Sainthood

Today is the day the Church commemorates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.

imagesOn one level, it makes perfect sense to take time during the liturgical year to celebrate St. Michael.  Like many saints, Michael demonstrates considerable devotion to God’s will during the course of his prominent, albeit fleeting, appearance in Holy Scripture.  On another level, however, the inclusion of Michael in the calendar of the saints is downright bizarre.  After all, St. Michael is an angel, a heavenly being appointed by God to carry a message or accomplish a specific task.  “Saint” is a designation that seems as though it should be reserved for human beings who are particularly attuned to God’s will for creation.  Sainthood implies a certain moral fortitude and a capacity for doing good and obeying God’s will even in the face of overwhelming difficulty.  Angels don’t have a choice about doing God’s will; they are created to do so.  Moreover, saints are generally held up as moral exemplars, people who share our struggles but show us that it is possible to persevere even we experience the limits of our human finitude.  It is all but impossible for us to pattern our lives after angelic beings specifically created to be messengers of God.

This confusion about Michael’s presence on the calendar of our saints raises a broader question about our understanding of sainthood.  While I gave a definition of “saint” in the previous paragraph, the reality is that the Church has never been settled on what a saint really is.  The word comes from the Greek hagios, which literally means “holy,” i.e. set apart for God’s purposes.  In the early days of Christianity, therefore, the term was applied to everyone who had been baptized into the body of Christ, since the Church was set apart from the world.  The Church was, quite literally, the community of the saints.  As the Church grew, however, “saint” was applied more specifically to individuals whom the community considered particularly holy and worthy of emulation, like those who had been martyred.  Gradually, the Church began to regard these individuals as fundamentally different from everyone else.  If you think about it, this notion that a saint is a different kind of person persists today.  Most frequently, “saint” is applied to someone who is preternaturally well-behaved or long-suffering: “her husband is so hard to deal with; she’s a saint!”  Given this popular assumption that saints are different from you and me, the inclusion of Michael makes perfect sense; what could be more different from a mere mortal than an ageless and deathless divine messenger?

I wonder, however, whether we are missing the point when it comes to sainthood.  All of the definitions that we’ve explored assume that saints are special because of something that they have done, whether that is dying for their faith or tolerating a boorish husband.  But what if sainthood is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does?  What if the holiness of saints has less to do with their good behavior and more to do with their ability to be in touch with the boundless grace of God?  If you think about it, there is no way you could apply the conventional definition of “saint” to some of the Church’s most celebrated holy people.  St. Paul, for instance, was a judgmental, misanthropic persecutor of the Church and St. Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus.  What these two pillars of the Church had in common was that they each had an experience in which they came to know the radical and transformative power of God’s grace.  The saints are saints not because they are fundamentally different from normal human beings, but because they reflect and radiate the grace of God that is available to each and every one of us.  Ultimately, Michael the Archangel is a saint because his example helps us to remember that God’s grace is more boundless than we can possibly imagine.

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Bearing Fruit

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree.  Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly.  Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground.  imagesUnfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels.  Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away.  This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them.  Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.

It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears.  We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways.  My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful.  I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating.  By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.

Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators.  His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.
Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators. His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.

Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me.  In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy.  In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son.  It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable.  Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral.  Fables, however, are very different from parables.  While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives.  Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave.  Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable?  He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”  Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers.  Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted.  “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking.  But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority?  Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance.  As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.

imgresThough Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange.  Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit.  And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again.  For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come.  Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.”  So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry.  Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders.  He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God.  This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders.  The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity.  Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear.  Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority.  And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.

Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual.  Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God.  And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair.  Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair.  Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love.  In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.

Witnesses

imagesToday is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates the martyrdom of Constance and her companions.  Constance was the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, TN, an order founded in conjunction with that city’s Cathedral and a parochial girl’s school.  The Church, however, commemorates her life not for her academic or liturgical pursuits, but for her response to tragedy.

In 1878, Memphis was ravaged by Yellow Fever, the third such outbreak in ten years.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was located at the epicenter of the epidemic, and while tens of thousands of people fled the city to escape the disease, Constance and her companions remained behind to care for the sick and give comfort to the dying.  All but two of the workers succumbed to Yellow Fever and died.  They are now remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis” and have memorials dedicated to them at Elmwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of Constance and her companions is John 12:24-28, a passage that is appointed for the feast days of several other martyrs.  The words of this passage are familiar: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  When read in the context of martyrdom, the interpretation of this verse seems obvious: if you are faced with the possibility of dying for your faith, you should take it, because the reward will be eternal life.  This is, however, a rather simplistic and probably erroneous way to read the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.  For John, “eternal life” refers not primarily to “life in heaven” or even “life after death,” but rather to “the eternal kind of life,” a life shaped by an awareness of eternity.  Jesus is saying that if we cling to the notion that our life, that our happiness, that our comfort is the most important thing in the world, than we will lose our ability to focus on the larger realities of life.  If, on the other hand, we realize that we are called to give of ourselves, to “lose” our lives for others, then we can live a life that is shaped by an awareness of eternity.

fever-elmwood-marker_smallThe word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and it occurs to me that this is precisely what Constance and her companions did.  Even as a community was ravaged by disease, these martyrs stood by the beds of those who were suffering and bore witness to their humanity.  These martyrs stood in a makeshift hospital and bore witness to the fact that God was present in that place.  These martyrs stood by the beds of the dying and bore witness to the fact that they were loved.

And in this sense, we can all be martyrs.  As our brothers and sisters in poverty struggle to make ends meet, we can bear witness to their humanity.  As war and disease  ravage parts of this world, we can bear witness to the presence of God among us.  As we come face to face with those who have been rejected by society, we can bear witness to the fact that they are loved.  When we bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live an eternal kind of life as we lose ourselves in service to others.

Breaking the Rules

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

rachel_mcadams_mean_girls_20080813_02In 2004, Paramount Pictures released Mean Girls, a comedy about the perils of attending high school during the first decade of the new millennium.  Starring Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid headline, Mean Girls is, in many ways, a typically trite teen comedy; the protagonist succumbs to the temptations of cliques and cattiness only to realize that the coolest thing she can be is herself.  What sets Mean Girls apart from other films in its genre is the writing.  The movie is endlessly quotable, and nowhere is this truer than the scene in which Lohan’s character eats lunch with the popular clique known as “the Plastics” for the very first time.  One of the other girls, Gretchen, explains the rules that members of this clique must follow: Plastics wear pink on Wednesdays, Plastics can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, Plastics can only wear ponytails once a week, Plastics can only wear jeans or track pants on Friday.  After reciting this litany of requirements, Gretchen warns about the consequences of violation: “If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.”  This scene is meant to show the audience the superficiality of the Plastics; the ludicrousness of excluding someone from a group for wearing sweatpants is supposed to make us laugh.  And yet, if we’re honest, every group establishes rules that members must follow in order to remain part of the community.  Establishing such rules is a way of ensuring that the community can function properly, a way of reducing conflict, a way of understanding who we are.

We see an example of a set of such rules in our gospel reading for today.  These rules deal with the management of interpersonal conflict among the group of first-century Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  Now, Matthew’s was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted.  With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable.  As we all know, it is difficult for a community to function when members are clashing with one another.  There are a variety of different strategies that leaders use to deal with this kind of conflict.  As the leader of a church community, Matthew, like the Plastics, seems to assume that those who persistently and unrepentantly disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community, though he is concerned with offenses more significant than not wearing pink on Wednesday.  The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, our Lord spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it.  If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him.  If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Jesus, in other words, seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful.  Far from the pettiness of a high school clique, this whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community.  Not only that, excommunication requires a rigorous due process: the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right before they are shunned by the church.  In Matthew’s community, people are not excommunicated for light and transient causes.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

There’s a level at which I think we can really understand this.  We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community.  There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, who piggybacks on other people’s successes and shifts blame when he is at fault.  There’s the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships and somehow manages to make every gathering a symposium on her personal problems.  There’s the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him.  Often, these people will continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg.  It seems that Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues.  In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can live and work in harmony.

But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, this seems like a fairly definitive condemnation.  After all, for a Jewish audience, Gentiles and tax collectors are among the most hated people in first-century Palestine.  Labeling someone as a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel.  But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles.  Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Chapel-window Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoins the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.”  Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there is always an opportunity for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors to be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s body.

Who are the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives?  Who have we excluded because of their repeated failure to meet our expectations?  Is it the lazy coworker, the selfish friend, or the shameful family member?  Or is it someone else?  Have we excluded ourselves because we believe that what we have done cannot be forgiven?  The gospel calls us to look within ourselves, to discern who we are excluding from our lives, and to reach out to those people and open ourselves to the possibility of reconciliation.  We may not get anywhere, we may be rejected for our efforts, but we worship a God who reached out to us while we were still sinners, while we were rejecting God.  We are called to be persistent, to remember that Christ does not willingly exclude anyone from the fellowship of his body, to live our lives deeply aware of how inclusive God’s love really is.