“The quests of life” - November 4, 2012
Pentecost 23, Year B All Saints
Readings: Ruth 1:1–18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11–14; Mark 12:28–34
“Oh, when the saints...go marchin’ in.” I remember belting this one out at day camp and camp fires as a youngster. “O Lord, I want to be in that number...” Later I heard about other times it is sung, specifically, New Orleans’ funerals, the ones with the band out in front of the mourners on the walk to and from the cemetery. On the way there, When the Saints is played slowly, as a dirge. On the way back to town, it is played fast, as a march, to lift people’s spirits, and to signal hope, confidence in a loving presence that gathers in the saints.
The song is a classic. I hope it is still being sung by groups of youngsters somewhere, at the top of their lungs. Because it’s important to think forward, so to speak, to imagine my place at some future time, and When the Saints gives us that chance. It doesn’t hurt that it has a catchy melody and that great syncopation. Will I be in the company of saints, or not? It is a way of imagining my life as a quest.
I’m no expert on capital S saints. I don’t know all their stories. I have a feeling no one puts down as their life goal to be a saint. Some people get started on a faithful activity, though, and before they know it, they’re up to their necks. All the way in. They can’t stop, even though for many saints, faithfulness has had a high cost. Often their very lives. The picture on our bulletin comes from a story called “How to Become a Saint in Ten Steps, in the Catholic Church, that is” by a Fr. James Martin on a web site called Beliefnet.
According to Martin, the first step rules out most of us, at least from becoming an official saint: being Catholic. The third step is not one we may want to happen soon: you have to die. Most of the later steps are a bit bureaucratic. It’s the second step in Fr. Martin’s article I like, after being Catholic and before dying. “Now comes the hard part,” he writes: “live a holy Christian life full of ‘heroic virtue.’ In other words, be a real Christian, and not just a person who says he's a Christian but doesn't act like one. Take the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of the Gospels for that matter) seriously. Be charitable, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Give generously to the poor. Devote your life to God even when it's hard—especially when it's hard....By the way,” he adds, “remember that your holiness is a gift from God. You can work hard at it, but ultimately it is a ‘grace’ or a ‘gift.’ Don't forget who is in charge. And it's not you.”
Heroic virtue. Holiness. It’s awkward to talk about them anywhere else but here in church. If I am trying to live a life of heroic virtue for the sake of the Good News, let’s say, I wreck what I’m trying to do, namely point beyond myself to another source of goodness, values, hope, love, if my own life becomes the subject of discussion. Now my ego is involved. And not in a good way. Swelling of the head and all that. We need Fr. Martin’s reminder that holiness is gift, that we’re not in charge.
But we can talk about holiness all day today, as we commemorate All Saints day last Thursday. We have to talk about it. You’re not here because the seats are so good, and the coffee so exotic, good though it is. There are better seats and fancier coffee elsewhere. You’re not here to impress the neighbours. Not because you don’t have other things to do.
You are aiming for heroic virtue, if you would admit it to yourself. You crave holiness in your quiet way. Not stained glass holiness, not high social standing, not widespread recognition for your goodness. True holiness. The gutsy kind. The get-it-done-no-matter-who-gets-the- credit kind. The shared tears and shared laughter kind. Blue jeans, not silk and satin. Hands in the dish water. Something keeps drawing you here, to this place and these people, sure, but to this quest. When hear the story of the guy talking about the greatest commandment, you perk up. The story is all about love–love of others, love of God, love of self. And that clicks for you.
The other night at our Wednesday evening service we contemplated two of the women with photographs on the wall in the Barbara Christie Room among a nice collection of women we remember. A candidate for a very high office got himself into some difficulty recently talking about binders full of women so we have to be careful not to say we have a wall of women. If you haven’t stopped recently, pause some time to remember the people pictured there. On Wednesday evening, we heard a little about Barbara Christie and Louise Scott from people who remembered their lives. What made them so admired? What personal qualities did they have? We don’t have a way of keeping track of spiritual heroes, either as congregations, or as the United Church.
Judging by the group gathered for evening worship, we’re not sure we need to. Maybe every generation needs its own heroes, not a big list preserved from generations gone by.
If Barbara and Louise and the others are saints for some of us, it is not because they can somehow help our prayers get to God’s ears in heaven. It’s because they inspire our lives here on earth. You may have heard the classic description of saints, supposedly from a child at story time at a church somewhere, some time. The person leading the children’s time was asking about saints and pointing out the images in the stained glass windows of that church. The child’s astute definition of a saint: a person the light shines through.
We all have people like that for us. People through whom light shines for us, showing us how much light there is, for one thing. And illuminating our world for another: shining light on what is most important and how to struggle for it. Nudging us. Making us wonder if we have our priorities right yet. Giving us a vision of something fine, something right, something good.
Our readings this morning talk about sacrifice, something of deep interest when we’re talking about holiness and virtue. In the gospel, an unnamed scribe agrees with Jesus that love God, love your neighbour is the most important commandment. How much so? “...much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” (Mk. 12:33) When I go to offer an animal as a sacrifice, I might have to scrimp and save to buy it, but the animal makes most of the sacrifice. On my behalf, somehow. This is such a crucial little window into the tension between the official religion of Jesus’ day, centred on the temple, and how rituals at temple in Jerusalem were supposed to bring one closer to God, contrasted with synagogue worship, where people gathered to hear the word read and prayers offered in local settings.
Then there is the letter to Hebrews. The intended audience of this anonymous letter were Jewish people who had joined the Jesus movement, and were now losing heart, some of them going back to Judaism. The author does an extended contrast of the two faiths, claiming Christianity is superior in every way. In chapter 9, sacrifice is the topic. Does anyone need to sacrifice goats and calves now that Jesus has shed his blood as the final, once-and-for-all sacrifice? No, says the author of the letter. Animal blood has limited capacity for purification. But contrast that with the blood of Jesus, offered “to purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:14) Too much talk about blood for many of us in a world that has managed to put many basic aspects of daily life out of sight. But theologically, this is a crucial issue. The author calls Jesus the new high priest. His readers would have in mind the Jewish high priest, and know about Levites and the practices at the temple. For people who grew up Jewish, it’s a good comparison. The writing is powerful.
But did Jesus think of himself in this way? Did he imagine becoming the sacrifice to end all sacrifices? Did he think of his blood as being important to his followers somehow, himself as the new, the actual, the real high priest? Both the letter to the Hebrews and the gospel of Mark are thought to come from around the time of the temple’s destruction. Hebrews perhaps just before the temple was destroyed by the Romans in what we call the year 70 of the Common Era, and Mark likely just after. Two important Christian texts, in other words, with very different understandings of how one gets closer to one’s true purpose, closer to God, closer to holiness. On the one hand, Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross has done it for you. On the other, your loving behaviour is involved, even if it leads to suffering.
In other words, these two scriptures are having an argument. People who had to decide what writings to include in the New Testament had a dilemma. They put them both in. In their opinion, both had something to offer to people in their day. We are always having to decide what our own testament is. So you have a decision. Not just today, but in your life of faith. Does suffering lead to holiness, or does holiness lead to suffering? Do they have to go together? Is baptism necessarily into a life of pain of one kind or another?
The mission statement of this congregation concludes with inspiring words about how we will do mission together, “with compassion, fun and laughter.” Are we kidding ourselves? What if fun and laughter are incompatible with compassion, or justice? Heaven help us if that’s true. Those words belong in our mission statement even if self-denial and love of God and other come with a cost. The most fun we can have with our clothes on comes from the sense that we are fully committed to a worthy cause. On a quest, together.
The quest for faithfulness, virtue, a world of respect and radical hospitality will outlast us all. We don’t know when the saints will go marchin’ in. We aren’t in a hurry to join that great cloud of witnesses, but when we do, what great company to be in.