Do you think about saints? Probably not, but do you remember the people who have been so important to your life that, even though they are gone now, they continue to have a great influence on who and how you are?
If I were to ask the general public what a saint is, I expect explanations involving miracles and halos. I’d probably hear examples like St. Francis or St. Patrick (despite the disagreements of the latter’s legacy).
If I asked the average Christian, the definition of a saint might be a bit more sophisticated… something like “the church remembers and honors extraordinarily holy people from the past who led lives of exemplary faith.”
But as Protestants, our denominations have eschewed Saints, capitol “S” (except, curiously, for Baptist Churches that are sometimes named for saints?). The reformers were trying to get theology out of the clouds and bring religion down to earth, into the everyday. Ironically Protestant thought and influence have probably advanced secularism, but its founders intention was to infect the whole world with the holy– breaking down the wall between an otherworldly and aristocratic sacredness and the mass of common people and their profane daily lives.
Despite this Protestant preference for the common man or woman, even the most thoroughly reformed among us never avoid heroes completely. It’s as if we can’t live without making for ourselves some image of what a superhuman would be. It’s almost a form of idolatry that is hardwired in us!
I’m not sure why that would be. Maybe we need to create pedestals we can then try and live up to. Or, on some deep level — recognizing our need — perhaps we are hoping for some sort of superhero who can swoop down and rescue us?
It’s important to realize, nonetheless, that every individual who has been ‘apotheosized’ (that’s like “super-sized, but bigger!) into one of our various “pantheons” of saints… in real life they were ordinary, imperfect humans. Perhaps they were a bit more faithful or courageous or stronger than the average Joe or Josephine.
But in the historical process of being memorialized, we smoothed off their rough edges and cleaned up, even polished their lives. As that happens they lose their humanness. They end up “not really like us.” Instead, they serve more as place markers for the Divine. Or, ironically, a juxtaposition that throws in relief what we are not. And we loose their reminder that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
As we arrive this week at All Saints Sunday and its lection, the Sermon on the Mount, I want to point out that Jesus isn’t looking for heroes. And he never sought saints. Maybe that’s why he was so tough on the Pharisees…
He took another tack entirely. Except for a little child or an old woman with her penny offering, rarely did Jesus raise up paragons — or even examples — of faithful living. He did not enlist saints as his disciples and apostles. His ministry often overlooked or missed those who were even averagely observant or pious. Instead, he focused in on those who were broken. Whose lives were kind of messy.
If the Beatitudes is any measure, Jesus is about lifting up the lives of those we’d rather look away from. The lost and the last and the least. A blind beggar from back alley Jericho. A father who can’t win for losing where he finds himself between his two dueling sons. A Samaritan who goes out of his way not to live up to our bad opinion of him. A woman who couldn’t stand up straight for 18 years. Another woman with twelve demons in her spirit. Or a third woman who has six husbands.
And there’s always the Gospels’ favorite mess: Peter who loved Jesus almost as much as he misunderstood him.
I heard a preacher sum up the crowd Jesus gathered as the lonely, the lame, the lovelorn and the left behind.
Jesus didn’t associate or minister to those who were powerful or successful. Perhaps, because he himself wasn’t after power or success. Instead, he warned about riches and public recognition and positions of honor. Even a step up in order to preach, he worried, and one might miss his kingdom. Jesus’ only ladder of success was the cross, and someone else put him there.
If the Beatitudes are an illustration — or a promise?! — Jesus pronounces us blessed, not when we are achieving great things. Not when our lives are going gangbusters. Not on award days. Not when the mortgage can be burned. Not when everyone likes us. But while, in fact because we are lost, limping, lonely and loveless.
Jesus recognizes something in our deep hurts, and in our ability to survive with our humanity intact and a humaneness towards others even after we’ve been mistreated by others or ourselves, by the world or life itself.
That’s the light that remains flickering in us, the eternal flame, an imago Dei, shining even in the darkness that cannot overcome it, and providing light in an often desolate world.
By choosing to hold up those who have suffered, Jesus is placing their light on a lampstand. And reminding all of us that God’s light does not come into the world free of suffering. Nor does it promise those who try to share that light lives free of suffering.
Most directly applying this to our own situations: you will never find the light of God in your lives until you make room for, acknowledge, even embrace your suffering and losses. And those who suffer and lose.
Even saints cannot show us the way into easy, comfortable lives. Instead, they show us, God is still with us in deep darkness. They promise, we can keep going. That we can survive beatings. That we can stand tall despite our fears. That we can maintain hope in mean times. That we can keep believing.
See you in church,