Making Hamburger Out of Sacred Cows—Straight Talk on Saints and Saintliness
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
All Saints—Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Making Hamburger Out of Sacred Cows—Straight Talk on Saints and Saintliness
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear talk about saints and holiness, I start to get a little itchy. My preciousness detector starts registers off the charts and I’m filled with an almost insatiable urge to make hamburger out of sacred cows. A lot of my aversion comes, I’m quite certain, from a misunderstanding of what saintliness and holiness actually looks like. Especially in a culture as moralistic, perfectionistic and Puritanical as our own, it’s easy to think that saintliness and holiness are all about speaking in hushed tones, gliding across the floor with implacable calm, and plastering a beatific smile (professionally whitened, of course) across our faces. And indeed, if that’s what saintliness is, if that’s what holiness is, then let’s all go home and have a big old sacred cow barbeque right now. The last thing our image-obsessed celebrity culture needs is more people performing their image of saintliness and holiness.
The trouble with performing saintliness and holiness is that it’s something we do, rather than something God does in us. When saintliness and holiness become the self-improvement project to end all self-improvement projects (Oprah Winfrey elevated to the level of deity), what we end up with is people who are good, but not holy. As Evelyn Waugh writes of one his characters—“She is saintly, but not a saint.” The key difference, I think, between saintliness and being a saint, is their effect on those around them. Saintly people might be very devout, intense, and disciplined, but they make everyone around them feel depressed, inadequate, and like they never measure up. In their company we always seem to come up a day late and a dollar short—telling ourselves to try harder and get our act together.
Saints and holy people, however, have precisely the opposite effect. When we are in their presence, they make us feel better than we really are. Rather than being in a competition over who can take home the goodness trophy, saints enlarge our world, and show us who we really are beyond the cramped confines of our inherited stories. It’s not that saints make me feel like Popeye the Sailorman—"I ams what I ams.” In fact, in their presence I often feel even more acutely the need to turn around, repent, and begin again. Saints show me that even at my most compromised, and confused, God is willing to get down in the mud to work in and through my life to bring about something of Godself. God gets messy, because I’m messy, and that’s ok. Saints are those who know they are a mess, that their ducks will never all be in row, that they’ll never have it all together, and that God is big enough to work with us anyways. Saints show us, by opening themselves and their quirky, contradictory lives to the presence and action of God’s love, that our lives don’t have to be lived within the narrow strictures of the pat, the predictable, and nauseatingly precious. They point the way to freshness, adventure, and a playful wildness that is encounter with the Living God.
Saints are those transparent souls who point away from themselves to the goodness and extravagant gracefulness of God. When saintliness and holiness become a personal project they quickly become a measuring stick for determining who is successful and who’s not. We get people who are “good” at being holy and those who are “bad” at it. And like most measuring sticks, it gets turned into a Billy club pretty easily. Saints aren’t the “best” at playing the holiness game. Real holiness, comes from God as sheer gift, not through obsessive self-effort, and it is the saints who remind us of this truth. Saints are those who look at Jesus, inhabit the gospel stories and have had those stories open their eyes to world around them. Saints look at Jesus and make his life so much their own, that sometimes they even see with Jesus’ eyes—the eye of the heart, the eye of love, the eye in which there in no partiality, the eye of radical welcome and indiscriminate hospitality. Saints are people in whom God is living God’s life without them even knowing it and who would be appalled if you pointed it out.
And that’s why All Saints’ day is one of the four major feasts on which we baptize people. It’s a common misunderstanding, often reinforced in some religious traditions, that Christian baptism confers on us a special, privileged status that somehow marks us off from everyone else. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baptism does not separate us and make us somehow superior to the rest of the human race. That kind of separation is what we talked about earlier—those people who are saintly, but not saints. Those people who instead of enlarging our sense of God, the world, and ourselves, tend to make us feel like we are worthless schleps who should devote the rest of our lives to examining our shoelaces and leave the work of love to someone more worthy, the spiritually gifted, the religious olympians.
That kind of separation—holiness as being “set apart”—also runs counter to what we see in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of the one whom we pledge to follow—Jesus. Jesus goes to a machine of mass execution on the top of a garbage heap. He goes outside the city; he goes to the place where what is unwanted gets tossed away—both people and things. He goes to the place where there is the greatest suffering, pain, isolation, and humiliation. We are called to go to where it is most difficult in the name of Jesus who went where it was most difficult and to reveal that even there, even in the midst of pain, suffering, agony, dereliction, and shame, God is with us. We go to the places that scare us, make our stand, and open our lives to God. Love wins.
So baptism, while it is often associated with purity and cleansing—we’ve got pretty white towels, caterwauling babies bedecked in frilly white gowns, and nice candles—is actually a messy business. Far from securing privileged status that we can lord over others, or use to create divisions between insiders and outsiders, baptism places us in intimate solidarity with all of humanity and all of creation. In baptism we step into the very heart of the messy world and stand where Jesus stands. We might even say that baptism is a kind of contamination—a contamination of our hearts by the sufferings of the world. Where before we might have insulated ourselves against the cries of the broken-hearted, now, we pledge ourselves to hear the voices of the ones rendered silent, and to make visible those who have been made invisible.
And baptism, whether we are doing it today like these young folks, or remembering our baptism as we recite the Baptismal Covenant, is really a centripetal force. Rising from the waters (or having an acolyte daintily daub our dampened locks with a lacey towel), we hear through the din—be afraid, buy more stuff, you’re not good enough, smart enough, skinny enough, young enough—something different. It’s the song of the dove. The song of the Holy Spirt descending upon us and whispering in the ear of the heart—“You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. With you I am well-pleased.” In baptism, what we die to, what goes under the water and is washed away, is the power of those old stories to determine who we are. We rise from the waters a new creation—a person who lives from abundance and not scarcity, from love and not lack, from being created in the image and likeness of God and not the image of our family, our nation, our sports team, our bank account, or the logo on our sneakers.
It’s this identity, of knowing oneself to be a beloved child of God that sends us out to do the work God has given us to do. Like Jesus, we find ourselves going places we would never go before—to a nursing home to visit the sick, into the kitchen to cook a meal for a recent widower, looking into the eyes of a homeless person on the very steps of the church we enter every Sunday, but have never noticed before. Baptism makes the whole world our Church. Our altar is not a private devotional space cordoned off from the rest of the messy world. Our altar is in the world. Our altar is set squarely in the muck and the slime. The holy and ordinary are irrevocably tangled up in each other.
In our reading from Revelation, we have this beautiful image in the throne room with angels, and elders, and the four living creatures all falling on their faces and worshipping God. It’s an image of how holiness happens in us—we look to God and consent to God living God’s life in and through the lineaments of our lives. We make a little space for God to act, we utter our “yes”. If we let God be God and let God do God’s work in us (instead of turning holiness into another self-improvement project that we can take credit for) then there’s at least half a chance we might enlarge the lives of others, to help them know themselves as loved, and shed a different light on the landscape.
What’s interesting, though, is that later in Revelation (21:22) we hear that in the vision of the New Jerusalem there is no temple—“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” That seems curious, doesn’t it? In the New Jerusalem, where God is to be all in all, there is no temple? How could that be? It’s because when God is all in all, there is no inside and outside, holy and unholy, sacred and mundane—the whole city is a temple, the whole world is a temple at whose altar we worship the goodness and graciousness of the God who called us out of nothing, sustains us moment by moment, and leads us forward. Christ, as our baptismal covenant tells us, is in all people.
On this feast of All Saints, may we recall for ourselves those people who have enlarged our vision, shed a new light, and helped us to see things from a fresh perspective. May we give thanks for those lives that have helped us recognize that even in our brokenness, and our confusion, the humility of God seeks us out to bring about the Kingdom. Emerging from the waters of baptism may we see ourselves not as members of a private club, but servants of all, worshippers in a church without walls whose altar is set firmly, brazenly, scandalously at the heart of the world’s difficulties—on that garbage heap outside the city walls with a twisted tree on its top.