O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Last weekend, in Mitchell, Nebraska, our Diocese had the pleasure of celebrating the feast day of Father Hiram Hisanori Kano—our very own Nebraska saint—for the first time. After a long petitioning process, Father Kano officially joined the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints this year—a calendar intended for personal and community devotions, as an inspiring resource for encouragement in our own daily lives.
When we read and learn about the saints—holy women and holy men—we are given the opportunity to reflect on the life and witness of those fellow Christians who managed to follow Jesus especially well during their time on earth. Through them, we can see how authentic Christian discipleship makes a difference, how holiness is cultivated by a series of real-life decisions, how the love of God transforms whole communities when it is embodied in the faithful life of a real person, walking alongside of us.
At Holy Apostles’ Church in Mitchell last weekend, it was especially moving to see how many people came out—sometimes from great distances—to celebrate Father Kano’s new sainthood in person. There were folks from the Nebraska panhandle, who attended one of the churches that Father Kano served as a parish priest. There were local historians and community activists, moved by Father Kano’s experience in the Japanese internment camps of World War Two, where he ministered in a powerful witness to Christ, even as he was imprisoned for crimes he never committed. There were dozens of third-generation Japanese Americans, many travelling from Colorado, who had been part of the massive regional youth groups and summer camps that Father Kano helped organize and lead.
What was truly astounding to me, as we celebrated this feast day right out of our own Episcopal calendar, was how many of the people assembled at Holy Apostles’ that night had actually known Father Kano, personally. He only died in the 1980’s. He was their priest, and their friend, and now he is our saint. Sure, they knew him as he celebrated the Eucharist, as he administered Last Rites at a hospital bedside, as he gave great wisdom in private confessions and earnest conversations. But what really moved me the most was that they knew him in so many other ways, too—in the potluck line at church on Sundays, in the grocery store or dentist’s office, at his kid’s piano recitals and baseball games, on the many long bus rides to summer camps and youth rally’s.
The enthusiastic support of Father Kano’s sainthood by people who actually knew him—not just people who read his writings or heard his story hundreds if not thousands of years later—tells us something about what it means to be a saint, I think. It tells us that real holiness is possible, and that our lives can have incredible impacts when we use them to point others toward God, in big and small ways, both.
So, all of this got me wondering, what exactly is a Saint? And how can we become one? For one thing, the Saints are Christians like you and me who live their lives with the audacious assumption that everything we heard in today’s gospel reading is absolutely true.
Today’s reading from John’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus is a text full of puzzles that our literal post-Enlightenment minds can’t quite wrap themselves around. Trying to solve those riddles—what happened to Lazarus after he left the tomb? Was his body still decomposing, or was he restored to wholeness? Is this a resurrection or a resuscitation?—trying to solve those riddles might just be one way to talk ourselves out of the Good News, so I’m going to leave them alone. They’re not the point.
The point is that this evocative, emotional, improbable, earthy story appears in the gospel for one reason and one reason only: To show us, in powerfully human ways, how God steadfastly refuses to allow death the final world. How in the person of Jesus, who calls himself the “resurrection and the life,” God freely enters into the world that God loves, and renders death powerless.
In many ways, our whole culture is built around the denial of death—but, a shallow denial that actually heightens death’s power, sharpens our fear, robs us of our joy. In a culture that celebrates youth, we spend countless lifetime hours being marketed products that will supposedly keep us looking young (they won’t). We consume media—news stories, television specials, exposes—about how dangerous our world is, even though every conceivable metric tells us that we’re safer today than we’ve ever been before. We buy into a society-wide conspiracy that if we somehow work harder, make more money, buy more things, and just stay busy we will consume our way into a more meaningful life and somehow stave off our inevitable death. It’s subtle messaging, and it’s everywhere, and we all know it’s a lie even as we have trouble extricating ourselves from its brutal grasp.
Our faith, our Christian story, says something else entirely. Yes; life on earth is fleeting. Yes; it will end one day. And when it does—for us or for those we love—we will be thrown into grief and we will rail against God, just like Mary and Martha did when their brother Lazarus was taken from them. And in that moment, which is shocking and disorienting and often times feels so unfair, God will stand alongside us in one of the most astonishing aspects of God’s nature, and cry with us. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks his grieving friends where they have laid their brother. “Come and see,” they reply. And Jesus begins to weep.
By becoming human in the person of Jesus, God decides to intimately enter into human suffering. Not because God has to, but because God loves us. Jesus’s own experience of suffering—his own fully human slate of feelings—tells us that God is not unaffected by our grief, our sorrow. When we suffer, God weeps alongside us, as Jesus did with Mary and Martha.
But that’s not all. Even as God holds our grief, even as God knows our suffering, another, greater truth takes shape. As Christians, we are promised that death is not final, death does not win. Our God is the God of life—and life abundant! In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is showing his disciples what following him really means, what it really looks and feels like. Jesus, fully present in this moment, does not stand outside of it like an observer, but immerses himself fully, takes within himself the experience of loss that colors so much of human life. And then, he transforms it. “Lazarus, come out!” he cries, and death is no longer. A glimpse of Easter, a foreshadowing of what’s to come—an invitation into life, and life eternal.
So, what does all of this have to do with sainthood? As Christians, we believe that death has no power, that we belong forever to the God who loves us, the Christ who died for us, the Spirit who sustains us. We believe that love wins, that after our ultimate awakening we will behold God, who is our friend and not a stranger. This is what we believe. And saints—saints live each and every day daring everything for the sake of this one true thing. They live their lives—their actual, rubber-hits-road lives, choosing to live, and work, and make decisions, and a raise their kids, inside of the truth of God’s amazing promise. That’s what saints do, and we can do it, too.
Last week, as I reflected on Father Kano, I was moved the most by all those people who knew him well and thought, “Yeah, it makes sense that he’s a saint.” There are no miracles attributed to him, no wild and hard-to-believe stories about his holiness. In fact, his holiness was entirely ordinary—which is what makes his witness so inspiring, so humbling. He was a saint who literally walked among us—who, in the face of oppression and discrimination, and in the face of every day decisions, and boring real-life stuff, all the way into his old age—pointed others toward the love of God, choosing to live his life believing that all of God’s promises are true.
In July, at the Episcopal Church’s once-every-three-years General Convention, thousands of people gathered in worship to celebrate the life of Father Kano. We Nebraskans sat near the very front of the Convention Center, alongside Father Kano’s son Cyrus, now in his eighties, and some of his grandkids and great grand-kids, who travelled to Salt Lake City for the occasion. Thousands of voices raised in song as we celebrated Father Kano, proclaiming him a saint. A corps of big Japanese Taiko drums shook the floor, rattled our bones, helped us feel the pulsing Spirit amid this big assembly.
It was a profound reminder of the contradiction—the holy, rich, contradiction—of our faith. As Christians, we embrace death AND we believe in eternal life. We believe in an all-powerful all-knowing God, who was born in barn in a backwater town. We worship Christ who is the King of Kings and who was crucified between two criminals. Good Friday and Easter. All of it at once.
At that General Convention Eucharist, as I lifted my voice with so many others, observing the witness of this great saint, this holy inspiration, I looked over at Cyrus Kano, whose voice was also raised in song, his eyes bright with pride, or disbelief, or something else entirely, and I thought: Father Kano was his dad. We’re doing all of this for his dad.
And that’s another, final, holy contradiction, which we celebrate today, All Saints Day. We broken people, we fallen ones, we everyday Christians—moms and dads, sons and daughters, friends, and companions, and spouses—we can be saints, too. If we just live our lives daring to believe that what we say is true.