Grace Presbyterian Church
November 7, 2021, All Saints’
What Does a Saint Look Like?
This past Monday, November 1, was All Saints’ Day on the liturgical calendar most typically followed by churches in the western tradition that bother with liturgy and holy days and stuff. In Catholic and to some degree Anglican or Episcopal traditions, the day is given to the remembrance of the saints of the church, in those cases referring to a fairly specific list. Technically the next day, All Souls’ Day, is given to remembering the “saints of the church” who have passed away and are no longer among us, whose absence we mark keenly. Churches outside those traditions (like, um, us) have a tendency to conflate those two traditions into a single event, and to mark it on whatever Sunday nearby happens to be appropriate.
Presbyterians don’t engage in the bestowing of sainthood, although unofficially you could probably persuade a lot of Presbyterians to offer up children’s television host and ordained Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers (you remember, the one with the Neighborhood) for such an honor. All Saints’ Day very much gets conflated with All Souls’ Day.
Again (not unlike last week), a lectionary reading not assigned specifically to the occasion might have a lot to tell us about the occasion and what we should learn from it. In this case, how Jesus teaches his disciples in today’s reading is fundamentally important for us in a time when it is fearfully difficult to see the “saints” among us.
We are prone to use the word “saint” in one of two ways. One way might be evoked in the reading a few moments ago from Revelation, in which “a new heaven and a new earth,” “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” are seen coming down from the heavens (this is how you know you’re near the end of the book). The description emphasizes the dwelling of God among the people of God in this “holy city,” and the, well, general blissfulness that this involves. Were we to keep reading in that chapter we would come to the physical description of that holy city, a description overwhelmed by words like “glory” and “radiance” with all kinds of jewels mentioned as part of the city’s great walls, with gates made of pearl and a street of “pure gold, transparent as glass.”
I think we tend to have one concept of “saint” being a human personification of such a holy city, one who is impossibly holy and pure and unremittingly good and all that. Such a conception is, frankly, intimidating and not at all viewed as even a little bit achievable.
Our other definition, to put it bluntly, is a little less lofty. Frankly, anyone who manages to get to a certain age and outlive most of their generation, to be the senior member of their community, ends up being regarded as a “saint” in this sense. This tends to apply no matter how cranky or difficult such a “saint” can be at times.
In short, we don’t really know what to do with the word. Back in Mark, Jesus might have some help for us here, but that help might be more about what we are looking for in a “saint,” and how we define what a “saint” is, than in any kind of formal or liturgical definition.
Jesus and the disciples are still at the temple. Despite the positive experience with the scribe we saw in last week’s reading, Jesus has some things to say about other scribes who are definitely, in his view, far, far away from the kingdom of God. These scribes, who were not merely religious figures but also civic and public officials, were all too keen to gather all the perks of their position and use them for their own benefit and glory. That line about devouring widows’ houses and saying long prayers for appearance’s sake unavoidably puts me in mind of certain senators I could name.
There’s a tendency to assume that what happens next is its own separate story, completely detached from this brief discourse. Our lectionary compliers don’t think so, fortunately, because if anything, Jesus is still teaching in what comes next. He and the disciples move to a different part of the temple complex, where monetary gifts are collected. To be blunt, some of these contributions are, at minimum, performative; the point is as much to make sure others see the gifts being made as to make the gift itself. Quite likely the great sums being brought in by these rich people are the equivalent of loose change we might dig out from between our sofas for some of us – a small portion of our resources that won’t be missed, much the same way the sums of money Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos spent to rocket into the upper reaches of our atmosphere didn’t make any serious dent in their financial holdings.
The contrast between such displays and the meager gift of the poor widow couldn’t be clearer, but Jesus has something to say about it. Calling the disciples over (who knows where they’d wandered off to), he resumes teaching them. Notice that something we tend to assume about this passage isn’t really there:
Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of here poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
You have to suspect this is one of the widows whose houses were devoured as in the first half of today’s reading. Whether by legal manipulation in their civic/political role, or by spiritual manipulation in their temple role (or some of both), such scribes were able to gobble up the possessions of such powerless individuals ostensibly for the benefit of the temple, or much likely for their own enrichment. One is unavoidably reminded of the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers of the world of televangelism, notorious for (among other things) manipulating viewers into making gifts they couldn’t afford to make. Maybe we even had family members so manipulated and duped.
This takes us back to Jesus’s words, and what he does and doesn’t say. Jesus does not actually praise the widow for her gift. He points out the contrast between her entire everything and the pocket change of the rich, but he doesn’t specifically say she’s good for doing so. The contrast is even more crushing when one realizes that under the Torah, such an individual should have been regarded as being under no obligation to contribute at all. Some official should have been there to tell her to keep it – she needed it more than the temple did.
Jesus’s point here is not to elevate the widow, whose gift probably went unnoticed by everyone else in the temple, as particularly “saintly,” but to expose just how corrupt and un-saintly those big spenders – the ones getting the “ooh”s and “aaah”s as they dropped in their gifts – were in their meager giving. They gave out of their leftovers. That’s not what a saint does.
And yet even today we get fooled by this. We get dazzled by those who flash the big bills and belittle those with seemingly nothing to offer. Whether we use the word “saint” or not, we are too easily duped into glorifying those who give from their leftovers and belittling those who give all.
Having invoked Fred Rogers earlier, it seems appropriate to give him a word at the climax. This is the quote you can find on one of the bookmarks, a few of which are still found in the racks in your pews here and there:
A high school student wrote to ask, ‘What was the greatest event in American history?’ I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many ‘great’ events, it was something very simple and quiet with little or no fanfare… . The really important ‘great’ things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always ‘in the wings.’ That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.
What applies to events, applies to people. We get seduced by the flashy and the superficial and miss the humble and deep on a regular basis. The greatest saints likely go almost completely unnoticed, except perhaps by those who are touched directly by their sainthood – and maybe not even by them. We tend to look for saints in all the wrong places, and inevitably end up disappointed in those we so anoint.
There are saints among us, but they’re not walking around with halos over their heads and glowing garments. They’re not walking around in thousand-dollar suits or designer gowns and expensive hairstyles, or even trendy jeans and slick hipster hairstyles. They’re extremely unlikely to be going about getting much attention at all.
Look for the saints in the margins, where need is greatest, and attention is least. Look for the saints off to the side, giving everything they’ve got while the performative givers are glomming up all the adulation. Look for the saints in the rough places, far from any gates of pearl or streets of gold.
Look for those marginal, unnoticed saints. That’s what Jesus does.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #326, For All the Saints; #708, We Give Thee but Thine Own; #828, More Love to Thee, O Christ