"Anything is Possible"
I want to begin this evening with a story by the late Brian Doyle, about his days growing up in a Catholic School in New York:
One day when I was in grade school at Our Lady of Perpetual Social Awkwardness -he writes - there was a (pop) quiz, sort of, when our stern (priest) suddenly visited our class and asked us about the saints for whom we were named.
Inasmuch as this was a Catholic school, and almost all of us were Irish … or Italian …, nearly all of us were indeed named for saints, …Indeed nearly all the girls in class had Mary in their names somehow, … or they were named for Mary’s cousin Elizabeth or her mother Anne; one girl, MaryAnne Elizabeth, was named for all three, which we assumed meant she had no choice in life but to be a nun, though she was a brawler of a girl.
The good sweet Lord alone knows what the (priest) was thinking when he stepped into our classroom abruptly and began to pepper us with questions about our names; perhaps he thought it a great chance for hagiographic education, or he had wanted to pop in on the teacher and see if she was teaching what she was supposed to be teaching, or maybe he was just a little lonely and frazzled and needed some of the fizz and burble of a fifth-grade classroom.
But he had caught us by surprise, and we were a little afraid of him anyway, …and very few of us were able to speak cogently of the saints for whom we were named. In my case the situation was even more awkward, for I had not been named for a saint (at all), but for the last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru.
I explained this to the priest when my turn came, and …he smiled, and said …there had been a Blessed Brian, who had been given the gift of martyrdom, in the year 1591, when Catholics were hunted down and slain in the streets of London, so this means, of course, Brian, that there’s an open slot for a St. Brian, and perhaps, if you work hard, you will someday be a saint.
And on he went to the next child, and the next, and the next, and most of us stammered and stumbled and hoped he would grow bored and leave, …(until) he came to a boy named Luke.
Now, Luke was a poor student in every subject except history, which he loved with a fervid absorption that often startled even the teacher; …He was also a garrulous youth, chattering and rattling off lists and facts and names and dates at the slightest conversational opening.
So when Father got to him, and asked him about his saint, off went Luke on a remarkable speech, which started with (Luke) the Evangelist, and then discussed the Synoptic Gospels, and the Gnostic Gospels, and the manner by which saints are recognized, and the indisputable fact that there are millions of unrecognized saints, as the church itself acknowledges via All Saints Day, which celebrates not just canonically recognized saints but all saints, which is to say the millions or even perhaps billions of unknown saints, isn’t that right, Father?
And if there are so very many we do not yet know and may never know, then it’s entirely possible that some of them may well be men and women and children we never before considered as saints, for example St. Judas or St. Zacchaeus, or the daughter of the woman from Syrophoenicia, or the woman from Syrophoenicia herself, isn’t that right, Father?
And if we extend this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, it’s quite possible that even Lucifer became or will become a saint, because who knows the miraculous ways of the Lord, and anything is possible in the Lord, and even Lucifer might well have a change of heart, and become again the Bringer of Light, for that it what his name is in Hebrew, isn’t that right, Father? So there certainly could be a St. Lucifer?
And Father, to his credit, smiled, after he finished getting his jaw back up to his face from down around his belly button, and he said, quite seriously and even, I think, respectfully, and even reverently, Why, yes, Luke, that could certainly be, although I have to say that I have never contemplated the idea before.
Anything and everything is possible in the grace of the Lord, and anyone who ever tells you that something is impossible in the Lord, that person is a fool. You remember that. All of you should remember that. I should be getting back to the rectory. My thanks for a most illuminating afternoon. St. Lucifer—I will have to think that one over for a while, Luke. Quite a while. Thank you (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-08/st-lucifer).
“Anything and everything is possible in the grace of the Lord.”
Perhaps even, St. Lucifer.
I share this story with you tonight, because young Luke knew what even the most religious among us still struggle to grasp: that God’s love and forgiveness are for everyone, forever and for always. That is the radical truth at the heart of the gospel. The golden thread that winds through all of Jesus’ teachings all the way back to his cousin John.
Now believe, me, I know John’s words can come off as harsh and scary, what with all his talk of snakes and axes and unquenchable fire. It’s hard to imagine his words could be good news for someone as fallen as Lucifer if he calls even the holiest men - the Pharisees and the Sadducees - vipers. And I know that the very idea of repentance has been so misused and abused within the church that many of us - for the sake of our own self-preservation - have had to learn how to tune out that kind of rhetoric entirely.
But hang in here with me tonight, because John’s message - properly understood - is actually one of radical hope and inclusion. His message is full of grace for all people for all time; which may be why so many different kinds of people found their way out to the desert to hear him and why we listen to John even still.
Because, you see, out there in the wilderness, beyond the niceties of polite society and the hierarchies of social class, beyond the law and order of the empire, beyond the rules of religion or creed, beyond expectations and reputations, John received each and every person as nothing more and nothing less than a child of God.
He didn’t care if you were a well respected woman or a man of ill repute, a Judean peasant or a Roman soldier, a tax collector or a zealot. He didn’t care what you did for a living, what religion you believed in, which party you voted for, or on what side of the tracks you’d been born. He didn’t even care if you were as good as a Pharisee or as powerful as a Sadducee.
He made it clear that no one who stood there was innocent by virtue of their faith or rank or good reputation and no one, no matter how sinful, lowly, or compromised, stood outside the bounds of God’s grace.
Friends, John recognized that each and every person was more than the worst thing they had ever done or the best thing they had failed to do. And he received them all, from the lowliest to the holiest, into the water to repent and be washed clean; the better to prepare them all - and this is the huge twist in this reading so listen close - the better to prepare them all - all, meaning every last one of them- for the fire to come.
Everybody say, “What?”
Yes! John promises fire for the righteous as well as for the sinners. It’s true. The fire the messiah will bring is a gift for us all, but that truth is so easy to miss because most of us have been conditioned to fear the flames.
We have been led to believe (whether we accept this as true or not) that you need to repent or else you will get thrown in the fires of hell. Turn or burn! Right?
We hear John’s words about the wheat and the chaff, and it sounds to our ears like the wheaty people are all going to get winnowed into a snug granary that sounds a lot like heaven and all the chaffy people are going to be thrown into an unquenchable fire that sounds an awful lot like hell.
Therefore, all things considered, it’s probably better to be wheaty person than a chaffy person, whether you believe in any of this religious mumbo-jumbo or not.
But friends, take a breath and remember that the gospel is not a threat.
The gospel is not a threat; and anyone who ever levels it at you as one is missing something.
The true gospel is ever and always a promise - whether it’s being preached by Jesus or John or anyone else - the promise that God has forgiven you already.
And if we believe that, then we can take a page out of young Luke’s playbook. We can extend our inquiry into the gospel to its logical conclusion, and uncover, just as he did, the possibility of a grace so amazing it can redeem not just you or me but maybe even Lucifer.
For you see, when we look at John’s words through the lens of grace, we discover that John chose his metaphor with care and maybe even a twinkle in his eye. I would assume that he knew that every individual stalk of wheat has both grain and chaff.
The chaff is what covers the grain. There’s no such thing as good wheat or bad wheat, grainy wheat or chaffy wheat. There’s just wheat with a grain at the center you can only get to by sifting, blowing, or burning the chaff away.
John uses the metaphor of wheat because John knows that deep down inside every person - every person standing in that crowd by the Jordan and every person sitting here right now - inside every person there is a kernel of goodness that will always be worth saving.
There is something worth redeeming at the heart of every human soul. John knows that God loves that part of you, loves that part of you so much that God wants to set it free.
Only, there’s a lot of chaff that gets in the way. You know it as well as I do. Not so deep down we all have sins that we need to shed. We all have chaff and some to burn.
So John came and John comes. He came all those years ago to the people down by the river and he comes every year to us here in the church and offers us the opportunity to repent, to come clean, to offer up our sins to God and let God burn them - not us - away.
John reminds us that we’re all sinners… but he also reminds us, thanks be to God, that we are all so much more.
Yes, we’ve all fallen short of God’s best hope for us, but our failure is never the end of the story. We can all repent. We can all do better. We all can change.
For “Anything and everything is possible in the grace of the Lord, and anyone who tells you something is impossible in the Lord, that person is a fool.”