The Qualities of the Saints
Sunday, November 6, 2022
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Grace and peace to you from Jesus, the one who makes us saints, whether we’re ready for it or not. Amen.
I’m not so sure many of us set a life goal of being a saint these days. At least not in the traditional sense. I haven’t heard of too many people renouncing all their wealth, performing miracles, or being martyred for their faith in Christ lately. Few, if any of us feel the need to be “holier than thou”, (thank God), let alone a saint. We’re Minnesotans after all, so maybe the best we seek to be is just “above average” as Garrison Keillor reminded us. Or if we’re not having a great day, the best we can hope to be is “not so bad” like my relatives up north would casually confess. But a saint, that’s too much.
But what if I told you that being a saint was a lot more like being “not so bad” than it was being spectacularly above average or “holier than thou”? What if being a saint is less about how we’re feeling or how we’re doing at any given time and so much more about what God does to you and with you? Would you believe me?
This weekend we remember all the saints. To be a saint is not to have all our stuff together. It’s not about presenting a perfected form of being human. To be a saint is to be baptized and to live as though that matters. Christ’s saints are ordinary people, who live the rollercoaster of the human experience, the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. Sounds like all our lives, right? Saints can be both selfless and selfish, greedy and giving, hopeful and hopeless. Because that is what it is to be human. What sets saints apart from the rest is that in the imperfection of being human, saints point others to the mercy, love, and redemption of God.
Frederick Buechner wrote about the saints this way, “On All Saints Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots and tosspots, and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some seedy sainthood of our own.”
Jesus makes room for all kinds of saints. In the gospel today, we see that some of those saints are who society more often pities or judges than blesses. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Jesus says. “Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you who suffer and are excluded because you put your trust in my upside-down kingdom ways.”
These blessings signal Jesus’ reorientation of the communion of saints. It’s not just the usual suspects of those who do good for others, or who stand out above the rest with altruism and grace. The communion of saints is a motley crew of characters who may or may not rise to society’s standards.
This is God’s great reversal, where God creates community that stands in stark contrast to conventional structures that we humans alone create. It’s what happens when God chooses mercy rather than punishment for sinners. It’s what happens when the humble are lifted up and the proud are humbled, when the lost, the least, and the left behind are offered the choicest place at the banquet. Jesus’ blessings make saints of these beloved of God because the ones among us who are poor, or hungry, or weep or are ridiculed or excluded have been stripped of any other security than to know their very existence hangs on God’s grace alone.
That is the central thread of being a saint, it is knowing and living as though your very existence hangs on God’s grace alone. Many of those in recovery know this better than most. It’s easier said than done though, right?
Those who have travelled to Tanzania or Guatemala, or another developing country where the plurality of society routinely are poor or hungry or who have much to grieve, you have witnessed these saints walk among you. You can see it in their open hospitality, their warm smiles, their patience, and curiosity, despite the conditions in which they live. They are not defined by what they lack, but cling to what has been so freely given by God.
Perhaps there are lessons for us in these encounters. To see saints among us, in our daily lives who are poor, or hungry, or weeping, or excluded. To see them for what they have, and not what they lack. Perhaps in looking for the blessings these saints among us carry, we may be saints too.
My guess is that there are probably more than a few of us sitting in here today that are wondering about the second part what Jesus says in this passage. I know I do. These woes cut a little close, don’t you think?
Jesus’ woes are not an outright rejection of those who have wealth and food, and security; but they are a warning. “Watch out!” Jesus says, because when you already have every material thing you need from day to day, when your bellies are full, when life seems to be going your way, it’s not nearly as easy to place your security and wellbeing in God’s grace alone. So, watch out. If the blessed saints aren’t focused on what they lack, the saints who are “woed” need not focus so much on what they…what we possess. Humanity’s real need is not more power or stuff, it’s belonging, wholeness, understanding, and love. As Luther said as he was near death, “we are all beggars”. Those who are blessed and those who are warned. And as beggars, we come to the same mercy seat to seek what we truly need.
The central thread of being a saint, is knowing and living as though your very existence hangs on God’s grace alone. Saints listen to the rhythms and ways of Jesus. We recognize Jesus’ true blessings and heed the warnings. Saints embody God’s great reversal. Prayer dismantles the power of enemies over us. We share without counting the cost so that all have enough. We build relationships on mutual respect and dignity for all God’s people, regardless of what society says about them. To be a saint is to be an ambassador for Christ’s vision of this kind of world.
Blessed are all you saints who put your trust in Jesus’ upside-down ways that lead to a world such as this. And blessed be the saints who have gone before us to show us this way. Amen.