Sunday, November 3, 2013
TEXTS Ephesians 1: 15-19; Luke 6: 20-27
If you haven’t read Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s spiritual memoir, and if you can tolerate profanity, I recommend her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. And just in case the story of a promiscuous-addict-turned-Lutheran-pastor doesn’t convince you the lines between sinner and saint get blurry, the photograph on the book’s cover of a heavily tattooed female pastor will. And just in case the story on the inside and picture on the outside don’t proclaim clearly enough that the sinner and the saint are always one and the same person, then this Lutheran’s pastor’s expletives will further punctuate that point. She drops the F-bomb in her spiritual memoir more often than most religious writers mention Jesus.
Nadia melds the meanings of saint and sinner not only in the title of her book but also in the name of the church she started in Denver five years ago: House of all Sinners and Saints. Again, the church’s name is not about categorizing two types of people in her church. Instead, Nadia is trying to shatter that false dichotomy between so-called sinners and saints. The House of all Sinners and Saints is full of diverse people, yes, but each one of them is both—to use Nadia’s (ironically) conventional terms—sinner and saint. She would say to us that each of us is both sinner and saint. I might put that idea in these (still alliterative!) terms: Each of us is scarred—yet each of us is also sacred.
For all her snarky outrageousness, Nadia is theologically orthodox. She was drawn to the Lutheran faith she now preaches when she came to understand that all the terrors and triumphs she’d experienced in her own life had already been quite accurately described by Christian theologians centuries before. She believes that each of us is a mess (she’d use stronger language). But she also believes each one of us can be a shining miracle of God’s grace—at least in certain moments. As songwriter Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Or as the writer of 2 Corinthians theologized, the very Light of God is contained in our flawed and fragile earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is through and because of our imperfections that we learn to be forgiven and to forgive and understand Earth as “forgiveness school.” (Anne Lamott). It’s through our grievous mistakes and screw ups that we grow, accept grace, learn a deeper love and heal and stretch—and on some days, on some rare days—we are saints to somebody.
Isn’t that a wondrous and terrifying thought? Obviously, I’m not predicting that any of us will convert to Catholicism and eventually be canonized and then claimed by some city or country or profession or group of down-and-outers as their patron saint. But if you were to be declared a patron saint because in this life you stood up for some group of people, whose needs might you want to champion in death? And are these the folks you are championing in life? Think about it.
Let me first warn you there are already patron saints for literally hundreds of groups that need special intervention. Just so you know, the slot for the patron saint of Argentianian ambassadors has already been filled as has the patron saint of greeting card manufacturers. By the way, I checked and as yet there is no patron saint of telemarketers—Nor. Should. There. Ever. Be.
But just to be a bit playful and serious at the same time (to resist our tendency toward dualistic thinking) take a moment to imagine playfully and seriously what group or cause would be worth spending your life on now—and lending your name to in death. I confess my deeds here on earth could probably qualify me only for patron saint of chocolate lovers. But I do aspire to more. What would you hope to be the patron saint of?
I look out and see before me Saint David, Patron Saint of Sardonic Political Protesters and Caretakers of this Earth. And Saint Jerry, Patron Saint of Courageous Marchers for Racial Equality. And Saint Chloe, Patron Saint of Mind-Blowing Creativity.
Each of you IS a saint. I would canonize you all right now if it were my job and our religious tradition to do so. Indeed, since Paul addresses all those in the church at Ephesus as saints, we’re reminded that the original meaning of saints was those who are “in Christ.” And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul praised those faithful saints for their love toward one another and prayed for them wisdom, revelation, and enlightenment so they could see with the eyes of hope.
A saintly disposition, therefore, seems to be forthrightly honest about what’s not working, all the while being hopeful about what might develop—within the heart of the saint herself and within the life of the church and among the people of the earth. A spiritual disposition of saints is one which see clearly and faces into and acknowledges the Darkness but knows the Light is about to break in.
A saint is well aware that each strength she possesses has its shadow side, which she must often confront with honest and genuine regret but not with self-loathing. She knows that every part of us that is broken can be mended by God’s Super Glue called grace. Every weakness can be strengthened. No failure is ever total or final. When we can be both honest with ourselves and kind to ourselves, we accept God’s grace for us and then, and only then, can extend it to others.
This gracious way of hope is true for groups of people: families and nations and churches. We are called to be who we are, recognize where we can be stronger, accept grace so that we can try again, and appreciate that the tendency that got us into trouble once again is nevertheless attached to a virtue we can cultivate.
So learn to love that part of you that, like a wild child, sometimes gets out of control. Call her back, and watch her closely. But pay attention to what she offers this world. Love her. And point her to purposes that are good. Use her. Forgive her. Keep teaching her. All those imperfections let the Light of God’s compassion come in. Because you are scarred and because you are scared, you will screw up. But you are nevertheless a sacred vessel for God’s luminous love.
And if you think God can’t love you, cracks and all, think about someone you adore with all your heart. The thing that you love about this someone is often the thing that drives you crazy. You may love his spontenaity, for instance—which you lack—but after awhile the dark side of that trait gets annoying. So be honest about the shadow side of your good traits, but focus on cultivating the good uses of this part of you and monitoring the problems this trait can create. Bless the strength residing in each troubling trait within you, dear Sinner/Saint. As Jesus did.
For instance, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” according the Luke’s version of the beatitudes. Blessing what seemed a deficiency, Luke’s Jesus said those living in literal poverty (not the “poor in spirit” Matthew described) are blessed now—because even if you don’t live like a king of this world, you have special access to God’s realm. Blessed are you saints who are hated and excluded and reviled and defamed and taunted and bullied and denied equal rights including the right to marry the one you love, Jesus said,though I’m loosely paraphrasing. Yes, you are blessed—and not just in some future state but you ARE blessed because you’re in good company. The prophets of old were treated like that. And eventually the right and wrong get sorted out. And even in your moments of weakness when either you have been harmed or caused harm, recognize the opportunity to grow in compassion for yourself, for others. You might even be able to do what Jesus commanded: “Love your enemies” and “do good to those who are hateful to us” and “bless the very folks who curse us.” The world needs more saints who, in the words of our first hymn, “ma[k]e their life a light, caught from the Christ-flame, bursting through the night, who touch the truth, who burn for what is right.”
And Open Table needs saints like you who, though imperfect, have so much light to shine into our faith community and beyond.
Friends, we’re beginning a new church year in January that will challenge us to face into the places where we are weak and move forward as courageous saints who take our light into the world from the Christ-flame. We, who claim only that we touch the truth—we don’t claim to hold all the truth—will try “to burn for what is right.” Thanks be to God, imperfect people can be saints in the service of God’s hope. When new members are welcomed into our congregation with a litany of covenant, I always remind them that we are not a perfect people; we are a pilgrim people. But wouldn’t the pilgrimage be boring if only perfect people made the journey?
In the next few moments, I’d like you to think of a challenge that Open Table faces in the coming year—a trait or characteristic of our life together that could be seen as a deficiency or weakness. But using Jesus’s formula in the beatitudes, take what seems to be a weakness and bless it and explain why we could think of it as a blessing.
Using the beatitude formula, here are some beatitudes I offer for our faith community. I invite you to create others:
Blessed are the saints at Open Table who own no building of their own, for they are the church wherever they go.
Blessed are the saints at Open Table who are the only UCC church in southern Alabama, for they have the joyous adventure of being progressive pioneers.
Blessed are the saints at Open Table who are diverse in theology and wide-ranging church backgrounds, for they will find their commonality in God’s love.
Blessed are the saints at Open Table who bear scars and feel scared—for they let the light of Christ shine through their sacred earthen vessels.
SHARING . . .
PRAYER: Light of Lights, shine in us and through us. Use this faith community of puny saints to point others toward your love. We pray in the name of Christ Jesus and in the name of all the saints who’ve lived and died in Christ. Amen