A colleague of mine, who used to be the chaplain at Sing Sing, says that baptizing inmates was one of the more powerful things he got to do there, and that his little congregation understood it as turning sinners into saints. He also talks about the fact that all saints have a past and all sinners have a future.1
All of us are both – we have pasts, for which we are forgiven, and we have a future, for which we hope. That includes us, and all the inmates at Sing Sing, and every person on this earth – we all have a past, and a future, and we are all capable of being holy and not so holy.
We’re here today to remember the saints, to give thanks for those who have come before us, and to consider our own place between past and future. One definition of saint is someone who’s been baptized. Another is that a saint is a holy person, especially somebody who’s already dead. Yet another might be anybody who shows us something of what God is like. Saints are in some sense the sacrament of God, the outward and fleshy sign of what God is like in human life. Jesus is the fullest example we have, but all saints show us the divine in human flesh.
Saints are both about being and doing, and that is what Jesus is getting at when he pronounces all those blessings – blessed are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, holy are those who yearn for justice. Jesus says they are made holy by their lack and their want, and that they will be filled and find completion. It’s a way of saying that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Sinners become saints by what they seek. Jesus says it pretty baldly in other places – like the story about the widow demanding justice from the crooked judge, and when he urges people to keep on praying. We cannot ever be filled or completed or satisfied if we don’t know what it is we’re looking for.
Jesus’ list of saint-making yearnings is challenging – not just because it can be hard to identify with, but because we don’t always understand or agree on what he’s pointing toward. A very similar list of blessed yearnings shows up in Luke’s gospel, but that list is simpler – it says “blessed are you poor” rather than poor in spirit, and “blessed are you who are hungry now” rather than those who are hungry and thirsty for justice. And the last part, about blessing those who are persecuted, is especially blunt: “blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man, for surely your reward will be great in heaven.”
Luke’s list is more about fleshy hungers; Matthew’s list is a tad more about the inner life, but they are profoundly and intimately connected. Hungry people are usually hungry because they don’t have access to food. That is at one level simply injustice, a lack of righteousness or right relationship, especially when their neighbors have plenty of food. The very need of the hungry is like the call of the prophet to indict injustice and encourage the repair of communities. Hunger is a challenge to behave like a saint, hoping for a different future, and it is a challenge to be blessed in tasting the hunger of others and making it your own.
Human beings can change the physical and spiritual realities of others through acting like saints. Sometimes, like Jesus, we have to put our bodies on the line – we have to put our physical selves into the service of feeding and healing and comforting and challenging – and sometimes we have to die, even if only to our own fear of the future. There is a fascinating reality in the hunger of the hungry. Jesus says it makes the hungry holy, but it also has the capacity to make their neighbors holy.
What about those poor or poor in spirit – and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Both are blessed and promised the kingdom of heaven. Who qualifies today?
I’ve met some “poor in spirit,” and there are certainly some we’ve all heard about, maybe even some of those “Occupiers” on Wall Street or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and in cities all over the globe, even here in Denver. They are certainly aware of poverty, working to right injustice, and they are increasingly being rejected and harassed. Are we able to taste their hunger for a more just community? It will bless us if we are willing to share it, even in small ways.
There are other poor in spirit saints, like the Anglicans in Zimbabwe who are being persecuted by a renegade former bishop in league with a dysfunctional government. Those Anglicans have been tossed out of their church buildings and schools, and in Harare they gather for worship out in the open, under tents, in the cold winter winds and the summer dust and heat. Their communities are growing and thriving, because they know God is with them wherever they are, especially as they gather under their tents to give thanks. They have indeed found a corner of the kingdom of heaven, and they give abundant evidence of blessing.
What about the other blessed ones? What do they yearn for? What about you? Who helped plant that yearning in your heart? You wouldn’t be here this morning if you weren’t looking for some kind of blessing – if you didn’t hunger and thirst for community, for healing in body or soul, for right relationship, or comfort in the face of grief.
People come with all sorts of yearnings. I’ve met more than one well-aged adult who admits to first showing up in Sunday school because they had good cookies or doughnuts. I know a church in Texas that years ago began to fill up with football players on Sundays when a well-known quarterback came to worship with his sweetheart. I met my husband in church! We’re all looking for some kind of love and welcome into blessed community, including Kent and Princess, whom I met at St. Francis Center yesterday. God uses all those yearnings to draw us close, fill us, and heal us. And once one hunger begins to be answered, we discover other yearnings – like wanting to know that no one goes hungry around here, or for peace in this neighborhood and around the world.
This community has done some remarkable yearning in its history. The era of Dean Martyn Hart responded to one sort of yearning by founding the Charity Organizations Society in 1887, which eventually became the United Way. It continues to answer the hope of people across this nation for healed communities, filling all sorts of hungers. Your “red dean” helped lead this community in response to the hunger of women and African-Americans for fuller recognition and inclusion in the life of society and the church.
Your 150 years here has been filled with yearning, and it has produced many saints. We know the names of some, yet there are many whose names we no longer remember. They are all saints – the coffee makers, leaf rakers, and music makers, the altar guild, vestry members, and Sunday school teachers. But there are countless more saints who raised children, ran businesses, taught college students, housed the homeless, governed cities, healed the sick, mentored teenagers, and sat on juries seeking justice. The hungers and yearnings of human existence can lead us to the holy – and we will find Jesus in tending those hungers in others and in ourselves.
What do you yearn for? What hunger is unfilled? Give thanks, for that want or emptiness is a blessing – it will make you a saint. We sinners all have a past, and we all have a future as a saint – when we figure out just what it is we’re hungry for.
1 The Rev. Petero Sabune sermon 1 Nov 2011