Scripture for this Sunday: Matthew 23: 1-12
Perhaps it is because I spend a good deal of time reading and writing, but words fascinate me. What I find fascinating is the way that meaning of words and the emphasis that words have is completely contextual. We see this with scripture translation all of the time. The way that a scripture is translated effectively means the same thing, but the words used are different. This means that the emphasis is different and the way that it is understood can be slightly different. It also interest me that different words mean different things to different people. Some words carry a lot of baggage and it requires getting through all of that to understand what is meant. As we worship and celebrate All Saints day, I think the word saint is one of those words that has a lot of baggage associated with it. What exactly is a saint-other than a football team from New Orleans of course? For some the word saint has a negative connotation. A saint is someone who is “holier-than-thou”, who exist on a plane of goodness that mere mortals like us can never hope to achieve. Perhaps you have heard someone express that “they are no saint” before. For many Christians across the world, the word saint has a much more specific meaning. For Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and some Lutherans saints are very specific people who have been venerated for their faith. In the Catholic Church for instance, there is a very long process for sainthood, which has multiple steps. Take a look:
On November 23rd of this year, the Catholic Church is going to canonize two new saints: Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Euphrasia Eluvathingal. To give a sense for how long this process takes, Kurakose Elias Chavara died in 1871 and the initial process to declare him a saint did not start until 1955. Given that strict set of guidelines, very few of us would ever qualify as a saint!
On all saints day we recognize a different understanding of saint. In our Wesleyan tradition we believe that there is a process of sanctification. This idea is that once we experience God’s saving love, once we receive forgiveness for sins, and once we acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our life, then we also realize that we cannot keep living a life apart from God. Sanctification is the church-sounding word that means we have a lifelong faith journey to become more Christ like. On all Saints Day we recognize those who have done that. We recognize those who have lived a faithful life in Christ and now in death dwell with Christ in paradise. While I mean no disrespect to my Catholic and Orthodox family in Christ, I have a slightly different understanding of a saint. The saints of the church are those who are going onto Christian perfection. They are those who actively seek to be more Christ like. They are the faithful believers who daily strive to love God with their whole being and love their neighbor as themselves. We know that we are all sinners, but I believe that we can all be saints as well. This morning’s scripture gives us part of the picture of what it means for us to live like saints.
In much of this morning’s scripture Jesus teaches using a negative example. Jesus holds the teachers of the law and the Pharisees up as an example of what NOT to do. Unfortunately, we did not learn too well from this lesson because much of what Jesus lists as what not to do, still sounds familiar. There are two things that Jesus lifts up from the examples of the Pharisees that we should not do. These things could be considered the opposite of saintly behavior. First in verse 4, Jesus states that “they tie up heavy cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” As you are probably too well aware, one of the greatest stereotypes of Christians is that we are morality police. Too many people feel like churches are places of judgment, not places of love. Churches should not set formal, or as more often is the case informal, guidelines that have to be met in order to be accepted. This what Jesus meant by they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Living a saintly life does require holiness in living, but this does not mean we set a standard and look down on those, make comments about, or give disapproving glances to people who do not meet our standards. Saintly living means we love people as they are and where they are. We come alongside them, care for them, love them, and help them live more Godly by being a consistent, Godly example.
The second example from Jesus that we should not do comes from verse 5: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” I heard a story about a Methodist Church in Indiana from decades ago. It was a small town church in a poorer area. Often, the church struggled to meet its annual budget. In this town the only real factory was owned by two brothers, and every Christmas Eve one of the brothers would loudly ask the preacher how short the church was this year. When the offering plate was passed, he would wait until the plate was to be handed to him. In big gestures he would get out his checkbook. This paused the whole service as everyone watched him write his check. Every year, it would then be announced at the January ad council meeting that the church met its budget for the previous year, and everyone knew why. There is no reason why this rich factory owner could not quietly give that money throughout the year, we all know there is a specific reason for doing it this way: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” Going to church must be more about seeing who is there and being seen. Our faith is not measured by how good we look in the eyes of other people, our faith is measured in a heart humbly bowed before God. Having a superficial faith that is all about being seen doing the right things with the right people, is not saintly living.
After offering up the negative examples, Jesus flatly states what we should do instead: “The greatest of you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I still think that C.S. Lewis has the best definition of being humble. He wrote: “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less.” Being saint means putting others first, it means serving others in a loving manner. Being a saint means not seeking glory or recognition, but living faithfully to what God would have us to do. I do not know about you, but I am so thankful to have been blessed by knowing a lot of saints. The saints I have known are not the Catholic variety that have performed great miracles, have statues in cathedrals, and feast days. No, the people I have known are more like dime store saints, a plainer, less glamorous, utilitarian version; Yet these saints have made all the difference in the world.
On this all saints day, I remember those saints whose quiet and faithful living, made a profound impact on my life. I remember Louise Lambert. They taught the children’s Sunday school class for decades at Milan United Methodist Church. I remember the way that every week she was there to faithfully teach bible stories to a handful of rambunctious children. She demonstrated that you do not have to be a theologian to teach the bible. You just need to love Jesus and love people, or in her case children. I am thankful because I still remember the stories she taught me, and I am thankful for the example of long term service that she faithfully modeled. I remember Ron Hubbard, my Sunday school teacher from when I was in middle school. We were a particularly difficult group of young teens to deal with, and getting a teacher to stick with us was challenging. That is what he did though. He was not afraid to deviate from the curriculum, and he taught me that faith is not something to be memorized and recited. Our faith is something to wrestle with, it is something to ask questions of. He taught me that if our faith is worth hanging onto, then it should be worth asking big, hard questions about it. I am thankful because that was an important, foundational lesson that I needed in my own faith journey. I remember Ray Wiseman, my friend in high school. When I was my furthest away from God, he was a faithful witness in my life. Even though just a high school student himself, he tried to model this morning’s scripture by living humbly and putting God first in everything. He demonstrated to me what real faith looked like, lived out in everyday life. I am thankful, for that witness that stood in sharp contrast to my own selfish living. I am thankful for my parents, who, even when I did not want to go, ensured I was always at children’s choir, Sunday morning worship, vacation bible school, Sunday school, and youth group because they knew how important worship and intentional faith development are. I am thankful for the other Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, vacation bible school volunteers, Christian peers, and the entire great cloud of witnesses whose names and faces I cannot even recall who cared enough about me to share, in some small way, the gospel of Christ.
None of them were perfect people, every single person I mentioned has their flaws as well as their own personal demons, but they are saints-every last one of them. They are redeemed people of God, who are striving to live as Christ like as possible. That too, should describe us. We are imperfect people, but by the grace of God we should be getting a little closer to Christian perfection every day. We are not yet the people God wants us to be, but thank God we are not the people we used to be. This means, that we too, should be saints. Just as we have had saints be powerful influences in our lives, we should be the same for someone else. Now, often we do not really get to know the impact that we make, but every now and then we are blessed to hear the rest of the story.
Michael Engleman was the poster child of the kid who is hard to love. He was loud, foul mouthed, and impulsive. He never listened, always interrupted, and tended to break things. He was also one of the handful of kids who was part of the first youth group that I led right after graduating college. More than once, on a Sunday night I felt like an entire youth group had been a waste because he caused such a distraction. Still, it was my job to love him, and I did that the only way I knew how. We played video games. A lot of video games. I do not know if that worked or if he just matured some, but he did begin to calm down at youth group. I was only at that church for a couple of years before moving to Indianapolis. Several years later after Michael graduated high school, he tracked down my phone number and called me. He called to tell me thank you. He had fully dedicated his life to God and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior during that time. He called to tell me, that if it was not for me being there in his life. If I did not spend so much time showing him just how much I cared, if I did not show him what it meant to love like Christ, then he may never have become a Christian. I am so humbled and thankful that God saw fit to use me to make a difference in the life of someone else. I pray though, that I will continually have that opportunity throughout my life.
As we conclude today, I have some questions for you. Who are the saints in your life? Who are the people who faithfully modeled what it means to be more Christ like? How did they do that?
Second group of questions, who are you being a saint for? Who are you faithfully modeling what it means to be more Christ like for, and how are you doing that? I do not know about you, but when the saints come marching in, I want to be one of them. I want to be faithful to what Jesus said and be a servant to others. I want to love God with all of my being, and I want to live a life where I become more Christ like. What about you? We all know people in our lives who need Jesus, who need extra love, and who need someone to show them compassion. We all know people who need saints in their lives. We may not be able to perform miracles, and we are not venerated for our heroic faith. That is OK, the people God has put in our lives, will just have to settle for getting the dime store variety of saints, they will have to settle for us.
May you follow the example of Jesus and not of the Pharisees. May your faith be about humbly serving others, loving God, and being more Christ like. In doing so, may you be a saint. To the family of Edinburgh UMC, Saints of Jesus Christ, may you allow yourselves to be used by the Holy Spirit to make an eternal difference in the lives others. May God bless this holy endeavor. Amen.