Of a Saint I

Trinity, Statesboro, GA
September 12, 2008

I want to invite you on a road trip – a hagiographical road trip. We’ve just heard the readings for a saint. A saint is one who is on the road, which is what the early Christians called the way of following Jesus. It’s the journey all of us have been invited to join, and for clergy, it’s a journey where we are both fellow travelers and tour directors. Our job is to help the rest of the tour pack lightly, learn about where they’re going and how to live together as a group while they’re on the way. And our task is to help each one learn to see the sights – including the face of Christ all around us, and the working of the spirit in each moment – while we all practice holding ourselves ever ready to respond.

Today is actually the feast of one of those saints – John Henry Hobart. We haven’t heard the readings or collect for his feast day – maybe because he led tours on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, or perhaps because we’re meant to remember him simply as one of the communion of saints. He’s a post-Revolutionary war saint (born 1775, d 1830), bishop of NY, and missionary to the Oneida Indians; he founded GTS, and took a reforming interest in Geneva College [later Hobart College]. His understanding of the road trip’s agenda focused on education, planting churches, and mission to the neglected and ignored. He is indeed one of the cloud of witnesses pointing us to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, to the one who walked this path before us.

I met another one of the road warriors again on Labor Day weekend. I was in Oklahoma City, and the cathedral there was celebrating a saint of their own, David Pendleton Oakerhater. In fact he has long been called God’s warrior. He was a leader of Cheyenne warriors, captured in the Indian wars in 1875, and imprisoned in Florida. His jailer, an Army captain, was responsible for his conversion. After several years, Oakerhater was released and went north to study for ordination (1881). He was this Church’s first native American cleric, who humbly served his Cheyenne people as a deacon until his death 1931. That was in the days when we understood deacons as proto-priests, and deacons normally remained deacons only until the bishop came around to ordain them priests. Oakerhater’s 50 years’ service as a deacon may reflect the church’s racism, but in him God used it to abundant good.

What about the other saints who have guided the journey here in Georgia? James Oglethorpe may not be on our calendar of saints, but his faith certainly underlay his anti-slavery and prison-reforming activity. He had a clear sense that life was meant to be lived for others. James and Charles Wesley were here briefly, and there were others who stayed. It’s striking to think about what role this place had in their further conversions. The Wesleys wouldn’t have done their transformative work without their Georgia experience. What saints were there among the Cherokee driven out of Georgia in the 1830s? That trail of tears bore distant fruit in Oakerhater’s ministry in Oklahoma. Where is the Diocese of Georgia being led today? What saints are being formed on today’s journey?

Micah points us toward holy living as bound up in doing justice, loving mercy/kindness, and walking humbly with God. Jesus says the blessed are those who do justice and loving-kindness toward the least among and around us – by caring for the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned. Hobart and Oakerhater would lead us to discover that the poorest counties in the U.S. are on Indian reservations in South Dakota – the broad trail of tears is filled with grief to this day. There was news yesterday that several churches on the Pine Ridge reservation will be closed – for financial reasons and for the apparent lack of effective evangelism. In a place where one adult and several children may subsist on $5000 a year, what is the task of saints, both here and there? There’s another string of the poorest counties in this part of the country, in rural Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, where child mortality rates and outcomes are far worse than the national average. How are the saints tending their physical and spiritual hunger?

That’s just one small lens for discovering the least of these – those who are in need of justice and being loved mercifully. The storms that plague this part of the globe are another. Katrina shocked us all three years ago, and the pace of recovery should continue to shock us. Yet resurrection is happening, and the church has been a big part of the recovery work and its success. But many in Louisiana and Mississippi are still decidedly last on the priority list of this nation. There is still abundant need for saints in that place. There is also abundant need for saints in this place, for our holy living is not just about doing what some call “ecclesiastical tourism.” Mission trips are important learning and conversion experiences, but they are no substitute for doing justice in the halls of government or in the streets that surround us.

The storms this year are wreaking even worse havoc in Haiti – four major hurricanes in the last month have left the poorest in our hemisphere without any resources – no food reserves, lost crops, no clothing or clean water, destroyed and fouled homes. Today’s NY paper told of a woman in Gonaives caring for several children on her rooftop, under the partial shade of a sheet. The UN peacekeepers are going out into the streets before dawn to distribute high-energy biscuits so they won’t be overwhelmed by the demand.

If Jesus tells us our salvation depends on how we care for those least, then what’s our job as equippers of the saints? Our ordination vows have a great deal to do with both our own mandate to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God, to serve the least, to pick up our crosses, but also how we guide others along that same path. How do shepherds help the sheep get beyond themselves and their focus on comfortable green pastures?

Deacons, in their examination, are challenged to “serve all people, particularly poor, weak, sick, lonely… and, at all times, let their life and teaching show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” Priests are reminded that “all baptized people called to make Christ known as Savior and Lord, and to share in the renewing of his world,” and then reminded that “you are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor… in all you do, nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.” And bishops are told, “your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” and they promise last of all to “be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper.”

The primary reason we are sent to serve the least is to discover Christ there – among the downtrodden, the maimed and tortured and the dying. And discovering Christ, we may begin to follow where he leads – out of our comfortably padded lives to the hard wood of the cross, out of the slime of the slums of Haiti to the signs of resurrection in New Orleans, out of our prisons to more abundant life.

Lord, send us out to find you in the least and lost and left behind. Show us your face there, let us serve you, and help us become your saints.