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Saints and Sinners

It's been a bit harry lately. Ainsley's depression has kicked back into high gear and it's a big mess. Thus far no hospitalizations so that's positive.

Today was a great day for me. I was honored to preach this morning and celebrate All Saints Day with the church.  Since I haven't posted in a while, I thought I'd post my sermon here and let whoever happens upon this blog know that I am alive!

Luke 6:20-31
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Ephesians 1:11-23
11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

“Saints and Sinners”

Today is the day in which we take a moment to reflect on those whose faith has shaped and inspired our own faith, those who have listened to our doubts and questions, taught us to pray, and share in this journey to know and love God deeply.

We refer to these people as Saints. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he refers to the church, to that body of believers as Saints. In the early church “Saints” was the common name for the people of the church. They were people just like us. They experienced times of great joy and great faith and they experienced times of doubt and questioning. They weren’t perfect, not at all but they gathered together to support one another in times of need and to rejoice together in times of joy. They spoke about their faith and beliefs, they had courage to share their doubts and questions, they learned together and from one another. These are our saints.

Over the years the term Saint has become rather bloated with great expectations of perfection and honor. We’ve added to the title of Saints a person who has done great works of love and mercy and had a hand in spectacular miracles. To be canonized, meaning to be officially recognized as a Saint by the Catholic Church is quite a feat. First you have to have lived a life as a “Servant of God”—much like Mother Theresa feeding and caring for the sick and hungry, the Untouchables of Calcutta, for her entire life through moments of faith as well as doubt. Or if you are a martyr for the faith, meaning you died in honor of your faith or in honor of God, and then you can be on the fast track to sainthood. Then there must be at least two miracles must have occurred after his or her death, unless you died for your faith and then only 1 miracle needs to occur. It’s quite a process.

Through the years we’ve transformed Saints into Superheroes of Christianity. Saints are put on pedestals that we could never reach, nor is it likely that we’d even try. Some of us give up before we ever start.
If truth be told, I’d imagine most of the official saints might be a little embarrassed. From the readings on saints such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, and St. Francis, they too struggled greatly in their faith. St. Teresa went a few years refusing to pray because she believed she was so unworthy and such a great sinner that she didn’t deserve to experience that time with God. She declared herself a sinner and yet we’ve declared her a saint. St. Augustine and St. Francis experienced great doubts and questioned their own faiths as well. Please understand, in no way am I denigrating them, they lived extraordinary lives of faith and doing God’s work in the world.

My point is that they are not so unlike us. We too struggle in our faith; we and they are not perfect they too bore the title of sinner. They too continued in their moments of doubt and questioning. They too experienced moments of blessed clarity, moments I refer to as “God moments.” Those times in which we meet or are speaking with someone, or witness something so incredible that we know it has come directly from God. Sometimes, we participate in those moments for others without ever knowing it.

What if we return to the early church definition of Saint? In that case, Saints are also sinners. Saints are people just like us—people with flaws and heartaches, people who make mistakes but continue to try to do better, people who don’t give up, people who come together to learn about and share their Christian faith, loving and supporting each other as we seek to know God better. We do what we can to live lives that follow Jesus the Christ. To live lives of love and kindness, knowing that at times we fall short.

Some saints volunteer to teach Sunday school, some saints help out at the food pantry, some saints give up their Saturdays to come and fix a leak at the church, some saints prepare a meal for a friend who just had surgery. Sainthood is less about miracles and more about acting out of God’s love and caring for those around us—sometimes in little quiet acts of kindness and sometimes in major campaigns to create worldwide positive change.

Earlier we listened to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plains,” in Luke, Jesus had returned from the mountain and has come to the plain, the flatland to be with the disciples and his followers. This tells us something important, Jesus comes to our level. Jesus meets us where we are, he isn’t afraid to get dirty and get in the mud and muck of human life.

He first addresses the poor. Luke is clear, these are poor people meaning literally poor-they are struggling to simply live, they are the have-nots. The poor struggle to pay for things, to have enough food to eat, they don’t always have safe shelter and yet Jesus tells them that they are blessed with the kingdom of God. I don’t know about you but I’ve been poor. It is not glamorous and it certainly doesn’t feel like a blessing. But here Jesus is heaping blessings on the poor, the hungry, those experiencing grief or depression, those who’ve been cast out due to their faith. These were and continue to be those of us in the church. These blessings Jesus is heaping upon us help us to see  the  blessings in our own lives. They gives us hope that the struggle will not go on forever, that we will have relief.

Then, Jesus addresses the rich. Again, he means those with money, wealth, and power. Those who have plenty to eat, those who have safe shelter, those who are happy and content, and those who do the casting out. These are the haves. Jesus’ words to the haves are not comforting, they shake us, and leave us worried that we won’t always have the power and wealth, that one day our bellies and bank accounts will not be full.
Jesus knows both groups were present on the plains; both groups are present in the church today. For all of us, a reversal is coming. For some of us, this is good news. For others of us, this is scary.

I’m not sure that this scripture is meant to simply condemn the rich and uplift the poor. I think it is recognition of the way things are. It reminds us that we are all in this together. This moment in our life does not define us—changes and reversals are coming. We should not be judging the haves and the have-nots and laughing at their situations, for change is coming.

Regardless of where we find ourselves on that spectrum of haves and have-nots, we are all called to be Saints. We are called to go beyond the cultural norms and love and pray for our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us (and I don’t mean “bless her heart”, we all know that isn’t truly a blessing), to pray for those who abuse us (it doesn’t say we have to stay in a relationship with them but to pray for them). 

Jesus goes on to say “If anyone strikes you on the cheek offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
These actions are no small feat, but they are what Jesus calls us to do. I want to offer up an idea, when we pray for our enemies; we should probably pray to help love them too. I know I have a hard time loving my enemies on my own. I think the experience of truly praying for our enemies, praying for those who have hurt us, likely does more to change us than them. When we are so entrenched in prayer and love, it becomes more difficult to see people as enemies. We tend to see them as fellow human beings with flaws much like our own.

I want to be clear, if you are in an abusive relationship, I don’t believe that God expects you to stay and pray for that other person. I believe God wants you to pray for them but that God does not expect or want you to stay in harm’s way. The act of offering your other cheek when someone has slapped you on the other is a way to get them to stop. It’s a sort of humiliation, just as giving your shirt as well as your coat. In Jesus’ time, Roman soldiers would walk with civilians and demand their coats, to give the soldier your shirt as well as your coat essentially left you naked, which then drew attention to the bad behavior of the soldier. Sometimes these verses have been used to keep people oppressed but I do not believe that is the sacred message here. I believe Jesus is telling us to go beyond our cultural norms and to go beyond in love, I don’t believe it is telling us to be doormats.

For a minute, close your eyes and imagine that during this election cycle, we and the candidates prayed for one another, not just for our favorite candidate but for all of them. I believe this would create a totally different kind of election cycle. Rather than defaming and yelling at one another when we disagree, we would speak politely and truly listen to each other. Can you imagine an election cycle surrounded with prayers for love and grace? I’m positive this would be transformative and create a time of healing and consideration of what is best for our country. We need relief from the grime and bitterness of this election.

We must remember that we are not enemies. Just like the crowd Jesus spoke to, we are all represented. We are all offered a new way of living and being in this world. We can choose to accept the challenge of living a life grounded in love and prayer, kindness and generosity, a life lived in faith.

Does this mean we won’t sin? We won’t slip up? We won’t fall short? Of course not. It means that we are committed to getting back up and trying again and again and again.

Take a moment to picture a person who has inspired your faith.

Was this person perfect? Or were they a beautiful blend of sinner and saint?

Here these words of Paul from the Message Bible. Hold them close, let them sink in, let this be our prayer for all…

“I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!”
Let us live as the Saints (and sinners) we are called to be! Amen.


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