there is to be a saint: to trust God! So dear saints who are gathered here today, don’t be afraid. You are also standing on a shoreline. It isn’t the Jordan river, but there is a time of change. Change in leadership, change in who you were perhaps called to be. There will be challenges ahead of you. You are being called to discern God’s leading in many areas. One of them is about calling new elders. This is the last day to make your nominations. You have been asked to look about, to look with the eyes of God, if possible, and to discern who in this congregation has the gifts that are needed in this time. Who may lead this congregation by trusting in God.
You are also in the process of discerning who you are being called to be as a congregation. There is a Search Committee working on your behalf, to help you discern who will be the minister, working with you and leading you as you move ahead. Helping you discern what you must carry forward with you, and what you must leave behind. For there is always moving forward, and there’s always leaving behind.
So my friends, be brave and be bold. Test the waters. Go where you never expected to go! Trust that God will provide what you need to do what God is calling you to do.
Remember saints, it’s not for your own glory, it’s not even for the glory of St. Andrew’s. It is for the glory of God and the fulfilment of God’s promises that you are called to be saints.
Dennis Olson, who is an Old Testament professor at Princeton University says,
“God gives a negative command, “do not fear”, and a positive command, “be strong and bold”. Those themes recur throughout the scriptures. When God calls a leader or a community to a new mission, fear gives way to confidence and hope. That fearing and trusting in God means not being afraid of the forces that resist God, even when the obstacles seem impossible. The people who are about to cross the Jordan river were afraid of the Canaanites on the other side. But they trusted God and they stepped forward.
“Not being afraid is only possible because of the promise that God will be with us. Faithfully fulfilling God’s call into our lives is not rooted in the estimates of our own abilities and resources. Success depends instead on whether God is with us, or against us. And sainthood is not dependant upon our resources or our goodness. It is also contingent upon God’s will for us, and our willingness to trust in God” (WorkingPreacher.com November 5, 2017).
How deep are the wells and the wisdom and the knowledge of God? How inscrutable are God’s judgements? How unsearchable are God’s ways? From God and through God and for God, all things exist. To God be glory forever. Amen.