Sunday, November 4, 2007

Hope, Riches, Greatness, and Other All-American Values

Hope, Riches, Greatness,
and Other All-American Values

Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Thirty—first Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 4, 2007

Ephesians 1:11—23

As remainders and waistline reminders of the candy stash of last week linger in homes and offices, today, as some of us may be all too prone to forget, is not “the Sunday after Halloween.” Oh, of course, it is that, but in terms of the church calendar, that is not the name of the day. Halloween began its life as a sort of tag—along holiday, the eve — the “een” in Halloween is a shortened form of “even” or “evening.” Just as Christmas Eve derives its importance only from being the evening before the actual holy day, Christmas, “All Hallow’s Even” simply preceded the day the church considered important, a day which for centuries has been important across all cultures as a sort of ecclesiastical Memorial Day: All Saints Day. It was a day to remember the saints of God who have carried the gospel from the first century to this one, from one generation to the next to the next and to the next until it has reached our own ears, now virtually lost in the culture amid the clutter of costumes and candy, spooks and goblins.

Presbyterians — like many of the other children of the Reformation — don't know exactly what to do with a holy day like All Saints. For one thing, like Christmas, it stays on the same day every year, November 1st, and we only find ourselves in church for that day every six or seven years. Not many of us were here last Thursday to celebrate All Saints. Additionally, we don't really recognize saints in the sense that our Roman Catholic friends do. We may talk about Saint Matthew or Saint Frances or Saint Nicholas, but we don't canonize a few especially holy people as official saints of the church and name holidays after them. Of course, through time, not even all saints named by the Roman church have become household names. A few are quite obscure and some for good reason. For instance, how many recall

  • Saint Brigid (c. 450—525), who was said to have hung her wet laundry on sunbeams, taught a fox to dance, and — perhaps as patron saint of micro-breweries — changed her dirty bath water into beer so that visiting clergymen would have something to drink;
  • Two saints who were in the running for patron saint of incandescence, Saint Fillian (8th century) whose left arm was said to have glowed so brightly he could read from it at night; and Saint Martin de Porres (1579—1639) who was said to glow in the dark when he prayed;
  • And then there was one who must have become the patron saint of veterinarians, Saint Eligius (c. 590 — c. 660) who tried to nail a horseshoe on the hoof of a restless horse, but the animal was so fidgety that he had to saw off its leg to do it. He reattached the leg afterwards by making the sign of the cross over it.

Given the discomfort that egalitarian Protestants have with the idea of saints, it might be surprising to discover that many carry around questions about the topic nonetheless. I have been asked many times through the years concerning what we are supposed to think about saints. I have come up with a definition for the saints of God that satisfies me. Before I share it with you, we'll need to walk through a bit of language to see what the word “saint” was actually meant to represent.

Saintliness is a real life issue in the Bible, where Paul said,

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers...” and, “...with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints...”

In Ephesians, the word we translate as “saint” is agious which in its shortest definition means simply “holy.” And holiness in both Old and New Testaments has to do with being set apart. God is holy to us because, among other reasons, God is not like us, God is different, something other than just another human being. God is set apart from us the way a painter is not a part of his painting or a sculptor a part of her sculpture. The sacrifices in the temple were said to be holy because they were set apart from their common use — that is, as food — and dedicated for use as a means of worshiping God.

So what is it that can be said to make people holy, “sainted?” We can follow the lead provided by the phrase, “holy sacrifice.” In the Old Testament, an animal offered in the temple as a sacrifice may not have been flawless, but it was to be the best that its owner could possibly find and afford, and it was to be offered up in its entirety. Following that line of thinking, when our lives are offered up in service to others, it has a sanctifying — and “holy—making” — effect on us, and more importantly, on the world around us.

Saints — and here comes my definition — the word “saints” may signify nothing more complicated than those who are exceptionally willing to set their lives aside for others. Their lives are made holy because they have set them apart, holy sacrifices that move from concern with self to concern with others.

Isn't that what lies at the heart of saintliness in our own life's experiences? Who is a saint you most remember for having had a positive impact on your life? If you are thinking of a person right now, as I am, isn't it true that one of the reasons they are holy to you is that they were set aside for you, that they had a willingness in your own experience to set their life aside for you?

Every church has them, but they don't have a holiday in their honor, most of them, nor would they seek one. This church is blessed with saints aplenty, I have been observing them going about their sainted work every day since I arrived here.

In my former congregation, a member of the church forwarded an e-mail to me which she had received from her college daughter, who, through her college, was engaged in an international experience in India. While both she and her family would reject any connection with saintliness — a bona fide characteristic of all true saints — I believe the e-mail gave evidence of a saint in the making in the New Testament sense of setting self aside for others. Here is what she wrote to her mother and father:

Hey guys! [OK, she takes a minute to warm up the saintly language...] Wow, what a day. I'm in India right now...

...Well I just got back from Mother Theresa’s Orphanage and it was such an amazing experience. I’m not so good with words and don't really know how to describe it. We walked from the YMCA to the place and the streets we walked through were really what I imagined India to be like: dirty, overpopulated, many different unpleasant smells and poor families living on the side of the road under plastic tarps. But when we got to Mother Theresa's place it seemed surprisingly secluded and clean. We got a tour and found out that many people lived there: abandoned children, elderly men and women and aids patients. Each had different wards. The people were super friendly and eagerly shook our hands and put their hands together in the Hindu prayer position.

We got into the children’s ward and were told that we could do whatever we wanted so most of us just played with the kids. They were kids around the ages of 3 to 8 or so. I immediately noticed a little boy around the age of 4. His face was extremely deformed and I had a hard time looking at him without disgust. He had eyes but he was blind. His forehead caved in, and nose and lips very screwed up. They were being fed lunch and no one was helping him so I started feeding him. At first I thought I’d just be nice and feed him for awhile. I ended up sitting with him for over an hour. It was such an amazing experience....some of these kids just need love and attention. I was hesitant at first about touching him and I can’t believe how shallow that was. So I tried to grab his hand. He didn’t seem to like it at first. I wonder if he really had ever been touched before. After a few attempts to just let me hold his hand I started stroking his little hand while I fed him mouthfuls of the yellow mush. After a while he started reciprocating the stroking into my hand. By that time I had started crying. What a lifelong memory this will be. A little later while his hand was still in mine and I was still feeding him tears started running down his cheeks. He had such a hard time crying because of his eyes’ deformity but managed a few tears. Then he had a big smile on his face. He had been so non-expressive before. I'm sorry I'm not very good at describing this situation but I feel like this was such a powerful experience, I don't know how it will change me. I’m so glad I'm on [this program] so I can have similar experiences to this. There's so much to see in this world...

Well I hope this wasn’t too sappy. I love you guys and hope you're well. As usual (and I know I write this in every letter) thanks for your support of me as I’m on this program. It’s so amazing here. I love you!

Well, no, it wasn't too sappy, if anything it was brutally straightforward. Apparently, opportunities for elevation to sainthood — for setting self aside in favor of taking up the need of others — exist everywhere: on street corners, in offices, behind the front doors of our neighbors' homes, in care centers and hospitals, at community food bank facilities, at the market, in elementary and secondary schools, in the college dorm... I would say that there is hardly a direction one could look without finding some opportunity for the fast track to sainthood. It just might not be the sort of privileged position we might have had in mind.

But it is the means by which we can discover that we have received the hope, riches and glory of which Paul spoke when he wrote to the Ephesians all those centuries ago.