Sunday, November 2, 2014

And I mean to be one too?

Preached at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, 2014

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

When I was in Kindergarten Sunday School at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, we only knew two hymns. One was Onward Christian Soldiers, and the other was “I sing a song of the saints of God”. We were drilled—in a very English way by our very English Sunday School teacher—in a very low theology of sainthood. With God’s help, anyone could be a saint. It is a quaint hymn, with a text by the spectacularly named Englishwoman, Lesbia Scott, and while it was nearly taken out of the Episcopal 1982 Hymnal for being “theologically insubstantial,” it was saved by a letter-writing campaign and lives on in Sunday School classrooms around the country. Little children everywhere are being taught to aspire to sainthood, and it is one of the most-requested hymns in Episcopal Churches.

The elder asks John, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Who are all these saints? And what is the great ordeal? Is the ordeal life? Martyrdom? Extreme acts of piety? Are these beings in white officially designated saints or ordinary people who were holy enough to get into heaven?

What makes someone a saint, and is it something that most of us can—or should—aspire to? I can think of a lot of instances in which I might say, “She’s a real saint,” and it wouldn’t entirely be a compliment. Despite my early formation as a potential saint, I have often felt that saints are people who are better than the rest of us. Who don’t seem to feel the challenges of life the way the rest of us do. Who practice extreme acts of faith and piety and courage that most of us will never do. They’re special-- like super-Christians, admirable, sometimes inspiring, but not like us. And if you look at artistic renderings of saints and the stories that go along with them, they tend to highlight the distance between “normal” people and those saints—renderings of saints being martyred, stories of saints being celibate, lots of suffering, and very few smiles. Saints don’t seem to embrace joy very often. Remind me again why I’m supposed to want to be a saint?

Jesus came to save sinners; Jesus is not just for the saints or saintly among us. To be a saint is someone who is close to God, yes, but we don’t call people saints for God’s sake, we call them saints for our sakes. The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the “Philadelphia Eleven”, the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1974, when it was still against canon law to do so, writes in The Erotic as Power and the Love of God, “Heroes show us who we are not. Helpers show us who we are. As individual supermen/wonderwomen, heroes diminish our sense of relational, or shared, power. Helpers call us forth into our power in relation and strengthen our senses of ourselves.”

How can the saints be helpers—people who expose our nascent holiness, rather than heroes who create distance between the official, recognized holiness of the Saints with the big S and us poor mortals. Of course, an irony is that Carter Heyward herself is now something of a theological hero to many people. But her life has opened doors that draw out relational power, that are hopefully changing the structures of the church in ways that will “strengthen our senses of ourselves” and recognize our intrinsic holiness, as well as our potential for acts of faith that surprise ourselves.

In the Episcopal Church we have wrestled with living on the boundary of Catholicism and Protestantism by recognizing the pre-Reformation saints as saints… and then eventually adding “Lesser Feasts” for individuals considered exemplars of the faith that had the misfortune to live after the Reformation—or who were ignored for various reasons by the church prior to the Reformation. It still—frankly—told the stories mostly of people who fit at least two of the three categories of white, male, and ordained, but at least there was a sense that the door didn’t close on holiness in the 16th Century.

Our Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts was reworked a few years ago into a new book called “Holy Women, Holy Men,” which has expanded again the understanding of what it is to be holy. It is criticized for including people who would never have “made it” as a saint by the old standards. Some of them are not Episcopalians. Some of them, are to be fair, barely even Christians—baptized, but not necessarily frequent attenders of church. But if the purpose of a saint is to help us in our life of faith, then we need to recognize that it is possible to be an example of holiness and not be ordained, or a nun, or European.

Some of them confirm what I’m sure my father would think about the “disappointing liberalization” of the Episcopal Church; I remember celebrating the Eucharist at GTS on October 10 a few years ago when we remember Vida Dutton Scudder—by the time she was described as a lesbian, Socialist, labor union organizer, and pacifist, I have a feeling he would have been on his way out the door. But then you would miss the chance to hear about someone who cared about the injustice that keeps people in poverty; who stood up for the dignity of human labor; who was willing to take the risk of preaching peace during World War I; and who lived an authentic and honest life 100 years ago. And someone who was a prolific and spiritual writer, active with the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross who meet for intercessory prayer. And she’s real. She is—and was—a helper. And so are many others newly in our calendar: Nathan Soderblom. Oscar Romero. Sojurner Truth.

None of the titled saints were saints while they were alive. And the saints of today sometimes work so quietly. I remember especially today medical workers treating people with Ebola, both in NYC and around the world. Regardless of whether it is love of God, or vocational passion, or whatever inspires them to love their neighbor in this extreme way, they can be examples for us of holiness. Or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I expect will be added to Holy Women, Holy Men very soon after his death—perhaps defying the 50 year waiting period instructed by the committee in charge of this book. Can you imagine what it took to believe that reconciliation in South Africa was possible? And yet he did that hard work with thousands of other people for so many years, helping the ordinary people around him to share his vision of what reconciling with their brothers and sisters might do for their nation and for their own souls. What has he taught us today about the healing properties of telling our stories of injury and abuse and having them honored; and telling our stories of injuring and abusing and seeking forgiveness? And he does it all—if you’ve ever met him—with what I can only describe as a devilish smile and chuckle. We need not lose our sense of joy and fun in the midst of a holy life.

So do I want to be a saint? I’m not sure. I want to live a holy life. I want to believe that if I am called upon to do some sort of extreme act of faith I will do so willingly. Or perhaps my life will be of more mundane holiness. But I hope someday to be at the altar of God, where “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." And perhaps they’ll also be singing:

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus' sake
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there's not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.