Yes, I know it used to be a club, very exclusive, though it always made room for women as well as men, but reserved for those who had suffered terribly as they kept the faith. St Paul has a check list of the trials saints should expect to endure to earn their title: flogging, prison, shipwreck, being mobbed, overworked, sleepless, starving.
Being mobbed is good news for rock stars, who we treat as saints anyway. And it’s good to know that overwork is on the list. Some of you would qualify.
Thousands did become saints, even more became martyrs which is the surefire way for sanctification, as the Muslim and even the Buddhist world still recognise. The early Christian church was built by the blood of martyrs and saints, which is why every church still carries the name of one of them. Sainthood was a growth industry so powerful that the Catholic tradition tried to slow it down and demanded evidence of a miracle to qualify for full sainthood.
It all got out of hand until the Reformation came along and democratised the communion of saints, along with the priesthood and the sanctuary and every other reserved corner of the church. We haven’t managed full access for the gay community but it won’t be long now.
And sainthood is certainly an accessible status for everyone, though it’s much better if someone else bestows the title than claiming it for yourself. Mail order sainthood, something you can register for online, is just a little tacky.
Not that everyone wants to be a saint, or not yet. Like the young St Augustine, some of us prefer to put off being too good, too soon, for fear of missing out on the fun. We have an aversion to excessive goodness, dating back to Victorian times when a “plaster saint” was a term of contempt, someone too good to be true. The label comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem:
We’re single men in barracks,
Most remarkable like you
And if sometimes our conduck
Isn’t all your fancy pants
Why, single men in barracks
Don’t grow into plaster saints
We’re all welcome and able to join the community of the saints, sooner or later. It is the gathering of the heroes and heroines of our faith, the role models, the inspirational figures who brought us this far on our journey. Most of us have got a saint or two whose example kept us going and believing through the hard times. Remember them this morning, thank God for them, thank God for our wanting to be like them.
Because even though the door to the community of saints is wide open, it’s very hard to walk through it, even if we don’t have to be flogged or imprisoned or fed to the lions like it used to be.
And it’s not only hard, but downright impossible to become a saint if we already have everything we need or desire.
Jesus puts it rather bluntly in this morning’s gospel, by laying down the first ground rule for becoming a saint.
Blessed are the poor.
Some people here this morning are poor, though that doesn’t necessarily make them feel very blessed, any more than feeling poorly is desirable. Quite the opposite. But most of us have most of, well a fair chunk anyway, of what we need, even in this mixture of people that make up St Matthews on a Sunday.
Yes, I know there aren’t a lot of Rolls Royces in the carpark and some of you are really struggling. But compare our lot with the way things used to be in this country, when a private car, or a chicken dinner was a luxury, when you had to put blue cellophane over the black and white picture on TV to see through the snow, and a cellphone was as big and thick as a brick, and high school careers advisers could only offer you a list of jobs that fitted on the back on an envelope.
Yet none of this material progress seems to make us much happier, let alone closer to God, and what’s worse, the poverty gap between the richer and the poorer is ever wider and a living wage is ever more elusive. The latest child poverty report shows that deprivation gets worse and we don’t seem to have the political will to do much about it.
When Jesus says blessed are the poor, just what is he talking about?
He is talking about material poverty. 90 per cent of his audience were desperately poor by our standards, balanced on the edge of survival, only as good as their next crop, keeping favour with their landlord, and the occupying army of Rome, and the corrupt Jewish bureaucracy.
Jesus speaks first and most clearly to the dispossessed.
But he also speaks just as directly to the privileged, a little bit or a lot. And the more we have much, have greater trouble we have in hearing him.
To be poor in first century Palestine was to be often hungry and insecure, of course, but it was always to be vulnerable, utterly dependent on and therefore open to, the favours and protection of others. That’s the reason the poor are blessed. Not because they have nothing (try telling any poor person that’s a good thing). The poor are blessed because more often than rich people they seem to know their need of God. They know their incompleteness, in spiritual as well as most obviously, material terms.
I’ve been to the place where Jesus is said to have preached this sermon they call the beatitudes but which is really a list of the qualities of sainthood. It’s an open cave, a hole in the side of the hill above Lake Galilee.
There was nothing there then and there’s nothing there now. It’s an empty space which is the perfect metaphor for this sainthood sermon.
God wants us become empty spaces. Empty of all our self importance and our self contentment, our confident satisfaction with what we have achieved and feeling of deserving all we’re worked for and are entitled to, our smugness about being on top of, even better, ahead of the game.
Sometimes we find that emptiness because it’s forced on us, traumatically, by a loss or a change. We lose a loved one, or our health, or a safe investment, or a secure job, or our pride and our reputation. That’s painful, but its also an opportunity to refocus our life and rediscover the shalom, the peace of God. Sometime the shock and the scar tissue stops that happening.
But it’s even harder to find the emptiness God desires if we already have most of what we need. Alas for you who are rich, well fed, well spoken of, who laugh now.
Jesus is not condemning those things in themselves when he says that, he’s simply saying they create a contentment which stops us being open to and hungry for God.
When it comes to finding God, discontent with the way things are is a virtue.
I don’t’ know much about the journey to sainthood, but I’m told the ones who travel that road best begin by knowing they’re running on empty.
I know that feeling and worry about it. Saints have that feeling and are grateful.
There’s a wonderful prayer by Brian Wren in our night prayer service in the NZ prayer book that we never get the chance to use here and we should.
It speaks to the
Eternal Spirit, the living God
In whom we live and move and have our being
All that we are, have been, and shall be is known to you
(for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, we could add)
You O God, know the very secret of our hearts
And all that rises to trouble us.
Then the prayer moves us to shake us out of our contentment,
To break open some empty space inside us
Living flame, burn into us
Cleansing wind, blow through us
Fountain of water, well up within us
If we dare to let that happen
If we dare to pray such a prayer
Then we may well learn to love and praise in deed and in truth
And best of all,
That communion of all the saints who surround us on every side