Note: I preached a version of this sermon on November 3, 2013, the observance of the solemnity of All Saints, on the Proper 26C readings for that Sunday, at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Earlier this year I was reading an article in the National Catholic Register that was lamenting one particular numbers problem in the church today. Now we live in a numbers-driven world—sales numbers, ratings, click-throughs and follows, whatever you do there’s probably a number or two or thirty that you need to have in mind.
And while you may be surprised to hear this, the church is not any different. How many are in worship, how many are giving and how much, what is the membership, what are the trends. But this writer, a guy named Matthew Warner, suggested a different number to chase:
“How many saints is your parish creating?” Mr. Warner asks. “That is the ultimate metric.”
And for whatever it’s worth, I think he’s right. But as I thought about it this week, I realized that this author never said explicitly what he thinks makes a saint. If I were in charge of Messiah’s sainthood development program, how would I know one when I see one? What are the characteristics of a saint? And how do we know they are genuine and not pious frauds?
This is a genuine question in my mind. I love the saints. I love reading about them, I love preaching on them, I love hearing their words and trying to learn from their example. I will even ask them to pray with me from time to time. But I’m most comfortable with those saints who are safely in the past, whose sanctity has been acknowledged by Christians for a long time and whose flaws–many of them shocking–are pretty well understood.
But what about us? How are we to recognize a saint so that we may admire and learn from him or her in our own time? That’s why I emailed the congregation asking for your ideas of what a saint is. And the question I asked specifically was to complete this statement: “A saint is someone who ____” I want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts with me on this.
Now there are a couple of different ways to think about saints. I’m going to break them down really simply. The first kind of saint is a “Don’t Saint.” If you grew up in a certain kind of church, you would be familiar with the Don’t Saint. The Don’t Saints are saints because they refrain from things:
They don’t drink, smoke, dance, gamble, or work on Sundays. If you grew up Catholic you probably heard about saints who didn’t marry or sleep or eat. St. Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, ate only the bread of the eucharist for a long time (she died young, which is the ultimate way to avoid sin). But I’m not mocking her example. She was a very young woman, but she had the moral authority to write letters demanding reform and calling the pope and the bishops to account.
Who grew up with this picture of sainthood? It’s an old and strong kind of sainthood, the Don’t Saint. It’s there in the Bible, without any doubt, though the Bible writers are not concerned with drinking, smoking, and dancing. But Bible saints, often as not, were those who don’t take bribes, or oppress the widow and orphan, or offer sacrifices to the wicked gods of their world.
Sainthood, for the Don’t Saint, is about what you avoid. And this is not wrong. Ancient Israel was surrounded by hostile people and hostile gods, and you wanted to keep clear of them. In fact, if they hadn’t been at least a little effective at keeping clear of them, there would never have been a Jesus or a Christian movement at all. The early church was surrounded by a pagan culture that was always pulling people back into itself. Even our fathers and mothers in faith were surrounded by vast amounts of alcoholism and gambling and prostitution and understandably wanted us to value other things. They wanted us to be educated and build the world and do things that are hard to do when everyone is hammered by noon. “Keep the commandment without spot or blame” St. Paul writes to Timothy, which sums up this view pretty well.
The other kind of saint is the Do Saint. Now the Do Saint is a different figure from the Don’t Saint. The Do Saint doesn’t try to keep out of the world’s mess; she embraces it. And interestingly enough, this is where all of you who wrote in seemed to land. A saint is someone who…:
uplifts God with their life.
helps the less fortunate and thinks of others
puts up with me on a daily basis.
loves the Lord, lives with the Lord, Has joy in the Lord (and shows this all the time.), laughs in the Lord and with others,
believes in God but is willing to share his/her beliefs with others………. and is successful in doing so.
seeks the will of God and then lives their life in a way that will bring glory to God
The Do Saint goes out, hand to hand with a hurting world, and serves, works, listens, seeks, loves, and puts up with everything that comes her way. These are the people Jesus when he says “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Or “when I was hungry, you fed me.” These are our Mother Theresas and our Martin Luther King Jrs, those who try to mend the world’s wounds.
Now we’re more likely to talk about sainthood this way than in the way of talking about playing cards and so on. I certainly am. But both are true. One of the things I love about Martin Luther’s Catechism is that he finds in each of the Ten Commandments both a “don’t” and a “do”: Don’t murder or harm your neighbor, but rather do come to his aid and help him in all of life’s needs. We are called to be both: to refrain from those things that damage our walk with God and our charity toward each other, and to affirmatively reach out and tend this world.
But there’s a deeper level to sainthood–something behind both the Don’t and the Do, the No and the Yes. And that brings me to the story in today’s Gospel, the story of Zacchaeus.
Now Zacchaeus lives in Jericho and he wishes to see Jesus as he passes through town. And as the story begins he has two strikes against him: He is a big tax collector–that is, someone who had purchased the right to collect Roman tolls and subcontracted that task out to several other people, taking his share (or more) of the revenues. Tax collectors (or publicans) were not popular in the Roman world, including in Palestine, because they were often corrupt and because no one has ever liked paying tolls. And more than that, Zacchaeus is rich. Now we admire rich people in our world, but in Luke’s Gospel the rich are usually the bad guys. Think of the rich man and Lazarus, think of Mary singing that the hungry will be fed while the rich are sent away empty.
Zacchaeus, like most folks in Luke’s Gospel, is eager to see Jesus. But the crowd is too great and he can’t get a good view, so he runs ahead and climbs a tree, which even then was not the most dignified behavior. Our translation says he was short, but that’s not the best reading of the Greek. It could also be translated that he is “young.” So not only is he a hated public official and a rich man, but he’s not even an elder in the community. But yet Zacchaeus is the one in the tree. And he is the one Jesus calls to and the one Jesus asks for shelter for the night. And Zacchaeus not only says yes, he makes haste–people called by God are making haste a lot in Luke’s Gospel–and he is happy to welcome Jesus into his home.
Zacchaeus is not a great Don’t Saint, because his neighbors say he’s a sinner. And he’s maybe a Junior-Varsity Do Saint, since he is giving away a good chunk of his income and promising to make reparations to those he has wronged.
But rather he is what I am going to call a Jesus Saint. He’s not a saint because of anything he did or didn’t do, but because he is the one Jesus called. One of you wrote to me that a saint is someone who is a child of God, and that is so, so right. Zacchaeus, the young guy, the rich man, the sinner, is a child of Abraham and a child of God and therefore a saint. He is holy and precious in the sight of God. Sometimes a saint is someone who happens to be in the way. Who happens to be in the tree. Who sees Jesus and is seen by Jesus.
That is the trick to sainthood. It’s not in what you do. It’s not in what you don’t do. It’s in what is done for you. One of you wrote that a saint is someone we look up to as an example of Jesus here on earth, and that gets to it. We look up to the saints. A saint is one who is called by Christ and remembered in the Body of Christ. The saint doesn’t seek any glory for himself. Zacchaeus didn’t walk around the rest of the day trumpeting this moment. I can almost promise you that. But the saint receives glory anyway. It’s the glory to which we are called and the glory we are promised—those of us who have heard his voice and have answered in whatever way we knew how, and will be remembered in the end by God. Amen.