Sunday, November 03, 2013

Saints and Sinners (J. Barry Vaughn, Nov. 3, 2013)

A few years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Miller and other members of my clergy group and I had the remarkable opportunity to visit the Mother House of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.
Mother Teresa's tomb is on the first floor of the Mother House and while we observed many people praying for short or long periods at many places in the room. The members of my clergy group and I prayed. I believe that even Rabbi Miller prayed!
On the second floor of the Mother House is the tiny room where Mother Teresa lived. It is deeply moving in its simplicity. It contains a bed, a chair, and a desk. That's it. No television, no stereo, computer, no microwave or mini-fridge, not even a radio. When she died, Mother Teresa, like every other member of her order, owned only two saris or habits and a pair of sandals.
Several years before her death, Harvard University gave Mother Teresa an honorary degree, and my friend, Peter Gomes, the university chaplain, acted as her host. Peter told me that he was excited to meet this remarkable woman. Peter could talk to anyone about anything for as long as they cared to listen, so he went on at length about his admiration for Mother Teresa and her accomplishments, but she said nothing. Finally, Peter shut up, and Mother Teresa simply said to him, "It's all Jesus."
I bring up Mother Teresa because today is All Saints' Sunday, and if there is a saint for our time, then surely it is Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But Mother Teresa also creates a problem for many of us. She sets the bar impossibly high. How can we possibly measure up to her example?
Listen to me carefully. I want to make this as clear as I can. God calls very few of us to be Mother Teresas. God calls most of us to marry and have children, to have jobs and mortgages. But God does call us to participate in the kind of work that she did. We participate in that work through our prayers, through volunteering in our free time, and above all through our contributions and offerings. Do not forget that as we move into stewardship season! Your pledge is your principal way of participating in the kind of work that Mother Teresa did.
But there was another side to Mother Teresa. After her death, when Mother Teresa's letters were published, people were startled to learn that she had been plagued by profound doubts, sometimes even doubting the existence of God. She had felt a sense of spiritual desolation and a disturbing sense of God's absence.
She wrote, "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”
What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the fact that this modern day saint who embraced the poorest of the poor experienced such profound spiritual darkness and even doubted the existence of God?
The story of Mother Teresa gives me pause. It makes me question what it means to be a saint. But maybe the problem is with the way that we define the word "saint".
Who are the saints? Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? Those guys up there. By the way, have you noticed that none of our stained glass windows in the nave depict women? Aren't they the saints? Aren't the saints the spiritual superheroes and celebrities?
But the story of Mother Teresa gives us pause. She makes us stop and reconsider what we mean by the word "saint."  If you judge saintliness by good works, then surely she was a saint. But if you judge it by deep faith, then perhaps not.
Let's look first at the New Testament's definition of a saint.
In today's New Testament reading, Paul says, " I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints." (Eph. 1.15) Paul is NOT saying, "I have heard of your love toward the spiritual superheroes of the faith" because there weren't any of those when he was writing. He was saying, "I have heard of your love toward your sisters and brothers in Christ."
Almost every one of Paul's letters begins with a reference to the saints. Romans 1.7 says, " To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Or 1 Corinthians 1.2: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ."
In the New Testament “saint” means simply any baptized person, any Christian.  The word translated as “saint” in the New Testament is hagios or its plural hagioi, a Greek word that means “holy”.  The saints are the holy ones, not holy because of anything intrinsic to them, but holy because of the holy presence of Christ within them.
A second, more common, use of the word “saint” is to denote one of the heroes or heroines of the Christian faith.  Thus, we speak of St. Peter or St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene or St. Clare. 
How do you suppose Jesus would define the word saint?
For a long time I was puzzled about why the gospel reading for All Saints’ Day was the Beatitudes from Luke or Matthew.  However, I think I know why that is.  The Beatitudes are, if you will, Jesus’ definition of a saint.
[i]"Blessed are the poor." Poverty of some kind is almost essential if we are to know blessedness or saintliness. If you want to meet a saint, look to the poor--those who have little that gets in the way of their experience of God. There is an emptiness in every human heart. The saints are those who learn to live with that emptiness, who do not fill it with anything other than God. The saints have little pretense or deceit. The purity of their hearts allow God to be present in a startling way.
It is not just the radiantly holy and the astoundingly wise who are saints. Poverty and poverty of spirit are the reasons that infants and children can be saints, too. The newborn child, hungry and curious, has such an enormous capacity for God. If we have eyes for it, infants can show us the mystery and wonder of God. The sick, too, can be saints, and also the elderly; they show us the mystery and wonder of God.
Jesus also says, "blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”.  We live in a world where feelings, in general, and sadness and depression, in particular, are suspect and not exhibited in public. Men, especially, are schooled to show little expression and feeling. 
We also live in a "feel good" culture.  "Drink Budweiser, eat Doritos, drive a Mercedes, and you will feel good and be happy".  Fairy tales end "and they all lived happily ever after", but that isn't the way life works.
What if the ability to feel deep sadness is a prerequisite for feeling great joy? 
The saints are complete persons who feel the full range of human emotions.  The saints are those who can "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice".
Finally, according to Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled." But in Matthew, the Beatitudes are different. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
This is one of Jesus' most outrageous statements. Jesus was a Jew, and to a Jew, righteousness, zedeqah, meant something very specific..  Righteousness was literally "to do right by", especially to do right by the poor and hungry, widows and orphans.  So when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he was literally saying, "Blessed are those who long for the hungry to be fed and the homeless to be housed, for in the end, they will not be disappointed".  Of all Jesus' claims, this may be the most extraordinary.  Righteousness is not at home in the world in which you and I live, but Jesus announces the coming of a new world of righteousness and justice.  The saints are those who long for the appearing of such a kingdom, who never lose heart and are never satisfied with anything less.
Another definition for saint that I want to offer involves a very concrete example of holiness.  In the early part of this century, Henry Joel Cadbury came to teach New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.  Cadbury was one of the great New Testament scholars of our century and was at work on what became the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when World War I broke out.  A pacifist, Cadbury would not fight in the war but instead volunteered to work with the Quakers caring for the wounded and dying on the battle fields of Europe.  In the midst of the war, one of Cadbury’s students came across his professor bandaging a wounded soldier.  “Dr. Cadbury,” the student exclaimed, “Why aren’t you back at Harvard translating the New Testament?”  “I am translating the New Testament,” Cadbury replied.  He was translating the New Testament not from Greek into English but from the printed page into human life.  I think that may be the best definition of saint.  A saint is one who translates the New Testament into a life of love and service. 
Finally, I want to offer the devil's definition of a saint, or at least the definition from The Devil's Dictionary by 19th century American humorist, Ambrose Bierce: "Saint - A dead sinner revised and edited."
Unfortunately, that is the definition of saints that we get most of the time. We get the saints revised and edited. We get the expurgated and abridged version. That's the version of Mother Teresa we would have gotten if someone had not defied her own wishes and published her private letters and journals. But I'm so glad that we learned of her doubts and struggles, because I struggle with the same things, and I know that many of you do, too.
I have moments of profound doubt and uncertainty. Am I good enough? Is God listening? Why is there suffering and evil? Why aren't my prayers answered?
Mother Teresa's story reminds me that the saints struggle with the same things that I struggle with. She reminds me that the church is not a museum for spiritual celebrities; it is a hospital for poor sinners just like me.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote, "…that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.” (A Ray of Darkness, p. 52)
All Saints’ Day exhausts and unsettles me.  However, you define saint, I find it difficult to imagine myself among those “saints triumphant [who] rise in bright array”.  More often than not, I choose self-aggrandizement over service; my heart and mind go in a thousand different directions, rather than being fixed on God’s kingdom; and if my life is a translation of the New Testament, then it must be in an unknown tongue.  But I have to keep reminding myself and keep reminding you that sainthood is not our accomplishment; it is God’s gift.  We follow where Christ and the saints lead, knowing all the while that we will stumble and fall.  You see, the Devil’s Dictionary had it partly right: Some saints are dead sinners revised and edited, but all saints are forgiven sinners, just like us.  The saints remind us of what we are capable of if we will only open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new and raises us from death to life abundant and everlasting.

[i] The next two paragraphs are paraphrased from "Saint Carlton is lowest" by the Very Rev. Sam Candler.