a sermon offered to solcum union church and elkhart first united methodist church for all saint’s sunday, 2015. inspired by rev. nadia bolz-weber‘s newest book _accidental saints_ and the week’s lectionary texts.
mother teresa, or teresa of calcutta, the founder of the missionaries of charity who most famously starting the home for the dying in india. she not only lived among the poorest of the poor, but she held them, touched them and loved them when all of society had cast them out. she has been beatified by the catholic church, meaning that she is in the process of being officially sainted in recognition of her selfless and giving life responding to what she called “the call within a call” when she adopted indian citizenship and moved into the slums.
saint francis of assisi believed that nature was the mirror of god, referring to animals as his brothers and sisters, preaching to the birds. francis founded the franciscian and clare orders, groups of men and women–orders that remain faithful today, living in apostolic poverty and preaching repentance. st francis is the patron saint of animals and ecology.
saint teresa of avila, who is a doctor of the church (which means she has “an extensive body of writings which the church can recommend as an expression of the authentic and life-giving Catholic Tradition”, sought to reform the order she had joined–noticing that the daily life of the sisters was interrupted by outside visitors, the hours of prayer not kept and a general lax attitude toward their vows she pushed back, eventually beginning a reformed order and writing many didactic collections to further individual’s lives of faith. a mystic, a contemplative, teresa spent her life seeking to not only draw closer to god, but to journey with others as they did as well.
saint augustine, one of the most prolific writers of the early fathers, whose philosophical and theological thought has deeply influenced christian thought in both eastern and western traditions taught against heresy, and was committed to a life of poverty, prayer and study.
saint peter is said to have been the first pope-“upon this rock i shall build my church,” jesus said of peter. a disciple and an apostle who left everything he had to follow jesus, who continued to teach the ways of christ after jesus’ ascension and was martyred by crucifixion for persisting in teaching christianity.
these five saints of the church are responsible for countless hours of prayer and devotion to god. they are responsible for countless acts of generosity and kindness to strangers. each of them rebelled and pushed back on the institutions they were a part of in the name of seeking reform and deeper holiness. these men and women are just a few examples of those humans who have dwelt among us who sought to be christ-like–altering their lives and devoting themselves to poverty and prayer. we are right to call them saints.
in our church calendar today we take a break from this long season of post pentecost ordinary time to observe all saint’s day. as reverend nadia bolz-weber (a lutheran pastor in denver, colorado) writes in accidental saints, this is the day “when the church recognizes how thin the veil is between life and death and remembers that the church includes all who have gone before us and now are glorified and all whom will follow, who are yet to be born.”*
in the united states, our anglo-culture does not do publicly morn or remember those who have died unless they are in some way famous, if they have served in the armed forces or are a national hero. but the church liturgy asks us to do something sort of strange today. it asks us to remember the saints who have lived and died, and to learn from their lives.
we have a lot to learn from mother teresa, saint francis, saint teresa of avila, saint augustine, and saint peter. their good acts i listed a moment ago are only but a few in their lifetimes of dedicated service and piety.
well, sort of.
what if i told you that even the most holy of those five humans was still, in fact, human? and not just that but had an anger problem? or a drinking habit? how about if i told you one of them had a lying problem? a moment ago i quoted reverend nadia bolz-weber’s newest book called accidental saints. in that moment i failed to mention the subtitle of this book, it is “finding god in all the wrong people.”*
mother teresa “shouldn’t” be a saint! we learned after her death that she doubted her faith her whole life. not to mention she was pretty sharp with her words with the sisters she lived and worked with.
saint francis was a notorious hot-head, he “shouldn’t” be a saint! his brothers were building a house that he found to be too opulent so he climbed onto the roof and started tearing apart with his bare hands!
saint teresa of avila had the gift of snark, she is said, once when annoyed with her fellow sisters prayed aloud “from silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good lord deliver us!”
saint augustine left the church as a youth to pursue education and philosophy–he infamously stole pears and is quoted as praying “lord give me chastity, but not yet!” he “shouldn’t” be a saint, right?!
and dear saint peter, surely you know his faults? one of the most glaring is that he was a terrible lie-er! on the night of jesus’ crucifixion he was asked, three times, “you’re a friend of jesus, right?” and his response was basically, “WHO? ME?! NOPE. NEVER HEARD OF HIM.”
and these are the saints of our church, ladies and gentlemen. snarky, lying,unchaste, angry, doubting thieves. while the good works, the bruised knees from hours of prayer and lives of chosen poverty are, indeed, to be applauded it is not their work that makes them saints. a true saint does not say “i am a saint” but that title, rather, is conferred upon them. the title of saint is not earned–you cannot put in your ten thousand hours and become a saint. what the saints show us, these five famous saints as well as those we know and love and miss from own community, is how god works through us and our lives.
the apostle paul, in philippians 2:13 says, “god is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.” you cannot boot-straps your way to sainthood with good old american grit, a firm jaw and tenacity. these things don’t hurt–but in doing our part, but it is the grace of god through the holy spirit moving through these human hearts and minds and hands that turns these lying, cheating, alcoholic, angry humans into accidental saints.
i wonder if you know any accidental saints? those people who have happened into their circumstances and situations and and somehow help others along the way. like someone with a wee bit of a drinking problem managing to get sober and help others on their journey to sobriety, too, who are equally kind and hostile.*
anthony de mello, a jesuit priest and psychotherapist wrote and spoke on spirituality. in one of the speeches he gave he began by talking about receiving compliments, and how good they make us feel. when he would receive visitors where he lived in india they would comment on the lovely grounds, trees, weather and he would feel proud. they could comment on being disgusted with the poverty of the country and he would become upset. but then realized “i didn’t choose these grounds, i am not responsible for the trees or weather or even for the poverty of a country! how silly!” we rely deeply on compliments of things that aren’t really real, “what a lovely shirt!” “your house is beautiful!” “what a pretty costume!” but what did we do to earn these things? he said “i am going to write a book called ‘i’m okay and you’re okay’ and wont’ that be nice? but then i’m going to write a book called ‘i’m an ass, and you’re an ass.’ and isn’t that the truth?!”
to be able to acknowledge that we aren’t always nice or kind, that sometimes we say yes when we should say no and we say no when we should say yes, that we willingly choose to be jerks sometimes liberated from the false cycle of ‘i’m okay, you’re okay.’ and at the same time frees up space for acknowledging that in our imperfection god not only chooses to love us and work through us, but delights in doing so.
the ancient saints were all accidental saints.
the saints from our families and community we have lost this past year? also accidental saints. and i have news for you, friends, you are all accidental saints too.
even though sometimes you get angry and say things you regret, even though you cheated at dominos. you are an accidental saint, too, even though you ignored that call, even though you cut someone off in traffic and thought unkind thoughts about someone’s sweater choice.
you, dear friends, are accidental saints because you love each other. you love your families even when they make you want to pull your hair out. you are accidental saints because you go the extra mile, and then a marathon more for your neighbors in need. you are accidental saints because you continue to be a people upon whom god is continually working–a people on whom god is continually sending the holy spirit to comfort and to guide–even when we are mean, when we ignore one another, even when we gossip and bicker and hurt other people’s feelings.
you are an accidental saint if you like it or not, because you are made in god’s image and are loved deeply by our creator if you like it, or even know it or not.
my closing question to you today, is what will you do with that knowledge? will you rest on your laurels of being loved? or will you lean into that acceptance and accidental sainthood and deepen your love of neighbor? are you listening for the movement of the holy spirit? where is she trying to take you?
*quoted or paraphrased from _accidental saints: finding god in all the wrong people_ (i listened to the audiobook, therefore, no page numbers. guess you just have to read it yourself!)