“Celebrating the Saint in You” ~ A Reflection for All Saints Sunday
Matthew 23:1-12 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ November 1, 2020
This pandemic caused us all to make changes in our lifestyle, to make sacrifices in the best interest of the larger community in which we live. For me, one change has been time away from playing my beloved sport of hockey. I miss the friendships and comradery, and the occasional victory to be celebrated…all put on hold for the next while. And while there is a lot that I miss in gathering with this community, the ONE THING that I do not miss are the hockey parents that I would hear making disparaging comments toward their children. As we would arrive for our ice time, it would be commonplace to hear belittling comments thrown out from parents towards their child and the team. ‘What a terrible pass!…What were you thinking!…try harder!’. With each comment, I wondered about the shrinking self-esteem of the child on the ice. Never good enough…never fast enough…never who their parents wished them to be. I was always glad that us ‘old guys’ just gathered in an empty ice rink with no spectators, and just had fun!
I wonder if there is a risk that this same dynamic can be at play on All Saints Day. Here is my thinking: Now this feast in the church year is not always observed, such as Christmas or Easter, I think it is a significant one to touch one from time to time. And with it falling on a Sunday, it seemed especially timely this year. Historically, it lifts up our connection with the saints who have gone before us and is very powerful. It is an opportunity for us to lift up their witness, their faith. How God’s presence in them was lived out and how the risen Christ continues to be made known. Yet, the challenge with this day, quite frankly, is that we can be left feeling inadequate ~ less-than when we consider our lives in comparison to the saints of old. The danger, is just like those children in the ice rink, that we gather with our inner critic challenging all those areas where we wish we had been more faithful, more virtuous, more saintly. And certainly, the church has not helped this historically…has it? How many of us have heard too many sermons about how we are less-than, how we must change our ways, words that are more prescriptive than grace-filled. So, I wanted to shine some light at the very beginning on this challenge. To put aside, any tendency for us to feel less-than or inadequate. In fact, what I want to do, is for us to gather and consider the saint that resides in each of us!
Yes! You heard me right. The saint in you…I wish I could take credit for this concept of ‘the saint in you’, but I must credit this all the way to Paul’s writings in the Bible. So often we think that a saint is one who must go through a devout and sacrificial life, perhaps endure a painful death in order to be beatified as a saint. But long before the church began designing such rigorous standards that would lift some up as saints and devalue others as sinners, there was a very different understanding of a saint. Paul names a saint as a believer; a saint is a follower; a saint is one who lives out the Way of Jesus. Paul writes in Romans: “To all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints…” (1:7) In Corinthians: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling…”(1 Cor 1:2). Paul uses this similar title in Colossians, and Ephesians, and Philippians. To read through the stories of the early church is to read the stories of the saints…those who followed Jesus. There is that wonderful modern saying that ‘I know I’m special because God doesn’t make junk.’ And so, as we gather on this All Saints Sunday, we gather celebrating our connection with the saints. The saints who have gone before us. AND the saint who resides within us!
Looking at the Gospel text that was prescribed for this week, I became very intrigued with how compatible it was for this All Saints Sunday. There is an initial note of caution with the misuse of this text that needs to be named at the outset. Whenever we deal with Matthew’s gospel, it is important to bear in mind that Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish community with the challenge of creating further inclusion for the Gentiles (the non-Jews) to be equally included. As Jesus raises concern with the scribes and the Pharisees, we must not hear this as a wholesale condemnation of the entire Jewish community. These words are not anti-semitic words from Jesus. His concern here is with the practice of what is being preached. Jesus does not have a concern with the scribes’ and Pharisees’ teaching. His concern is with the practice this lacking. Those who are being called out in this text were the ones who were adopting a rigid clericalism rather than other faithfully practicing Jewish movements such as Hillel or Shammai. We talked earlier about the phylacteries being bound around their arms and head. Jesus’ concern is for those who were doing things entirely for show, rather than humbly living the servant way of God. And so, the first portion of the reading is where Jesus raises concerns: not practicing what is being preached; a piety that seeks the approval of others rather seeking the glorification of God; a general lust for social recognition and honour, rather than God’s.
So, what is Jesus’ prescription to living our saintly identity? As we move towards the later portion of the text, Jesus lays it out. It is not about the esteemed titles that we are given: “rabbi”, “father” or “instructor”, or whatever they may be today. Jesus teaches the saintly identity is one of humble service. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus teaches what he had been modelling all along ~ the way of humble servant leadership. The one who would teach us the dignity and human worth in the blind beggar, in the outcast divorced woman, in the leper, in the sinner, in all who society counts as last and least. Here Jesus succinctly teaches the way to our sainhood: humble servanthood. The one who will invite us later in this service to table to break bread for the journey and share the wine of the kingdom, will first serve us: inviting us to table ~ our humble host, the one who will wash our feet as a servant would. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” And what makes this text even the more poignant is that Jesus offers this teaching on his final journey towards the cross. Here in the 23rd chapter, one of Jesus’ final teachings before the penultimate teaching that will be offered upon the cross. Jesus teaches the way of his followers, the way of his saints, the way of servant leadership!
So many great teachers have lifted this up for us: before Jesus’ time and for the two millenia following. Aristotle writing about 3 centuries prior to Jesus spoke about one’s character as being the first prerequisite for life. If you want to make a difference in the lives of others, your character is the first prerequisite. Paul would be among the first to espouse this teaching into the church in a reading that we lift up at many a wedding day: “If I speak in the tongues of morals and angels and do not have love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. It comes down to our character, to the ways we live, to the ways we humbly live out our faith following Jesus. The best leaders, the best parents, the best Christians ALL humbly serve; ALL lead by example. The world does not need more cowboys that are all hat and no cattle; the world doesn’t need more people who write cheques with their mouth that their bank accounts can’t cash. The world needs more saints…more humble servants…Jesus’ world needs YOU to be the saint that you have been born to be.
If we had the luxury of a weekend retreat to explore this theme (wouldn’t that be a wonderful experience), I would bring into this conversation a powerful book by theologian Henri Nouwen: The Wounded Healer. Nouwen names the unique revolutionary nature of Jesus as one who did not offer an ideology in his teaching, that would have made him an extremist. What Jesus offered was…himself. Humble servant leadership is what he offered and what he calls of us in our lives as saintly followers. The way you express your sainthood is entirely different than how the next person will! Nouwen powerfully writes about how we might follow Jesus: “When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your own life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many forms in which [one] can be a Christian.”
The world needs YOU to be the saint that you were born to be. To be your full authentic self. Living a life of humble service in the way you are uniquely gifted and called. Let us celebrate the saint inside by revealing that saint today and always.