Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What Makes a Saint a Saint?


February 27, 2018 - George Herbert


Yesterday, in a terrible loss not only to my Lent Madness bracket but also to a Christian theology of sainthood, Esther defeated Lazarus 77% to 23%. Let me start by saying that Esther was a more impressive human being than Lazarus. She is the star of the book of the Bible that bears her name. In it, she saves the people of Israel from the wicked Haman, who in a fit of jealous rage had convinced Ahasuerus, the hapless king of Persia, to have all the Jews in Persia killed. Risking her own life, she approached the king and, through a carefully concocted party plan, flipped the script, resulting in Haman's own hanging. Her bravery and devotion to her people is remarkable. But that doesn't make her a saint.

Lazarus, on the other hand, did almost nothing except die a timely death. Both of his sisters, Mary and Martha, are credited with doing more for Jesus than he did. Basically, we know nothing more of Lazarus than that he was Jesus' friend who died and whom Jesus called back from the dead as a prefigurement of his own resurrection. There are legends that arose after Lazarus' death, but all of them are pure conjecture--attempts to fill out the story of a man whose sainthood has less to do with a dramatic biography of his own and more to do with his relationship with Jesus Christ. And that's exactly what makes him a saint.

You are a saint. I am a saint. And we're saints not because of anything we've done but because of what Christ Jesus has done in us. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters, he began them by addressing his readers as "saints" or "holy ones." That is how the first Christians understood themselves--as having been made holy by Jesus. As I heard from my friend and colleague, Mark Waldo, Jr., this weekend at our Diocesan Ultreya, "holy" is a term we don't use lightly, yet it's a term God himself uses of each of us because of the holiness Jesus has given us. As the Methodist hymnal reminds us by putting the Spanish translation "Santo, santo, santo" of the hymn "Holy, holy, holy" on the adjacent page, the words "holy" and "saint" are interchangable. Those of us who are made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ are holy ones or saints.

Today, we celebrate the life and witness of George Herbert, the Welsh-born poet and Anglican priest. Known mostly for his writing, Herbert was also a remarkable parish clergyman...for the three years that he served before succumbing to ill health and the demands of the job. Although he considered a career in the church in his twenties, he wasn't ordained until his mid-thirties, but he devoted himself unfailingly to the care of his parish. Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that he was "unselfish in his devotion and service to others." Wikipedia tells us that he dragged his family into church twice a day every day, walked to the cathedral for services twice a week, sang in the choir, brought the sacraments to those who were ill, and provided food and clothing to those in need. Never a healthy man, Herbert exhausted himself physically and died, leaving us both in his writings and in his lived example an expectation of priestly life that is utterly unattainable and unsustainable, which is to say that his failure to persist beyond three years is itself a reminder that our identity as the holy ones of God is given to us not because of our abilities or our accomplishments but because of our faith in Jesus.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...the merciful...[and] the pure in heart...Blessed are the peacemakers...[and] those who are persecuted for righteousness sake." They are the blessed ones. They are the ones upon whom God looks and says, "You are the recipient of my blessing; you are the vessel of blessedness." That is the description of holiness that Jesus himself gives us. And what has any of them accomplished? Poor? Meek? Hungry and thirsty for righteousness? Merciful and pure in heart? One who makes peace, perhaps, has done something. Those who are persecuted are called blessed because of what has been done to them. But all of them are blessed because they belong to Jesus and because belonging to Jesus has changed them in ways visible to the rest of the world. That's sainthood. That's holiness. That's what it means to follow Jesus. 

As the Presiding Bishop has said on numerous occasions, God loves you right where you are, but God isn't going to leave you there. Because of Jesus Christ, God looks upon us as holy ones. Jesus the Incarnate Son of God imputes holiness to humanity. We shine with that holiness when we believe that it is indeed possible for God to love us not because of what we've done or who we are but because of what God has done for us. That's the gospel. That's the Christian faith. We celebrate saints like George Herbert and Lazarus and even Esther because of how their faith in God has become manifest in their lives. Like us, they are saints not because of what they have done but because of what God has done for them and in them and through them. May we, too, be saints of God--those who are holy and whose holiness shines through because of God's love for us. 

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