Preached from the pulpit of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, on the occasion of my last Sunday with the parish as its deacon:
Who are the saints we celebrate this morning?
Who and what, are saints?
Our history and tradition tells us they are people who did extraordinary things with their faith and lives, many of the earliest giving up their lives for their witness to the Kingdom and work in it, to keep the movement alive, to be icons of Christ, to emulate the extraordinary ministry and sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Allow me to posit this – we have saints in our midst.
That’s right; I’m looking at you. Ah, there’s one! A saint!
Now, before you think you’re not worthy of sainthood, remember that the saints we have on our windows, on our icons, and on the signs outside of our churches were people like you and me. They had workaday lives most of the time, they had families, dreams, ambitions, deadlines, failures and successes. We’ve been conditioned history and oral tradition to think of a saint as a person who is good, who does good, and is spotless in life and faith, someone whose relics cure illness and cause miracles to happen. Someone who was murdered or martyred while defending Christianity. I won’t argue with some of that, but my friend Jesus said only God is good.
Perhaps one definition of a saint could be this: ‘a person who obeys the new commandment and every day strives to live out the Gospel.’
Note that I said, strive. Some days we get it right, the right that God expects of us and that is to follow Jesus, live every day to honor God in Christ, and be examples of the Good News and New Commandment – and some days are not better than others. But every day is a new beginning, a new start, yet another chance to take right action and get it right.
Saints are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted and reviled and saints are people like you and me who fit into one of these categories, or we respond to the needs of those named.
There is an ancient saying that goes “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water; after enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”
The same may be applied to the people we celebrate today. They were not doctors of doctrine or builders of confessions and creeds, designers of liturgies, they were not blessed with the ecstatic visions of Teresa of Avila or the mysticism of St. John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich. Most days, they chopped wood and carried water and they did it for God. Nowadays, the saints teach Sunday School, sing in choirs, offer food and clothing to those who need it, visit the sick, listen to the story of a woman or man who lost their jobs and their homes, their pride and self-worth, talk to a strung-out guy on the park bench about finding a way out of that personal hell. They are people who speak out and represent our underpaid teachers and nurses, speak for the majority that has no health insurance, work for equality in all aspects of life. They are friends and family who come this morning to help this deacon say goodbye and leave home.
I see these saints before me. These are the saints we celebrate today.
They are the focus of Jesus’ ministry and these blessings he offers, originally directed to his chosen disciples are offered to us today. And these are not sweet little promises to the needy to make us feel better – this is a challenge to take on attitudes and characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven that is here and now. The first four blessings focus on those who suffer now, but will receive justice in the coming reign of God; the remaining verses are blessings on those who strive to right action and change, to alleviate the conditions described in the first four beatitudes.
I don’t know about you, but when I first read this scripture as a girl, I saw myself in it, and knew that I would have to live it and work towards making this world the one that Jesus offers. This wasn’t just a list of nice things, but a political agenda and manifesto of the Kingdom that was present, but I had yet to recognize it. I didn’t know how to go about it at first, and then I knew. It started with my baptism here at St. Mark’s fifteen years ago.
My journey has been similar and yet dissimilar to many of yours. I came here seeking answers and found them in round about ways, sometimes they were the answers I wasn’t expecting – or more honestly, didn’t want to hear. I discovered that God doesn’t expect me to be perfect, but be perfectly intentional in my faith and prayer life, in the ministry entrusted to me by virtue of my baptism and ordination. I knew I couldn’t be as perfect as the Virgin Mary – who could? But I could at least make an attempt. I’ve tried. I knew that God would forgive me the big and little transgressions because God loved me and forgave me – I just needed to try my hardest to not repeat those mistakes. Like I said earlier, some days are better than others.
What I knew was this.
I am a child of God; I was before I knew what one was, and I am to my core – and the same is true for the holy order bestowed on me almost ten years ago. I was a deacon before I knew what a deacon did and was.
And it is with those orders conferred that I have tried to serve God in Christ and you these past years. I will continue to do so, but not here, not in this physical building or this community. Times have changed and so have I.
I am headed for a new and different path. I know it. How do I know it? Let me share: I use a visual meditation tool. I imagine myself walking up from a beach, to a forest on a hill. I walk along a path with leaves crunching beneath my feet, the sun filtering through the trees and the sound of nature all around. I am walking towards a clearing in the forest where there is a gate. Beyond the gate is a gently sloping path to a valley where there is a castle – of course there’s a castle, it’s my imagination, isn’t it – and my intention is to reach that castle. So far, I haven’t reached the first curtain, but I know I am at the gate. My hand is there on the latch to open and keep travelling forward.
That journey started in Washington, D.C. two years ago when I stepped beyond my comfort zone and did what some people thought impossible for someone as bubbly and flakey as I can be at times – I spoke out for the poor in America at congressional meetings and met with like-minded Christians to find a way out of the morass of poverty; I finally embraced the truth that, like St. Francis being elected to confound the nobility, I was elected to confound the one percent, what we used to call the establishment – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. To be a muck-raker for Jesus. The Spirit will guide me in this but first I need some well-needed rest, to go up the mountain just as Jesus did when he wrestled with questions and ministry, seek understanding of what it was God had called him to do and how exactly to go about it.
This is my farewell discourse.
Before I leave on my journey, I have a few favors to ask of you. Know and believe that you are all children of God. Love one another as Christ loves you. Your ministries are all important, not one better than the other. We are all equal in God’s eyes and Christ’s heart, we are all special and unique and again, important. I invite you to greet the unfamiliar, nervous, person standing in the narthex an staring into this beautiful nave the way you greeted me 16 years ago, show them how to juggle the prayer book and hymnal, ask if my kids want another cookie, or how I take my coffee; say hello at coffee hour and ask how someone’s week has been – not just to your friends. You can talk to your friends any time, but a stranger coming into church? Now there’s a perfect opportunity for true evangelism! Show people that Christ died to take away our sins not our minds or hearts, or fellowship born of faith and love.
Am I sad to go? Yes. This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. Am I excited about what lies ahead? You can be darn sure I am; for when have I ever backed away from a dare, especially one from God? Am I afraid? Let me end by quoting from Joan of Arc, one of my patron saints, a young woman who lived an ordinary life of chopping wood and carrying water before she was called to an extraordinary ministry, for it rings true:
“I am not afraid, for God is with me. I was born for this.”