Tuesday, October 02, 2007

To Make a Saint; Start with a Sinner

The Only way to make a Saint:

Start with a Sinner

How many of our great leaders have fallen from grace? I remember how crestfallen I was when I learned as a young man that apparently John Fitzgerald Kennedy had some indiscretions with Marilyn Monroe, only to learn some years later, that this was but the tip of the iceberg. Then come to find out, no less a personage than Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself was thought to have had some liaisons with a “lady” or two at the White House. The revelations just seemed to multiply as we entered a period of “debunking” of our heroes. Even Abraham Lincoln did not go unscathed as he was reputed to have had a dalliance or two with a close male associate. That accusation is vehemently denied by many, doggedly insisted to by others.

On and on and on it goes, it seems, in a rather tiresome sequence of unending disappointment. Bill Clinton’s presidency will forever have the cloud of the Lewinsky episode as his legacy. At the same time so many so-called pro-family evangelicals have found themselves sullied by personal indiscretions. Newt Gingrich was busy with his mistress as his wife was dying of cancer at the same time as he vigorously led the charge against Clinton. More recently, Senators Foley and now Craig while seeking a constitutional amendment to deny same sex marriage for others, were themselves compromised by moral disgrace; in the former case with page boys in Congress and in the latter at a men’s room in a Minneapolis airport..

Now come to find out that no less a light than Mother Theresa had nagging doubts about God until the very day of her death. How in the world do we find redemption in a world where sin is so ubiquitous and where doubt is so real? I take some comfort in the notion of the potter in today’s Old Testament lesson. God is not finished with us yet. And too I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s famous quote; “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.

That being the case, there is no better place for God to begin than with you and me!

Today let us consider how being a sinner can lead to sainthood…and if we’re not careful, vice versa.

The Word

The Jeremiah passage about the Potter’s clay is a wonderful resource for a preacher. I also like his turn of phrase “The word of the Lord came to me”. The way he uses the language, we come away with a sense that God speaks to the human heart not to the ear. God gives the sense of what the message is rather than giving a word for word directive. The warning that God is articulating in today’s lesson certainly needs to be given to Israel. But it can be given to any nation. It can be given to any individual, or family. The scripture becomes profoundly symbolic for me as we read it in this way. I hear God speaking then in my heart as God speaks for the poor, the outcast, or as God speaks to me and soberly invites me to honesty. It is a wonderful passage.

So too the psalm: here the psalmist postulates that God’s knowledge of us is so intimate and so close that God ends up knowing us better than we do ourselves. That’s often true. There’s much of ourselves that we often don’t want to face. But God will not let us get away with that. God’s will be done, because God presses in before and behind, and ultimately this knowledge is so wonderful that it becomes my salvation.

The passage from Philemon is a charming piece of redemptive literature too. We don’t know what there was about Onesimus but we do know that he once was utterly useless. Somehow, God found a use for him. Somehow this sinner became one of the saints and no less a light than Paul spoke up for him. He had to press the point. His “indiscretion” or “sin” must have been noteworthy, but ultimately he became another one of the redeemed of God.

The Gospel is difficult today. Taking up the cross to follow Jesus must ultimately rest on an honest appraisal of where we stand on our own with Jesus. No one in the family can stand in for us. We’re on our own. There’s no way to finesse our way to God. There is only the way of the cross. We cannot buy our way there. We cannot earn our way there. The only way to the heart of God and to the kingdom is through the reality of our own hearts and the truth of who we are.

The World

It is very sad, isn’t it? Senator Craig denied it. Foley denied it. Vitter denied it. Gingrich, Clinton, Nixon all denied it. My grandmother used to say “Denial is not a river in Egypt”. Denial is covering up something that needs a dose of truth. If there was one thing that my grandmother couldn’t tolerate, it was a liar. It is as if the lie is itself becomes a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, because the lie prohibits grace from doing its wonders. That’s what we find out in the 12 step program. Once we admit that we are powerless over our addictive behaviors; that is the moment of Grace. That is when God can get to work on us and make saints out of the sinners that we are. The sin never goes away, but God can make something beautiful with the sinner who has the courage to be truthful.

Crafting the Sermon

Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the United States often and once I heard him speak at Trinity Institute, one of the finest clergy conferences of the Episcopal Church held annually at Trinity Church, Wall Street. It is the place to be if an Episcopal Priest wants to be at the center of things in that church. The focus of the particular conference I attended was the ordained ministry. Ramsey loved the one liner and he had quite a few in his repertoire. Near the top of the list was the one about the quality of the clergy these days. Even then, in the seventies, there was quite a fuss about the “run of the mill” that ended up ordained. Ramsey flashed his twinkling eyes at the assembled gathering and said; “When people complain to me about the quality of the clergy, I respond rather sharply”, he quipped, “If you want better clergy, give us a better crop to pick from!”

It seems to me that the bishop was right on. When it comes to picking out clergy to lead us, we have no one to pick from but ourselves. The same can be said of politicians, diplomats, corporate leadership, teachers, or any other profession that is held to careful scrutiny these days. If we don’t offer ourselves for leadership, someone else will lead. All that apathy guarantees is that someone other than ourselves will lead. They will often not be up to our standards. But we ourselves often don’t want to get our hands dirty in the grit and grime of leadership.

And so yes we see a spate of revelations about clergy, politicians, corporate heads, teachers, and the list goes on. They all come from the general population. And we’re all tainted with the reality of human foibles. The only doctrine we can prove in the Christian experience is sin. There is ample evidence of it every day in the newspaper and on CNN. All other doctrine we must take on faith.

And so one by one our heroes fall, as their Achilles heels give way under the pressure that each of us brings to our several endeavors. It seems that it is when we cannot be honest about who we are, that sin gains special power over us. It is that so called “secret” sin that gains traction in its ability to corrupt us or to hide behind our own hypocrisy. We pick specks out of other human eyes while we cannot see the log that renders us blind in our own eyesight. (Loose paraphrase of Matthew 7:3) Never did Jesus speak more aptly to the human condition than in that famous “one liner”!

It is thus that several senators have lined up to fight for family values and personal probity, while they themselves were engaged in some decidedly compromising and bad habits. Gingrich and his affair while he chased down Clinton for his indiscretion, Foley and Craig fought for a ban on gay marriage while they themselves were reputed to be involved with pages in the former case, and lewd behavior in an airport in the latter. These are but a few of the kinds of cases we see where “the speck and the log” axiom seems to be at work.

But God does not create junk. And the Potter is busy at the wheel making beautiful things.

There is a case that leads to a better place it seems to me. Mother Theresa, come to find out, had her doubts about God. Her “Dark Night of the Soul” has come to light now on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. The article quotes Mother Theresa as follows “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” This exquisite woman of faith opens her heart to us now even in her death. Her heart is like the hearts of so many, bleak not only with doubt, but sometimes even with a form of certitude that there simply is no God.

Part of me is disappointed. She looked so peaceful and serene…although as I think about it, she may have looked more holy, than peaceful or serene. She had so much to come to terms with. How could she work so closely with the utterly destitute and have faith? That really was the question. When the poor are so utterly cast away, how can we believe?

In the NY Times piece that appeared on August 29th, Fr. James Martin, a perceptive Jesuit priest, points to the vital role of Spiritual Director for the child of God who dares to be honest to self and to God. “In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.”

What is missing for so many of us is the honesty and truth that facing sin can give us. Whether it is addictive behavior around drugs, sex, alcohol, or perhaps greed, or an obsession with power and violence, we cannot even begin to find our way to forgiveness without at first being honest with ourselves and with God. The role of Confessor, and Spiritual Director, valued companion or “heart other” as it is called in spirituality is a well documented resource within the tradition of faith. “Come let us reason together” has been the dictum of faith it seems forever.

The prophet Isaiah gave us a first glimpse at the idea in the first chapter at the 18th verse “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.?”

And thus we come to the thesis of this sermon idea; to make a saint God must begin with a sinner. Kierkegaard said it. I’ll repeat it. It is what Jeremiah had in mind when he wrote of God as being like the potter at his wheel fashioning clay vessels. He works by the hour to make something beautiful. But something goes wrong. He breaks the pot and starts again. So it is with us. We are clay in the hands of God. And so long as we can be honest to God and with ourselves, the hand of God can indeed touch us and make of us something that is pleasing to see, and something pleasing to be. Thus God makes saints out of sinners. There’s no better place to begin than with you. There’s no better place to begin than with me. The pathway toward holiness is not to pretend we have no sin. The pathway to holiness is to be honest to God and to ourselves about who we are. That is what we learn from the saints. They too were sinners each of them just like us. But they found a way to be honest about who they are.

It is interesting to me that when God revealed the divine personality, the verb “to be” is used. Hebrew is tough to translate on a good day, but the mood of the verb used in Exodus to Moses is roughly translated “I AM who I AM”… or “I AM whatever I WILL BE” or just “I AM”. You see, God was honest about the divine nature. No adjectives or adverbs were used, just a very tentative mood of the present tense that can be rendered perhaps a future conditional of some undetermined influence. That is precisely who God is. God will be whoever God will be! If we’re honest about it, the same must be said of ourselves. And at the very least the Bible is honest. The pathway to God’s redemptive power then is through this very kind of honesty.

Another bishop I know was fond of saying; “It is not the mission of the church to make good people better; it is the mission of the church to make bad people holy”. That’s why the first step in the recovery process is overcoming denial. It is to admit that I have no power over the sin that has me in its grip. Once we say that we’re on our way. The truth shall make us free. (John 8:32)

God, make of us what You will but please do make of us, and not as we will but as You will. Take Your hands and we will be clay for You. Mould us to Your purpose so that we can be something beautiful for you as Mother Theresa was something beautiful for you in her time.

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