November 3, 2014

The Sign of a Saint


Text: Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

My grandmother was of the settled opinion that nine people was the ideal number for dinner party. This conviction of hers was unencumbered by any knowledge of social psychology or cognitive science or interpersonal dynamics. The simple fact was that if you had nine people around your table for dinner you had one for each of the Beatitudes, and in her mind that was a truth so deep it needed no further proof.

I learned a lot about the faith from my grandmother—simple things, yes, but things that have stayed with me. I can’t remember a lot, but I can remember that there are nine beatitudes, and I expect it will be among the last things I remember.

I don’t want to talk about all nine of them this morning; I only want to make little point for you to take with you about the last one. It’s the text for this sermon, but I could have reduced the whole text to a single word.

Take out your scripture insert and take a look at these lines from Matthew’s account of the sermon on the mount. The Beatitudes are a blessings, of course—a list of pronouncements of blessing on all sorts of virtuous people, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers, the meek, the pure in heart.

You may not feel as though you fit any of those categories. The way Jesus preaches these blessings, you could count yourself out of the categories. He speaks of all of them in the narrative third person: the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, those who mourn, those who are righteous, and so on. Jesus could be talking about anyone here, but he’s probably not talking about me.

But then comes a complete change in the way Jesus is talking, and it all comes down to one word. So far Jesus has been talking about them. But right at the end, in the very last line, he is talking to—us. One word in his pronouncement changes. Blessed are you. Blessed are we.

Right here, right at the end, we get included. Maybe we can’t be righteous, or meek, or merciful, or pure in heart. But there is one blessing that applies right to us, that is addressed right to us.

What does that mean? At the very least it means we are included in the roster of saints, whether we like it or not. We are among the blessed in the list of people beatified by Jesus.

But what is it that qualifies us for this list? Why are we included in the beatified?

Thomas Merton famously said that “For me, to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”

Okay, so: Blessed are we...who... have the courage to truly be ourselves. To truly be, not just anyone, but the people God made us to be.

Well... okay. But how will we know when we’ve done this? What’s the sign of our success as saints?

Here’s the bad news. It won’t be easy. Blessed are we when—well, when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us because we are just trying to be Christians.

That is the sign of our success in the sainthood business. It’s not any of the things you might think it is, and it’s sure not any of the things you might want it to be.

We think of saints as stars, somehow. We think of them as the very best the faith has to offer, the exemplars, the role models.

Well, that may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. There are saints who are stars. We can name some of them. Two of them we are mourning just now, both of them Toms: Bishop Shaw and Mayor Menino. It is no accident that the two of them worked together. They both had a heart for the poor, and that will always get you the suspicion, and the harsh judgment, of many.

There are saints who are stars. In this moment of history in which we are so in thrall to celebrity, we kind of want our saints to be stars. We sort of associate stardom with sainthood. We leave it to the media to make our saints.

But not all stars are saints. And what is even more important, not all saints are stars. The sign of a saint is not fame, or power, or wealth, or even approval. The sign of a saint is not necessarily even virtue, because we too often calculate virtue using data that isn’t trustworthy—reputation, and prominence, and credentials, and fame.

No, the sign of a saint is something very different. When you are trying to live out the values and teachings of Jesus, when you keep your a commitment to spend time hanging out with other people doing the same thing, people will dismiss you. They will look for signs that you are imperfect—and they’ll probably succeed. Or they’ll hold you accountable for everything bad or flawed the church has ever done—and there is plenty of that.

Just remember what the reason for that is. What we believe isn’t just stories our grandmothers told us.

What we believe is truly and powerfully dangerous. It is subversive—because if it were really lived out it would upend all of the power structures of this world, the Republican ones and the Democratic ones, the conservative ones and the liberal ones, the capitalist and the socialist ones. It would break down all of our ranking systems, all of our exclusive clubs, all of the distinctions we make, so foolishly, between ourselves.

Saints are the ones who try to live by the law of love. They do things that show the world the way God wants us, taught us, calls us to live—by caring, by forgiving, by showing compassion.

And if you are doing these things any of them, what you are likely to get is a lot of trouble. What you are likely to be is misunderstood.

Don’t let it dissuade you. It didn’t dissuade the people who gave you this faith, who taught you about blessings and beatitudes, about the little things that make the big things.

The Body of Christ is a living, breathing, working, loving, and often suffering thing. If we are a part of that Body, and we are, we should not expect to have it any easier than Jesus did.

But here’s the last bit of news: There is a reason to put up with all this. The arc of history is with us. We are on the right track. It may seem hard, it may seem foolish, it may even seem costly—it is costly, costly in terms of reputation or respect or regard in this increasingly secular world.

But saints stick with it. The ones who walked our path with us at some point to help us find this place, and these people—they stuck with it. Thank God for them. Thank God we have each other. Happy All Saints’ Day, saints. Amen.