Sermon November 2: How Not to Be a Saint

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Faith United Methodist Church

November 2, 2014

All Saints Sunday

Rev. Krista Beth Atwood

Scripture: Matthew 23:1-12

Prayer of Illumination:        

Faithful God, as your Word is proclaimed, we pray for purity of heart, mind and action. Through the gift of your message, breathe your Spirit within our lives, in the name of the one who came to embody your word. Amen.

Sermon:  How Not to Be a Saint

Jesus’ teaching today might be called ‘How Not to be a Saint’ with the Pharisees as the object lesson. Poor guys. Jesus calls them out for their fancy clothes and their tendency to like nice things. He points to their desire for a good table at dinner and their pleasure at being greeted respectfully when seen in public. He even draws attention to their practice of piling the workload on their underlings without offering to lift a finger themselves. If you want to be a saint ~ if you want to be a servant of the Kingdom ~ don’t be like those guys. Sure, they talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, do they don’t practice what they preach. It’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

We know Jesus is right. The Pharisees liked to talk the talk, but they didn’t always walk the walk. But still, it’s hard not to identify with them.   I like nice clothes and enjoy being treated respectfully, too. I certainly wouldn’t want Jesus using me as an example by calling out my inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Would you? Jesus tells the disciples and the crowds gathered around, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Humility is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? Humility ~ servanthood ~ implies selflessness and sacrifice. Throwing the credit away. We certainly like to get the credit we think we deserve. There’s a country song on just this topic: Nobody Wants to Play Rhythm Guitar Behind Jesus / Everyone Wants to be Leader of the Band. Have you heard that one? No? (Maybe our Faith Singers can work it up for next week.)

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, had a teaching on humility. In his Collection of Forms of Prayers he listed several questions to be asked on Tuesdays before praying. (Don’t ask me ~ Why Tuesdays? Let’s just say John Wesley was very ‘methodical.’) The questions include: Have I ascribed to myself any part of any good which God has done through me this day? Have I desired the praise of others? Have I, when thought so, said, ‘I am in the wrong’?

Yet even servanthood can become a source of pride if taken too far. When humility is practiced for humility’s sake, it becomes a race to be first-place at being last.  Wearing the worst clothes. Taking the last seat. Beating our breasts in public so everyone will see. Are we doing what we are doing to be seen by others or for the glory of the kingdom? Someone once said that humility is living with one eye on heaven.

I wear this stole today not because of any important liturgical significance, but because my Grandmother made it for me and she was one of the saints of my life. She perfectly fit Frederick Buechner’s definition of a saint. “To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind…” My grandmother was the one who would put teddy bears in small sleds and send them down over the snowy hill much to my eight-year-old delight. If someone admired something in her house she would give it to them. She knitted mittens and gave them away when hers had holes in them. Buechner also said, “To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with…hands stretched out… Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.”

I imagine that most of those we would name as saints would shy away from that distinction, would cringe at the idea of being called a ‘saint.’ I know my grandmother would. When she died in 2004 she left me her journals and writings. In one entry she wrote:

Great Spirit God,

I am very needy. I know that you promised to love me, but could you really? It’s not going to be easy. I’m very stubborn and on my very best days, very annoying. I try to get my own way in ways that even I do not understand. About sin, I try to avoid it but the worst part is that most of the time I don’t even know that I am committing it! I could use some help here. You have known me since I was conceived. That was a long time ago. I try to keep the bad part of me hidden. I expect that you still know me, but the good part wants to honor your trust in me. If you still want to take a chance ~ I’m here and in great need.

As a child, I would never have imagined that she felt such need. To me she was a woman of strong faith. In fact, her faith gave me strength. But I can see today that she didn’t hold her faith out to me as an example to live up to. She simply allowed me to experience it and learn from it. It seems to me that saints are not originators, but links in a great chain of witnesses. Back up singers, maybe. A supporting cast of helpers putting Jesus first.   In the words of Martin Luther, “We are beggars telling other beggars where to find bread…”

Let’s not to be too hard on the Pharisees. We’ve all had ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ days, right? I know that sometimes I’m better at walking the talk than others. The good news is that God’s grace comes through our fumbling attempts to do the truth we know. In Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes, “There are no prodigies in monastic life.” I believe the same is true Christianity in general. There are no prodigies in the Christian life. We are all apprentices under Jesus, our teacher, the Messiah.   Let us pray:

Praise God for those saints who have touched our lives. May our lives reflect such genuineness of faith that our focus may be ‘out of our mind’ and on the things of heaven. Amen.