Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We don’t often look to the stories of the Old Testament for inspiration. Far too often the stories arouse a bit of mirth. A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back on the city of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt, when a little girl interrupted. “My Mommy looked back while she was driving,” she proudly announced, “and she turned into a telephone pole.” A teacher asked her class whether Noah did a lot of fishing when he was on the ark. “No” a young knowledgeable boy, sighed, shaking his head boldly. “How could he? He had just two worms.” After Sunday School a mother asked her nine-year-old son Joey, what he had learned in Sunday School. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his army build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he radioed headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge, and all the Israelites were saved.” The mother looked inquisitively, Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?’ his mother asked. “Well, no, mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it.” No, we don’t always use the Old Testament stories for inspiration. The same can be said of the lives of the saints of old.
Interestingly, the Reformer Martin Luther was moved and inspired by the stories of the lives of the saints. He wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Luther himself certainly knew the story of St. Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans.
Wynfrith, who was nicknamed Boniface which mean “good deeds”, was born around 680 in Devonshire, England. When he was five, he listened to some monks who were staying at his father’s house. They had returned from a mission journey to the continent, and Boniface was so impressed by them that he resolved to follow in their footsteps as a missionary. Although his father had intended him for a secular career, Boniface insisted that he be sent to a monastery school. At age thirty, he was ordained and set out to preach in Friesland which is today Holland. The missionary journey, however, was short lived. Boniface was expelled from the territory. After a brief withdrawal, he went into Hesse and Bavaria. In Hesse, in the presence of a large crowd of pagans, he cut down the Sacred Oak of Geismar, a tree of immense age and girth, sacred to the god Thor. It was said that after only a few blows of his axe, the tree tottered and crashed to the ground, breaking into four pieces and revealing itself to be rotted away within. The crowds were amazed that Thor did not struck down Boniface and they came to believe in Jesus. It was the beginning of a highly successful missionary effort, and the planting of a vigorous Christian church in Germany. Boniface became the bishop of the region in Mainz, and for the next three decades worked to organize a unified, ecclesiastical structure with churches and monasteries. Hence the title, the Apostle to the Germans.
Boniface, however, would never forget his initial failure in Friesland, and in his old age he resigned his bishopric and returned to work there as a missionary. He wanted to try to share the story of Jesus’ love and mercy once again, the story he had first heard in his father’s home. Many Frisians had been converted earlier by Willibrod, another Saxon missionary, but they had lapsed in their faith after his death. So Boniface travelled there to preach among them. On the eve of Pentecost, June 5th 754, as he was preparing a group of Frisians for confirmation, they were attacked and killed by pagan warriors. The British historian Christopher Dawson estimates that St. Boniface had a greater influence on the history of Europe than any other Englishman.
There may be a bit a whimsy and exaggeration regarding the lives of the saints. Even Luther laughed at some of the piety focused on the saints and their reported relics. He once said in a lecture. “What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a flame from Moses’ burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?” But Luther never questioned the saints’ complete trust in God’s love and mercy, and their desire to share the stories of faith with others. Instead, he felt we should study both the successes and failures in the lives of the saints so that their examples may inspire us to be more saint-like. That is the focus in my sermon series: Remembering the Saints in Ordinary Time.
So what inspired St. Boniface to risk his life for a questioning, warring German people? This is found in the promises of scripture to which the German were still strangers. Let us turn now to St. Luke’s gospel.
I’m afraid there was no humor on that day, when the funeral procession left the widow’s home in the town of Nain. With her son’s body lying atop the funeral bier, there was no laughing. What appeared to be the widow’s last living male relative was dead. Not only was she without the consolation of family, she was also likely without any means of support. There was no expectation, nor hope of celebration for the woman. As for the man from Galilee, to the widow, he was a complete stranger.
My friends, it may be difficult for you to believe that there will be joy in your life again, for there may not be laughter on your lips this day. Yes, for you, laughter in the face of death, laughter in the face of sickness, laughter in the face of an uncertain future, may be hard to imagine. And yet it is in this story, that you and I, who are not strangers to Jesus have been given a glimmer of hope- a promise that one day, there will be a time for joyful laughter again.
In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus healed many people. A Syrophoenician woman pleaded for her son. Another battled through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment. When Jesus met the funeral procession in Nain, he has just departed from the city of Capernaum where he had healed the slave of a Roman centurion. But in this passage, the mother didn’t ask Jesus to restore her son. She didn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life. All she did was cry. To her Jesus, was a complete stranger. She didn’t know what she could ask for.
Oddly, there was no plea by the crowd on the young man’s behalf either. Maybe they truly accepted that it was too late. The son was dead. They didn’t know of the miracles possible. Perhaps they too were all strangers to Jesus who didn’t know of his power to heal. They accompanied the widow to the grave, but offered no hope or consolation.
Now you may be wondering, so what is St. Luke trying to tell us with this story? It certainly is a great build up for a good and worthy saint, trusting in God’s love and mercy to enter this story and save the day. Or perhaps for St. Luke this story is not about the faith of weeping mother or the accompanying crowds. Perhaps it is a story of thankfulness and gratitude, reminiscent of the story of the ten lepers who were healed and only one returned to worship Jesus. But if that’s the case, then why didn’t the mother at least say “thank you?” We certainly can’t imagine that she went home to write a polite thank you note. Or why didn’t the young man, when he sat up on the processional bier, and began to speak, why didn’t he show his gratefulness? It could be that both the mother and son joined in the celebration with the rest of the crowd and were filled with grateful hearts. More than likely they were. So why didn’t St. Luke mention a word about their faith or thankfulness?
Personally, I believe that this story is actually to tell us about the faithfulness of God. It is a story that teaches us that being a saint isn’t about what you’ve done or how good you are, or that every prayer will be answered as you hope. Ultimately, the story is not about the weeping mother, the supportive crowds, or even the raised boy. Nor is it about faith or gratitude. No, the story is about grace-pure and simple, unearned, and without merit. It is what every saint, living or dead, knows and has experienced here on earth and longs to share with others.
There was a woman in my first parish who knew such pain. As a young Norwegian nurse in the 1930’s, she had married an older Norwegian doctor and then emigrated to the United States to begin their life together. Tragically, the doctor died early in 1940, so she and her 13 year old son returned to Norway to bury him. While they were there, the Nazis took over homeland, and her 13 year-old son, an American citizen was imprisoned as a potential enemy of the state. Forty years later, this woman couldn’t tell the story without tears welling up in her eyes. She would say, “Det var tungt paa meg.” It was heavy on me. But Jesus was not a stranger to her, nor were his promises. For this good, saintly Christian woman, it was only her faith in Jesus’ grace and mercy that allowed her to live from day to day. She trusted that Jesus would turn her mourning into dancing one day. Although as a true Norwegian pietist she wasn’t really sure why God approved of dancing.
In scripture, you and I are called saints or God’s holy ones while we are still alive. You are a saint because God has made you holy- and you can dare to claim that as your own. When God’s grace comes into your life, it requires nothing of you but a choice: to receive it or not. That is secret wisdom that the trusting saint knows. Saints are not perfect. They too sin and fall short of the glory of God, but they know the wonder of God’s grace. The saints are not strangers to God nor are they unaware of his promises. They know that even in the midst of trials and suffering, even in the face of death, that they should always be packing party clothes, because with Jesus you simply never know when a funeral procession just might turn into a street dance. That is the good news the saints in every generation have longed to share.
That was the confidence that allowed St. Boniface to return to the land where he had once known failure. It is what will keep you going on your path as well. As Luther once said, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints.” Jesus Christ is both the goal of our journey, and our companion along the way who will never leave us alone. He is the one who meets us, and the one who marches beside us. And along the way, if you but turn around, you will see a great cloud of witnesses, saints living and saints in heaven, accompanying you and urging you on. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.