Sunday, November 25, 2007

Holding Together

Holding Together

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Jeremiah 23:1-6 — Luke 23:32-43
November 25, 2007

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying,

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Driving along the road, I have occasionally seen those crude signs, we all probably have, that simply declare, “Jesus is Lord.” “Lord” is really just another word for royalty, another way of saying that this simple peasant Jesus whom we come to worship is also his Majesty, Lord Jesus. The typical roadside location of such a sign is disingenuous in its own way. It rarely appears atop a tall building, or on large, well-lighted highway billboards or on Times Square. It is a type of sign pretty much confined to the small sort of cardboard-on-a-stake poster that can be pounded into the ground among the weeds along the roadside, or slathered in crude whitewash on the side of a building or a bridge abutment. Hardly the stuff of Madison Avenue ads for liquor or cars, and made all the more ridiculous for its low self-esteem as advertising goes.

I don’t know why, but as I drove from Seattle to Salem a few months back, I noticed a restaurant along the way with its name, Whimpie’s, emblazoned on a sign out front, and underneath the name a signboard displayed a series of three words. But the effect was in seeing them all together, the disjunction, when you read, “Whimpie’s: strong, proud, united.”

“Whimpy” and “strong, proud and united.” Those are things that are hard to hold together in the same frame.

Think on kings for a moment. Think on Pharaohs, on Ramses I, on Emperor Julius Caesar, on King Louis XIV, on King George III, on Henry VIII, on Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, on Catherine the Great, Czar Nicholas I, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, on Alexander the Great and the Emperor Napoleon. All that glitters may not be gold, but when we think of royalty, we think of unfettered power and gilded glory.

Then take another moment to think on a different cast of characters. Think on Corey Hamilton, Roy Pippin, Chris Newton, Kenneth Parr, Clifford Kimmel, Lonnie Johnson, John Hightower. These names, by the sound of them, could be a list of corporate CEOs, or outstanding athletes, or scholarship winners. But they are not. Few of us would have recognized that as a roster of a few of the 42 people executed by the end of September in the USA, 26 of them in Texas.

How little the one list has to do with the other, a role call of history’s well-known and celebrated alongside a roll-call of the despised and forgotten. A Sunday set aside to honor Christ the king sends me into this sort of reflection on incongruities and unlikelihoods.

What does it mean to worship a king who rules from atop a cross, a sovereign whose realm is substantiated by his own execution, whose courtiers are no more than two others who share the same crucified fate? John’s account of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion has it that Pilate directed the sign to be made to place over Jesus’ head, declaring him to be “king of the Jews.” All the gospels agree there was some such sign on the cross. It’s difficult to tell who would have been mocked more by this, the pathetic figure dying on the cross, or the Jews themselves, a people so enfeebled politically that their king might as well have been an executed criminal. Their hopes for empire were as good as dead, as much as the figure before them on the cross was only hours from from drawing his last breath.

There is so much to know about the theology of the cross of Christ, and also there is a great deal to be explored about the image of kingship in both Old and New Testaments, but this day on the church’s calendar brings together both cross and crown in a way that makes it difficult to ignore either one, and yet they seem so impossible to hold together in the same thought. A crucified king. A crowned enemy of the state. An executed monarch who reigns.

Sending a king who rules through his own death and resurrection, God makes an important statement to the world about power, who has it and to what ends and by what means it is exercised. This is the foundational stuff of our faith. Clearly, if the crucified Jesus is a king, he rules over some other kind of kingdom than the sort to which we are most accustomed. If the world is ever to understand Jesus as king, it cannot do so without also holding up, together with his royal image, the image of the crucified one. He is crowned, but with thorns. He is enthroned, but on a cross. He gazes down on his subjects, but from the very instrument of his execution. The crucified king. He is both, always.

A close friend of mine said of the executed Messiah, “He never lost sight of who he was.” Meantime, we have such difficulty holding together these two aspects of Jesus, the crucified Messiah. It is the crux of his royalty: power and powerlessness wrapped up in one person.

It is Jesus, the supreme authority who questions authority. Scripture suggests that while we should obey those in authority, we also ought not take them too seriously. One student of these things reminded his readers that Jesus told his followers to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he never spelled out exactly what belonged to Caesar (Matthew 22:21). Paul said we should obey political authorities because their authority derives from God (Romans 13:1-6). But neither Jesus nor Paul hesitated to act on their faith in ways that were bound to draw the displeasure of the authorities.1

William Wilberforce is a name too little known in contemporary times, yet his work of almost two centuries ago changed the world forever. In the mid 18th century, he was a young, wealthy, wild, carefree English aristocrat. Then he found himself at a Wesleyan revival meeting where he set all that aside and decided to exercise his faith by entering ... politics. That’s right, politics. When he felt the call of God, this wealthy young man felt it drawing him into the world of government. He was elected to Parliament and for 40 years he was England’s leading crusader against slavery. In 1787, when he began his crusade, European slave ships carried 100,000 newly captured slaves to the Americas each year. England led the way, carrying half of this number. The British economy had prospered and, some would say, grown dependent on this trade. There were those, like our own Thomas Jefferson, who lamented the “peculiar institution,” but who never lifted a finger to stop it. Jefferson died without freeing his slaves, and Washington freed his only upon his death.

Wilberforce knew this trade was a sin against God. He and his allies prayed three hours a day over the many obstacles in their way. Though his opponents insisted that abolition of the slave trade would ruin the British economy, he insisted that righteousness is more important than money. After 20 years, the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. In 1833, the very year Wilberforce died, the Parliament abolished slavery altogether, the culmination of the work of a lifetime, of a person now largely forgotten, but with implications that continue to stretch from his time to our own. Eventually, over time, the rest of the world followed his example so that today slavery is an almost universally despised institution, though it most certainly still exists in several forms in the modern world.

William Wilberforce was able to accomplish this because he believed in the crucified King, that Jesus is Lord of politics as well as of our hearts.

The words Jesus spoke from his cross of death are the most startling incongruity of all. Looking to his side, where one of the thieves crucified with him had asked simply to be remembered in his kingdom — “What kingdom?” the bystanders must have wanted to ask of this pathetic man whose near-death delirium was clearly causing hallucinations — to him Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” One writer said the guards themselves might “have felt something like embarrassment and turned away from the sheer lunacy of the scene.”2 Yet today it is Christ we remember as king, not Herod, not Caesar, not Napoleon.

Jesus, the suffering one, Christ the king. How do we hold together these two seemingly contradictory thoughts? Paul wrote to the Colossians, “.. in him all things hold together.”3 The fact is, we don’t have to hold anything together. It is Christ who holds the world together, it is in his own person that crucifixion and majesty reside. We cannot alter it either through better understanding of it or worse. It is so because it is who he is.

Christ the King Sunday always turns up on the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, a week before we begin to consider Jesus’ advent, his birth and then his ministry in the world. It is an important reminder as we think about entering the season of the Bethlehem baby that he would come one day to rule, not from a throne, but from a cross.

What do we give to such a king who suffers for our sakes? How do we honor him? We can offer him something only when we offer someone else something, a cup of cold water to “one of the least,” perhaps; a life committed to leaving the world better for Christ’s sake, as did William Wilberforce; a commitment to maintaining a state and country in which the freedom of all places obligations on the liberty of each.

All hail Jesus, the crucified King who reigns forever!
1 William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World, InterVarsity Press.
2 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, Seabury Press, 1969, p. 63.
3 Colossians 1:17.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Welcome to the Hotel California

Welcome to the Hotel California

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Isaiah 65:17-25 November 18, 2007

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

The title for this sermon comes from a song by the band called the Eagles from a couple of decades ago. The song’s title line is set in a rather persistent melody and tends to stay in your head, which is probably why it has stayed in mine if not yours. If you are not familiar with the song, just take my word for it, no need to rush out and buy it. The refrain declares:

“Welcome to the Hotel California.”

And then in the final line from the song, a line that tends to stay with you:

“ can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

This song came to my mind when I began thinking about the context of the first recipients of the hope-filled message of Isaiah in the reading we shared today. In the beginning of the chapter from which we read, God declared,

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.

Apparently, the folks in Israel had become accustomed to God’s absence. At least they had become accustomed to thinking of God as absent. I remember playing hide and seek when I was a youngster, the sort of memory that many of you will likely share. There was always the danger of hiding yourself away too well, of being ready to be sought out by those who do not seek, of finally needing to cry out, “Here I am!” to those who had either accidentally or purposefully overlooked us. Perhaps that is the way God felt about his chosen people.

The end of Isaiah’s prophecy addresses a people in the thrall of futility and depression. They had been to Babylon in its heyday. They knew what a major empire looked like. Now they were home again, and their capital city looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than the seat of empire.

Yet like the losing coach on the sideline, who alone among the heavy shouldered figures on the field knows that there will be a better day in the future, Isaiah’s prophecy declared that it is precisely in the midst of spiritual depression and futility that people of faith must remain faithful. Judah had been characterized as a people who followed “their own devices,” serving as a law unto themselves. This sounds familiar to anyone in our own time who tries to establish community norms for behavior while the popular ethic of the day declares that individualism is the highest philosophical good and that no one can tell us what to do.

In 587 B.C., the people had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and removed from Judah into Babylon, what is now Iraq. There they remained for more than a generation, the best and brightest of the chosen people walking the narrow byways of a Jewish ghetto in Babylon until, in 538 B.C., the Persians became the dominant empire in the Fertile Crescent and by edict of the Emperor Cyrus1, exiled peoples were all returned to their original homelands. For those 40 years in captivity, it must have seemed as if they had checked into the “Hotel California,” where you could “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

And though they had been eager to get back to the homeland their parents and grandparents had told them so much about, things didn’t change all that much from their Spartan living conditions in Babylon. They arrived back in the homeland their forebears had left 40 years before — having heard all those stories around the fires of a beautiful land, a fertile land, a glorious Temple — only to find the land a shambles, the Temple reduced to a pile of rocks, ruin everywhere they looked. A new Temple was slapped together, but it was a shabby structure when compared with the Temple of Solomon. Where were the cedar timbers? Where were the gold fittings? Gone, all gone. Then, after 40 or 50 years of struggle to make a new life in the old homeland, it must have seemed as if they had come to a place where you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

So, you have people trapped in an existence which is grueling at best, a future that looked like nothing but more of the same, a past which, as long as anyone alive could remember, was pretty much like the present they now knew. All that remained of the glory of God’s chosen people now were stories from their great grandparents, stories of other times when Israel was great. Their remembered stories of the beauties of Mount Zion, now seen with their own eyes, seemed a fairy tale.

Then came Isaiah with his lofty and extravagant vision of a whole creation made new, an end to tears, a new beginning. Did they think he was crazy? Apparently they did not, at least not ultimately, as they preserved his words for us to share today. It is seers like Isaiah who provide humanity with a view of what can be when humanity’s vision has become limited and earth-bound. When we are overwhelmed with the feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be, Isaiah tells us of the way things will be in the kingdom of a God who never forgets that he loves his people.

How would that look in our present world? One scholar said that if we tried on as fantastic a vision for our times as Isaiah presented to his we would find “nations and races in this brave new world would treasure differences in other nations and races as attractive, important, complementary...Government officials would still take office...but, to nobody’s surprise, they would tell the truth and freely praise the virtues of other public officials. Public telephone books would be left intact. Highway overpasses would be graffiti-free...motorists would be serene on city streets, secure in the knowledge that...former gang members are now all in law school...Business associates would rejoice in each others’ promotions...Newspapers would be filled with well-written accounts of acts of great moral beauty.”2

If any of this makes us smile knowingly, recognizing as we do that this is the stuff of dreams, not reality, then we are likely in company with those who first received this prophecy from Isaiah.

But how is it that we know when things are wrong in our world? How do we know for sure that it is not right to abuse one another, to live for self only, to pocket the public’s money? We only know these things to be wrong not because there is a perfect nation or state somewhere to which we compare our own faulty one, but because we know together an ideal, a vision of the way things are supposed to be. No matter how the world is, all of us carry inside us a dream or a picture of the way things should be. We may like to play the cynic sometimes, but we only know ourselves to be cynical in those moments because we have a feel for the truth of the world that God intended to bring into being.

As I look at Isaiah’s vision for the world I recognize that I am struck by the total newness of it. It opens with God’s declaration, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth...” and concludes with a line about “the serpent—its food shall be dust.”3 To speak of a new heaven and earth is to speak of a new creation and the suffering that followed upon the very first act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It is to peel back the history of humanity’s suffering through its sins, beyond the wrong-doing of the present generation, or even Isaiah’s generation, back to “the original point of rupture between God and his people.”4 For the former things to be put away for good, God must begin again. As another song of the late 70’s put it, “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Problem is, we can’t get back there ourselves. To do that, we need an act of God.

Don’t let go of that vision because it is God’s business to bring it to pass instead of ours. Cherish it. It is not false or wrong simply because it has not yet come fully to fruition, any more than the inventions coming in this 21st century are false or wrong because we have not invented them yet. They are out there. They will be discovered.

Remember the verse from the beginning of Isaiah with which we began this sermon?

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.

In light of that, one promise in Isaiah’s vision stands out more than all the rest:

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

This is the gift that a community of faith has to offer the world. The gift of hope, hope grounded in a God who is bigger than our most profound perceptions of him yet who is so ready to respond to us that his answer precedes our asking. The community of faith — as it celebrates its baptism into the kingdom of God — gives to the world a vision of God’s coming purpose for creation in which wolves and lambs will feed together, where harm and destruction will no longer characterize our existence. That such a day is coming is our confession, and the vision of it rules our actions and our lives in the time in between that day and this.


1. Whom the Lord names as “my anointed” in Isaiah 45:1.
2. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Not the Way It’s S’pposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” Theology Today, July, 1993, p. 183
3. Genesis 3:14.
4. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Abingdon, 2001, p. 544.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Working for Peanuts

“Working for Peanuts”
© Copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 11, 2007

When Paul began detailing the ways in which some of the folks in that early church in the city of Thessalonica were not pulling their weight, I can imagine that many in that little fellowship cringed to hear the truth-telling, no matter how true it was. “For we hear, ” Paul wrote in his letter, which was surely read in the middle of the gathering of that little church, since New Testament letters were designed to edify the whole church, and few could read them on their own anyway, “that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”

True as such things may be, we often create elaborate ways to avoid such truth, especially in church, because to face it means to have to do something about it. A study of any dysfunctional family will turn up many methods by which all the family members carry on their elaborate charades to avoid confrontation with truth. But not the apostle, not Paul. His hard words of truth remind me of a short modern parable I read several years ago, entitled, “The Day Rev. Henderson Bumped His Head.” [by William Willimon, in Leadership, Spring, 1998, pp. 39-41.] I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts with you:
Leaning down toward the bottom shelf to retrieve his trusty Strong’s Concordance to pursue “new moon” through both testaments, the Reverend Henry Henderson, pastor of Sword of Truth Presbyterian Church, bumped his head,

“Darn,” he exclaimed, grabbing his forehead.

This he followed immediately with [a stronger expletive] which was muttered with atypical candor. The rather non-ministerial ejaculation surprised Henderson. He could hardly believe he said it. [Then] he heard himself say [it] again. “This hurts.”

That, so far as the Reverend Henderson could tell, was how it all began—an accidental blow to the brain while reaching for a concordance.

Moments later, the phone rang.

“Pastor,” whined a nasal voice at the other end, “are you busy?”

“Not at all...” said Henderson out of habit. Then, from nowhere Henderson said, “I’m sitting here in my study just dying for someone like you to call and make my day! No, I am busy. I was working on my sermon for next Sunday. What is it?”

His words paralyzed him. They must also have stunned the whiny voice at the other end of the line, for there was a long, awkward silence followed by “Er, well, I’ll call you at home tonight after work, Pastor.”

“No,” said Henderson firmly, alien words forming in his mouth as if not by his own devising, “call me during office hours on any day other than Friday. Thank you. Good-bye.”

The receiver dropped from his hand and into the telephone cradle. He felt odd. Yes, quite odd. His head no longer throbbed. Yet he felt odd.

Emerging from his study, he encountered Jane Smith, come to church for her usual Friday duties for the altar guild. “As usual, just me,” she said to Henderson. “They all say they’ll be on the guild, that they don’t mind helping out the church. Yet, when it comes time for the work, where are they?”

“I think you know very well why they are not here,” said Henderson. “You gave them only a half-hearted invitation. Everyone knows you love playing the martyr. Their absence helps bolster your holier-than-thou attitude.”

Smith nearly dropped the offering plate she was holding, along with the polishing cloth and the Brasso™.

“Pastor! How dare you accuse me of being a complainer! You know how hard I’ve worked to get the altar guild going! If you gave us volunteers the kind of support we ought to...”
Henderson wasn’t listening. He staggered down the hall as Jane Smith continued her complaint. He was feeling dizzy, unsteady...

...He was a pastor in peril.

Henderson at the hospital that afternoon, Room 344: “So the doctor tells you your heart problems are congenital? That so? Are you sure the doctor didn’t mention anything about (by my reckoning) eighty pounds of excess fat?”

And in Room 204: “Really? So this is the strain of emphysema that is not caused by smoking? Give me a break! Two packs a day for thirty years, and you wonder why you’re sucking on an oxygen tank for dear life?”...

...That fateful Sunday service, after a pastoral prayer in which Henderson admitted to God that “Most of us didn’t really want to hear anything truthful you have to reveal to us,” an emergency meeting of the Pastor/Parish Committee was called...

You can probably fill in the end of the story.

It was Flannery O’Conner, I think, who once reworded a familiar Bible phrase by adding a new twist, saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Paul never needed a blow to the head to inspire him to declare what was true, but I am certain that more than once his unwillingness to soften the truth of the gospel must have made him a bit odd to those on the receiving end of truth they had made a practice of hiding. I can imagine there were a few sluggards in the Thessalonian congregation who dreaded to see an envelope arrive at the church with a return address bearing Paul’s name.

Their error wasn’t mere sloth, a simple laziness that afflicted some of the believers in Thessalonica. The fact is, there were some in that congregation who had decided that Jesus was going to return very shortly, so soon, in fact, that they determined that they might as well stop work. Why work when Jesus would soon be there to set everything right? By believing as they did, they became a burden on the others in their fellowship. Who was supposed to keep these blissful non-workers and their families from starving?

We may find this a bit quaint, even odd, but I have to say, we have not yet begun to hear the end of the end-of-the-world prophets who seem to find ever more fascination with people who declare the end or beginning of all manner of things is just around the next corner. Just remember, this is nothing new, and don’t quit your day job. Around 200 A.D., in a region in what is now northern Turkey, a church leader reported to his followers that he had dreams that the final judgment was coming at the end of the year. Many Christian believers in the area abandoned their fields and sold their personal possessions in anticipation of a day which did not come by the end of the year, indeed, which has not yet come. It has been happening ever since. Remember all the dire end-of world predictions before the dawn of the new century? Where are those prognosticators now? So-called spiritual leaders have been taking the gullible for a ride for centuries. Just remember Paul’s word: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you...but with toil and labor we worked night and day...”

This is not to say that such a “Day of the Lord” is never coming. The Bible seems clearly to suggest that it is. It is to say that we have plenty of word from that same Bible about what we should be doing in anticipation, and none of it suggests we should simply stop doing the good work of God and sit by the side of the road to wait for the end. Paul said, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

It is a truth, even though it is one that may be hard to hear. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul said, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” This goes for the righteous, industrious ones who do more than their share as well as the idle ones who do little, if anything. The hard workers must not take the example of the slothful as their excuse to despair in their task, and the slothful ones must not be left to their sin, as if it doesn’t matter.

This passage seems like an appropriate reminder of the nobility of work, of committing ourselves to doing some small, useful work, even though we know that other great things may be underway in the world.

In his one of his Bible commentaries , 16th century reformer John Calvin said, “In vain do persons who are delighted with an easy, indolent life, and with exemption from the cross, undertake a profession of Christianity.” He went on: “The true self-denial which the Lord demands...does not consist so much in outward conduct as in the affections; so that every one must employ the time which is passing over him without allowing the objects which he directs by his hand to hold a place in his heart.”

Whether we work for peanuts or for millions, scripture is clear in its declaration that we are to work for the betterment of all until that time when the Best of all comes, lays our work aside, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Scandal in the Suburbs

Here is an item from Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac"

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Poem: "A Scandal in the Suburbs" by X.J. Kennedy, from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955–2007. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

A Scandal in the Suburbs

We had to have him put away,
For what if he'd grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes!
His soapbox preaching set the tongues
Of all the neighbors going.
Odd stuff: how lilies never spin
And birds don't bother sowing.
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then-the foot-wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.

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.