December 13, 2017

Another Look: Saints with two left feet

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“All Saints Day is a witness to God’s way of blessing the world…” (David Thiede)

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)

• • •

Imagine a school playgound. A group of children gathers to play some game, let’s say kickball. Two are elected captains, and now it’s time for them to choose up teams.

Everyone knows who the best players are. They are the boys and girls with strong bodies and exceptional coordination for their age. They are smart enough to know where to kick the ball to get the most for their effort. They can run fast around the bases. In the field, they are the ones most likely to position themselves well and catch the ball. If you need a strong throw, one of them can be counted on to make it.

There are other children who dread this time of dividing up teams. They know they are not gifted athletes. Perhaps they haven’t had their growth spurt yet, and they are smaller and weaker than the other children. Maybe they just prefer other kinds of activities — reading, music, or indoor pastimes. Some are shy. Some lack confidence. Some have made mistakes in previous games and were laughed at by their mates, and they are not eager to be embarrassed again. They wait and wait while the captains make their choices. They know they are at the bottom of the heap, and some of them will only be taken when there are no other players left.

You are one of the captains. Who will you take for your team?

Right before our Gospel passage for today, the Bible tells us who Jesus took for his team:

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)

By any measure, this was an unlikely group of people for a Coach to choose for team. But he doesn’t stop there. Following his appointment of the twelve disciples, Luke tells us the first thing Jesus did with his team was to reach out to a crowd of even more unlikely people so that he might also include them in the game:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. (Luke 6:17-19, NRSV)

In the words that follow, our Lord gives his rationale for the draft choices he made for his team. “God’s plan is to turn the world upside down,” he said. “In order to show you that there is no one outside the scope of God’s grace and blessing, I will choose the most unlikely, the most looked-down-upon, the ones with the least to offer from the world’s point of view. And I will shower heaven’s favor upon them. I will put them on my team. I will bless them.”

So Jesus chose the undersized guy with thick glasses. The shy girl who hides behind the taller ones. The kid with two left feet. The one who’s so scared to make a mistake he cries whenever the pressure’s on.

And he promised to restore God’s blessing to the world through them. How great is that!

The main way God blesses the world is by pouring his grace upon unlikely people, and then using them to live and tell his Good News to others. This is one of the great messages of All Saints’ Day. You don’t need to have “what it takes.” Riches aren’t required. No diploma necessary. You don’t have to be good looking, coordinated, popular, of any certain race, class, or social status. First in your class, or at the bottom, it doesn’t matter. God’s grace is here for you in Jesus.

Anyone can be a “saint.” Though we may honor certain of our forbears as exemplary people of faith, hope, and love, the Bible uses the word “saint” to refer to anyone and everyone who has received forgiveness and new life through Jesus. The Protestant take on saints is that ultimately there are no levels in God’s family. There is no “elite” class of Christians beyond a “regular” class of hoi polloi. On All Saints’ Day we honor all saints, known and unknown, past and present, from every branch of God’s family tree.

In doing so, we magnify the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s no other way Charlie Browns like me could be called blessed.

Comments

  1. Mike, I always dread sports analogies in sermons. But you’ve hit the ball out of the park here.

  2. Using biological evolution as a metaphor, we could say that Jesus chooses the specimens least likely to survive in the existing environment, the ones with the fewest or no adaptive characteristics. Jesus’ mode of operation is the opposite of natural selection. The Kingdom of God is populated by the maladjusted, the sick, the losers, the poor, the needy, the hungry, the failures, the weak, the physically and mentally impaired, the beggars lying at the gate of the rich man’s house. Jesus turns everything upside-down, and then upside-down again and again; all measures assigning “higher” or “lower”, “greater” or “lesser”, “stronger” or “weaker” values to people become meaningless. Jesus keeps everything spinning, with only Father, Son and Holy Spirit at the stable, but dynamic, center.

    • turnsalso says:

      Jesus keeps everything spinning, with only Father, Son and Holy Spirit at the stable, but dynamic, center

      One recalls Christ the Eternal Tao at this…

  3. In simple language Robert, he chooses you and me. Who would of ever thought of that but our Lord ?

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    I’ve heard this sermon many times. And I guess I have heard it often enough to volunteer to be the whipping post…. because… much of this sounds like Mere-Rhetoric. If God means to upend the world by choosing the most unexpected – I cannot help but – honestly – think he is doing a crap job at it. Perhaps those living in a Christian Bubble see these unexpected-heros-up-from-nothing… but they are invisible in The World. And those inside the bubble… I cannot help think most of them are posers [like Mike Warnke and so many others]. I certainly encountered enough Christian-Bootstrap-Posers in my day to prove they are not rare.

    Jesus was unexpected, clearly. But he was from the house of David, born in/near Bethlehem And he impressed people right away – based on the account of both his birth and the one account we have of his youth.

    Abraham, Esther, David, Solomon, Jonah, Ruth, John, Paul, Nehemiah, et al were all at least masterful schemers, most had a robust suite of political skills. They may not all have worked things out for their own benefit but those that didn’t could sure get under people’s skin and grab attention. We seem to have a meme of carefully reading Scripture so that when Our People who scheme they are not schemers, that is just when the Bad Guys do it. Those Old Testament women could scheme and plot with the best of them.

    I really do not want to be the contrarian nattering nabob – but I honestly suspect a lot of the reading of this metaphor is lensed by the American politic-fetish for the Underdog. If we are reading it correctly – it is clearly wrong, I do not see this divine strategy in play. I know some amazing remarkable people, who perhaps came “up from nothing” by some definition, who matter immeasurably in many people’s lives.. Most, if not all, worked their XXXXXes off.

    Since IM is a place where one can honestly express doubts: nope, this doesn’t work for me anymore. It sounds like rhetoric, not truth. The evidence is heaped up against it.

    • I somewhat agree, and I think this principle is often over-emphasized. God uses everyone for His purposes–not simply the people at the top, not simply the people at the bottom, not simply the average joe, but *everyone* regardless of their position/abilities.

      This topic me of the phrase I’ve heard many times over the years: God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called. It sounds nice on paper, and there are times where it is probably true, but I don’t think we can make a universal maxim out of it.

      • Paul DID say that not MANY among you were wise, etc. That means that some WERE/ARE exceptional, and as long as we are in this life it is those exceptional people who are going to stand out and lead. But what is that to US? Does that change Christ’s words? Are we, the average or non-exceptional of no worth? If you think so then I’m sorry, but it is not the self-satisfied who cry out for salvation but those who are fully self-aware of their situation.

    • As one who has been a pastor or chaplain for 35 plus years, all I can say is that the congregations I’ve been involved with and the vast majority of the faithful folks I’ve met wouldn’t qualify for the all-star team by most measures.

      • Sorry, Adam, but I’m with Chaplain Mike on this one, although I do understand where you’re coming from.
        Everyone should read all of the first chapter of First Corinthians, and then remember that Queen Victoria is supposed to have said once that she was thankful for the letter “m” because otherwise First Corinthians 1:26 would have read “not any nobles”….

        Full disclosure: Academically I was first in my class but on the athletic fields of my youth I was ALWAYS chosen last.

      • OldProphet says:

        All Star team? Forget the major league level. Spiritually, I’m riding the pine at Single A!

      • Yes. If the religion of Jesus is for the strong and accomplished, for the spiritually hard-working who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, for the star performers who make something of themselves, then I need to look for another religion. I’ll never make Jesus’ team.

    • Adam, I think you expect those chosen by the Lord to be superstars by the world’s standards.I don’t think that’s what Mike meant. To quote him, “In order to show you that there is no one outside the scope of God’s grace and blessing, I will choose the most unlikely, the most looked-down-upon, the ones with the least to offer from the world’s point of view. And I will shower heaven’s favor upon them. I will put them on my team.”

      In my case He certainly did what he said he would do. He took a person who was unable to stop drinking for 22 years, got her sober, introduced her to Jesus Christ and saved her life. He restored me to my family, and a decent, useful life. In the eyes of the world I’m probably not much – I’m overweight, and I drive a 12 year old car, but God has worked a tremendous miracle in my life.

      There are hundreds of thousands of people like me, overlooked by the world, but still playing on the team.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Amen. Thanks for sharing this Patricia.

      • As with many discussion here, I don’t think it’s an ‘either/or”, but rather a “both/and”. God doesn’t have to choose *between* the high and low-esteemed members of society for His team, but since “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2/Acts 10), everyone is a member of His team.

        Does God “more often than not” choose the lowly-esteemed members of society for His team? Quite possibly. But I don’t think it’s at the expense of the other.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          Exactly. I just can no longer see what this phrase/meme means anymore. In reference to life it seems hollow. And so very very often it sounds like a bit of strange classist fl-flam. I *know* our good Chaplain does not mean it in such a way, but I cannot find a reading of it I am really comfortable with.

          And I know the experience. As a near-sighted half-deaf stammering looser with a bad leg I was picked deaf last every single time. But this meme is pretty cold comfort – and it is often offered as a kind of consolation prize. I finally overcame being a biological flop; when I stopped waiting.

          And I’ve worked with inner-city youth [another grossly broad stereotype]… The notion to wait to be chosen – which is hard not to find in this meme – is simply the worst of all possible advice. Work hard
          Study hard. Be kind. And opportunities to serve will swirl around you like a storm.

          It is not A-team vs. B-team bs. C-team. I just cannot see what understanding this adds to what is actual experienced.

        • Just turning things upside down merely reverses the tables of winners and losers. Ultimately, I believe that God in Jesus abolishes the categories into which winners and losers are separated; anything else is merely a continuation of the world as it has always been.

          • Burro [Mule] says:

            I give thanks to God that even perfectly average folk like myself, neither winners nor losers, who always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right, have a claim on the Grace of God You will see us, marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as we have always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. You can see by our shocked and altered faces even our virtues are being burned away.

            God bless you, Flannery O’ Connor

          • Revelation.

          • Everything that rises must converge.

    • Abraham, Esther, David, Solomon, Jonah, Ruth, John, Paul, Nehemiah, et al

      Almost as if they each hijacked God to suit their own personal or political purposes.

      Maybe Jesus came to correct where so many of his followers screwed it all up. Which begs the question why he allowed it to happen, or if he was powerless to prevent it.

      Or if he even is the same God as depicted in the OT.

  5. Christiane says:

    I do not doubt that there are saints among us. But they don’t know it. 🙂

    • You would like Nadia Botz-Weber’s book “Accidental Saints”. I just finished it and it caused me to adjust my thinking on grace and sainthood.

    • Yes. I know a saint when I see one – one of them in my church just passed away – but I know they don’t (and he didn’t) see themselves as that.

  6. I remember when I took early church history in seminary, we were assigned a biography of Saint Jerome. One of my classmates told me of how he shared the contents of the book with his wife as he read through it. Eventually, she would interrupt his status report with the recurring question, “is (Jerome) a saint yet?”

  7. Chaplain Mike, thanks for the encouragement. I needed this today.

  8. Ronald Avra says:

    I appreciate especially the point that there is no “elite” class of saints; in the body of Christ, his church, we are all present on level ground before the cross.

    • That’s really the main point, Ron, and thanks for pointing it out.

      The fact is, those who are “winners” often look down upon the “losers” and the “losers” often feel themselves inferior and less worthy than the “winners” in life.

      All Saints Day levels the playing ground and focuses our attention on the grace of God in Christ that we all need, which is available to any of us, and which is designed to turn our attention to the Saint-maker, not those who have achieved special status.

      • Those of us for whom things have not turned out well, who’ve made wrong choices past the point of critical mass and no-return, those for whom there is no way back and who don’t have any idea how to even begin to make things better, need to hear again and again that in Jesus we find one who accepts us and loves us as we are, without improvement. We need to hear that Jesus’ grace and love are available to us, even if we never in this life get out of the troughs. We need to know that we are saints, though we make terrible examples and role models.

  9. Thus how great Jesus is, who doesn’t play favorites like his Father did in the Old Testament.

    Really calls into question, once again, if Jesus is the same God as the OT God. The main narrative throughout the entire Bible isn’t exactly one that favors the underdog; that’s just a small slice near the end, and even there, you certainly have to earn it after this “free gift” with “no strings attached”.

    • Incidentally, had lunch yesterday with the last remaining friend I have from the charismatic church. He’s expecting this third, and it’s going to be an extremely strong Old Testament name. I’ve made the observation before, but it seems so telling that so many believers and churches, especially the more fundamentalist ones, accept Jesus and salvation and the Holy Spirit, but then immediately turn back in the book to find every single rule on how to live life. Glorified OT, almost as if the gospel and Paul never occurred.

    • Well, the author of Hebrews thought Jesus was the exact imprint of God’s nature and I would agree with that but, yes, the temptation is to see Jesus as a different God than the God depicted in the OT.

      I like Pete Enns’ solution to this conundrum. In a nutshell, Enns says that in the OT, God allowed his children to write the story and, as with all children, they weren’t necessarily accurate in their impressions of him. They conflated the images of other gods with their’s, they ascribed to him motives and characteristics that weren’t true, they projected onto him their own faults and foibles–in short, they made him into their own image and so, God became man, in part, to show his children how wrong they had been about who he is and what he expects from them.

      It sets inerrancy on its head (not that that’s a problem for me) but it makes a lot of sense. I mean, I know my children have had a lot of misconceptions about me and my motives, particularly when they were younger and less capable of understanding.

      • –> “God allowed his children to write the story and, as with all children, they weren’t necessarily accurate in their impressions of him.”

        This is where I’m at these days. In OT times, gods were wrathful, angry and demanding. I think the people who compiled/wrote the OT were just giving their impressions of God’s involvement/character given how all cultures viewed their gods. To me, Jesus came to say, “No, I AM representative of who the one true God is. Watch what I do, see how I act, listen to my teachings, to find out about who God REALLY is.”

        • It’s a good way of viewing things, and I think I agree. Enns puts it very well. It’s just tough deprogramming the kneejerk way of thinking about these things, lol.

      • Enns says that in the OT, God allowed his children to write the story…

        Well, he did the same in the New Testament. Not a single word that Jesus spoke comes to us except through the mind and writing of others. The defects in the OT descriptions of God that you enumerate no doubt have parallels in the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.

        • –> “The defects in the OT descriptions of God that you enumerate no doubt have parallels in the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.”

          Possibly, but I’m going to disagree. I think the four gospel accounts are fairly straightforward, at least in terms of what Jesus said and did. Want to know God better? Read the gospels.

          • I actually do agree with that. There are parallels, but I don’t believe they distort the depiction as much. If I did not believe that the NT (I look to the Epistles and other NT texts to see the character of God, too) accurately conveyed the actions, words and character of Jesus, I’d have to stop being Christian. But I wonder: why does the story that God’s children wrote in the NT stay closer to the reality than the one they wrote in the OT? I think the answer is in the new mode of presence that is Jesus’ resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s mediation of this presence to the Christian community.

        • “Well, he did the same in the New Testament.”

          I agree. The difference, at least as I see it, is that we view everything through Jesus as presented in the NT, even the God of the OT; the authors of the OT didn’t have this hermeneutic and that, knowing Jesus, makes our perspective of God different from the Israelites.

          • But I believe the New Testament’s view of God is from the perspective of the resurrection. There is creative memory occurring in the gospel accounts, memory that conveys more than accurate biography ever could; and this creative memory is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community.

  10. Excerpted from the Akathist for All Saints of north America:

    Doing all things for the glory of God and the love of your neighbor, you fulfilled your calling to holiness, O Righteous Ones of North America. You accomplished the tasks given to you, according to the measure of grace given to you by the Lord. You fished the great waters of the Alaskan North; you tilled the fertile soils of the Canadian and Midwestern plains; you labored under harsh conditions in the mines and mills; you toiled day and night in factories of the American cities.

    The King of heaven and earth humbled himself by taking the form of a servant in order to become the least and the last of His brethren. In His never-ending love for man, He poured Himself out fully, so that we might be filled with all the fullness
    of His grace. Following His example, O you Righteous Ones of North America, you served the ones to whom you were sent. You healed the sick, you gave aid to the poor, you sought out the lost, you raised infants, you guided the youth,
    you cared for the elderly.

    Rejoice, O divine exaltation of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific West,
    Rejoice, O gracious adornments of New England and the Atlantic states,
    Rejoice, O joyful beacons of the Great Lakes and the Midwestern plains,
    Rejoice, O heavenly constellation of the Canadian Provinces,
    Rejoice, O wondrous aurora of Alaska and the Arctic North,
    Rejoice, O shining stars of the North American continent,
    Rejoice, O brilliant flowers of the Southwestern deserts,
    Rejoice, O fragrant blossoms of the American South,
    Rejoice, All Saints of North America!

    • Beautiful — thanks for sharing this, Tokah. I like the union of elevated, “holy” language with the everyday world that I know. It’s a good illustration of the one-storey universe.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      Hmmm.

      Do the Southrons have a saint yet?

      For the Orthodox, we have St. Alexis for the Midwest, St Peter the Aleut for Califonia, Lots of Alaskan saints. SS Tikhon and Raphael for tha Atlantic Seabord. No one comes to mind for the dear old Dixie.

      the Catholics have dear Saint Katitha Tekakwitha, and Fr. Juniper Serra – is he a saint yet? But nboone from the South

      • I don’t believe we do, although if you asked privately around the OCA’s DoS, Archbishop Dmitri is widely considered one.

      • Known saints, that is, obviously.

        As my priest put it, “We should all seek live as saints, but hopefully most of us will remain unknown to all but the Lord.”

  11. I want to put this on the table: I went to a top 10 university on scholarship. Most of the scholars in my class are doing something very well respected–MDs, PhDs, MD/PhDs, active in public policy making, inventor patent holders, former clerks of Supreme Court Justices. (I myself am a disappointing stay-at-home mom, but I do have a PhD.) [One is a Jesuit priest, but he was also a Rhodes scholar and has a Yale law degree.) If you were to spend time with us, you’d discover that many of us are relational and emotional cripples.

    The last, the least, and the lost are close to the heart of God. One of God’s miracles in my life is to turn my heart to see people as people, to listen to their expressions of personhood and not just mentally evaluate their resume.

    Nevertheless, periodically, I get this weird vibe that grace is not for the “well-respected” because they are well-respected. While we’re talking athletics, what about Lamar Odom? He was a millionaire basketball star but found unconscious in a brothel. Is there grace for these kinds? Is there grace for the Wartburg Watch kind?

    I’m not saying that the disciples weren’t a sorry lot. And I’m not saying that people don’t flock to those on pedestals sinfully overlooking the very people near them. I am saying that I sometimes get the vibe that being on a pedestal gives permission to others to look up with disdain.

    • Good perspective. There does seem to be a “God doesn’t have a place for the winners of the world” vibe at times. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. My apologies to David and whoever else got offended by my posting on the Facebook group. From my perspective, it’s all tied together, how religion and Christianity has been used in such political ways, etc. But I can understand that not everyone would see it that way, and see how it distracts from the main focus of what Internet Monk has become.

    Again, my apologies.

    I’ll refrain from posting in the future.

    • I’ve removed the post and am seriously considering leaving the group as well. I feel as if I’ve hijacked it and used it for talking about whatever is on my mind at the moment. That wasn’t my intention, and even though it’s been a tough year in some ways, it’s not fair of me having done so.

      Again, my apologies.

  13. One of the basic problems we are up against here is the general misunderstanding of just what a “saint” is as spoken of in the New Testament writings. I would lay this misunderstanding equally at the feet of the Roman and various Eastern churches, who have presented us with the idea of saints as exceptional people advanced far above their fellow believers in spiritual consciousness and practice, this in spite of Tokah’s post above. Certain people have “Saint” attached to their name officially and are celebrated as part of an elite higher ups.

    This is not to say that such people have not existed. They have, and God bless them for their devotion and constancy and mentoring and intervention and teaching and example, sometimes to the point of death, in spite of whatever flaws they may have shared with the rest of us. They do indeed deserve to be singled out and given special honor and recognition, and they are indeed saints, but so is saint Tokah and saint StuartB and saint Patricia and saint Robert F and saint w and maybe even at some point saint j, and on and on and on, not forgetting to include myself and all else here gathered.

    The word “saint” simply means someone who is set apart. We can twist that to mean someone set apart in a special way within the church, but that is not what it means. It just means someone who has said yes to Jesus, and if you want to get into judging just who is in and who is out, I would suggest that you might be erring on the wrong side of the line yourself.

    The people today who have responded to this post with gratitude demonstrate the need for real understanding of just who can walk thru the open door to the Kingdom of God, the Garden of Eden, the New Jerusalem, and it comes down to what Jesus said, Whoever thirsts. Whoever. Period. The door is wide open. You don’t have to be a saint according to the distortion that the church has laid on that word, you just have to be a human being in need of healing in your soul. You just have to say yes to this stupendous offer. The moment you say yes, you are a saint according to the way the writers of the New Testament used that word. And you are holy, set apart, means the same. Does not require perfection, requires you to be a human being.

    It would be good if we could come up with another word than saint to identify those exceptional people the various churches have singled out as exemplary, but I won’t hold my breath on that one. If you have said yes to Jesus, you are a saint according to those closest to Jesus. You. Yes, it helps to look to someone who seems to have it more together than you, but let’s stop calling such people saints as if that excludes you and me.