Monday, November 03, 2008

Saints: Human Beings Fully Alive

Practicing the Imitation of Christ:

If You Were Fully Alive What Would You Be?

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, November 2, 2008

Many people don’t want to be saints. And many saints never much wanted to be human beings. So thought George Orwell, British novelist and essayist of the last century. That doesn’t square with the lore of Episcopal All Saints celebrations and their accompanying theology. We sing with great gusto, “They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”

So what is going on here? There are several differing, if not conflicting, meanings of sainthood. First, there is that basic definition that comes straight out of the New Testament: the saints, “the holy ones” are all the People of God, without distinction. Then, there is the use of saint to denote a exemplar of Christian life. And finally, there is the sense in which a saint is one who has passed even beyond the level of model or example to become a miracle-worker. Clearly in that sense, or even in the second, not all of us are saints. Furthermore, one does not get to be a saint by “intending” to be one. Sainthood is a gift, not an achievement.

I would like to propose a different way of thinking about sainthood—not necessarily original, mind you, but different from any of those ways. I propose that we entertain the possibility that sainthood, or saintliness, is something that is indeed a gift but one which cannot be fully realized unless and until it is practiced. What would happen, for example, if we thought of sanctity or saintliness as a gift such as playing a musical instrument, or sewing, or designing, or playing basketball, or dancing? We might see, first, that there are all kinds of forms of saintliness—not just one kind. And we might come to understand that while saintliness starts off and ends up being a gift, still it is a gift which gets better and better the more we put effort into it, much as the gift of sewing or of dancing or of playing the flute improves—and becomes recognizably a talent—the more we practice.

Those of you who have followed my preaching since July (don’t break my heart and tell me you haven’t noticed!) will recognize the theme song: Christian practices. We have now looked up close at discernment, proclamation, creating community, repentance, stewardship, love of God and neighbor as practices that Christians do in living the Christian life. It is by no means an exhaustive list. Each of these practices involves specific actions that we take in order to cultivate one or more specific virtues. Today is the climax of the series, although hardly the end of the exploration of Christian practices. Sainthood—being a saint—and its chief identifying mark, saintliness or sanctity—is exactly what the Christian life is about. It is about that gift of God’s life, eternal life, that is given to each of us in our baptism, which we take and practice and practice and practice so that we may become artists of the holy. To say the same thing another way, sanctity is the key virtue that we are perfecting through living the Christian life.

Now if I were a seeker, as some of you are, who was by no means certain about all this Christian life stuff, I would start fidgeting about now. I would not be too sure that this sanctity business was for me. Like Billy Joel, I might be singing, “They say there's a heaven for those who will wait. Some say it's better, but I say it ain't. I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Sinners are much more fun...” Sanctity has an appeal, as Orwell suggested, to those who really aren’t much interested in being human. But how many of you would fall into that category? Am I marketing something here for which there is no real market? Sanctity? Saintliness?

Then there is a further objection that will be lobbed my way from those who are theologically astute. “Works, works, works!” they will shout. “He’s selling salvation by works. We know better. It only comes by faith.” All right, both of you have me. So let me deal with both of you, one at a time.

Second objection first. The whole process of being a saint is in fact about living out our faith. But, as much as Luther despised the Epistle of James as “right strawy,” still I think James had it right when he said faith without works is dead. So we’re not talking here about “winning salvation” or “going to heaven when we die” or any of that. We are talking about living out our faith, living out our relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way we do that is in concrete actions. Hold your horses while I answer the seekers.

Seekers, don’t be afraid of the concept of saintliness or sanctity. Because much to perhaps your surprise, it is not opposed to your being fully human. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the Early Church’s prominent theologians, wrote, “The Glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Bingo. That is a great definition of sainthood: a fully alive human being. The heart of holiness, the center of saintliness, is being authentic. How do we know that? Well, that brings us to the heart of the practice at hand.

And the practice is what I call the imitation of Christ. In the book by that title, Thomas a Kempis laid out some ideas, one of which was to distrust the human intellect. In all due respect, that is not what I am talking about. I am rather speaking of following the pattern of Jesus’ life as it is set forth in the gospels. His is at once the quintessential spirit-filled life and also the prime example of an authentic life. There is nothing phony or hokey about Jesus’ life. Thus, to “imitate” him means that we cannot be phony or hokey either. To follow what the Prayer Book calls “his example in all virtuous and godly living” is not to be cheap plastic imitations of Jesus but lives styled on the model of his.

Let me pause to say both a good word and a word of caution about the recently popular notion of WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” On the one hand, it is not a bad idea for Christians to ask, “What would Jesus do?” It might well expose much of what we are up to as quite hostile to Jesus’ way of life. War, environmental damage, and investing money quickly come to mind as things that seem quite foreign to Jesus’ life. And that is the word of caution. Trying to live as a first century Jew in the Roman Empire is not an option for many people on the planet today. WWJD? is a question that sometimes must honestly be answered, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

But there is in fact a series of actions in which the practice of the imitation of Christ consists. One could comprise lots of lists, some short and some long. I can’t think of a better one than the beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel which we hear today. They describe a series of steps that progressively lead to a practice of the kind of life that we see Jesus living on the pages of the gospels. Being “poor in spirit” describes that fundamental receptivity and openness to growth that is the opposite of pride and hunger for power. Being able to mourn may not sound like a gift, but in fact it is the capacity to feel genuine sorrow that is integral to being human. Showing mercy, hungering and thirsting after justice, the meekness exhibited in showing kindness and consideration, humility, purity and singleness of heart, making peace where there is discord: all of these are actions that accord with Jesus’ life. What is more they are possible for any human being. Not that they come naturally—that is the point: they have to be practiced!

Notice that the beatitudes end with a teaching about being persecuted. In Matthew’s day, as in our own, it is not infrequent that practicing the Christian life is a guaranteed way to make one quite unpopular with the surrounding crowd. Saints tend to irritate people, who generally experience them as cranky. That is why so few people get genuinely excited about being one. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. And, in some circumstances—running for public office comes to mind—there are occasions when one is apt to be thoroughly trashed, if not killed outright, for speaking unpopular truth. All Saints Day never lets us forget that a great many of our models and exemplars are those who have had their white robes washed in blood, so threatening was their witness to and against the established order. If you are not willing to run that kind of risk, then it is fair to ask if the Christian life is something you are very much interested in after all.

One of my favorite stories by one of my favorite authors is “The Great Stone Face,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The young boy Ernest learns from his mother the legend of the great stone face, cut by the elements into the side of a mountain that overlooks their valley. Some day a person will come to resemble the great stone face. Various ones apparently do, but disappointingly fail to portray some quality of the great face—its warmth, its smile, its honor. Ernest grows up and grows old, spending his life meditating on the great stone face until finally his fellow townspeople see that Ernest himself reflects the great face. In becoming himself, he has become the long-sought likeness of the face. Even then, Ernest continues to watch for someone greater still who would by and by appear, bearing a better resemblance to the Great Stone Face. That is a parable of what the practice of sainthood is like. We mediate and emulate and gaze upon Christ the model to such an extent that we begin, quite unconsciously, exhibiting the qualities of the one who is our model. Ironically, the better we do it, the less preoccupied we are with ourselves. It really is not about us, after all. It is about the Great God, the fountain of all being, whose life and love are what the saints practice and practice and practice till they are lost in wonder, love, and praise. In a sense, nothing is left but God alone. But in another sense, the glory of God is finally realized when, one by one, human persons become fully themselves, fully alive.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008