Practice, Practice, Practice: Life, Death, and Resurrection!

A Sermon for All Saints' Sunday at All Saints' Episcopal Church

O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee. AMEN.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (Do you know that old joke?) A young man arrived in New York City from California, and he was entering the Manhattan subway system for the first time. (Now, this IS a VERY OLD joke. Today, those subways, not to mention people's lives, are all messed up. Please pray for them. And please look in your bulletin today, for ways to help people recover from Hurricane Sandy.)

Now, back to the story. That young man, it turns out, was carrying a musical instrument – a violin, safe in its case, tucked tight under his arm. He was excited, because he was going to an audition for the New York Philharmonic. He was scared, too, because most musicians, even really good ones, never get this chance. The only problem was: Could he find his way there? He had directions but no “smart” phone. And now, he was lost and running out of time.

So the desperate young man shouted out to the crowd, “Excuse me?! How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” An old man, dressed in shabby clothes, sitting on the subway platform, holding a cardboard sign reading, “Will work for food,” shouted back, “I KNOW! I can tell you how to get there!!” The young man approached the old man and asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice,” the old man grinned. “Practice, practice, practice.”

Perhaps you know that the feast of All Saints' has its roots in Celtic celebrations of the beginning of winter and the new year. As the Celts gathered in their harvest during these “thin” days, as they called them, they believed the souls of the dead returned to their homes. It was a time for them to be grateful and to remember their own mortality. When the British isles were converted to Christianity, the church adopted this festival time for Christian use by observing All Hallow's Eve (Hallowe'en) on October 31st and All Saints' Day on November 1st. The Episcopal Church allows us to observe and celebrate twice, including the Sunday after All Saints' – today.

And so, on this All Saints' Sunday, our name day, we come to All Saints' Church for worship and for fellowship. We also come to baptize five new Christians! (And we have just sung a song of the saints of God, for, God willing, we mean to be saints, too. Not just one of the saints of this church, though that's a good thing, all by itself. But really, truly, we are here because we want to be more like a saint of God than we have been. We want to be, like the song says, “patient and brave and true.”) To be a member of All Saints' is, simply, to dare to claim your sainthood. I want to suggest to you today that to be a saint is to practice our faith, more and more – practice, practice, practice – because saints are those people who, in their lifetimes, practice their faith in God as faithfully as possible. No matter what happens. No matter what the cost.

The word “saint” means to be sanctified, to become more and more holy, to become more and more like the God we come to know in Jesus Christ. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we believe that God will make us more holy, more saintly, more like Jesus, if we want to be (if we “mean” to be, as the song says). But we need to do more than just want to be a saint. Saints need – WE need to practice our faith.

The Good News here is that, when it comes to practicing our faith, practice never needs to “make perfect.” In fact, the greatest musician, or athlete, or anyone else who hones their craft knows, if they are honest, that only God is perfect. One church historian puts it this way: “Practice does not make perfect. It makes pilgrims” (Diana Butler Bass). “We are pilgrims on a journey,” says The Servant Song. “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” Yes, we are pilgrims making progress toward the perfection of God, perfection we know and see in Christ Jesus and in saints who have gone before us. And we make our journey together, not as spiritual Lone Rangers, but as fellow companions on a pilgrimage, members of a team called the Church, people who help each other, while together, we practice our journeys of faith.

But…what does spiritual practice look like? How do saints actually get into heaven? How about, for starters, getting to “heaven on earth”? What does “practice, practice, practice” mean for people of faith, for you and for me?

Here's one way to think about a lifelong practice of faith: Practice life. Practice death. And practice resurrection. You and I can practice, practice, practice by remembering those three words of our faith and three others from spiritual author and teacher Anne Lamott. HER three words are: Thanks! Help! and Wow! (Anne Lamott's new book, Help, Thanks, Wow will be released this month).

So, Saints of All Saints', try this. Repeat after me. First, Practice life. . .by saying, “Thanks!” Jesus does this in today's Gospel lesson. He thanks God for having heard his prayer. We will thank God several times in worship today. Just before the baptisms this morning, we will thank God for the gift of water, a powerful symbol of holiness and wholeness. After the baptisms, we will thank God for the newly baptized, the newest saints of God. We thank God when we appreciate, no matter what happens, all the gifts we have been given by God, all that is good in our lives. That includes the gift of life itself. How many times do you or I stop to pray, “Thank you, God, for giving me life”? We practice life by saying “thank you” as often as we can – thanks to God, and thanks to as many other people as possible. Especially people who have challenged us to grow spiritually. Even when we can't say “thanks” FOR all the things that happen to us, saints practice life by saying “thanks” IN all things.

Second, Practice death. . .by saying, “Help!” For most of us, saying “Help!” is much harder than saying “Thanks!” Last Sunday I suggested that, in order to ask for help, we must get to a place where we are no longer afraid to cry out to God, no longer afraid to weep. Like Jesus. Sometimes we have to “hit bottom,” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, that marvelous spiritual fellowship that has taught millions of people to ask God for help. Sometimes we just have to admit we are powerless – powerless over an addiction or another major problem, powerless over our loss or our grief, powerless over our very life – before we can ask for help. Maybe that was the kind of place in which Jesus found himself when he was asked to do the unthinkable –bring his friend Lazarus back to life. He was angry in the face of that death. He was sad enough to weep. And Jesus was expected to do something miraculous. How human he must have felt in that moment! I wonder: Did he feel powerless?

There is in life, a bishop once said, two kinds of death. One is the death of holding on for dear life, clutching something or someone when it no longer makes real sense, spending all our energy “on getting and keeping, instead of living and giving.” The other kind of death in life, he said, is the death of letting someone or something go, “a death that hurts like hell but leads to resurrection” (John V. Taylor, A Matter of Life and Death, p. 56). Whether we want to admit it or not, we need help to let go, to surrender, to say or pray a “goodbye” before we say a new “hello.” Even when we do it imperfectly, saints practice death by asking for help. Again. And again. And again.

Finally, Practice resurrection. . .by saying “Wow!” Resurrection is about feeling a sense of mystery or awe at God's awesome world, all around us. Resurrection is about believing in miracles – again. Resurrection is like having your spiritual power turned back on. . .and WOW! You're more powerful! When we practice resurrection, we dare to believe in God who wipes away tears, swallows up death, consoles us, loves us.

When St. Francis of Assisi kissed the leper, he practiced resurrection. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she practiced resurrection. And when we baptize Jane Mullaney, Joseph Miles, Kmanie Franklin, Kivoni Frankie and Rex Kwame, we will practice resurrection. When we leave this place, may we continue to practice resurrection. Practice life, practice death, practice resurrection. Practice, practice, practice. Thank you, God! Help us, God! Wow, God!!! AMEN.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
November 4, 2012