Why We Need Saints – November 6, 2016
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
When Karl Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time in 1983, he was immediately struck by the icons of Black saints. He was living in Atlanta at the time and was visiting a friend’s church in Virginia. He would never forget that day when he first met St. Moses the Black and St. Cyprian of Carthage.
His first thought was that this was just a congregation of very liberal white people trying to be inclusive and appeal to African-Americans. His friend informed him that they were actually replicas of third-century icons, linking us back to a Christianity that had its roots in those who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
We celebrate All Saints Sunday today. When Episcopalians use the word saint, we are not just talking about the famous and not-so-famous who have earned a day of remembrance on the church calendar. Scripture use the word saint to refer to all the faithful, even all of us here today. When we talk about the “Communion of Saints,” we are recognizing that our family tree is not limited to or defined by our biological associations. We are all joined in one big holy family tree as God’s children, as sisters and brothers of Jesus.
The passage we just heard from Luke’s Gospel includes a set of expressions called the Beatitudes. In the time of Jesus, these kind of everyday sayings were quite common. People lived by platitudes like “Blessed are the wise, for they shall not be fooled. Blessed are the strong, for their enemies will fear them.” What is so shocking about the list Jesus presents is their content. Why in the world would we consider those who are poor or hungry or are grieving or excluded and marginalized to be blessed? Our culture commonly labels those who fall into these categories as pitiful or expendable. Not a small portion of our society lives by another set of sayings: Don’t let anyone walk over you. Real men don’t cry. Take everything you can get. More is better. The one who dies with the most toys wins.
The language of the Beatitudes does not say “do this” and you will get this in return. It is language that describes who these people are now—poor, hungry and thirsty, living on the margins—and what the future holds for them. It is the language of hope and promise—that the way things are now is not the way they will be forever. It’s like when you were a child and stood on your head to see the world in a new dimension. Everything seemed different. Jesus might just as well have asked us to stand on our head when he gave us the Beatitudes because he was turning the values of the world upside down. That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Until we reach the last part of this text. Love our enemies? Do good to those who hate us? Bless those who curse us? Pray for those who abuse us? Give away our shirt if someone takes our coat? That’s a bit much, don’t you think?
Is Jesus pulling our leg? Is Luke using exaggeration to make us squirm a little? Should we take all this with a grain of salt? Well, knowing who Jesus was and how he lived, I think not. Perhaps the best we can do is to try to live by the last eleven words of this Gospel: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That’s really God’s “platform” for the world—God’s plan of action, an outline of faithful love of God and one another. In the end, our behavior in the human community, not our religious affiliation will measure the quality of our lives.
We are just about at the end of the most venomous, divisive, mean-spirited, even hateful political campaign of my memory. There is great anxiety in the air. It is almost palpable. It has confirmed for me why we need to pay attention to what Jesus has to say about the way we should live, the way we treat one another, the decisions we make, the way we work for justice and peace.
On Friday, members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, known for disrupting soldiers’ funerals with chants and signs displaying gay slurs, stood outside New York City’s Juliard School carrying signs attacking homosexuality, Jews, and the media. They were met by nearly 100 students playing their instruments and singing “When the Saints go Marching in” and “Amazing Grace.” “Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you and defame you…”
I came across the following passage this week which seemed so apropos to what our nation will be doing this Tuesday:
The world is truly at a crossroads. We face many complex problems whose solutions will take more than just physical resources and financial expenditures. To meet these challenges the roles of international behavior will have to be changed. The roots of the current crisis of civilization lie within humanity itself.Our intellectual and moral development is lagging behind the rapidly changing conditions of our existence, and we are finding it difficult to adjust psychologically to the pace of change. Only by renouncing selfishness and attempts to outsmart one another to gain an advantage at the expense of others can we hope to ensure the survival of humankind and further the development of civilization…We shall be able to accomplish our historic task of developing our inheritance, if, irrespective of our political opinions, religious beliefs, or philosophies, we try to understand and help one another.
That was written by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, eighth and last leader of the former Soviet Union. I think Jesus might just agree.
The icons of those Black saints Karl Berry saw in that Virginia church reminded him of his childhood, when his grandmother told him that there were so many races of people because they were all flowers in God’s garden. Looking at those icons, Berry said, “I felt they were telling me, ‘We are the flowers in God’s garden that you are looking for.’ “
That’s what we celebrate today—God’s amazing and fabulous gift of diversity both those who have gone before and know our struggle and the saints among us who live in hope when life seems hopeless, yearning for God’s new creation to be present now. We all know some of them. Many have worshiped right here in these pews—and some still do.
We need saints because they are proof that the world is wrong about who are the weak and who are the losers; proof that there is power in kindness and gentleness; there is power in raising up the down trodden; there is power in bringing those on the margins to the center; there is power in eradicating poverty for children; power in making peace, power in feeding the hungry, power in living as the children of God we are—living in hopeful expectation that all we can be is yet to be revealed. Perhaps we need them now more than ever in this fragmented, fragile, restless world of ours, for they are the persons who make it easier for us to believe in God.