Anglican Church of Canada
All Saints November 5, 2017
1 John 3:1-3 Matthew 5:1-12
What makes for a saint?
I suspect our minds generally go first to the famous named saints of the church, saints like Mary, or Peter or James or Andrew or the other disciples, or later saints like Augustine or Francis. The saints who made it into stained glass. According to this way of thinking, the saints are the particular heroes of the faith, somehow larger than life in their single-minded devotion to the Christian life.
Well, they are obviously saints; but they aren’t the only ones. The Bible uses the word to refer to the whole Christian community, not just the celebrities among us. So we’ll have to try again.
Well, then we might think of a saint as an ordinary Christian, but one who exhibits exemplary virtue, generally of the patient, long-suffering kind. “She was a saint”, we might say, and people will know what we mean. We may mean that her husband wasn’t, and yet she bore with him through the years. Or we may mean that she was generous of her time and attention with others, cheerful and supportive, the kind of person we feel better for having known. And we might think of some of the saints we have known in our own lives, saints of this community perhaps.
Well, we are getting closer, and people like this are certainly should be remembered and celebrated as saints. But we’re not there yet. Because again the Bible makes it clear that this title of saint is not just for the really special people among us, but for all of us who gather around the name of Jesus: the special and the ordinary, the gentle and the ornery. We are saints not by being particularly wonderful people, but because we are attempting, more or less, to follow Jesus, to live according to the script he left us.
It was working with the confirmation class a couple of years ago that I started thinking about scripts as a way of talking about what it means to have faith. The basic idea is that we live our lives according to various scripts: ideas about what life means, what the world is like, and most importantly, how we are to think and behave. Nobody is born with these ideas: they come to us, in various ways, through the culture that shapes us. They come from our parents, what we have learned from their words and their example. They come from the stories we are told, stories that shape our imagination around the possibilities of life. Once upon a time, children were perhaps shaped by fairy tales: they learned that the world is full of dangers, but that there is a benevolent power behind it all; they learned that humility and honesty are rewarded in the end. Nowadays it may be Disney movies that shape our children’s imaginations: they teach them that they can shape their own destinies, that they need to believe in themselves (after an obligatory moment of self doubt), that hard work and determination will triumph in the end over all the odds. I wonder if that’s true.
As we grow, popular media continue to offer us ways of imagining the world, scripts that shape and make sense of our aspirations. There are, for example, a seemingly endless number of sitcoms that teach us that to be young and buff and single and living in New York is the highest goal in life, and frankly, that anything else is just lame.
As adults, we continue to be shaped be the scripts that other people offer us, ways of understanding the world and ourselves. Advertising, of course, has a vested interest in shaping the way we understand ourselves; the most sophisticated advertising doesn’t just sell us a product; it sells us a vision of ourselves that includes that product.
Politicians are also in the business of offering scripts, accounts of the world that try to shape how we see ourselves and others. We could think of some of the toxic scripts that are out there, scripts that fan resentment and prejudice, that attempt to make us feel better about ourselves by blaming the immigrant or some group who are different than we are. Or take our current government in Ottawa: it seems to me that their popularity had a lot to do with offering Canadians a script, an account of who we are as a nation, that had widespread appeal: generous, progressive, tolerant, inclusive, environmentally responsible, and all those good things. The question of how much they are actually doing to live up to these ideals is a different matter altogether.
The point is that as human beings we don’t live in some neutral space where we just have innate, natural ideas. We are part of a culture, and are shaped by that culture just as surely as a villager in Afghanistan or a worker in Shanghai. We are shaped by scripts, ways of thinking and acting that are brought to us by different institutions. There is no one normal, natural human way of understanding the world, and of living our lives – there are only the ways in which we are shaped by the scripts around us.
The New Testament knew this to be true, perhaps better than we do, because it arose in a minority culture amidst the clash of competing scripts. There were the scripts of empire, that tell of how power is what matters, the power to crush one’s enemies. There was the script of Rome, a new and improved version of the empire script, that told of the civic duty to get on board with a world civilization that would ensure peace by eliminating differences. There were the scripts of ancient philosophies and religions. There was the script of a hypersexualized society, that celebrated the sacredness of sexual energy (where have we heard that one before). There was the script of patriarchy writ large over it all, a script that assigned men and women their places. And there was the script of ancient Israel, a story that told of faithfulness and compassion as the central values that made life worth living. Take your pick.
But of course for the Bible it is not an equal choice. The word the New Testament uses for these scripts is powers; it understood that human life is shaped by the powers of institutions and ideas that are bigger than any one of us. They are not neutral: some of these powers, the New Testament believes, are demonic. The scripts they offer for human life demean and impoverish what it is to be human. Some scripts rob us of our dignity, our freedom, our creativity, our capacity to live a full, rich, human life.
And I wonder. Is that a possibility we still take seriously today, in the supermarket of choice that is modern life: that some of the scripts on offer are toxic, that they serve to demean us, to make us smaller, more closed in on ourselves, unhappier?
The Bible is not neutral. In the midst of a world of competing and often destructive scripts, it offers its own vision of what it is to be human, to be fully and joyfully human. Clearly it was a vision that rang true at the time, in the steady growth of the church in the first centuries.
The Christian faith at its core is a script, an account of what human life should be in this world, a story that speaks to our imagination, a set of ideas that help us understand the world, and a challenge to shape the way we live our lives.
Or perhaps, to be more honest, the Christian faith is a whole series of scripts. Certainly some of the scripts offered in the name of Christianity can be toxic and demeaning. The church is far from infallible: that is why we need to stick together, and we need to keep going back to our source in Jesus, and together seek that original life-giving vision.
Nowhere in Scripture is that vision so clearly stated as in Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading. The Beatitudes. The B-attitudes, as I have called them, the flip side of the attitudes of power and domination and selfishness that play such a big role in the scripts around us. In their place Jesus offers us a script that encourages us to embrace our vulnerability, our compassion, and our burning dreams of a better world:
Blessed are those who share the spirit of the poor . . .Blessed are those who mourn, who continue to love even through grief . . . Blessed are the meek, who live quietly with the earth. . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. . . Blessed are the merciful. . . Blessed are the pure in heart. . .Blessed are the peacemakers. . . Blessed are those who live this script, even in the midst of persecution and challenge.
What is a saint? A saint is someone who takes this script as their own, and tries to live it. Not just those who succeed at living it, for we all fall short. We all let ourselves be distracted and seduced by the competing scripts of the world. We all lose the plot from time to time. We all lose our nerve sometimes. And yet, the Bible tells us, we are still saints. We are saints as long as we continue to try to make Jesus’s script the script for our lives.
We are very much a work in progress, unfinished business. Our goal is to be like Jesus, to live according to the script he lived and taught – and brother, we have a long way to go! But we are on the road – sometimes one step forward and two steps back, but still, on the road. Jesus has got a hold of us, and he is scripting our lives into something better and richer and fuller. As St. John says, in today’s second reading: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
As God’s beloved children, then, God’s saints, let us continue to support and encourage one another on this journey of transformation. Let us meet together Sunday by Sunday to rehearse our script, until it becomes ever more part of us, until we learn to play our part with ever more naturalness and ease. Let us let the word of God, who was made flesh in Jesus, continue to shape us into our destiny as saints.