What Must We Do To Become Saints?

This sermon was from All Saints’ Sunday, November 4th 2012. The text for that Sunday was Mark 12:28-34. It includes a story of Shlomo Carlebach’s. Carlebach was a much better storyteller than I will ever be, so if you’d like to hear him tell it, go here.

What Must We Do To Become Saints?

At this point in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is in Jerusalem. And the powers that be, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders have been trying to trap him with questions. A scribe who overheard Jesus talking with the Sadducees is impressed with his answers, and so he asks Jesus another question,“Which commandment is first of all?”

This is a question about the essence of faith. The scribe is asking Jesus to simplify the Gospel, boil it down, distill it into one sentence. In short, he asks, what does faith ask of us? What does it take to be a good person?

This Sunday we celebrate good people. Today is All Saints Sunday. For the Catholics, All Saints Day is a day in which they celebrate those who have been declared by the Catholic church to be particularly holy, saints like St. Francis of Assissi.[1] But Presbyterians use the word “saint” in a different way. We focus on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God, and celebrate the lives of ordinary believers . Paul called the Corinithians “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” We are each sanctified, made holy, by Christ and called to be saints. So taking an All Saints Sunday view of the question, we might say that the scribe asks Jesus , “What does it take for us to become saints? What does it take to earn our place among the cloud of witnesses forever proclaiming the glory of God?

Now if I were asked this question, I would probably say something about being good, following the rules, being nice to other people. Or I might just pick one of the Ten Commandments that seems particularly hefty, and declare that the first commandment to follow above all, is to take no other Gods but God. But Jesus goes in a different direction. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, “Hear of Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is called the Shema, and it is the opening of the foundational covenant in Judaism. It’s proclaimed every week in the synagogue and its written on the doorpost of a Jewish home. The Ultra-Orthodox even write it out, place it in little boxes and strap it to their foreheads and arms as the bible commands in Deuteronomy 6:8.

Jesus’ answer  calls to mind the words of another saint, a saint in the Catholic tradition, Theodoré Guerin, who said, “What have we to do to become saints? Nothing more than we do every day. Only do it for the love of God.”

A friend of mine who went to Jewish Theological Seminary, across the street from Union introduced me to the music of  Shlomo Carlebach, he said he revolutionized sacred music for Judaism. He was loved by orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, hippies on communes in San Francisco, soldiers in Israel. He wasn’t trained to be a rabbi, but everywhere he went, he would play music and he would tell stories that helped people understand their faith, and so he was called Rabbi Shlomo.  This last week I came across this story he used to tell…he said it was one of the greatest  stories of his life.

It was during the Yom Kippur War in Israel in 1973, Rabbi Shlomo gave a concert for the soldiers. It was a beautiful concert, he said, the Spirit of God was high in that place, and thousands were there, pouring out their hearts to God . And after the soldiers had left, the officers stuck around for a little get-together, and an officer came up to him and said, “I have to tell you my story.”

He said, “I am from a left-wing kibbutz, {a kibbutz is a sort of commune, a farm that people lived and worked on in the days before Israel was a nation, and even today some still exist} So he said, “I am from a left-wing kibbutz. I don’t believe in God. I told my children religious people are fakes, they’re living in a world of lies. I told them we Jewish people are just like everybody else. I told them Israel is as holy as Tokyo…”

“When the war began, I found myself fighting next to an officer who was from a very religious kibbutz. And the moment the fighting begins, early in the morning, he’s yelling, “Shema Yisroel, Hashem Melcheinu HaShem Echad” {This roughly translates to the beginning of the Shema, Hear O Israel, The Lord is King, the Lord is One}. The whole time, he’s yelling at the top of his lungs. I said to him, ‘Listen, my friend, I like you, but you’re getting on my nerves. You know the way I feel about God. I can’t stand it, all day long yelling God is one. I know you believe in God, and I appreciate it, but please, you’re making me nervous. He says to me, ‘You fight your way, I fight my way.’  This goes on all the time.[2] He was telling this to Rabbi Shlomo on the night of the concert, and then he said:

“I want you to know Thursday morning, early at dawn the fighting begins, and when he usually would yell HaShem Echad, God is One. He didn’t yell. I look on the ground. My friend is dying, He was shot. Suddenly, it was clear to me. I wished I could die for him. So precious. I fell to the ground, I took his dying hand and I said, ‘My sweetest friend, please let me die for you. Is there anything I can do for you?’ And this is what he said; ‘I want you to swear to me that you will yell HaShem Echad, God is One. Instead of me.”

Oh, the officer was crying, he said, “I swear to you, my friend I swear to you, I swear by the living God. My whole life, my whole life, I will yell HaShem Echad, God is One. And I will tell my children they should also yell Hashem Echad as long as they are alive.”

And he said to Rabbi Shlomo on that night at the concert, “You know the strangest thing. I absolutely did not believe in God. But that moment God opened all the gates of heaven for me. It was not that I believed in God. I saw God. It was clear to me that there is one God.”

So what does this story tell us about what we must do to become saints? I think the answer is clear. For the martyrs who died with God’s name on their lips, and for the people who lived ordinary, faithful lives that touched ours in some way. For all the faithful who have gone before us, we have to yell. We have to yell our love of God. To anyone who will listen to us and even when no one will listen to us, we must proclaim our love of God with all our heart, and with all our soul and with all our might and with all our strength. And joining our voices with the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us, with the faithful of every time and every place, we proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes in glory.

[1] The Catholic Chuch commemorates those who have died in the past year on the next day, Nov. 2nd. It is called All Souls’ Day.

[2] Excerpted from Carlebach, Shlomo. “Shlomo’s Greatest Stories,” Shlomo Carlebach, Aderet Music Corp, CD, 1996.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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