Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

Water and the Word: Lutherans and Baptism

From the looks of it, baptism may not appear to be a miracle, but it is the most important step in the faith of person.  It can looks so ordinary – a couple of ministers in robes, a couple of parents, gathered around a bowl to say a few words and splash some water on a baby who many times is a sleep.  Who’d ever guess that this might just be the most important event in someone’s life?

But, isn’t just like God, you know….the God who was born in a manger, to hide what might be the most miraculous event in a simple ceremony.

Baptism is a miracle in it we hear the Word of God and the washing of water in which God declares each of us to be God’s own beloved. Where we are taken into the communion of other saints, and are given a future that God promises to us that not even death or the devil will be able to destroy.

To understand the importance of this sacrament, we need to back-fill the biblical story all the way back to the first chapter of the first book in the bible, Genesis.  Where Adam and Eve experience the fall from paradise.

Christian understanding is that it was because of turning their back on God that God cast them out of the garden and because of this, everyone is born into what St. Augustine calls “Original Sin”.

The bible speaks of the wages of sin as death.  In that we all will die as a result of the fall.

St. Paul talks about the “old self” before baptism, as being the Old Adam, as in the Adam before the fall.

And I think we can carry this a step further in Lutheran’s understanding of baptism.  The Old Adam in each of us loves to attach baptism and ignore the promise that God has made to us in the water and the word.  “Water”… humph…   “Water!  Whoever heard of water and God coming to us?  We flush our toilets with water and now you’re telling me that God is coming to me through means of water? Ha!

Hear how silly of a claim that is for a non-believer?

But baptism isn’t just water for Lutherans, it is water along with the Word of God.  The water and the Word cannot be separated.  Apart from the Word of God, the water is just water.  Apart from the water, the Word is still God’s Word, but the sacrament isn’t there without both.

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Make disciples of all nations” Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.  How does this happen?   We make disciples through baptism, “baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit.”

Let’s face it.   That’s the easy part.  The sacrament is the easy part.  But that’s not where Jesus ends it.

And teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you, remembering I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20

Go therefore” The syntax of the text is a command.  We receive Jesus’ command to go.

So why is it, if our baptism into Christ is so full of grace and gifts, isn’t it hard to understand why the world isn’t clamoring for it, shouldn’t our calendar be so full of scheduled baptisms that we find it hard to fit them all in?

Actually though, the truth of the matter is quite the opposite.

There isn’t a gift, next to Jesus himself, that the ‘Old Adam’, the world, and the devil have a deeper hatred.  Baptism, as we say in our liturgy is about a death.  It is the funeral for the Old Adam, but it’s also about a birth.  It’s the birth of your new identity.  So, it’s no wonder that the Old Adam in us wants to attach God’s promise to us in baptism. 

See, the Old Adam in us likes things the way they are because they please us.   The ‘Old Adam’ in us wants to attack God’s promise to make it seem as though we are doing something for God —  not something that God has done and does for us.  As a result, people wind up fearing, loving, and trusting in what they do and what they can do, and it demishishes what God has done for us.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions from pagans, atheists, and unbelievers, that baptism is a magical, good luck charm and a life after death insurance policy so that we won’t be afraid to die.  I can see their point, based upon their observation of laissez-fare cultural Christianity in which one is baptized but that’s the extent of their faith life.

And then, on the other side, the super-pious ignore Baptism as if God can’t do what God has promised, and needs our help in god’s assistance.  This can lead us to believe that we can concentration on our own convictions and decisions for Christ, and to trust in our own “experiences” as being the truth.

At the end of the day, the fact is, Christ has commanded Baptism.  Baptism shouldn’t be scary nor is it malicious…. It is a loving order that God has directed to the Church.

And so, I leave you with this question.  “What’s the point?”  Here again, in the Small Catechism, Luther says that baptism is about the forgiveness of sin, redeems from death and the devil, and the offer of eternal life.  

Our baptism was a mini-judgement.  As the Word of God was spoken to you and the water washed across your face, God has judged you already.  You’ve been told the verdict and what it will be on the last day.  “Not guilty,” and the same words at God’s Son Jesus were uttered, “This is my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”  After God’s judgement, then we receive the gifts of the last judgement: forgiveness, deliverance, and everlasting life.

The old Adam in us hears this and says, “Wait a minute, there has to be a catch somewhere.  Nothing in life is free.  How can god do that?” So, the Old Adam hunts around for a good response.  “This stuff is too good to be true.”  Where’s the catch? What’s the hidden agenda?”

Aha” old Adam finally reads Luther’s response.  “We have to believe it… that’s the price tag.”  There’s a method to this logic.  If we just have enough believe in God.  If we convince ourselves that our believe in God is sufficient, surly God will be pleased with us, right?

God doesn’t work that way, though.  There is no catch, not trap, nor hidden agendas or even a price tag on baptism.  It is only a free gift.

God wants you to believe, but God isn’t waiting for you to come up with enough belief or trust on your own. God gives what God commands– making a believer out of you, and putting to death the old Adam.

Baptism is just the entry point into the Christian faith.  From our baptism onward, God sends the Holy Spirit to work in us each day to make believers out of us.  Then there’s the old Adam that says, “It can’t be a gift. Somehow there’s got to be a catch to everything.  And what about the people who are baptized and never do anything about it? There must be something we have to do ourselves to get what we want from God.”

No” says god.  “There isn’t a catch. All I have to give is yours, and I’ve already given everything you need in your baptism, as a gift.  All I want is to make a better believer out of you.  And I’m doing that myself.  There’s nothing more that can be done.

“I started on you on the day you were baptized, and I’m going to keep at until the day I take you to myself.”

Sisters and brothers, when we are able finally see and recognize the gift God has offered, is what will finally destroy the old Adam.

Finally we can jump off the merry-go-round of trying to self-justify and just be the man or woman, girl or boy who God has created you to be and nothing more.  It is God setting you free from yourself.  Knowing the promise, we are freed from trying to impress God.

You are freed to call on God as Abba. You are free from trying to impress people with your old Adam’s religion.  You are free to speak the word to your neighbors, telling them of all that God does and gives.  You’re free from your own doubts and judgements.  You are free to believe what God has already told you and will tell you each new day:  He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” That’s you.  In our baptism we can be sure of that.

Amen.

“Cleansing the Lens” – A sermon based on Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

Have you ever reached a point in your life, when, everything that you thought was true and ‘right’ about the world, was indeed exactly the opposite of what you knew to be true? It’s a humbling feeling to have a life-long held value shattered by another’s wisdom.

The Bible is full of such wisdom, and by the word ‘wisdom’, I don’t necessary mean the wisdom books of the Old Testament like Proverbs and Psalms.

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The Holy Scriptures require a humble reader who shows reverence and fear toward the Word of God, and constantly says,‘Teach me, teach me, teach me…. The Spirit resists the proud.’– Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol.54, 379; Table Talk, 5017

By wisdom, I mean instruction for daily living.  It can be difficult to define wisdom, but people generally recognize it when they encounter it. Psychologists might tell us that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and understanding that incorporates open-mindedness for the uncertainties of life. There’s an awareness of how things will play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance.

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But I wonder if that is how people of faith understand ‘wisdom’ especially as we encounter the Word of God from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

If you read the Bible and you’re not gaining in wisdom and understanding of God, I would begin to wonder about your approach to scripture.   When we read the Word of God, we expect the Holy Spirit to show-up and illustrate something fresh that we hadn’t already known about God; which is to say, to learn something about our own self in relation to God.

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Paul says that God’s acting through the cross of Christ isn’t found in worldly wisdom.  God bypassed the sages and scribes, the philosophers and debaters with all their learned debates and learnings. What we are talking about here is a mystery.  God is both revealed in the cross of Jesus, but God is also hidden.  It’s a paradox where both things are true.  So, Paul goes on to say   the Jews see only a sign of weakness in the cross… They want power like what they saw in the exodus from Egypt, or the crossing of the Red Sea. Might signs of Yahweh that liberated the people. But that’s not the power of the cross, where the power is in the weakness (yet another paradox, both weakness and God’s power are true).

And the ‘Greeks’ (the rest of humanity from a Jewish point of view) are seeking a message and a teaching that makes sense; a message that is logical and rational. For the ‘Greeks’ to take a man who was crucified as a foundation for one’s life seemed to them to be simply irrational.  It cut against the grain of ‘knowledge’.

Yet, Paul’s argument is that Christ crucified is the power of God and God’s ‘wisdom.’  Could it be, per Paul, the real problem with those who don’t understand his message of the cross and the foolishness of worldly wisdom is that we need a new way of seeing things.   Such that, it becomes totally necessary to cleanse our lens of seeing the world.  And reexamine how we understand the way of the world through the cross of Christ.

Lutheran Christians make that claim that as one reads the Word of God, one should do so through the lens of the Cross of Christ.  And that through the Gospel, we see the world has God intend the world to be.  Through the Holy Spirit, our lens of seeing is cleansed and we are given ‘ideal’ eyes by which to see the real nature of reality.

The more I write about this, the more Paul’s message of the cross makes sense.  When we lead our life with judgement and blame, we can’t see the world correctly.  When we lead with fear, we can’t see correctly. When we lead with shame, we can’t see correctly.  When we leave with domination and might, we can’t see correctly.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that later there isn’t a point of caution or even judgment, but to see clearly means that we can’t lead our life with them.  If we lead with a concocted or calculating mind, we will never get the chance to love and experience true love.  We’ll simply cut down and close too quickly; our heart is unable to remain open and we simply will not have a clean lens in which to see God. It has John of the Cross has said, “God refuses to be known except by love.”

It’s such a sad reality that the state of our culture and the deconstruction of our society is such a cynical response to the reality of what’s happening all around us.  As a people, we’ve become cynical about ourselves, our world, and our future.  For so many people life is lived devoid of meaning, purpose, or even direction.  And increasingly the case becomes that we are only aware of what is not and can we rarely enjoy what already is.   Do you hear the two ways of seeing in that statement?  What isn’t and what is… It’s a lens of seeing.

I think what Paul is getting at in this text is that the message of the cross leads a disciple of Christ to be enthusiastic about what is, and not to be angry about what isn’t.

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So, our first job as disciple of Christ must always be about seeing correctly who we are, and then to act on it. Don’t live in a false reality of who you’ve been created to be, BE YOU!  Live a true life, not a false-self. Don’t believe for a second that living into your true-self is an easy thing to do.  Some people wrestle with their true-self every day and are never fully aware of who the Creator has created them to be. It takes immense courage and humility to see ourselves correctly, and perhaps the most courageous thing we can do with our life is to accept with humbleness the mystery of our own reality.

Do you see the message of the cross in that?   Living in a way in which God wants me to live vs. how I want to live or what I want to get out of life.   They can very likely be two very different ways of living.

And this way of seeing is exactly what Jesus taught in the beatitudes.  Wisdom of the world is simply flipped upside down.  God’s way of seeing isn’t our way of seeing through the teaching of Jesus in which the ‘poor in spirit’ receive the kingdom of heaven, and those who ‘mourn’ are comforted.  Jesus’ message is not one of despair and gloom, but rather, ‘rejoice and be glad’.  Be glad when you are persecuted for righteousness sake and hurl all kinds of profanities because of our faith in Christ.  It’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but that’s God’s wisdom.

Could it be that the message of the cross is that in seeing through a clear lens while gazing at the Cross of Christ, God is to be found in all things, even and especially through those moments that are most tragic, sinful, and especially painful.  Moments when we feel the absence of love are the moments when God is most close.  Like the moment of the crucifixion in which Jesus is at the same moment the most sorrowful and worst thing that could happen, yet it is also the best thing in human history.

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The ‘beautiful’ cross:  A paradox of faith.

And in the end, the paradox of faith always must be some form of crucifixion.  We can’t hold two equally true things together that are complete opposite of one enough.  Our minds are too limited.  Heck, consider Jesus crucifixion as the gospels tell the story – Jesus was crucified between two criminals one was a good thief and the other was bad.  Here Jesus hung somewhere between heaven and earth, between God’s shalom and the destruction of earth. And through the cross, Paul tells us in Ephesians that Jesus “reconciled all things to himself.”  (Eph 2:10).

Through the ‘foolishness’ of the cross, a mystery in which true life is found in a journey of death and where rebirth happens when we discover who God is we can let go of our need to be in control of what comes next.

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What I mean to say is that there is great meaning in the mystical words of our communion liturgy “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  And Christ will come again.”  At the end of our life, that is all we need to know.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.