Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2014; All Saints’
1 Samuel 21:10-15; Psalm 34:1-8, 22; Matthew 5:1-12
Madmen and Other Saints
On the occasion of All Saints’ Day, an event in which the church sets aside time for a recognition and remembrance of those who have passed before us in the life and history of the church, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up a couple of curious scripture passages for our reflection. Now I could have preached from Revelation 7, an apocalyptic vision of the saints in glory, or from I John 3, similarly concerned with post-apocalyptic glories.
On the other hand, the Beatitudes, as recorded in Matthew 5, points us towards our own behaviors in the here and now, and if we want to fit it into the theme of the day one could suggest that conforming to these behaviors is one way to live as a “saint,” whether of the more formal, Catholic type or the unofficial but no less meaningful Protestant usage. We shall come to the Beatitudes later. First, though, this psalm demands our attention.
On the surface, perhaps we could wonder why this psalm is appropriated for this particular day in the liturgical year. Don’t get me wrong; it is a wonderful psalm of praise. It puts before us the image of unceasing praise before God – a beautiful, if daunting, task. It offers the witness of the psalmist to the constant care of God, testifying to the reader that God preserved the psalmist in “every kind of trouble.” It encourages the reader to trust in the Lord. It closes with the beautiful reassurance that “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
It is beautiful and reassuring, and again, one could stretch the example given here as an exemplar of the attitude that might be characteristic of those we call “saints.” However, the psalm, and the whole connection to this talk of saints itself, takes a different twist when we consider the heading attached to the psalm.
Someone – we don’t know who, and there could be many people involved – gathered these psalms up from different sources and compiled them into the collection we have in our Bibles today. Beyond arranging the texts, someone or ones attached descriptive sentences or phrases to the beginning of many of the psalms. Sometimes that heading simply indicates the presumed author, such as David. Other times another descriptive phrase is added, possibly indicating a particular type of song or even a particular tune to which the psalm should be sung.
The description of Psalm 34 is a little different. It reads, “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” Curious story, it seems, and that’s where the added reading from 1 Samuel comes in. The psalm seems to come from that period of David’s life when he was on the run from an angry King Saul. He flees to Gath, where the king – Achish, not Abimelech – and his court seem to be under the impression that David is in fact a king, which causes David to fear for his life, and to pretend to be insane rather than have the king attempt to detain him or kill him. Why the psalm names a different king we don’t know, although earlier in 1 Samuel 21 David encounters a priest named Abimelech, so perhaps we should just allow for the possibility that some poor scribe got confused.
Now it’s probably not news to us that the course of David’s life did not run completely pure. His notorious adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent murder-by-military-maneuver of her husband, are hard to ignore even for the staunchest of saint-makers. On the other hand stories like this one – David feigning madness to get out of a fix – is an altogether different characteristic to consider. It’s not exactly a sin, or evil, but it is … well, kind of goofy. Odd. Quirky. And yet David remains one of the great heroes of Hebrew Scripture, and revered as one of the earthly ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth.
On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. If we look closely at the lives of some of the most revered saints in the history of the church, we find some oddities there as well. Take, for example, Francis of Assissi, namesake of the current Roman Catholic pope and possibly one of the most famous or highly regard of saints in that particular canon. Francis, like the famous theologian and fellow saint Augustine, had lived a fairly raucous and roisterous high life before entering the church and taking up his peculiar service to it. One of the more famous stories about Francis is his practice, for which he claimed the compulsion of the Holy Spirit, of going out into the fields and preaching the gospel to the birds of the air and creatures of the field. Now the story has become familiar with time and perhaps has lost its shock value, but let’s face it; were we to see a preacher take off from the pulpit and start preaching sermons in the open field to the passing pigeons or blackbirds, we most likely would not regard the act as one of extreme holiness. We’d probably wonder what’s wrong with that person, and perhaps think about calling for help. Francis’s contemporaries had roughly that kind of reaction to his pastoral sermons.
Lots and lots of 'em...
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner put it this way on the idea of saints:
Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, "I am foremost among sinners"… .
In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, "Give me chastity and continence, but not now," that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.
God chooses some highly imperfect, sometimes rather strange human vessels to accomplish divine things. Maybe this is a comfort to us, a reminder that we, no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, are still capable of being used by God to do God’s work in the world. Or maybe it’s not such a comfort, reminding us that no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, we’re still not off the hook. Either way, the result is the same; a saint is a vessel for the action of God, and that still just might include us.
Turning to those Beatitudes from Matthew 5, we are again reminded that it is no frivolous business to take up Jesus’s challenge to follow. As one reads through these blessings – “blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … peacemakers … persecuted for righteousness’s sake … when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account – Rejoice and be glad!” That’s really what it says – “Rejoice and be glad!” First of all, it’s impossible not to wonder “how do I ever get to the point where I can do that?” OK, being merciful we can manage sometimes, and mourning we can do sometimes, but let’s face it; this list is profoundly challenging and difficult to conceive in our lives.
Beyond that, though, it’s hard to avoid a second question: “what happens to me if I live like that?” It’s hard to conceive of the meek inheriting the earth when we mostly see meek souls getting trampled into dust. Peacemakers tend to be reviled and passed over in favor of warmongers and practitioners of violence. We need only to hear about another gruesome video out of Syria or Iraq to understand being persecuted, and to know we aren’t persecuted no matter how much some alleged Christians might whine.
And yet there are those who try. Clarence Jordan turned from theology to farming, opening up an interracial ecumenical community in south Georgia in the teeth of Jim Crow-era racism. There were threats and attacks, but Koinonia Farms still carries out that legacy today, long after its founder’s passing, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an offshoot of those efforts, still continues the fight for racial justice today.
Doctors continue to give of their time and skills to fight horrible diseases in some of the poorest countries in the world, even when they get treated with disrespect and cruelty at home. Volunteers continue to seek out disaster areas to help rebuild. Teachers still teach in the midst of grinding poverty and hostility. Missionaries reach out in the face of hopeless conditions. Ordinary Christians reach out to help children in border zones when political and media talking heads scream outrage. And sometimes these saints are even Presbyterians.
None of these people are perfect. They may have cheated on their spouses or cheated on their taxes. Yet they are being used to do justice in the world. They are being used to show love to all of God’s children. They are being used to show mercy to those in the most need of it. And when the simple act of receiving the stranger in your midst can get you branded as un-American or treasonous or worse, or demanding justice can get you tear-gassed, it’s no small thing to continue to be used that way. It can become more than a quirk or oddity; it can cost you your reputation, your job, your family, maybe even your life. In that respect, there is something a little saint-like about it.
You know who the saints have been in your own life, or in the history of this church. Treasure those names. Remember them. But don’t turn them into plaster saints or airbrushed portraits, bereft of all human failings. You know that’s not what they were. They were human beings, full of both good and bad, whom God inhabited and used – despite their best efforts, sometimes – to bring justice and mercy and love and hope into places and lives that no longer remembered what those things looked like or felt like. We have been preserved by their example. We have learned from them. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ve even been them, sometimes. Or maybe we will be.
For madmen and madwomen and other saints, Thanks be to God. Amen.
...who thee, by faith, before the world confessed...
Hymns (PH '90):
For All the Saints (526)
The Church's One Foundation (442)
Lord, I Want To Be a Christian (372)