Wednesday, November 09, 2011

You are a word about the Word

Sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday, November 6, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Matthew 5:1-12

            I will begin this morning with my main point.  It is a quote from Alan Jones, the retired Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

You are a word about the Word before you ever utter a word.[1]

            That truth has everything to do with one of the questions of the Baptismal Covenant that we will all answer together in a few minutes.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

            Today we celebrate the communion of saints.  “Saints” is one of those words we have to be very careful in using in the Church.  We often give people (including ourselves) the wrong impression about what we mean when we use the word “saint.”

            We call certain people “saint” because they are an example to us of following Christ.  St. Mary, St. Luke, St. Simon Cyrene, St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Nicholas and all those people we commemorate on our church calendar who you just called out during the Gospel reading.

            When we use “saint” in this way, we can give the impression that you are only a saint if you are extraordinarily righteous, worthy of being emulated.  And there are people from the recent past on our calendar about whom this is certainly true:  Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Daniels, Frances Perkins, and Thurgood Marshall are examples.

            We include people in our calendar of saints because they are recognized in at least some communities as being examples of faithful living.  But that does not mean that they were perfect, nor does it mean they were more successful in faithful living than others, nor does it mean that they are the only people worthy of the name “saint.”

            What do you have to do to be considered worthy enough to be called a saint?


            If you could earn sainthood by being good enough, there would not be any saints.  Individuals cannot make themselves a saint. Churches cannot make people saints.  Only God can make people saints.  And how does God do that?

            By something we call “grace.”  Grace is like when I cracked up my car when I was 17 and I tried to hide it from my parents, but of course they found out because parents are the other beings beside God “from whom no secrets are hid.”  And they were really mad.  But the very next week when I had to go before the school board to complain about an unfairness I thought a teacher had caused me, they were there to defend me.  That’s grace. God says, I know what you are capable of, both good and bad, and when you screw up I am very disappointed and sometimes angry, but nothing changes that you are my beloved daughter or son and I love you.

            In a few moments we are going to baptize two children.  When we do that we are acknowledging that God has made them saints and we join them to the communion of saints, in this room, and in every room where the People of God gather and have gathered in generations past.

            And we are saying the most astounding thing that we ever say as People of God: you are marked as Christ’s own for ever.  The bond with God that we celebrate in Baptism, we say, cannot be broken.  Can it be squandered? Absolutely, and most of us did it at least once in the last week.  It can be squandered, but it can never be broken.  God never gives up on anyone, and isn’t that good news?

            So God has made every single one of us a saint.  We often hear someone protest, “But I’m no saint” and by that they mean, “But I’m not perfect.”  Again, the saints were not and are not perfect. If you had to be perfect to be a saint, as I said before, there would not be any.

            So you are a saint because God wants you to be, period.  It is not, however, all “gimme the love, God.”  It is that, but it also comes with responsibility.  That responsibility is that we “be the word about the Word before we ever utter a word.”

            To be a saint is to be a sacramental person. What does that mean? It means that people can see God through you. You are a window, and you are that window long before you ever utter a word. You are that window in the way you live and move and have your being.

            And the way we are called to live is not easy because it is not about being successful by the world’s standards.  The way we are called to live is laid out for us in the beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel.  They tell us how to be blessed, but the list does not make any sense, because the list includes lots of ways that do not seem like a blessing at all.

            Feel that you are poor in spirit, that is, not good enough for God.  Be in mourning because of a great loss.  Be meek, which means something like feeling powerless.  Be merciful rather than seek revenge. Be pure in heart, which I take to mean be open and accepting, being rid of prejudice.  Make peace rather than solving problems by violence or the threat of violence.  Be persecuted because we want to do the right thing, and even dismissed as fools or even hated because we have chosen to live in these ways.

            Our instincts say these are not ways to feel blessed.  Our list of being blessed would include things like financial security, safety, good friendships, loving families, and at least the occasional time of just plain having fun.

            Jesus is not saying that these things are bad, but they have a couple things in common.  They all contain the seed of idolatry—putting something like financial security or family ahead of loving God and our neighbor.  And they all very easily turn into competitions and we choose up sides, or sides are chosen up for us—the haves and the have nots.

            No, it is not about that, Jesus says.  It is the confidence above all things that you are unconditionally and eternally loved by God and that you are called to love your neighbor in exactly the same way.  That is what it means to be blessed.

            And it is what it means to practice our sainthood.  It is what it means to be “a word about the Word before you ever utter a word.”

            Do not pray to be a saint. Rejoice that you are and keep practicing. That is all God asks.

[1] Quoted by the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rochester, New York on November 5, 2011.

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