Friday, November 08, 2013
How to Be a Saint
Although the landscape of North American literature is not quite as littered by self-help materials as it may have been in recent years, the “How To” and the “Idiot’s Guide To” Just About Anything You Never Wanted to Know, are still out there. In fact I would say that our general orientation has been slightly skewed to include looking for a step by step guide instead of thinking critically and problem solving.
Perhaps that is nothing new. The words of Habakkuk were written in a time when people wanted to know how and why they were experiencing misfortune. They wanted to know how God could be involved in it, or to at least be given a reason why God wasn’t. And God tells Habakkuk to write the vision.
“Write the vision? You don’t know what the vision is? All right. Wait for it…it’ll come.” That’s what the Lord tells Habakkuk. In the verses that follow, there is a bit more detail describing the people as selfish and contemptible. Is that the vision God wants written so large that passing cars can’t help but see it? I hope not, because I think that would look something like, “YOU STINK!”
It kind of reminds me of an inside joke in one of the youth groups I used to lead. It was a tight group and there was a healthy practice of moderating behaviors between peers. Confession was offered regularly, as there is always tension in small, close fellowships. Forgiveness was also offered regularly, and sometimes it was given with the phrase, “Yeah, you really stink at being a Christian.” The obvious implication is that being a Christian isn’t about being good enough at certain behaviors and attitudes – it’s about recognizing those times when we fail and knowing that God is going to use them to help us know how deeply we are loved.
I think that’s a vision we can embrace and write large enough for passing cars to see. I often think about that when I pass the church. What do people think about when they see our columns? What do we want them to think? What does God want them to think? A little over a year ago the Session adopted a vision statement, and we started the conversation by talking about what we might put on a bumper sticker that could tell others what we are in essence. Since then we have been printing and stating that this is ‘a place to experience, express, and explore the love of God’ – and most of the time that is true.
I say most of the time, but not because I think there are times that we stink at being Christians – although if we are being honest, I am sure all of us have those times. I say most of the time because the reality of the gospel is that it must be lived. And so this, on our good days, is a place to experience, explore, and express the love of God – but you’ll notice the Session, as spiritual leaders open to God’s wisdom, did not say it is “the” place.
The church is a place of spiritual rebirth. It is a place to try, and to work out, ways to be in relationships that become places of transformation – even when they hurt. It is also the place that sets patterns for behaving in other relationships. So, in a way, it doesn’t really matter what sign we put on the building. What matters is the way we demonstrate the vision of faith we have received.
Imagine what it might be like, just for a moment, if every time you introduced yourself to someone new you added, “a member of First Presbyterian Church” after your name. Imagine what it would be like to have a button on your shirt that said, “Follower of Jesus.” I’m not suggesting that you need to do these things. But I am raising the question of proclamation.
I believe that is the point of the beatitudes of Jesus. He gives us three states of blessing: hungry, weeping in sadness, and rejected. He gives us three states of regret: rich, full, laughing. On the surface these seem a little backwards. Even if we think of it in terms of an eternal vision, no one really wants the blessings being offered here.
The deeper reality is that Jesus is telling us that our lives are an opportunity for proclamation. In hunger we are more aware of God’s providence. In sadness we are more aware of the depth of the love that is gone, and when we are rejected for the sake of loving we prove the need for love all the more clearly. When we are rich we can only spend what we have in this lifetime. When our bellies are full our hearts and minds will still yearn for fulfillment. And when we laugh, we receive the reward and lose it the moment the laughter stops.
And so today is a day to consider how our lives proclaim the vision God has given us. Today is a day to consider those who have gone before you and paved the way. Today is a day to consider how to be a Saint. Although the Roman Catholic Christian tradition began to venerate certain people as Saints as early as the first century, our Reformed tradition emphasizes the Biblical use of the term as a description of particular communities of believers. Paul writes to and talks about “the saints” in Jerusalem, Rome and Philippi. And the Greek word he uses simply means, “holy ones.”
Holy means separate, unique in all the world, and set apart. Could that be you? It sounds intimidating. It sounds impossible. It sounds like something claimed by those who think a bit much of themselves. Yet the point of the baptismal font is to say that God has claimed you even before you knew of your need for grace. God has claimed you and set you on a path of constant renewal. If a vision of constant renewal seems too impossible, just wait for it. You’ll see it soon enough.
Whether you believe in that vision or not, God believes in you. And God has sanctified you (made holy) by offering the sacraments (sacred making) of the church, because the church is the body of Christ – and we are individually members of it!
Let us resolve, then, to understand our hunger and pain as opportunities to proclaim God’s active presence. Let us resolve to think of our wealth, our appetites, and even our earthly experiences of joy to be fleeting and pale next to the knowledge that God gives us power.
God gives us the power to be defined by love without expectation. God gives us the power to recognize that sometimes we stink at being Christians, but always God is good at being God. And God gives us the immeasurable richness of knowing that through our participation as a community of forgiven sinners – through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ – we will not only have eternal life, but we will one day hug the necks and kiss the cheeks of those saintly souls that helped to guide us and have gone on before us.
Until then, we still have a vision to write – a vision to express in the character of our relationships – and we need to find a way to write it as large as we can. Suddenly I am reminded of a scene in the movie “Liar, Liar.” Jim Carrey is a lawyer who is cursed with the inability to lie. He takes a blue pen and tries to write, “This pen is red” on a piece of paper. He ends up in a wrestling match on the floor resulting in the hand with the pen attacking him and writing, “This pen is blue” all over his face.
And that’s where we are – wrestling with a gospel that we want to come out in some other way, and ending with the truth written all across our faces. That truth is that God’s love transforms the way we see ourselves. It transforms the way we see others. God’s love even uses our brokenness to move us – and those to whom we are given – into something beyond wholeness – even into holiness.
So, how do you become a saint? It’s as simple as accepting the common unity of other believers. It is as hard as letting go of the expectations of others in favor of the love of God. It’s not something you can do or claim for yourself. My bet is that, even if you sometimes stink at being a Christian, God is yet sanctifying you, and transforming you, and loving you into sainthood – right here, and right now. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.