Sainthood for the Rest of Us

Sainthood for the Rest of Us

They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
They sure don’t, do they?

This familiar call and response punctuated my childhood, spoken frequently by the older members of my family. anytime something broke or malfunctioned, the immediate response was to wistfully reminisce about times when things were sturdier and more dependable.

Better quality.

Tougher stuff.

I, for one, was never really sure those better days had actually existed, at least outside of my family’s imagination. Some of the tools in my Grandma’s kitchen certainly did seem to have stood the test of time, but wasn’t progress worth anything? Why the endless nostalgia?

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They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s sort of how we feel about Saints, I think. They just don’t seem to be much in production anymore. The holiness of bygone days seems impractical, if not foolish to our contemporary ears. We’re not quite sure how anyone ever got so committed. Embarrassingly committed.

What good, really, was all their meddling, mortification, and martyrdom? Did the obscenity of their devotion really change anything for the better? Anything at all?

Like many Episcopalians, I tend to look for sainthood among more ordinary folks. I never really identified with the heroic saints of yore. Too dangerous, too difficult, too dramatic.
And yet, I’ve always yearned for a world filled with more saintliness. I’ve wondered again and again, why “they don’t seem to make ‘em like they used to.” I’ve wondered if anyone aspires to saintliness anymore, if I aspire to it? Can we even imagine a real contemporary holiness?

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Hear these good words–Ordinary Saints, a poem by Malcolm Guite:

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, Our too-familiar family and friends, When shall we see them? Who can truly show Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends? Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold That is and always was our common ground, Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound From which the light we never noticed fell Into our lives? Remember how we turned To look at them, and they looked back? That full-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. But one day we will see them face to face.

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So, where are our saints?

Perhaps sainthood is too inaccessible, too rarefied and other-worldly for any of us to attempt. Or perhaps, saintliness isn’t quite so complicated and many saints do lurk among us, yet undiscovered.

Maybe saints are just people who really believe the Book of Revelation’s promise that “God’s home is among mortals.” People intently looking for God in the here and now, in everyone they meet. People who profoundly trust Revelation’s promise that God is “making all things new.”People who have eyes to see and ears to hear that glory which is being born in our midst.

Maybe it’s not really more than this. But maybe this is actually everything. All of it. Maybe it’s not so much what we do, but how we trust. How we trust God to show up–expect God to show up–in and through friends, and neighbors, and enemies alike. How we trust God to be profoundly present in even the most broken of human situations. How we live by, with, and in the profoundly beautiful hope, of a new heaven and a new earth, as expressed in the Book of Revelation.

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I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the kind of saints we need in a world where Jews at prayer are murdered, targeted in particular because of their commitment to loving immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. The kind of saints we need in a world where we cannot see a caravan of desperate migrants as brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need of compassion and refuge. The kind of saints we need in world overrun with a never-ending supply of hate.

I’ve read and heard so many people this week saying things like:
…all we need is love
…just love one another
…come on people, love!

And every time I’ve read or heard these pleas, I’ve felt my heart sink. Because so many people seem to think that loving our neighbors is far simpler and far easier than the love that Jesus taught and practiced.

It seems as if we have scarcely begun to imagine what genuine love of neighbor really requires of us. Nor have we begun to imagine what kind of world, a world we’d barely recognize, this love could create.

Jesus’ way of love isn’t easy, of course, but it is possible. And the thing that can get us there, perhaps the most important theological and spiritual tool of all, I think, is imagination. Imagination. It’s precisely what the Book of Revelation offers: it imagines a future. A new and different future. A healed and healing future. A reconciled and reconciling future. It imagines God’s future. A new heaven and a new earth, where peace and love are at home.

Because when we can imagine a new future, God’s future, we can also begin to desire it. Imagination and desire, then, are the real ingredients of sainthood. Because desire, true desire…can and does move mountains. We think we all manner need plans and projects, when we really just need a few souls who truly hunger and thirst for righteousness, who have come alive to a vision of God’s future that feels more beautiful and more valuable than any Earthly treasure, and who trust that God is continuously bringing this future into being, even in the most unexpected people and places.

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A part of my own understanding of God’s future, takes the shape of what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. A vision of people of all races and cultures and religions enjoying, relishing, and delighting in one another’s company. Sharing table fellowship, perhaps over just the kind of meal that the prophet Isaiah imagined: when he said that:

“the Lord of hosts [would make] for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” The heavenly banquet come to Earth. Taste and see. Taste and see that God is good…that it’s all good.

But here’s the thing, getting everyone around that table isn’t going to happen just by shouting “love one another” from Society Hill rooftops… or even from every Episcopal pulpit in the nation.

If we imagine and desire a world in which people truly love one another, we’re probably going to have to start loving a whole lot more people…and loving some people who we might otherwise find pretty darn unlovable. We’re going to have to place ourselves in proximity to a much wider and stranger constellation of people: to refuse the safety and comfort of homogenous communities. We’re going to have to take all manner of relational risks and face new levels of relational discomfort. That’s what getting ready for the banquet looks like. That’s what trusting God looks like.

Life in the Beloved Community is beautiful, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Because it isn’t easy to share space with people who want and value different things, who behave in radically different ways, Maybe even in ways we find irrational or inappropriate or inadvisable. And to share space without trying to change or fix one another. Truly accepting and enjoying one another. And maybe even being radically changed, in quite unexpected ways, by the practice of acceptance and enjoyment.

You see, the Beloved Community, as Martin Luther King imagined it, required far more than desegregation. It also required a positive desire for integration, an integration that is still very far from our daily social reality.

Because in many ways we never fully imagined real integration, never learned to truly desire it. The richness of life with all people together around the table. The food, the music, the laughter and conversation and joy–oh what a meal it would be! Nothing less than a foretaste of heaven. So why not have it now? Why not trust God enough to risk imagining and desiring it now?

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So is it true, that “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to? Or are there yet some saints among us this day, those unexpected people through whom God makes everything new? People with enough imagination and enough desire to set the table for the feast that has been prepared from the beginning of the world.

O how I want to be in that number.

May it be so.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the associate rector at St. Peter’s Church.

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