Someone the Light Shines Through

Back in the bad old days, there was a dismal little mill town where just about everything was owned by two miserly old brothers who were not interested in much of anything except making money.  They owned the mill where the people worked, they owned the houses the workers lived in, they owned the only store in town, in fact the only thing that the brothers did not own in that town was the church.  

The pastor of the church was a good-hearted man, and it troubled him deeply to see the people of his parish struggling to survive on their meager wages, so he frequently sent letters to the two miserly old brothers asking them to use their wealth to improve the life of their workers, the people of the town.

Now it happened that one of the brothers died and the pastor was summoned to the brothers’ mansion to plan for the funeral.  As he sat down across from the surviving brother, he noticed that the old penny-pincher had a pile of letters neatly stacked in front of him.  The old man laid his hand on the stack of letters, looked the pastor in the eye and said, “Pastor, I’ll give the town everything you ever asked for in these letters if you’ll say in my brother’s eulogy that he was a saint.”  

Now the pastor was a very truthful man, and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to do this, but the needs of the town were great and the old miser had offered him a way to meet those needs.  So on the day of the funeral, the pastor stood up in the pulpit, prayed silently for a moment, then said, “The man in this casket was a miserly skinflint, a greedy, mean-spirited thief who cheated his workers out of what they were owed so he could line his own pockets.  He was, all-in-all, a miserable excuse for a human being…  But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

On this All Saints Sunday, it seems appropriate to take a moment not just to remember the saints who have gone before us, but to think about what it is to be a saint.

A little girl went to church with her grandparents one Sunday in a big, old, stone church with lots of beautiful stained glass windows.  The little girl asked her grandmother, “Who are all those people in the windows?  “Oh, those are saints,” said her grandmother.  “There’s Saint Teresa, and Saint Mary, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint John…”  When she got home she told her mom and dad all about the beautiful windows with all the saints in grandma and grandpa’s church.  Her dad, curious about how much she understood, asked her, “What is a saint?”  She thought for a minute then replied, “A saint is somebody the light shines through.”

I think that’s the best definition of a saint that I’ve ever heard:  A saint is someone the light shines through.

Someone delving through the archives of the town of Milford, Connecticut discovered the minutes from a town meeting in 1640.  Among the other items of town business, this was recorded for posterity: “Voted that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; Voted that the earth is given to the Saints; Voted that we are the Saints.”

I’m not sure how the people of Milford understood it in 1640, but there is a lot of truth in what they were saying.  We are the saints.  Or at least we’re supposed to be.  We are called to be the people the light shines through.  That, at least, is how St. Paul used the term. 

When he addressed his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome he wrote, “To all who are in Rome, loved by God and called to be saints…”  His letter to the Jesus followers in Corinth begins in a similar way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”  His greeting to the Philippians is only slightly different: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I really love the way Eugene Peterson translated the opening of 1 Corinthians in The Message Bible: “I send this letter to you in God’s church at Corinth, Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”

It makes a lot of sense to me to think of saints as people who are being “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”  

The Greek word for “saints” is hagiois.  It literally means “the holy ones” or “sacred ones,” persons who are consecrated and dedicated to serving God.   In the early church, saints weren’t just people who were particularly pious or “saintly” or canonized by the church.  The saints included all the followers of Jesus, everyone who was dedicated to living in the Way of Jesus and in the beloved community.  You don’t have to read very far in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to realize that those “saints” were still very much in the process of being “cleaned up by Jesus. ” But Paul still regarded them as saints—a people set apart to show the world what the kin-dom of God could look like.

Saints are people who are awake to, or at least awakening to the love of God, so they try to live a “Christian” life—a life of integrity with the teaching of Jesus, a life glowing with the love that flows from Christ, a life of compassion consistent with the compassion of Jesus—in short, saints are people who are trying to live a life of deep relationship with Jesus.  And with each other.

“The Christian life,” wrote Marcus Borg, “is about a relationship with God that transforms us into more compassionate beings. The God of love and justice is the God of relationship and transformation. . . . The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true — that God loves us already — and then beginning to live in this relationship.  It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God. 

“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge.  It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later.  It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now.  Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”[1]  

Saints are people who are learning to open their hearts.  

Saints are people who understand that life and love are bigger than what we see.   It’s tempting to think of the company of saints, the communion of saints as our own little church, especially if we spend a lot of our time and energy focused on the life of our congregation with all its joys and challenges.  But it’s also important to remember that the Church of Jesus Christ, the Community of Faith, the Company of Saints is bigger than we can see.  It’s important to remember that it has outposts in surprising places and manifests itself in surprising ways, that it stretches across time and space in ways that go far beyond our doors, beyond our local streets, beyond our county, state and nation.  It goes beyond our time and connects us to all the saints who have gone before us and all who will come after.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great Cloud of Witnesses.  We profess in the creed that we believe in the Communion of Saints.  In a way that transcends both our vision and our understanding, those who have gone before us gather with us around the bread and the cup.

Stop and think for a moment of those who surround you this morning… the people who are present with you today in your heart and mind, who are present in faith…

In The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“How they do live on… and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. 

“ Who knows what ‘the communion of saints’ means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us. 

In my last year of seminary, I had a profound mystical experience of the Communion of Saints.  I was attending Easter morning worship at a little Lutheran Church in Oakland that had been rebuilt in 1907 after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I found myself thinking of all the generations of people who had been part of that community of faith over the years.  I imagined them singing old, familiar hymns, clothed in their austere Sunday Best during the years of the Great Depression.  I imagined soldiers and sailors in uniform during World War II.  I imagined kids in bell-bottoms and beads during the ‘60s.  In my imagination I could see them all, clothed in the style of their times, singing the Easter hymns decade after decade.  As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice all the older people who sat alone, and I was suddenly struck that each of them had someone beside them—someone invisible to the sight of the eyes, but not to the sight of their hearts.  I had a powerful sense that the saints from all those eras were gathered around the altar and in the sparsely filled pews.  When I got back to my seminary apartment, I wrote a poem while the experience was still fresh in my mind.

Easter in a Dying Church (1996)

They come because they have always come…

and on this day of days, 

not to pass through the beckoning door,

not to let their careful footsteps drum

old echoes from the wooden floor

would deny the pattern of their ways

and all the times that they have come before.

They sit where they have always sat…

each in the customary pew, 

with room enough for all, 

even for the visiting few  

who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices

singing Alleluia in memories so loud;

room enough for those who do not recall 

the passings, the accidents, the choices 

which have thickened the witnessing cloud

and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts

surrounded by their holy ghosts.

They come to meet where they have always met…

to taste the wine with a beloved friend

who has faded from sight 

but still shares the cup in the world without end,

to break bread with the cherished spouse

who, though swallowed by the light,

still prays beside each member of this house,

to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers, 

cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,

in soul or body distanced from their common place—

yet present in this sacred space.

They come to be seen with the unseen…

to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:

that before and beyond here and now

the empty tomb 

leaves a hole in all assumptions.

May we all continue to be cleaned up by Jesus.  May we all become people the light shines through until that day comes when we become completely transparent in the great cloud of witnesses.

May we be saints…for the sake of the kin-dom of God.

[1] The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg

Saint Don of Long Beach

Matthew 5:1-12

My sense of time is out of sync.  With Covid messing up all our internal clocks and scrambling our routines, Summer didn’t so much fade into Fall as crash land into it.  Halloween just didn’t feel like the big seasonal transition point that it has been in past years, and after seeing everyone in masks for nine months it lost a bit of its punch.  Still, this is where we are in the calendar, so it’s probably best for all our psyches if we acknowledge the season and move forward.

Since Halloween and Reformation Day happen at the same time—you do remember that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on All Hallows Eve in 1517, right?—I always used to suggest to my confirmation students that they should dress for Halloween as great characters from the Reformation.  You know, Martin or Katie Luther, Phillip Melancthon, Duke Frederick the Wise, Father Staupitz, Cardinal Cajetan, Pope Leo X….  For some reason none of the kids ever did it.  

Did you dress up for Halloween?  Did you put on a costume or a disguise?  I think we should stretch the All Hallows fun for a while.  I was thinking a kind of masquerade might be fun.  It might even help to take some of the anxiety out of election day.  

I think we should all pretend to be Saints.  Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate All Saints Day?   And the best part is, you don’t have to wear a costume or make yourself look different in any way.  You would need to wear a mask if you go out in public.  Because that’s what a saint would do. To protect others.  But other than that, you could just look like you.  Because if you’re a disciple of Jesus—if you’re someone who is really trying hard to listen closely to Jesus and live the way he calls us to live—you are a saint.

Somewhere along the way in the last two thousand years we got the idea that saints have to be dead—that saints are particularly holy persons who have performed miracles both before and after death.  Somewhere we got the idea that to be a saint you have to be people put through a rigorous certification process by the Roman church. 

Well, those people definitely are saints.  They deserve our respect, and any number of them can serve as good examples of how to live a saintly life.  But when St. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in Phillipi or Corinth or Rome he wasn’t talking about people who had been canonized by an official process that didn’t yet exist.  And he certainly wasn’t talking to people who were dead.  The word he used, the word we translate as “saints” was hagiois.  It means those who are consecrated or dedicated to following Jesus and serving the community of the faithful.  It was Paul’s way of referring to all those who had been baptized.

So, if you’ve been baptized—consecrated to Christ—you are a saint.

So see!  No costume! 

Except there kind of is.  A costume.  Of sorts.

It’s a very subtle disguise we wear, we saints.  So subtle that most never see it.

Our costume, our masquerade, is that we actually live in a different world, a different reality, than everyone else, a world that is in, with, and under, and around, and through, and over the world everyone else is living in.  We who are saints are called to live in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not some future reality that we may accomplish someday.  Well, it is that, but it’s also a present reality that we can be living into right now. 

The kingdom of heaven is not some abstract life after life.  It is not some mythical place with pearly gates and golden slippers and halos and harps.  It’s not fluffy clouds and angels.

The kingdom of heaven occurs when people take the words of Jesus to heart and live into them.  Here.  Now.  Always.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the contrast between heaven and earth as something that isn’t as binary as spiritual versus physical or now versus later.   Heaven is, quite simply, where God’s will is done.  Heaven is where God rules rather than where “the kings of the earth” hold sway. Heaven is the place God is constructing and inviting us to enter. Now.  Not in some indefinite future.  Not after death.  Now.

Heaven is both present and future, since God is both present and future.  God’s kingdom is not yet fully established “on earth as it is in heaven,” but we are invited to live into it now and to help make it more fully a reality.  The thing is, though, even though we are saints we need instructions on how to do that.  Fortunately, Jesus gives us those instructions.  

The Sermon on the Mount is, as Amy-Jill Levine describes it, “the beginner’s guide to the kingdom of heaven,”[1] and the Beatitudes which we see in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:1-12) are the first lesson in that guide.  This is the lesson where the saints learn how to see, because living in this other reality, the kingdom of heaven that’s layered over the world of everybody else, requires a special kind of vision.  

The first thing we need to learn to see is who are the blessed ones.  We need to learn to see this because common wisdom tells us that the blessed ones in this world are the rich, the powerful, the well-connected—the people who know where are all the strings are and how to pull them.  The blessed ones, according to common wisdom, are the healthy, the well-fed, the well-housed, the well thought-of, and the well-off –those for whom everything is going pretty darn well.  

Jesus would quibble.  Those folk may or may not be blessed.  Certainly they are fortunate.  But blessed, as Jesus is using it here, is different.  Blessed means God sees them.  Blessed means God takes note of them.  Blessed means God is on their side and in their corner.  

So who are the blessed?  

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  I’ve always struggled with understanding exactly who “the poor in spirit” are, with what exactly that phrase really means.  One understanding has said that the poor in spirit are those who struggle with or are weak in their faith.  Maybe, but that has never felt quite right to me.  Another definition says the poor in spirit are simply those who are not being conceited or prideful.  That might be closer, but it’s not quite there.

Amy-Jill Levine defines the poor in spirit as “those who recognize that they are both the beneficiaries of the help of others and part of a system in which they are to pay it forward and help those whom they can.  Poor in spirit are those who do not sit around saying ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished,’ or worse, feel resentful because they have not received what they consider sufficient honor.  They know they did the right thing; they know God knows, and that’s sufficient recognition indeed.”[2]

The poor in spirit see their privilege.  They are aware of their interdependence.  They see the gap between what they have and what others do not have and they have a vision of leveling the field.  The poor in spirit feel empathy for those who do not have what they have and that spurs them to generosity. They are blessed because they have that insight, that vision of the kin-dom, an understanding of their common humanity with others. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

Let’s back up for a moment to our definition of blessed.  The Greek word here is makarioi. It literally means the blessed ones but in most of our translations it becomes blessed are.  But it’s still a tricky word.  Makarios, the root word, can mean happy, fortunate, free from care, favored.  It can also mean a gift bestowed.   None of those definitions seem to go with “those who mourn.”

As I noted a moment ago, Jesus is using the term blessed a little differently.  Remember, this is lesson one in entering into the kingdom of heaven.  This is learning to see how God is present and at work in our lives, even in the excruciatingly painful moments.  Even when we mourn. 

Death is painful.  Death is real.  And the Bible takes death seriously.  The scriptures do not diminish mourning with platitudes.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  The disciples mourn for Jesus.

So where is the blessing for those who mourn?

“In part those who mourn are blessed because not everyone can mourn.  To mourn is to say, ‘I loved this person, and I desperately miss this person’—a heart that knows how to grieve is a heart that know how to love,” writes Amy-Jill Levine.[3]

Being able to mourn also means taking time to mourn.  Our culture is so uncomfortable with loss and grief that we tend to want to rush through it and diminish it.  We say the most inane things to each other instead of acknowledging the loss and listening with open hearts and open arms or simply sitting in silence.

Blessed are those who mourn because they take time to mourn.  Blessed are those who mourn because God stands with the brokenhearted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Meek does not mean insignificant.  It does not mean being a doormat.  The Greek word that’s used here is praus. It’s the same word that’s used to describe a wild animal that’s been tamed.  A tame lion is still a lion.  It might be more helpful to think in terms of gentle.  Blessed are the gentle.  Blessed are the nonviolent.  Blessed are those with great authority who do not lord it over others.  Blessed are those who model servant leadership rather than despotism.  Blessed are those who do not use their power for exploitation.  They shall inherit the earth.

To inherit the earth is not a windfall.  It is a responsibility.  Creation is handed into your care and stewardship.  It is something to be treasured and tended and cared for.  It is an inheritance to be passed along to bless future generations.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, righteousness is one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Righteousness is also one of the hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven.  In Greek, the word is dikaiosyne. It’s a compound word combining dike, justice, and syne, together.  It means to be just together or to create justice together.   Righteousness affects the whole community.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who want to live in a just and fair world where laws and economics and opportunities are applied evenly and fairly to everyone regardless of their station or standing in life.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They will be filled because their hunger and thirst will move them to address the inequities and inequalities of the world one by one as they encounter them.  Their lives will always have purpose and they will know that they are doing good as the prophet Micah described it: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

And so the list goes on—the beginner’s guide for entering the kingdom of heaven.  We keep learning– learning to see life through the blessed eyes of the merciful and the pure of heart, learning to be peacemakers.  Learning to endure persecution if we must.  Learning to live in this other reality that is in, with, and under the day-to-day world.  Learning to live into the kingdom of heaven.  Learning to be saints.

And yes, this is All Saints Day, the day we pause to remember the saints who have gone before us.  Saints like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.  But also we remember our local, everyday saints.  Saints like St. Mike and St. Marion and St. Don of Long Beach.  This is the day we stop to remember how they were blessed, and how they blessed us.

This is a day to remember that, now and always, we are blessed.

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven; Abingdon, 2020; xiii

[2] Ibid, 8

[3] Ibid;12