Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2011 Advent I – Mark 13:24-37 “Occupy Advent”

In recent weeks, we’ve been seeing lots of news about Occupy Wall Street protesters…we’ve even got our very own Occupy Richmond protesters camping out next door to Mayor Jones’ house. While I’m not really sure exactly what these protesters hope to accomplish, or what exactly they’re protesting against (except greedy bankers), I think we have something to learn from them.

When you care about something deeply, you need to respond with the same depth. You need to “occupy it” to reclaim it and make it your own in a better form.

Whatever you think of the protesters in Zuccotti Park and in Richmond, you cannot deny that they have demonstrated their passion by camping out in all kinds of weather and peacefully protesting values that they oppose. They have responded with commitment and have reclaimed values that they think are important.

In the same way, let’s consider how we can reclaim something important to us, make it our own.

What are we reclaiming?

Advent.

You remember Advent, don’t you? That season of preparation for the birth of Jesus?

But Advent has been hijacked by the sellers of toys for kids and toys for adults. It has been replaced by something called “The Christmas Season,” which I always put in quotation marks, because it seems to have little to do with Christ, or Christmas. It has much more to do with making sure retailers make sufficient sales for the year to ensure a profit for them. “The Christmas Season” is about purchasing the hottest new video game, the latest IPad or IPhone, the flashiest piece of jewelry, the niftiest tool from Home Depot or Lowe’s….or gift cards. Hundreds of thousands of gift cards, to be given when we can’t guess what the recipient would want (because he already has one of everything he might need) or we fear what we get will not be pleasing to the recipient. Did you know that in 2009, $87 billion in gift cards were sold[1]. That’s billion, not million.

A whole lot of little bits of plastic that say “Merry Christmas.” Or maybe they just say “this is the way I fulfill my obligation to you, because we give gifts because they are expected, not because we really want to give them.”

That’s “The Christmas Season” for you…a total of $584 billion[2] in sales, including those ubiquitous gift cards. And I doubt that very many people were thinking about the coming of the Christ child when they purchased that $584 billion worth of goods and services.

We have been claimed by “The Christmas Season” industry, not by the coming Christ Child, and it’s time to stop. It’s time to reclaim this time and the true meaning of what it is about.

So instead of “Occupy Wall Street,” or “Occupy Richmond,” I suggest we “Occupy Advent.” Turn our minds and hearts away from the commercialism that has soiled this season, and reclaim this time of preparation for the gift that you cannot buy at the mall: Jesus Christ.

Let’s get our priorities straight, and reclaim that which is truly important.

That’s what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel.

Now I know what many of you were thinking when I read that Gospel passage: “What does this have to do with Advent, with baby Jesus, with Bethlehem? This is downright depressing and a little bit scary.”

Yes, it seems incongruous, and it follows on the heels of last week’s reading about Jesus judging us at the end times. Not very Christmas-y, to be sure.

But let’s put ourselves in the places of those who first heard Jesus speak these words. Let’s remember what was going on in their world. Then maybe a sense of the power of the One who is coming will fill us, and we can reclaim that Advent feeling.

In Jesus’ day, Rome controlled everything. Roman soldiers were everywhere. The cruel king of Judea, Herod, was a puppet of Rome. The Romans taxed the people mercilessly. A distant, powerful, alien emperor who had no love or sympathy for the people of Israel simply used them for what he could milk from their labors. And the Jewish religious leaders were hardly more sympathetic, always demanding enforcement of rules that made little sense, always expecting things from the people that they could ill afford to give.

It was not a happy time. To those who listened to Jesus, it was indeed a time of suffering, as it had been since before Jesus’ birth. And what did Jesus offer? A promise that something good was coming…no, not just good, something wonderful. And he warned them to pay attention, to watch for the signs. “Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

We have been lulled to a state of torpor by endless ads on television or the internet. We have forgotten to look for when the master of the house will return. We are dozing in our complacency that this season is one of purchasing and wrapping, when what we should be doing is watching for the one who is to come.

So let’s Occupy Advent instead of WalMart. Let’s Occupy Advent instead of Short Pump Mall. Let’s reclaim this time when we start to watch for the one who is to come. We, too, live in a time that is full of unhappiness, with war and terrorism and poverty and jobs gone away and addiction and greed. It is not so different than Jesus’ day, is it? So hear this gospel today as a starting point, a reminder that if we wait and watch in humble expectation, we will find what heals us more than any gift card. We will find what will sustain us more than another gadget or toy. We will find the least likely of gifts, a tiny baby in a stable, with the power to love us and give to us eternal life.

Shouldn’t we prepare ourselves for this most precious of gifts? Shouldn’t we reflect on how we have lived our lives this past year? Shouldn’t we pray for guidance and for hope in what is to come? We should…and we can, starting today.

Occupy Advent. Prepare. Watch. Keep awake. He is coming! Amen.



[1] http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SmartSpending/FindDealsOnline/how-the-gift-card-stole-christmas.aspx

[2] http://retailindustry.about.com/od/statisticsresearch/a/2010-Us-Christmas-Holiday-Shopping-Data-Statistics-Results-And-Numbers.htm

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanks


I just finished Sunday's sermon, so I am truly feeling thankful!

It has been an unusual Thanksgiving week. Last weekend my son StoneMason and his fiancee came down for the weekend. He is clearly deeply in love with this young woman, and she with him. They are relaxed and gently loving and supportive of each other. They came and participated at activities at church with grace - it is never easy to be under scrutiny by a whole bunch of new people, no matter how welcoming they intend to be, but all was pure delight. We had a mini-Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday afternoon before they were to hop on a plane to the Far North. It was delicious and they ate hearty, as did we.

On Tuesday, PH got on a plane to go visit his family in the Windy City. His father had a surgery that turned out to be more complicated than originally thought, and has had a slow recovery. PH had held off on going up there for a few weeks, partly because other dear family members were there tending to needs, partly because his own schedule was so complicated. But I was glad to see him on his way to do this, because even when the recovery is progressing, we actually want to see it in person, to witness to it, don't we?

That meant that I would spend my Thanksgiving Day by myself. I had offers from several parishioners to go to their houses for the feast, but I begged off. The idea of a day of solitude and reflection was too rare, and too good to pass up.

So what was my Thanksgiving Day?

Morning prayer.
Some cleaning up of the house for the houseguest who will come on Saturday night.
Cooking: a loaf of bread, some curried butternut squash soup.
A friend who was also flying solo for the day came over in the afternoon and we walked for an hour.
An early supper with her of bread, salad and soup.
Phone consultations and recipe advice for two of my children, who were each cooking a Thanksgiving feast of their own, in California and Colorado.

And then the evening: taking out the Santa collection, now something like two hundred expressions of St Nicholas, all shapes and sizes, sublime (the one my MIL brought back form Russia) and ridiculous (the Fleet enema Santa - don't ask), setting up the creche, all except the baby Jesus.

Knitting.
Music.
Peace.

A good way to begin the time of keeping awake and waiting for the One who is to come.

Picture above of yours truly with StoneMason and fiancee at StickWorks, a cool exhibit at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2011 Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24/Matt 25:31-46 “At the Banquet Table or On It”


On Friday, Doug and I went with my son Sam and his fiancĂ©e Shauna to Maymont. We wandered around the Children’s Farm, looked at the raptors, watched a black bear scratch an itch by nuzzling up to a tree stump, and enjoyed the peaceful and beautiful Japanese Garden. One of the really fun moments was visiting with the sheep and the goats. Some of the goats had managed to stick their heads, including their horns, through the bars of the fence so they could more easily reach the bits of feed that kids could buy for a quarter. The sheep looked calm, as usual. The goats looked a bit neurotic, giving us sidelong glances and appearing to wonder why we were looking at them with such glee.

They were pastured together, and seemed quite comfortable sharing the hillside. But as the evening would approach, they would be brought up from the hillside and put into the barn at the top of the hill. The sheep would go in one pen, and the goats another.

The people who take care of the animals would do precisely what Jesus describes in today’s gospel. They would separate the sheep from the goats. Now the folks at Maymont would do it because their pens are clearly marked with little outlines – one has the silhouette of sheep, the other the silhouette of goats. But why would the shepherd in Jesus’ story do that?

It took a little searching, but I finally got the answer. Sheep can actually remain out on the hillside all night. They prefer it. They have that warm wooly coat, after all. Goats do not. They need the warmth of a shelter, out of the cold night wind. A smart shepherd gives each of the animals what they need to survive, be it fresh air or warm shelter.

Now, that actually makes more work for the shepherd, because he has to stay with those sheep on the hillside to protect them from predators. But still, that’s what shepherds do. They do what is necessary for each animal.

That’s the of image of the shepherd that we hear in both our old testament reading and our Gospel…a shepherd who tenderly cares for all his animals, animals who are sometimes a bit wayward and uncooperative.

It’s a warm picture, isn’t it? We visualize one of those Victorian-era paintings with a Jesus wearing sparkling white robes, a blue-eyed, sandy-haired Jesus bearing a fluffy little lamb over his shoulder.

There is also another picture of the shepherd that we get in these readings, particularly in the Gospel reading, where Jesus has some decisions to make, some judgments about the flock, at the end of the season. Who has done what the shepherd has told them to do? Who has been a good member of the flock, doing the shepherd’s bidding?

So the shepherd becomes the judge, a very different role, requiring him to be decisive and clear rather than warmly tender.

How do we reconcile these two roles?

That’s where we need to take a closer look at the reality of the shepherding business. At the end of the season, the shepherd must do some sorting of the animals. Some will be kept to make more lambs and goat kids in the next year. Some will be sold at market to provide offerings and food in the winter season. Some will be traded away. And the shepherd takes on the role of judge to decide which of his charges goes in which category. Some get kept, some – how shall I put it delicately? – get disposed of.

Jesus shifts from being the tender shepherd to being the astute and fair judge of the flock. Not so warm and fuzzy, but clear-eyed and fair.

And the remarkable thing about both the Old Testament and Gospel readings of this time of judgment is how similar they are.

In both cases, God’s people are a flock under the loving care of a shepherd. Some of them are good, some not so good. The shepherd tries to train them, protect them, keep them together, but it doesn’t always work quite as the shepherd had hoped, because sheep and goats, they aren’t always as good as we hope for. The members of the flock who have treated the others badly, stolen their food, pushed them away from the good pasturelands…in a word, the ones who have gotten fat at the expense of others…are the ones who will now suffer. Ezekiel makes it clear: “I will feed them, [those fat and greedy ones] with justice.” Jesus makes it clear: “And these will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The shepherd has transformed into the arbiter, judging the members of the flock.

We know that this is a metaphor describing our relationship with Jesus. We are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd.

Now this might make us nervous. None of us likes to be judged. We know we are less than perfect, and we worry that Jesus might be disappointed in us and we might be cast out into eternal punishment. I’m willing to accept punishment for my sins, which are many, but I surely hope that I will dodge the bullet of eternal punishment.

The good news is that Jesus gives us very clear instructions on what we are supposed to do to be on the right side of his judgment seat: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirst, visit the sick or those in prison. In short, help those who need help.

And the second bit of good news is that we do some of these things. Lamb’s Basket, both donating food and working at the food pantry. Lay Eucharistic Ministers bringing communion to those who are homebound or in nursing homes. Thanksgiving food baskets for Interfaith Services of Henrico.

The remarkable thing is how unremarkable these things seem to us. We don’t make a big deal about bringing some food to be donated, or to go out to someone’s home to bring them communion. We don’t make a fuss about giving a neighbor a call. It isn’t something dramatic and flashy…it is simple things, done every week, lending a hand, not expecting anything in return.

And that is the good news that we hear today. Even at the time of final judgment, that time when it’s sorting time, sheep on one side, goats on the other, we need not be afraid. We have done the simple things that Jesus has asked of us, without any expectations. And because of that, we are promised eternal life. Not endless punishment, but eternal life.

We may wonder if we are good enough to be judged worthy of eternal life. This gospel is the reminder that we can be. It doesn’t take incredibly dramatic work. It doesn’t take martyrdom or changing the world. It simply takes doing simple things, changing things just a bit at a time. Helping one person, one little bit. “Whatever you have done for the least of these – even one small thing done for the least of these – you have done for me.”

So the next time you drop a box of cereal in the basket for the hungry, or run an errand for someone, or say a prayer for someone, you are helping Jesus, and you are helping Jesus decide whether you are a member of the flock who has earned eternal life.

The shepherd cares for you, but he also must figure out whether you get sent off to become someone’s leg of lamb dinner or whether you get to stay with the flock for the season. Will you be seated at the banquet table or be served on it? You decide, so he can decide. What will you do?

Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's time....

...to go back to what one friend of mine refers to as The Fat Club. you know, that place that assigns points to all the foods and such. I saw a video taken of me recently, and it wasn't pretty. Sweet, but not pretty. So tomorrow morning I'm going to get up and out and weigh in and begin getting some more discipline back in my life, at least around the eating thing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy!

Three wonderful things happened yesterday and today:
1) our Vestry voted to call me as their rector, converting me from a term-limited Priest-in-Charge to a stay-until-you-are ready-to-leave-unless-you-do-a-bad-thing call. I am feeling like there is so much more ministry to do here, so it is a blessing. When it was announced at our annual congregational meeting yesterday, there was much joy and enthusiasm in the room. I'm pleased beyond words.
2) I found a very reasonable and beautiful tribal rug on Overstock.com, ordered it on Friday, and it arrived today. The colors are even better than it appeared on the website and it will really finish the room. A small thing in the grand scheme of things, nothing of the magnitude of item #1, but it just tickles me.
3) at a regional meeting of our parishes tonight, two folks from other parishes asked about bringing two new children to our St Giles Gate program on Saturday (CE and worship for children with special needs). This is just what we wanted for this ministry, that we would be a resource to the larger community. TBTG!

All good things, regardless of magnitude, are gifts from God. Also a good thing: my father-in-law, who had some major league surgery a couple of weeks ago, is slowly recovering and getting his sense of humor and feistiness back. PH is headed out next week to visit for a few days and spend Thanksgiving there. I get to have a peaceful day of not overeating and watching old movies on Netflix streaming video. And my son StoneMason and his fiancee are headed down here this weekend for a visit, so we will have an early Thanksgiving-ish dinner together. I'm feeling very blessed right about now. Tired, but blessed.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, November 13, 2011 Matt 25:14-30 “True Value”

Does anyone here watch “Antiques Roadshow?” I watch it every now and again, and am amazed at the things that people bring in for valuation. Every now and again, someone brings in some ugly lamp they bought at a yard sale for ten dollars, and they discover it’s a rare Tiffany worth a thousand. Another person brings in the chest of drawers that was by their grandmother’s bed for sixty years, and Leigh Keno says it’s an exquisite example of an Eighteenth Century Newport shell-carved chest that might go for a hundred thousand dollars at auction. Then, too, there are the items that may have some sentimental value, but in dollar terms, they are really just worth what the person paid for them, or less!

How do we value something we have acquired?

I really feel for the servant in Jesus’ parable today who buried the money in the ground. He got a bad rap, cast out into the outer darkness. But his heart, if not his brain, was in the right place. He was worried about what would happen if he lost the talent his master gave him, so he put it in a safe place.

Why was he worried? This thing, this talent, was no little copper penny. It was a block of gold weighing 75 pounds! With gold at $1767 an ounce on Friday morning, the talent the master gave the servants would be worth over $2 million dollars today. The servant knew it was valuable. Of course it made him nervous!

Our grandparents might have done the same thing, putting money under the mattress. They did it because they believed no bad things would happen if the money was safely tucked away. If they had lived through times of deprivation, the fear of loss was great. It would have been the same for this servant, given this enormously valuable thing…a servant who may have had only a few modest belongings of his own, who had no experience with what to do with something this big, this valuable. He probably said to himself, “I’m not a clever person. I don’t know what to do with this. But the one thing I DO know is that if I lose it, I’ll get in big trouble, so I’d better keep it safe.”

And thus it got buried in the ground, in a spot only the servant knew. It would be safe there.

By the same token, no good things would happen to that money stashed away, either. While it was tucked away in that safe dark spot, it was a useless, sterile thing. Nothing could be done to it, but neither could it do anything. It was, for all intents and purposes, useless.

That’s the thing about valuable gifts. If they don’t get used, they have no value. That golden talent might be worth a king’s fortune in economic terms, but it might as well be 75 pounds of manure…as a matter of fact, if we’re putting things in the ground, the manure would be more valuable than the gold!

We can understand this servant’s reluctance to put the talent at risk. But the master trusted him enough to give it to him. The servant should have recognized and remembered that trust. The other servants did, and when they were given their talents, they put them to good use. Perhaps they invested them by purchasing some land that others would farm. Perhaps they bought a warehouse full of grain, expecting that the value of the grain would increase in times of drought, then selling it at a profit. Who knows? What we do know is that they did something to increase the value of those talents. They understood that the talents were valueless unless they were put to use.

Why did they do something different than the fellow who put the talent into the ground? Because they saw that truth – the value of a thing is in its being put to use. Even a painting by Michelangelo is valueless if it is put in a vault where no eyes can behold it.

How do we set a price, a value, on valuable things? If it is a piece of art, it is what a collector or a museum will pay for it. If it is stock in a company, it is what investors believe will be the potential value of the business, how much profit it will make, what kinds of new products are waiting in the wings. If it is the last letter your grandma sent you before she died, it is in the sentiment, the emotions in your heart as you touch it and read it and smell her Chanel No. 5 on it.

But there are other valuable things that are more ephemeral. It is difficult to peg a market value to these things. And these things, like that great big block of gold, are also called talents.

We might call them talents, or we might call them gifts. Each of us has them.

Now these things are usually not learned skills. Talents or gifts are something different – they are qualities in us that are gifts from God. Some folks call them “spiritual gifts,” after the list of gifts that St Paul named as gifts of the spirit: gifts like prophecy, wisdom, faith, healing, interpretation, serving, giving, teaching, being merciful. An impressive list, and I suspect that most of us think we don’t have any of those gifts.

And yet we do. So I’d like to do a little experiment here. I’m going to talk about some gifts, not using the language of Paul, but the language of Henrico in 2011.

Who among you is a good listener? Stand up.

Who among you is someone people ask advice from? Stand up.

Who among you brings a casserole to someone who is sick, or who is grieving? Stand up.

Who among you has ideas for new ways we in this parish can help those in need? Who among you already works at helping those in need? Stand up.

Who among you tries to read and figure out the Bible? Stand up.

Who among you made a dish of deviled eggs or a plate of brownies for the receptions we have had after memorial services in the past year? Stand up.

Who among you prays, quietly and privately, for those whom you know are going through hard times? Stand up.

Who among you voted last week, contributing to our democracy? Stand up.

Who among you called a friend or a family member last month? Stand up.

[By now, we all should be standing up.]

You all are in possession of at least one spiritual gift. Those who listen, you may be a healer or a source of wisdom. Those who pray, you demonstrate faith. Those who bring the deviled eggs or the casseroles, you may not know it, but you may be healers! What better way to heal those who are hurting than to give them something tasty to feed their bodies? Those who read the Bible, you may be interpreters. Those of you who pray, isn’t it true that you are always looking to reinforce your own faith and spread it to others?

We all have these gifts, these talents. Some of us have ten of them. Some of us have five of them. Some of us have been given a single one, and that’s perfectly wonderful too. Because what matters is not how many gifts you have been given, but what you do with them. Do you bury them in the ground, not using them, because you fear that if you try, you will do something wrong, or that someone will think you are silly or ineffective or some kind of religious nut? Do you worry that there is only one right way to use your gift, and you don’t know what it is, so you’re safer doing nothing with the gift?

The master in the parable was angry at the servant because he did nothing with what was given him. I suspect that if the servant invested that talent, maybe even in a solar manufacturing plant in California, the master wouldn’t have been half as angry, because it would have indicated that at least the servant tried to maximize the value of what he was given. Even if the servant had put it into a bank Certificate of Deposit at a 1% interest rate, there would have been a little interest accrued by the time the master returned. The problem with this servant was that he let his fear get in the way of putting the talent to work.

Your master, your God, has given you gifts. Some of them have been big flashy talents worth $2 million dollars. Some of them have been very subtle gifts that are hard to see, but exquisitely valuable in the right place and at the right time, like the hug of a friend or the hymn you needed to hear just in that moment. But like the talent in the parable, they are gifts that are intended to be used, not stashed away.

And that is the great blessing of this place. Sometimes I think we have a bit of an inferiority complex, because we’re not as big as other parishes, or we don’t have all of the programs that some parishes have, or we only have a single priest…but none of that matters. We have all the gifts necessary for this place. So today, when we have our congregational meeting and reflect on what we have accomplished this past year and what we hope for the future, remember that: we have all the gifts necessary for the work to which God calls us. There is no Leigh Keno and Antiques Roadshow to value these things, but we don’t need an external expert to say what they are worth. We know their value in our hearts and souls. Celebrate that, and then get to work getting the most and best use out of all those beautiful gifts!

Amen.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2011 Feast of All Saints Matt 5:1-12 “And I Mean to Be One, Too!”

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. We name all those saints of this parish who went to their reward in the past year. God bless them all – we do miss them!

We religious people tend to toss around the word “saint” and assume we all know what it means – after all, aren’t many of our churches named after saints? – but perhaps it might be a good thing to take a closer look at all things saintly, and reflect upon what it means for us today.

Ummm, wait a minute. Us? Today? Saints? Aren’t saints all those people who died gruesome deaths for their faith, or who did amazing and wonderful things, or who changed the world?

Of course. Say the word “saint” and we automatically think of the big-name saints, the apostles, people like St Francis of Assisi, St Gregory the Great, St Perpetua..you’ve never heard of Perpetua? One of the early martyrs? Ah, she’s a fascinating saint, a wealthy Roman noblewoman who became a Christian. It took the Romans three tries to actually kill her off. Now that’s a saint! What about St. Giles, a hermit after whom we named our program for children who are special? He was so antisocial that he lived alone with only a talking red deer for company. All he wanted to do was pray. Different, but sure, I’ll say that’s a saint.

Yes, there’s a Hollywood view of saints that sticks in our heads, these larger than life people who are so unlike us, but there is also a deeper and truer understanding of sainthood if we look a little bit harder.

First let’s look at the word “saint.” It comes from the Latin sanctus or holy. Okay, a saint is someone who is holy. And then we have St Paul, who talks about saints in the Letter to the Romans. As a matter of fact, when he sends one of his letters to the followers of Christ in Rome, he calls them “saints.” Does this mean that they all are already holy? Have they completed their spiritual journey and thus become a final product of sorts? In fact, Paul’s Greek word, hagios, is usually translated as “saint” but also seems to mean anyone who is one of God’s people, not of the world, but of God. These Romans to whom he writes are not a finished product but people on the path to a closer and closer communion with God.

That’s a relief to me. I hear the word “saint” and my usual reaction is that saints are those big name holy people, the ones with churches named after them. I have a hard time imagining myself as that kind of holy person, all bright and shiny with a golden halo and little cherubs swooping around me. No, that’s definitely not me.

But I can imagine myself as a person on the path to a closer relationship with God. Someone who is trying, day by day, to be better, to please my Lord, to make my small corner of the world a better place.

And that’s where today’s Gospel is so very helpful.

Now it’s very early in Jesus’ active ministry. He’s just called the first apostles to join him in the work. He has begun teaching and preaching and healing people, and he has attracted quite a lot of curious people who want to find out what this miracle worker is about. And now they have come from all around, not just the immediate area, but from some of the Gentile territories as well. They want to hear what he has to say.

He goes a little way up a mountain so all of the crowd can see and hear him, and he begins to teach. And what he teaches – it is contrary to what most people expect: he tells them that it isn’t the big fancy priests in the temple who pray so loudly and pompously that are given God’s favor, it’s the lowly people. The ones like them, who struggle and suffer and try and don’t get much earthly reward. They are the blessed ones, the Greek word is makarioi, the recipients of God’s favor, but we could also say they are the holy ones, the ones who are, in a word, saints.

Jesus lays out ways in which people can be makarioi, blessed, beloved of God. But there is one thing that is missing from this list of things that earns God’s favor, that gives them the guidelines for saintliness.

Nowhere in the list of the Beatitudes does Jesus say, “Blessed are the perfect.”

Nowhere.

And that’s what gives me hope that I can be a saint, too.

Because God knows I’m not perfect. Jesus teaches about these qualities that edge us down the road toward sainthood because he knows we are not perfect. He knows that at any given time in our lives we may be able to follow one or two, or on a really good day, maybe three of these guidelines, but he doesn’t expect that we will do all of them. Only he was able to reach that standard.

Okay, I will accept that it is possible for me to be a saint. But why would I strive for sainthood? Why would any of us strive for such an exalted state, knowing that we cannot achieve perfection?

One clue might be in our own brains. We seem to be wired to believe in God. Recent studies by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran yielded results which led him, an atheist, to say “ [my result] seems to imply there is neural circuitry whose activity is conducive to religious belief. It's not that we have some God module in our brains, but we may have specialised circuits for belief."[1]

It is not surprising that an atheist would reduce his findings to scientific process or firing neurons rather than faith. If, however, we look to scientists who are believers for further explication, the idea of being wired to believe gets even more traction. We might get a more sensitive and satisfying view of our desire to believe and to be at one with the divine from the great early psychologist and philosopher William James, who noted that science might not be the best tool with which to examine faith or religious belief. His view about the relationship between humanity and the divine might best be summed up by his observation in The Varieties of Religious Experience that “there is something wrong in us as we naturally stand” – in other words, we are imperfect beings – and that “we are saved from that wrongness by making proper connections with the higher powers.”[2] In other words, James affirms what Jesus was teaching. There is a way of being better people, following the divine more perfectly, of being makarios, saintly, blessed…and to get there, there is a process to follow, a way of living that is often counter to what the world teaches.

We strive to be better, as James has observed, because our very hearts and minds yearn toward God, yearn to be more worthy, and to do that, we need to live our lives in a particular way.

That way of living, that is the way of the saints, and of those of us who aspire to a glimmer of sainthood in our own souls. And that is a way of living that we actually can recognize, if we think of the good souls whom we have sent on home to God in the past year. They took that journey down that countercultural path long ago, whether it was George Fore’s deep and rich life of prayer and study and service, Nadine and Alex Mickel’s warm gift of hospitality, Pete Whitlock’s insistence that he would repair everything including the kitchen sink around here, because no job was menial or unimportant when it came to serving God. They were saints. Not capital-S saints who had churches named after them, but the great cloud of witnesses, the group of believers sitting at the foot of the mountain listening to Jesus teach, the disciples in Rome hoping that St Paul would get to visit them soon. Saints, holy ones, blessed and recipients of God’s favor because of how they chose to live their lives, in a way that makes sense to us, but not to the rest of the world.

So the lesson we learn from Jesus and the lesson that we learned from all of these Epiphany saints is that each one of us has it in us to be a saint. We don’t have to be martyred like Perpetua or Peter, we don’t have to be a pope like Gregory, we don’t even have to be a hermit like Giles. We simply have to follow the roadmap to a different way of life, step on that path and keep on walking it. That is how God calls each and every one of us to sainthood, and trusts that each and every one of us can be saints.

And if you doubt it, here’s some encouragement from an unlikely source, another person whom we lost this past year, who might not make anyone’s list for sainthood but might have it more right than some of us religious folks…a few parting words from Steve Jobs:

“Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”[3]

Can we be crazy enough to believe that we too can be saints? Jesus thought so, St Paul thought so, and Steve Jobs in his own unique way though so. Who are you to argue?

Amen.



[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/feb/24/1

[2] William James, Writings 1902-1910, New York: The Library of America, 1987

[3] “Think Different” Apple Marketing Campaign, 1997