October 30, 2016

AllSaintsSermonImage

All Saints’ Day Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger on October 30, 2016

 

What is a saint? Here’s one definition:

 
“The  notion of the Christian saint, or holy person, traces its scriptural  origins primarily to the Pauline theology of the holiness of the  corporate church, or Body of Christ, in which all its members have their  specific gifts and part to play.”  

 
There  is also a “tradition of sanctity, which sees in the Christian saint not  only an exceptional moral individual, but also a man or woman who  exercised a certain detachment from the society of the day and its  values.” So, if any of you out there think that The Oxford Dictionary of  Christian Thought reflects your life, please come forward.  


The  Gospel set for today is "The Blessings and Woes”. The association of  the Blessings and Woes with the lives of the saints is somewhat  misleading.  It’s association with All Saints’ Day suggests that the  saints were…well…saintly, and that the regular people were a bit nasty  to them. The lives of the saints were long suffering for their  perfection, a bit like Cinderella scrubbing the floors as her  step-sisters and step-mother trot off to fancy parties.   


If  our Old Testament reading from Daniel is supposed to offer a glimpse of  what it means to be a saint, I’m still a bit confused about how to tell  a saint from anyone else. The section we read is not straightforward,  because it’s chopped into pieces. But the re-inserting the parts chopped  out doesn’t help much. Sure, I understand that the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, but there is the question whether the Holy ones are human (like us) or heavenly (not like us).  

 

‘Holy one’ in the OT usually refers to angelic beings; our saints are  all human – except for St Michael the Archangel. Furthermore, is that  kingdom earthly or heavenly? This reading in this context, to me, is  simply propaganda that the saints were perfect, and that we are to  emulate these perfect lives.  

 

There’s  a book entitled "Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks,  Trollops, Con Men and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints" (Image, 2006)  by Thomas Craughwell. He writes:  “The  saints were not perfect. They’re exactly like us. They committed sins.  They had bad habits. They did stupid stuff.” Let’s have a look at some  of those bad habits and stupid stuff:  

  • Augustine of Hippo, is well-known for saying, "God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."
  • Teresa of Avila would use twigs and olive branches to make herself vomit — which nowadays would be classified as bulimia.  
  • On days when she took communion, Saint Catherine of Siena would go to her study and vomit up any food that she ate. According to the book "Holy Anorexia" (University of Chicago Press, 1954), fully half of the medieval saints showed symptoms of anorexia.
  • Saint  Mary of Egypt ran away from home at age 12 and spent more than a dozen  years living on the street as a seductress. She loved to corrupt  innocent young Christian men. "She once joined a pilgrimage to Rome and  seduced not only the entire crew on the ship, but she seduced all the  pilgrims as well." Just a note: I think “seduced” is being used as a euphemism.  After years of exuberant sinning, she traveled to Jerusalem to seduce  young Christians at church. But when she reached the doors of a church,  she felt a strange force repulsing her, and immediately felt the  wickedness of her life, repented, prayed to the Virgin Mary and took  communion. After hearing a voice tell her to cross the Jordan River, she  spent 47 years living in isolation in the desert, surviving mostly off  herbs.
  • Some  saints didn't exist at all. For example, the patron saint of the city  of my birth, Saint Barbara, was allegedly a wealthy fourth-century woman  who was persecuted by her father for her Christian faith. Along the way  to becoming a martyred saint, legend has it her betrayers were  transformed into stone statues and locusts, her wounds were miraculously  healed and her father was struck dead by lightning. But there is no  evidence that she ever existed.

I would imagine that a good read of Craughwell’s book, or each saint having an hour with Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey, we  would discover that every one of them had some bad qualities. They WERE  human, after all. And when we make it to Heaven, we might find that  their halos are made out of anodized aluminum rather than shimmering gold.  


My  mother’s favorite hymn is “I sing a song of the saints of God!” She  says it’s because the song not only states, it provides examples of the  qualities and activities of real, everyday people who are saints. If you  look at the list of professions, you will find almost all of them as  current or past members of St Stephen’s. And I’m sure if you spoke to a  member of the History Committee, they will be able to find a member of  St Stephen’s who was a rancher who met his or her demise by some sort of  animal that we can consider a “fierce wild beast”!  


Ultimately, like anything about our faith, becoming a saint is about God!


Living a spotless life was not on the Sainthood checklist; the single criterion was having a singular focus on getting closer to God. That’s what Augustine did – you know…the guy who prayed for chastity, but not just yet. In the Confessions St Augustine, he does just that:  confesses his un-saintly conduct.  


It  is said that the review of one’s suitability for sainthood tends to  stress the miraculous effects of an individual’s life and to underplay  the role of internal struggle and personal development…until only very  recently. It’s interesting that we study the internal struggle and  personal development of those saints who were only canonized due to the  miracles which occurred in their names after their death. Perhaps that’s  because we’re Anglicans, and we don’t do the canonization; we simply  look for the inspiration.  


Being a saint is doing the  work of God, and we shouldn’t be tricked into thinking that it takes  exceptional, superhuman character to do the work of God. When we sing a  song of the saints of God, we might be able to imagine someone we know  in there. And you don’t necessarily have to be world-famous to be a  saint.  


As we meditate on the lives of the saints and attempt to model our lives  and ministries after them, let’s not be too concerned with superhuman  perfection or with having some sort of a God complex. We are human. We  each have the capacity to do the work of God. Of all the saints, St Peter...considered the first pope...DENIED Jesus 3 times in Jesus' most desperate time of  need!!  
So, we want to think that the halos are made of shimmering gold to  represent perfect lives. The halos could very well be made of aluminum  to represent normal, everyday lives, but it’s the fact that they have a  halo, which signifies that they stood out.   


The  first part of today’s Gospel reading is also referred to as “The  Beatitudes”. It is Luke’s parallel Sermon on the Plain to Matthew’s  longer set of Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Like saints, in 1C  Judaism, they stood out. Jesus publicly elevates the humble to a higher  status than the fortunate. We have been conditioned to believe the  saints to be purer than pure, with the innocents and naivety of a  compassionate child. It is those with the cheap, anodized aluminum halos  who, with humility, are doing the work of God. There are plenty of  those people around who go unnoticed and un-thanked.


For those of you at St Stephen’s who do so much in the name of St Stephen’s and for God, with your specific gifts and parts to play, who  go unappreciated or un-thanked, I publicly thank you
– no matter how  many ships’ crew you are seducing! We can talk about that later. Local  saints are in abundance!


[The image is of The Cloud of Witnesses. The artist and official title are unknown.] 

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