Sermon for All Saints – choral evensong at St Mary’s Whitkirk
Three weeks ago – Oscar Romero was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – he was recognised as a Saint. I decided to google just what that means. Apparently there are 4 steps to being canonized…one involves a committee analysing and investigating the person’s whole life, looking for ‘proof that the candidate lived a life of heroic virtue — that they earnestly and aggressively sought to improve their own spirituality consistently throughout their life.’
I’m not sure what ‘aggressively seeking to improve ones spirituality’ looks like…
Of course, once we decide it’s our business to pronounce who was a saint, we’re bound to need rules. It seems such a big thing, proclaiming someone a saint…that we have to show the world a person of ‘heroic virtue’…even if they would perhaps no longer be recognised by those who knew and loved them.
The trouble is, these saints no longer have much relevance for our lives. We might remember and give thanks for them…if it’s our theology we might ask them to pray for us…but we probably won’t wonder how we might copy them.
I’m not mocking the Roman Catholic Church – as humans we seem to need our heroes on a pedestal…to prove their ‘heroic virtue’, their perfection. But what we end up with are superheroes…and they’re not much use to us. They can’t tell us how to cope with the challenges life throws at us – they can’t tell us what to do when we fail. If we try to live up to perfect saints – we’re just more afraid of being wrong.
I’ve been reading a book by Richard Rohr – Roman Catholic Priest and Franciscan Friar – in which he points out that using his church’s definition of sanctity, of sainthood – there’s no one in the bible who would qualify.
He suggests not even Jesus…I don’t think I’ll tackle that one tonight…
But I do like his description of the bible as basically a story of people being wrong. And his suggestion that in the bible, a saint is ‘a broken, foolish person who makes all kinds of mistakes but still trusts God.’
Think of David – included in that list in the letter to the Hebrews…David – who commits adultery with Bathsheba, arranges the death of her husband, fights with his son. Think of Peter – apostle and pillar of the early church…Peter who so often puts his foot in it, speaks without thinking, denies Jesus in his hour of need.
Saints perhaps because of how they responded to their mistakes. How they faced the consequences and wrestled with what faith in God looked like in their broken lives.
St Peter has long been one of my favourites – precisely because of all his blunders. If God can use him, I’ve thought, may be there’s hope for me. But nowadays I think less of God using him despite his mistakes and brokenness – and more that perhaps God uses him because of these.
All those times when Peter rushed in with rash statements and didn’t worry about being wrong…was he just saying what others wanted to but didn’t dare? Sure, like me he needed to learn to think before speaking, but his willingness to be wrong, to be corrected, has left us with insights into our faith.
And his biggest failure…his denial of Jesus? One of my summer holiday reads was this novel (‘Phoebe’ by Paula Gooder) which imagines the lives of the very early Christians. It has a scene where a group of Christians in Rome meet Peter. He tells his story of denying his Lord, of being forgiven, of a daily struggle to work out what it means in his life.
“Being forgiven and accepting you are forgiven are two very different things. Jesus forgives. That’s his nature. Receiving that forgiveness, living it out day by day, and then forgiving others, that’s what’s hard. I still struggle with it.”
Not someone of heroic virtue, rather a broken, foolish man. But because through all the mess he still trusts in God, he has something to say to our daily struggles with faith and life.
This week we’ve been remembering Saints – as our prayer book puts it…’men and women in whose lives we see the grace of God powerfully at work.’ For me, their stories are most powerful…most inspiring…most useful…when God’s grace works through their failures and their brokenness…
Those stories remind us we too are called to be saints. Not to be perfect, but to hang on to our trust in God – even if only by our fingertips sometimes – through the successes and failures of our lives. It means wrestling with what that trust means in the situations we find ourselves in.
I visited a saint the other day. She told me the choices and decisions before her were the hardest thing she’d ever faced in her life…but that she’d prayed about them, and felt the way was clearer, and that doing the best she could would be enough.
St Oscar Romero – was for 35 years a fairly conservative priest. I suspect the committee scrutinising his life found in those years nothing but exemplary upholding of the authority and rules of the church, perhaps even ‘aggressive improvement of his spirituality’. In 1977, as Archbishop of San Salvador – his faith came up against the reality of poverty and oppression…of the murder of priests and others who dared to speak out.
What he saw must have challenged his religion, his practices, his beliefs…but he held on to his faith in God and saw that if it meant anything, it meant standing up for the poor and oppressed. He’s remembered as a saint not for the times he didn’t make mistakes…but for when he trusted God to show him what it meant to share the gospel where he found himself.
So today let’s give thanks for all the broken, foolish people who made all kinds of mistakes but still trusted God. And let’s offer him our failures and brokenness, so his grace can work through our lives.