A sermon preached on Sunday, October 31st, 2010, All Saints Sunday, based upon Luke 19:1 – 10.
This is All Saints Sunday. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have a whole host of “Saints’ Days; we Protestants have only the one: All Saints Sunday. Traditionally we’ve been a good deal more cautious about the use of the word “saint.” There is good reason for this.
The whole Protestant Reformation arouse back in the 16th century out of Martin Luther’s reflections on the pervasiveness of sin. He looked inside himself and saw that as hard as he tried to do the good and think good thoughts, there was nonetheless a darkness within that resisted his best intentions. He looked at the hierarchy of the Church and recognized the deceit and the ugly corruption of money, expressed most overtly in the selling of indulgences. And when he re-read the Scriptures, and in particular the Apostle Paul, he saw described there the power of sin universally afflicting the human race. He read Paul lamenting in Romans 7 how he knew the good but he could not do it, and that “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just some. All. Luther saw Paul expressing the same despair that he himself experienced as he contemplated his failure to live a truly holy life.
But Luther also found in Paul’s writings the good news he needed to hear in his desperation – the strong assertion that our salvation doesn’t depend upon our works – it doesn’t depend on us at all. No, our salvation is entirely based upon what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. God has done that which we could not do ourselves, forgiving our sins. The focus now was shifted upon trusting this gift – having faith.
Part of the whole Catholic mindset that Luther rebelled against was the adoration of the Saints – the notion that there could be human beings walking among us who had succeeded in leaving sin behind altogether, attaining another plane altogether, becoming in essence little deities to whom people could pray. In Luther’s mind, this train of thought mislead people into thinking that we are saved not by grace but by our own hard works; that if we could just work hard enough, then we could turn ourselves into saints.
From a personal point of view, part of what brought me back into the Church after I had been pretty disillusioned by it in my teenage years was a consideration of the concept of sin. I college I discovered the writings of 20th century theologians who wrote about sin in ways with which I could identify. They talked less of specific sins and more about the underlying condition of alienation, or separation out of which particular sins arose. Alienation was a big part of my experience in those days, and I was impressed by the fact that these Christian theologians were accurately describing what I was experiencing.
Reinhold Niebuhr writing in the second half of the 20th century reflected on the disillusionment experienced in Western culture in that century. It began with great optimism and idealism, and when the great war broke out, it was called the war to end all wars. It wrought terrible destruction, and yet was followed in short order by an even larger, more destructive war, the holocaust, and countless other wars and atrocities as well. Niebuhr observed that the doctrine of original sin was the only empirically verifiable doctrine, by which he meant, you can find all the evidence you need to prove that we human beings live in bondage to the destructive power of sin by just reading the history books or the daily newspaper. There we find an endless array of data demonstrating how our self-centered, self-deceptions poison almost everything.
This is hard to argue with. Recently I read where three billion dollars are being spent this election cycle on political television advertising. When independent agencies like Politico-fact check the veracity of the claims made in these ads across the political spectrum, they declare that it is hard to find one that is thoroughly accurate. In other words we spend three billion dollars on lying when millions of children are starving to death. This, it seems to me, is empirical evidence of the enduring power of sin.
And so we Protestants are cautious about our use of the word “saint.” We realize that the word can’t be done away with; it is, after all, a word used frequently in the New Testament. But with Paul and Luther we speak of saints in a less pristine manner. Our saints never cease to be sinners while they live on earth. They lose their temper sometimes, think thoughts that they are glad no body else can hear, sometimes break promises, are sometimes, lazy, sometimes self-righteous, but nonetheless, the light of God shines through them.
Mother Teresa was once asked by a somewhat obnoxious reporter, “Are you a saint?” She replied, “Yes, and so are you.” She knew she wasn’t really any different from anybody else. After she died, her personal journals were published, to the dismay of some but the encouragement of others, for she expressed there the same doubt, the same discouragement with which the rest of us very human saints are well acquainted .
In the end, a saint is simply someone through whom the light of God shines, knowing that none of us are transparent like a well-washed window to morning light. No, we are at best translucent; we block a lot of the light, but let some through nonetheless.
Whereas sin can be described as empirically verifiable, grace, on the other hand, is a good deal more mysterious. Social scientists can provide us with a lot of information about what leads people to go in bad directions. For instance, if you survey the male population in American prisons, you will find a very high portion of the inmates either did not have a father growing up, or the father was pretty uninvolved. And if you look into the background of people who abuse others, sexually or otherwise, the vast majority of them were abused themselves as children.
In other words, social scientists can track to a large extent the ways in which sin is passed down from generation to generation. What social scientists find a great deal harder to explain is the presence of goodness in the world. Why does a person grow up in situations of profound depravation, getting shat upon time and again, and then in their adult life display a remarkable commitment to making a positive difference in this world?
As a pastor, I am privileged to hear peoples’ stories, and one thing I am allowed to hear described more often than many others are the wounds that sin has wrought in peoples’ lives. You know, we all try to look lie we are doing just fine, but the truth of the matter is that pretty much everybody has stories to tell of being wounded by the cruelties of this world.
The remarkable thing – the amazing thing – is the stories of grace woven into the stories of sin. I recently sat with a woman for an hour as she told me the story of her life, which involved heart-wrenching tales of abuse and abandonment. How as she still standing, we wondered together? How was it that in spite all of the lovelessness she had experienced, she was, nonetheless, in certain ways a very loving person?
She is a sinner, but she is also a saint, and her life is a testimony to the amazing grace of God.
I am struck this morning by the figure of Zaccheus, the wee little man, and notorious sinner. He had betrayed his people by establishing a lucrative business partnership with the Romans in which he collected the taxes that oppressed his people. It is safe to say that deception was a major part of his life.
He was a sinner, and he was also extremely isolated. He was lonely, and as such I can identify with him particularly as I think back to my teenage days.
We can ask how did Zaccheus end up in this place? We really don’t know, but we can speculate. Maybe he was the sort of person by nature who never found it easy to feel like he belonged – someone who found “fitting in” with his peers something that didn’t come easily. Maybe – who knows – he got teased for being short. Maybe he had a natural aptitude for numbers and money that made the tax collector profession a natural fit.
Maybe somewhere along the line had made a trade, consciously, who knows in which he said to himself, well, if I can’t be just one of the guys – if I can’t feel like I belong – well I might at least enjoy the pleasures money can bring. Maybe he even succeeded in convincing himself that being rich was better than having friends. If so, there are no shortage of Zaccheuses around today. Isolated, lonely, settling for money and things, and telling themselves that this is their preference, when what they really long for is love.
One thing for sure, Zaccheus didn’t find himself in this state of profound isolation as the town’s most notorious sinner overnight. It was surely a gradual process. As he experienced more rejection from his community, his commitment to his path grew more intense. Justification set in. Hey, if they’re going to reject me, I might as well screw them over!
And so he fell deeper and deeper into a dark hole of sin, where no light seemed to shine at all. And that is where he should have stayed, the same way Jesus’ dead body should have stayed in that tomb.
But something turned him around. He experienced grace, and experienced it specifically in the face and words of Jesus Christ, who loved him unconditionally when had no reason to expect love. Loved him just as he was, in the terrible mess that was his sin.
And in that amazing grace, the isolation was overcome, and his life began to change. No longer all about him self, not the he feels the deep desire to help others – to be a blessing to others. He gives half of his money to the poor and pledges to make right four times over all the persons he has cheated. He forgoes all the finger pointing in which he could have engaged in a lame attempt to justify his sin.
And Zaccheus the sinner became Zacchus the saint.
You and I have known many saints in the course of our lives — ordinary, imperfect people who have blessed us along the way. Many of them have left this world and have gone to live in the great communion of saints.
In the transition we know as death, if the grace of God has a foothold in our lives, if there is a place within were love is what we are about, I believe that in the moment of death we are reborn. Everything that is a part of our sinful nature finally falls away, and we shine like the sun.
Dr. David Kessler has studied people who at the end of their lives experience visions of loved one who have previously departed this world, and appear in the late stage to greet them as they prepare to enter death. More often than not, it is mothers who show up. For many of us, it is our mothers through whom we have most clearly experienced unconditional love.
Dr. Kessler writes,
“Roberta lay at death’s door going in and out of consciousness while her daughter Audrey sat attentively by her bed. Suddenly Roberta whispered, “My mother is here. Audrey, your grandmother is here. She is so beautiful.” Audrey looked at the foot of her mother’s bed, looked up and around the room. “Mom, where is she? I can’t see her,” Audrey frantically asked. The dying woman turned abruptly to her daughter as if withdrawing from the vision of her own dead mother and said sternly, “Of course you can’t see her; she’s here for me, not you!” Her daughter understood perfectly.”
Kessler says that those for whom their mother wasn’t such an unconditionally loving figure, others show up who represent that quality of love.
When we reach that point, loved ones will greet us, but Jesus Christ, the one who loves unconditionally will meet as well. And in that moment we will be invited to enter the loving embrace of God’s light, letting go of the sin that has clung to us through our journeys, to take our place in the perfected communion of saints in heaven.
O happy day.