Scripture Reading Romans 12:3-13
Homily by Briant Bohleke
Today we celebrate the communion of saints without having to research individuals of old, most of whose names and places of origin we pronounce only with difficulty. Instead of googling St. Putinski of Lower Slabovia because we don’t want anyone to know that we have been unaware of his works and the life he sacrificed while copying a manuscript in microscopic script for 30 years, we can leave it to the non-ordained preacher to applaud the lump sum of contributors whose individual works need not be enumerated.
Let us celebrate that each person of faith has contributed to spreading the Gospel of Christ through examples of missionary work, lifestyle, and paying a penalty for her or his faith, sometimes undergoing the loss of life, limb, or saintly reputation in a world that smirks when we proclaim Christ as our L-rd and Savior.
Note too that today we have on campus the leaders of the eight Lutheran seminaries, luminaries all, who have persevered in the face of diminishing enrollments, young people seeking more lucrative careers outside the church, and parishioners leaving their congregations due to proclamations they assert to be odious. These leaders seek to reverse a downward trend, a trial we can certainly agree is not an easy call.
The good news is that the communion of saints is forever growing—one way or another. Our Christianity still does not flourish easily, whether amongst the hedonistic bustle of worldly American culture, or in chaotic Afghanistan, where Christianity is officially outlawed, even as American blood is being spilled defending that country from oppressive extremism.
Such challenges will never diminish for the community of saints while we live on this earth and struggle for the force of good against that which attempts to draw us away from G-d’s commandments. Get used to it.
As Groucho Marx once quipped, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” For us Christians, we wouldn’t want to be among the select if we haven’t received the grace of G-d and experienced the struggle that faith has cost us. The price of membership may be our lives, but never our souls.
Taking a break from the heavier side of sainthood, we can look at Psalm 133—on a superficial level—as being a celebratory text for the chirpy and forever optimistic. “Gosh, this is a happy Psalm!”
The opening lines could have been written by the most cheerful and vapid of Disney characters. How very nice it is, some sparkly one squeaks, when we all get along. If we are all united, then, by golly, we’ll all sing and have a good time!
In one of the few instances where the trickle down theory actually works, the imagery of oil running down the head of the priestly Aaron is paralleled with life-giving moisture flowing from a large geological formation to irrigate G-d’s sacred geography, where the
L-rd’s chosen people dwell.
To us moderns, having greasy fat descending our balding pate into our facial hair requires a hanky for quick clean-up. However, in the hot, dry Middle East, costly oils hydrate parched skin and protect it from the sun better than Maybelline youth restorer. It is a balm and shield from the unrelenting and hostile elements.
Let’s revisit the opening lines, too. Yes, it’s perfunctory to note that life is good and pleasant when all dwell in unity. Seems trite enough to draw a yawn. On the other hand, let’s think about the state of life when this is not the case, and I don’t have to dredge examples from the ancient Near East, either. In a region not far from that mentioned in Psalm 133, Syrians are not getting along in fraternal harmony. Bombs kill and dismember children, soldiers torture those who oppose their political views, dwellings collapse, crushing victims randomly, and politicians jockey for position and talk peace while realizing that their efforts cannot bear fruit soon enough to restore a semblance of civilization.
Psalm 133 is not after all just a feel-good poem; it carries the essence of G-d’s promise to Moses and Israel, flowing down to all those who speak and practice peace and strive for the unity of humankind, the essence being “life for evermore,” a communion of living saints in Zion that at present extends to all the world.
From the Holy Land to the unholy city of Rome, believers receive equal encouragement—now from St. Paul—whose message cautions those saints who might perceive themselves to be more important in the church because of their white-tab collars, their earthly eschelons of authority, the number of their publications, or their social cachét in the hierarchy of the Church. G-d is the one who assigns the measure of faith; the recipient is faithful only in proportion to what the L-rd grants. One cannot puff up him- or herself to claim a higher office than others possess in the communion of saints.
Anthropomorphic analogies of humans comprising the specialized elements of complex systems lasted from ancient times into the medieval era till they were replaced by the analogy of the ship of state. Though avoided today, the human parts model does nonetheless sketch a vivid image of the role of saints in the church. Just prior to this service I was a reader in a thesis defense of the roles the disabled can play in the church. I thank the STM student who wrote this thesis for making me and others aware of the gifts the disabled bring to the community of G-d. Because these believers are so like us—disabled in one or several ways—the student’s work highlights the often ignored and under-appreciated contributions these saints offer to the body of Christ. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them,” exhorts St. Paul, acknowledging that the communion of saints has been given grace and that grace is necessary for our good works to be for the benefit of salvation. The undergirding concept is that we should all use our G-d-given talents with gusto and zest, not tepidity. And we need to recognize as equals those whose talents differ from our own.
Paul ends the pericope (pəˈrikəpē) as your present speaker ends his utterance by proclaiming that if you have faith, rejoicing in hope, being patient in tribulation, and incessantly praying will flow from faith. Never forget that the community of saints awaits the ongoing contribution to the needs of each and every member through your hospitality to one another—as well as to those on whom we may look with inequality or derision.