Winning, Losing, and Becoming Saints

Sermon on Luke 6:20-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

cubsIt finally happened. After 108 heartbreaking seasons, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. When the Cubs were last champions of baseball, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major geopolitical powers. The first Model Ts had just begun rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit. In the 108 years between Cub championships, Pluto was discovered and subsequently lost its planetary status. Even the venerable tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch didn’t begin until almost thirty years after the Cubs’ most recent title. In other words, it has been a very long time since the Cubs were winners.

Despite their long history as baseball’s loveable losers, the Cubs were actually favored to win it all since spring training. Between a potent offense, a lights out pitching staff, a savvy front office, and a sagacious coaching staff, Chicago was the team to beat this year. Indeed, they dominated the competition, winning 103 games during the regular season. Nevertheless, more than a few people considered the Cubs underdogs as they entered the postseason. Despite their dominance during the regular season, many wondered whether the Cubs could overcome their long history of losing. This is to be expected in baseball. The fact is that the worst teams win games from time to time; the best teams occasionally suffer a loss. As a result, baseball fans are required to be comfortable with failure. They can’t get too exercised about wins or losses. Baseball teaches its fans to take winning and losing in stride. More than any other sport, baseball recognizes that both winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

The Beatitudes in the gospel according to Luke provide a sharp contrast to their more famous cousins in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew records eight “blessed are” statements. Luke, on the other hand, balances four blessings with four corresponding woes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus declaims, but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, but woe to you who are full.” Luke’s point seems obvious: those in the first group are in good shape; those in the second group have work to do. To co opt the language of the day: those in the first group are saints; those in the second group, not so much.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. In his list of blessings and woes, Jesus uses the word “now” half the time. Moreover, there is a precise rhetorical symmetry between the blessings and the woes. Not only are there exactly four of each, they are set up in direct contradistinction to one another: blessed are you who are hungry now; woe to you who are full now; blessed are you who are weeping now; woe to you who are laughing now. While this temporal detail may not seem all that significant, it is actually the lens through which we are meant to read Luke’s Beatitudes. As we noticed a moment ago, our first inclination is to assume that each blessing and each woe describes an existential condition: there are those who are hungry and will remain hungry, and there are those who are full and will remain full. By adding the word “now,” however, Luke signals that these conditions are actually temporary: those who weep will someday laugh, while those who laugh will someday weep. These beatitudes, in other words, are not a catalog of who’s blessed and who’s cursed, who’s in and who’s out. When read together, they provide an honest description of the human condition. Jesus tells those who are listening that if they feel poor, they shouldn’t get down on themselves too much because a day will come when they will feel rich. Meanwhile, those who feel rich shouldn’t get too cocky because a day will come when they will feel poor. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus articulates what baseball fans understand implicitly: winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

Now if this is where Jesus concluded, Luke’s Beatitudes would not be terribly unique or all that earth shattering. In fact, they would fit very nicely into the traditions of Zen Buddhism, which encourages adherents not to get too excited about positive experiences or too depressed about negative ones. But Jesus doesn’t end with this this list. In fact, Jesus makes a crucial rhetorical turn. After describing how winning and losing are part of the human experience, he offers a corrective: “but I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus outlines the stark inevitabilities of the human condition, the weeping and laughing, the hunger and satisfaction, the winning and losing, and then shows us how to transcend them. To be frank, the way Jesus recommends transcending the endless cycle of winning and losing looks an awful lot like losing: loving your enemies? doing good to those who hate you? turning the other cheek? Jesus must think we’re a bunch of saps! Yet there is a crucial difference between losing because of circumstance, losing because someone got the best of you, and losing because you have chosen a different path altogether. That’s exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus invites us to live as though binary categories he describes don’t matter. Instead of being imprisoned by the uncertainties and vagaries of the human experience, Jesus encourages us to take control of our lives by surrendering control to God. Jesus calls us to transcend the binary categories of this world with a third way, a way that’s not about winning or losing, but is shaped by a profound sense that we belong to God no matter what.

This past Friday night, the 233rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Eucharist at the Cathedral. richard_hookerAmong many other things, we commemorated the life of Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who lived during the late 17th century. In the face of the bitter controversy between those English Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and those whose allegiance belonged to the Reformed theologies of Luther and Calvin, it was Hooker who conceived of the Anglican middle way, a sense that the Church of England could embrace both the catholic and reformed religion. Hooker believed the Anglican vision could transcend binary categories. In the words of the collect for his feast day, Hooker was given grace to “maintain the middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” This is the third way that Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel. This third way is not about splitting the difference or making the best of a bad situation. It is about transcending binary categories altogether. It is about lifting our hearts above the bitter controversy and tribal allegiances that are so destructive of our common life. Jesus calls us to reject and transcend every binary category: rich and poor, winner and loser, even life and death. The path to sainthood, (the path that Anna is embarking on this morning), the path that we are called to walk, is about recognizing that winning and losing do not matter and understanding the only thing that matters is that we belong to God.

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And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.

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.