The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
What makes someone a saint? It’s actually not a straightforward question. When most people think of saints, they think of someone who is perfect: not a spiritual hair out of place, floating about thinking deep thoughts, halo firmly affixed atop their golden locks, eyes perpetually cast upward, sexless and bloodless, a kind of religious Barbie doll—and I am not talking about the movie. It is easier to maintain such notions when we talk about people who lived—or who are rumored to have lived—hundreds of years ago, before, you know, photography, much less diaries, letters, newspapers, magazines, and now Instagram, none of which can be controlled by religious authorities to sanitize someone’s life if you are willing to believe your own eyes. But especially when we can glean more information that’s not in the official religious bios of saints of God, we see the picture is much less clear. Basically, the understanding now is this: “If someone appears to be too good to be true, they are.” I will admit I was sad when, a few years ago, one of the most popular saints, St. Christopher, was acknowledged by the Church to probably not have ever existed and so he remains a saint, but in symbolism more than reality—and the same goes for St. George, dragon-slaying patron saint of England. Ouch. St. Anthony really appears on most people’s lips when only we’ve lost something—I admit it, I’ve done it too. Thinking that saints have to be perfect gets in the way of being able to relate to them, since we are ourselves not perfect. St. Francis could be judgmental, abrupt and rude. St. John the Baptist probably smelled like old goats and had a talent for ticking people off. St. Paul was so insufferable that we STILL find him insufferable much of the time, and that's a real talent. St. Joan of Arc definitely refused to stay in her place as a peasant girl, and was burned at the stake by a French cardinal who was not only a traitor to the French cause but was angry about her wearing men’s clothes, among other things. St. Mary Magdalene remains in some places the subject of a smear campaign that claims she was a prostitute partly due combining two feet washing stories in two different gospels, but also more because her prominent place among Jesus’s closest disciples interferes with the entirely false claim that Jesus only called men as apostles. And closer to our time, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, we now know, experienced a prolonged period of feeling disconnected from God even as she working tirelessly among the most desperate of the poor and ill in Calcutta. In the Episcopal Church, which has a much less formalized process for assigning formal saintly status, even we sometimes admit we got it wrong, such as when we voted in 2022 to remove Sewanee dean and theologian William Porcher Dubose from our Calendar of Saints. The Rev. Dubose, although a inspirational teacher who emphasized the power of God’s love in his theology, was also a Confederate officer and chaplain, and vocal proponent of both slavery and the Klan even after the war. Those three things eventually led to a reconsideration of whether he deserved such memorializing. Actually, here in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, we use the term saint in a pretty broad way- there are “capital S” saints that we inherited from Rome, mostly, and “lower case s” saints who are acclaimed as pathfinders while not being expected to spout blood from their wrists, feet, and sides. We hardly expect them to be perfect, but that bears repeating especially on feasts such as All Saints’ Day. We acknowledge that saints should be inspiring—but also should be real people in order to actually BE inspiring. And even better—ANYONE can be a saint, especially if you redefine your understanding of miracles from things that violate the laws of physics to simply things that violate the selfishness, ugliness, contempt, and cruelty that predominates too much of our existence right now. Our gospel reading today provides us with some suggestions for the way of saintliness in a more practical vein. The passage of Matthew’s gospel we just heard is from his Sermon on the Mount, and its name at least is one that many people have heard before: The Beatitudes. The name comes from the first two words of each of these sayings in Latin, beati sunt, which means “Blessed are.” In the original language that Jesus spoke, however, they are in the same pattern as the very first verse of the Book of Psalms, which in some translations starts “Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly.” The word for “blessed” and the word for “happy” is the same word in Hebrew, the original language of the Psalms, as we discussed last week. So, if you knew that, but had never actually read this passage before, you might think that the Beatitudes are about happiness, right? About being blessed by God. Not so fast. While the specific things that are listed that makes one blessed are certainly counterintuitive. Note the conditions that Jesus says can lead to someone being blessed: being poor, being hungry, weeping, being hated and treated hatefully on account of your faith, as we just heard. Who here thinks any of those things, on the surface, sound like happiness? But if someone acts to recognize those situations in another person’s life, and resolves to do something about it, that’s when they act as a saint. Someone who acts with the healing compassion of Jesus—that’s when they act as a saint. The Beatitudes encompass the greatest lesson in the lives of the saints, and that lesson is this: those who are content with things just as they are usually have no understanding of how their own fortune may insulate them from the suffering of others. Just because a system work for you, does not mean that the system works for everyone. And saintly people are willing to look beyond themselves to consider EVERYONE’s flourishing, not just their own. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls us to one-ness with each other. Jesus calls us to renounce calculations of giving based on fear, calculations of giving to each other that in the end don’t cost us too much, whether that’s in money or attention or time. Instead, we are called to expand our circle of well-being to include everyone, to have the kind of love for each other that sees that peace can only exist where we all support each other. That love can only exist where generosity and empathy rule. The Beatitudes remind us that we have responsibilities to each other, and that those responsibilities are actually blessings. This fits in beautifully with our observation of Native American Heritage Month. In Native spirituality, there is the concept of the Medicine Wheel, or the Sacred Circle. It is meant to imply completion, wholeness, balance, and unity—kind of similar to the Hebrew word shalom. But the ideas of interconnectedness and mutual obligation and compassion are at the root of the Sacred Circle. It is also at the center of the lives of the truly inspiring saints of God. That’s the kind of life real saints embody for us. Being a saint is about living by the baptismal covenant that we will repeat together in a few moments. But if you want another way of looking at the baptismal covenant, try this: Look at those eight statements Jesus makes in our gospel. Now add at the end of each one this phrase: “With my help and advocacy.” 3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… with my help and advocacy. 4"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted… with my help and advocacy.
5"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… with my help and advocacy. 6"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… with my help and advocacy. 7"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy… with my help and advocacy. 8"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God… with my help and advocacy. 9"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God… with my help and advocacy. 10"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… with my help and advocacy. Saints live a beautitude- and baptismal covenant-shaped life. The gift of the Beatitude-shaped life is the gift of acknowledging our own need for others, our own need for God. To be standing in the need of mercy and receive it is to be blessed. To be standing with others helping you stand when you can’t go on is to be blessed—and then to return the favor is even MORE blessed. Being a saint is not about being perfect. Being a saint is about realizing, each day, that YOU are the only hands, feet, and heart Jesus has on earth right now, and to use any opportunity you can not only not to place more burdens on someone’s back, or ignore the burdens on someone’s back, but to relieve the burden on someone’s back. Even if that comes from biting back an angry remark or giving someone grace when they screw up. Being a saint begins in a moment, in an hour, in a day where you work to be a part of the solution rather than ragging on and on about how you are not being served. Saints realize God is active and performing miracles every day among us in this world—but that WE are the instruments God uses to make those miracles real and visible. And what do saints get out of this deal? Saints live a beautitude- and baptismal covenant-shaped life—and the most amazing thing happens—they live a happier and more blessed lives themselves, filled with purpose and meaning. In our hymnal, this theological attitude towards saints is summed up in the third verse of a hymn that is popular for this day, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, hymn # 293. After extolling saints who were doctors, and queens, and priests, the third verse turns toward the realistic, and the hope that is for us all:
They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still; the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.
As we look at our hurting, bleeding world, at needs both great and small from wars and cataclysms to schoolyard bullying, one thing becomes clear: the world needs more saints. Lots and lots of them. And Jesus calls us not to be just observers, but doers.
So when it comes to saints, realize that being one is within everyone’s reach, starting with one act of compassion or kindness at a time. Whe it comes to saints, we best celebrate them when we decided that we will be one too.
Image: Detail of the dancing Saints mural at St. Gregory of Nysa Episcopal Church, San Francisco