When the Saints Come Marching in...Who Will be in that Number?
All Saints Day, November 1, is a holiday in the New Orleans area. Traditionally you go to your family graves and wash them. Saints are a big thing in that heavily Catholic area. The football team is called the Saints, roads and neighborhoods are named after saints, not just churches, and the theme song of the area is "When the Saints Come Marching In." And they really do play that song while pardading down the street for a jazz funeral. Behind the main group they'll be another marching to the beat, pumping umbrellas. That's called "second lining," and that's about as close to being a saint as any of you think you're going to get. You won't be in the first line when the saints come marching in, but maybe in the second.
Not so fast there. Do you really think you can make even the second line? Have you ever read any of the lives of the saints? People we generally call saints dedicated their whole lives to helping the poor, the needy, the sick, the aged or the young. They lived selfless lives. I have to admit under the common definition of saint Mother Theresa certainly fits. Her work among the disease infested streets of Calcutta is truly amazing.
What amazes me even more about the lives of the saints is that most of them didn't do heroic things but ordinary everyday things that I can't see myself doing. Most of them did the things that nursing home workers and day care workers do in our day. Only they were not paid at all and usually lived in as much poverty as those they helped. Furthermore, they generally lived without any recognition of what they were doing. I think I could do what they did IF I got all the publicity and accolades that celebrities do in our day when they go to Ground Zero in New York or volunteer in a soup kitchen. But it's another matter to do a thankless task thanklessly.
The impossibility of being a saint even in the second line comes home not only when I examine the lives of the saints but when I examine their deaths. Many of the people popularly called saints didn't die pretty deaths. Beaten, tortured, teeth pulled, skinned alive, tongue nailed to a post, whipped, eyes put out, eviscerated, devoured by beasts, burned alive. Many others commonly called saints didn't die violently, but they died nobly with some pious confession of faith on their lips. They didn't die with the fear and trembling I expect to die with but with bold St. Paul like statements.
Now if all of this doesn't depress your All Saints Sunday, then our Gospel reading has to. The Beatitudes have been the Gospel reading for All Saints for centuries, but I've never preached on them, and you know why, don't you? Because they pronounce as blessed only the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who mourn, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Where does that leave me with my arrogant spirit, my strong-will, my hungering and thirsting after food not righteousness, my rejoicing not mourning, my ruthlessness not mercy, my lustful rather than pure heart, my making war not peace, my being supported in the ministry not persecuted? It leaves me not in the second line of the saints but in the second hundred line maybe!
But wait a minute. Do you think anyone ever has matched up to our Gospel reading? Do you think anyone in Church history was all of these things or any of these things? Do you think any saint ever was free from pride all the time? Did anyone ever have a mournful spirit day in and day out? Was any saint always meek even when someone repeatedly insulted them? Were they always hungry and thirsty only after righteousness? Were they really so different than me and you? Sure they were merciful some of the time, but did they never once have a ruthless attitude toward someone like an Osma Bin Laden? Granted they might have been pure in heart some times, but did not the fires of lust burn in their sinful hearts as they do in ours? And were none of them rewarded not persecuted for righteousness?
I don't think any saint in Church history has matched up. I think a joke about Mother Theresa illustrates this. A guy says that his greatest fear is that on Judgement Day he will be standing behind Mother Theresa and hear the Lord say to her, 'You know, you could've done more." That's suppose to be funny, but it's absolutely true, isn't it? Who in Church history has been the perfect person the Beatitudes say we are to be? Who in Church history could not have done more?
I know what you're thinking. We don't know enough Church history to say they were sinners just like us. Maybe not, but we sure know enough Biblical history. St. David wasn't always meek and merciful. He ruthlessly sent men off cliffs, hamstrung horses, and put a man on the front line just to kill him so he could take his wife. St. Peter's bravado about remaining faithful to Christ certainly doesn't indicate a man who is poor in spirit. And his hungering and thirsting for the food of the Jews so as to appear above the gentiles certainly wasn't hungering and thirsting after righteousness, was it? And why else would St. Paul write to Pastor Timothy to flee youthful lusts unless St. Timothy didn't always have a pure heart? I could go on to speak of Paul and Barnabas fighting and splitting up over whether to take Mark back to the mission fields; I could tell of James and John wanting to burn a village that rejected Christ, and I could tell of Mary and Martha blaming Christ because their brother died if I wanted to prove to you that Biblical history shows no saint lived up to the Beatitudes.
No saint in my own history does either. I could tell of a grandmother who was a Rosie the riveter in World War II who talked as colorfully as a steel worker. Or I could tell you of my other grandmother who one day in her 90's was pontificating on how it would be all right for a women to be a prostitute in order to provide for her family. I could go on and speak of my mother and father who while fine, loving, faithful Lutheran parents nonetheless were not all that the Beatitudes say a saint is to be.
But even this isn't the worst of it. It's not just my history that bothers me, it's myself. I'm poor in spirit as long as I don't have reason to be proud, yet I can always find one. I mourn at funerals and that's about it. I'm meek as long as I'm not offended. And I hunger and thirst after righteousness as long as I'm not hungry and thirsty for anything else. O I'm merciful to someone who deserves it (as if true mercy could be deserved). I'm pure in heart for a moment here or there. I'm a peacemaker as long as it is in my best interest. And every now and then I'm persecuted for righteousness, but more often than not I suffer justifiably for my unrighteousness.
Then on top of all this I come to church on All Saints Sunday and I pray this Collect. "Grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who unfeignedly love You." "I am toast," is all I can conclude. And not only me but all my loved ones who have died are toast if being a saint is dependent on "virtuous and godly living." Who then can be a saint when they do go marching in? The only answer is Christ. The Orthodox in the their Communion liturgy say as much every Sunday. The pastor holds up the Communion elements and says, "The Holy Things for the holy ones (Holy ones could be translated Saints.) The people don't answer with, "We are holy; here we come," but "One is holy even Jesus Christ our Lord."
Friends, when we read the Gospels we are reading about Christ. They were recorded to tell the Good News about Jesus. They are chiefly about what Jesus does for us not what we are to do for Jesus. When you hear the Beatitudes on All Saints, you should think first and foremost of Jesus. He who had the fulness of the Holy Spirit was always poor in spirit. He who knew all the joys of heaven was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, according to Isaiah. Although He had all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus was nonetheless meek. Although He had all righteousness, He hungered and thirsted for it so much that He went to the cross to die a brutal, thankless death to win righteousness for us. Though Jesus was shown no mercy even by His Father as He hung between heaven and earth, He was still merciful to sinners like us. Though He died for the lusts that fill our hearts, He was pure in heart. Though we were at war with Him because of our sins, He made peace with us. Though He lived a perfect life in our place, Jesus was persecuted as the worst criminal ever because He bore all of our sins.
The virtuous and godly life that is necessary to be a saint is available only in Jesus. Even our Collect says this. The prayer doesn't say "Amen" after asking that God grant us to follow the virtuous and godly lives of the saints and their unfeigned love. No, it closes with, "through our Lord Jesus Christ." It's only through our Lord Jesus Christ that anyone at anytime is a saint. It's through His bearing of our sins that we are sinless before God even though we remain sinners till we die. It's through His shed blood on the cross not through our blood being shed that we are saints. It's not even through our confessing of Him but through His confessing of us that we are saints. If He had not stood in the Jordan confessing our sins, we could not be baptized for forgiveness. If He had not confessed on the cross that we lost sheep belonged to Him, we would be without a Shepherd to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Folks the definition of saint is "a forgiven sinner." The Blood of Jesus Christ is thick enough and rich enough to make the worst sinner a saint. That blood called the murderous Saul and made him St. Paul. It called the denying Simon and made him St. Peter. That blood of Christ called your sinful grandmothers and grandfathers, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and children, and cleansed them of their sin clothing them with the righteousness needed to enter heaven. Look no more at their sins; look no more at your sins, look no more at their lives or your life, their deaths or your death. Look instead at the forgiveness Christ has won on the cross and given in the Gospel. Look at His life and His death and know that it was holy and good enough for not only you and your loved ones but the whole world.
It is through faith in Christ that sinners are in the first line when the saints come marching in, and it is from being firmly placed there that virtuous and godly living and unfeigned love come from. Sinners don't act different to become saints; they act different because they are saints. Having had the load of their sins lifted off them, being told they don't have to dwell on what they are or are not does change people even as a snarling, snapping stray dog becomes a pet when you bring him into your home. It is changed by your love and care; it doesn't change to get your love and care. Even so Christ does change us with His love and care; He changes us by placing us firmly and forever in the first line of the saints when they come marching in. It's from being placed in the first line that a different viewpoint, a different attitude, and a different life come. It's not a matter of WANTING to be in that number as the song sings, but knowing you are in it. It's knowing that in Christ you're not in the second line but in the first. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (11-4-01) Matthew 5: 1-12