My youngest son, Hayes, and I were riding alone in my car a few nights ago. Any one on one moment with my kids is a treasure. You get a different focus from them and they say things they don’t tend to say when the car is full of Briley’s. I could tell Hayes’ wheels were spinning fast. He asked me how old I was. He already knew but he must have wanted to get the convo headed in a particular direction. Before I could answer, he said the number and I said, “That’s right.” “And I’m six,” he says proudly. He followed up quickly by saying, “The number doesn’t matter. It just matters that you’re you.” My heart melted a little. He went on. “And everybody’s different and that’s a good thing!” Continued and accelerated melting. Then he adds, “Except you and I share some of the same DNA.” “That’s true,” I said, a little proud that he was considering the intricacies of DeoxyriboNucleic Acid. Then he asks, “What is DNA again?”
DNA is that stuff that makes us who we are. There’s the science of it of course but we’ve also claimed those three letters as a way of describing our soul. What is it that makes up the DNA of your soul? Paul has given it some thought. He begins his letter to the church at Rome with a bit of a self-introduction – the stuff that makes Paul, Paul. After all, this is the one church we have record of him writing for which he had no previous personal contact. It is only fitting to tell a little about himself. You’ve sat in those circles before, right? Tell us who you are, where you’re from, and something unique about yourself. Some people love those circles. Others dread them and have their short, sweet, and canned response ready to regurgitate: “Bob. New Jersey. Double-jointed.” But here you are writing a letter to the church in Rome. ROME! It had been thirty years since the event that split history into a ‘before and after’ had occurred. Jesus was crucified and resurrected but all of that took place in a remote corner of the very extensive Roman Empire. The busy and powerful of the city of Rome had hardly noticed at this point. And who would have read Paul’s letter, really? There was so much to read in Rome – imperial decrees, exquisite poetry, finely crafted moral philosophy. Paul’s letter could have easily landed in someone’s junk mail pile or turned into some kid’s parchment airplane. But what a spirit Paul had. He would write to Rome. And he would write a letter for all the saints of Rome.
If you’ve been hanging with us at HACC for a while now, you likely received a letter from the church this week addressed ‘For all the saints of Harvard Avenue Christian Church.’ It’s part of our stewardship campaign that will ultimately determine our ministry reach in 2018. For All the Saints is also the title of a three-week sermon series we launch today. Perhaps you’re first inclination is to say, “Saint?” That ain’t me. I’m no saint. And… I understand that sentiment. Canonized saints of the Roman Catholic Church go through a huge process in order to become a saint. It’s certainly not for everybody… and you have to die first so, you say, “That rules me out from the get-go.” But even looking beyond that level of formal sainthood, you might think, “We call people saintly when they do good things, right and courageous and bold things for God.” That ain’t me either. I’ve heard the rebuttal more than a few times when someone is speaking of their own life, “Nobody’s ever accused me of being a saint.” I get that. But Paul opens a new possibility in this letter. It’s as if he says, “To all y’all saints in the church at Tulsa.” I never once uttered the phrase ‘all y’all’ before moving to this fine city. It was the epitome of sharing that everyone needs to be in on this. When ‘y’all’ wasn’t enough to describe a desire for everyone to be included, you had to step it up by saying “All y’all!” I’ve resisted it but admit that it does have a certain charm. So our stewardship team wrote a letter to us this week: “For all y’all saints of Harvard Avenue Christian Church…”
Saints. Saints? You? Me? Us? I don’t know. It seems a bit far-fetched. I mean, did you read the letter? ‘For all y’all saints of HACC’ (I’m paraphrasing now a bit). It says, “The word, saint, originates from the Greek word meaning holy or set apart and is often used to describe those who have gone ‘above and beyond’ in serving Christ Jesus.” Right. Now that’s what I thought. We’re talking the Hall of Famers here. We’re talking Jo Ann Gilpin who championed Christian education in this place for sixteen years – who shaped the lives of many of us in this room today over the course of fifty years at this church. We’re talking James McFarland – don’t we call him Saint James after all – one who challenged us to serve those with great needs in our community – the guy with a short stride and tiny feet but left huge shoes to fill. We’re talking Bob and Harriett Peake, right? The founders of this place. The ones we’ve named the Commons area after. The ones who, in ‘summation and conclusion’, challenged the status quo and showed us the deep commitments of the faith. Those are the saints among others we could certainly name and claim this morning. But… Paul writes in this crazy letter to Rome – essentially his Hello World! letter – “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints…” It’s an all y’all call to do God’s work. The stewardship letter says the same thing: “Our inspiration comes from those who have gone before us, built our community of faith, and given sacrificially for our church family,” it says. But it goes on: “Now, we have the opportunity to serve our family of living saints – the children, the youth, the teachers, the moms and dads, the grandparents, those in need, the greater community – as we seek to expand God’s ministry here and abroad.” Do you see that as your opportunity? To serve the church family today? To give of yourself now? To be set apart for some manner of service? I’m not sure. I don’t think we see ourselves as saints. I think we tend to sell ourselves short on meeting somebody else’s need, leading in some way in the church, giving my personal resource to meet a need. I think we usually don’t think what we have to give makes that big a difference.
My family got a last-minute opportunity to head over to Stillwater a week ago to take part in the homecoming festivities at Oklahoma State University. “America’s Greatest Homecoming Celebration” they call it with these amazing decorations displayed at what is simply called the Walkaround. Snapped a pic of the boys in front of one of the houses. These amazing walls made up of tiny pixels of tissue paper. It was a beautiful day, a festive atmosphere, and a sea of orange. I’m still not quite sure how those fans can make orange a two-syllable word. “Or—ange.” I always thought orange was clearly a one syllable word but as I’ve researched further, there is some room for debate. Maybe it’s an all y’all sort of thing. Anyway, tons of fun. But I saw something fascinating on our way into the stadium. There was a man who was holding a sign that simply read, “I need tickets!” I kind of felt bad. Should I offer him mine? But it wasn’t two steps later that I ran into another man holding his own sign that said, “I got tickets!” There they were – standing right next to each other. I’m thinking, “Dude – have you met this guy? He is the answer to your prayer!” In some way, I think we’re all carrying around signs like these. We hold these invisible signs that say, “I need help” from God, from another and yet it seems nobody can see them. At the same time, we hold these other invisible signs that say, “I can help!” We each have unique resources for which we can serve God and the needs of others and yet we don’t always see the need or rally the courage to give of ourselves. Every year I have some folks in the church who’ve accepted some role of leadership say, “I’m a church elder. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.” But here we are, the Body of Christ, manifested as Harvard Avenue Christian Church… made up of ordinary, everyday saints like you and me giving of ourselves to build the Kingdom of God in and through this place.
I think Paul uses the word, saint, here quite intentionally – the word meaning holy or set apart – because he’s really turned that word around in his own being. Paul was one of the best Pharisees out there. An elitist sect of Judaism that knew the law forwards and backwards and fundamentally and meticulously maintained them, the title Pharisee, meant Separated One. Paul had deliberately separated or set himself apart, from ordinary folks and would have been careful so as not to let even the skirt of his robe brush against them in passing. His former Pharisee buddies would have shuddered at the very thought of the offer of God being made to the Gentiles which had become Paul’s very calling. Paul had received a task. He was set apart to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul knew himself to be chosen not for a special honor but for a special responsibility. Paul is ‘Exhibit A’ when it comes to making a one-eighty and becoming so focused on the calling he found in Christ. Becoming an everyday saint didn’t have any pre-requisites other than a willingness to serve.
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber leads a church in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints. Speaking to the audacity of sainthood she writes, “All the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same.” She notes that while it doesn’t compute, her experience is that God uses her, and others, despite the fact that we feel ill-suited for the work. She said,
“My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in the moments when: I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am a jerk, and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies, and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own stuff is too much in the way, and when I have to bear witness to another human beings’ suffering despite my desire to be left alone, and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel, and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting, and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.”
As much as she would like to think her spiritual discipline has created such sainted moments she says they are born “in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace.” Accidental saints. And then she says this: “I told my congregation I was unqualified to be an example of anything but needing Jesus.” If nothing else, can that also be said of us? That we can, if nothing more, be an example of what it means to need Jesus? Never once do I recall Jesus scanning the room for the best example of holy living and sending that person out to tell others about him. He always sent the ordinary, everyday saints… the ones brave enough to stand and say, “I’ll go.”
Our stewardship team sends us all a letter, “To all y’all saints of HACC…” just seeing who will say, “I’ll go.” “I’ll give.” “I’ll serve with what I’ve got.” You know, it has been a year of challenge in many ways. There is great hurt and division in our nation. There are lots of ‘sides’ being taken, lines being drawn, and people being hurt. In the midst of it all, we’ve lived as a people of hope. We’ve lived as a community where differences are many but where unity at Christ’s table is honored.
- We’ve literally fed thousands of stomachs and prayed into thousands of souls.
- We’ve seen some come to faith for the first time and we’ve released, with dignity, to the heavens, some whose spirits have carried our ministry for decades.
- We’ve studied the Bible and showed up to needs when we didn’t know what else to do but show up.
- We’ve greeted new folks and welcomed them in our homes.
- We’ve taught Sunday School, planted flowers out front, folded newsletters and changed ceiling tiles.
- We’ve sent more than $60,000 to Week of Compassion alone to aide neighbors near and far who are suffering from natural disaster.
- We’ve worshiped together with humility and have found the presence of the Holy in the very thin places where we couldn’t help but feel that surely, surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
- We’ve folded bulletins and worked youth lock-ins.
- We’ve eaten rice and beans and built life in Nicaragua and we’ve welcomed Nicaragua to Tulsa to experience how, in Christ, all barriers crumble.
- We’ve dedicated babies, baptized our own, and stretched out our hands in worship to bless folks who said ‘yes’ to leadership roles.
- We’ve given high-fives to students who need encouraging support of adults in their lives.
- We’ve taken meals, and received them, when we’ve had to heal from surgery or grief or otherwise.
- When the culture is saying with their feet that church isn’t needed so much anymore, we’ve had more people join this church this year than, perhaps, any in our history.
I sat with Norwood Dunham this week – retired captain of the Tulsa Fire Department and member of HACC who simply can’t be with us physically any more at his age and in his physical condition. Some days are better than others for Norwood. This day was a good day and we laughed and shared stories about life and family and baseball. As I was departing he said, “Tell the congregation I love them and I love who we’re becoming.” I told him I would let you know. None of this stuff is because any of us have it all (or even some of it) figured out. It is not because anyone has gone to the School of Sainthood or become certified in deep spirit massage or anything. We just keep showing up… every day, and in ordinary ways… because somebody else, in the name of Christ… showed up for us. What are we called to do together next? What of Christ’s love, of God’s kingdom, will we bring into the world in 2018? Before I ever ask if you’re in … Before I ever even suggest what it is we might do … Before I ever ask you to join me in filling out a pledge card to bring life to the world through our church next year… I need you to know who you can be… who, in fact, you already are. Do you know who you are? Let’s see; how can I put it…
My six-year-old, Hayes, may ask you how old you are sometime. You can tell him or not… that’s up to you. But I think he’ll say to you as he did to me. Your age… your number doesn’t matter. It just matters that you’re you. And we’re all different and that’s great. But… because you are the only church family he has ever known, he’s apt to say to you… “But… we do share the same DNA.” And so says Paul to the church at Rome in his opening remarks… his salutation to a people he’s never met before but with whom he shares a common purpose. “Dear Rome… before I say anything more… before I ask you to consider doing anything … I want you to know we share some of the same DNA in Christ. And if you send that DNA in to be tested, I think you’ll find that it says, at least in part, “All y’all are saints.”
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 Introduction to the Roman context inspired by Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the book of Romans in his work, The Message. Navpress. 2002.
 Exegetical comparison of Pharisee and saint as inspired by William Barclay in his commentary on the book of Romans. Westminster Press. 1975.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber. Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. Convergent Books. 2015.