Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Saints: Our Life Coaches

The General Theological Seminary
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd
All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2006
BCP: Service 1
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5: 1-12
Psalm 149

The Saints: Our Life Coaches

All Saints’ Day is a big day on the church calendar. It’s a big day here in the chapel – the thurible is smoking away, the big candlesticks are on the altar, attendance is a bit higher than a usual Wednesday. Yes, All Saints’ Day is a big day for us church people. But for most people, even most Christians, today is much better known as “the Day after Halloween” – the day Rite Aid discounts all that leftover candy. So since most of the world, and most of the church, pays no attention to All Saints’ Day, why do we make such a big deal out of it? What’s our relationship with the saints anyway? And since God gives us all we need, why do we even bother with the saints?

Things were so much simpler when I was a child. Growing up Roman Catholic in a very Roman Catholic town like Jersey City, saints – official, canonized saints - were part of the spiritual air. Our churches were filled with their statues – and not whitewashed tasteful statues like the ones here in the chapel, but statues with bright, some might say garish, colors. (My wife says they all had blue eyes.)

Statues of the Virgin Mary standing on top of the world wearing what looked like a toga and cape stood in front of many, many homes. And of course there were lots of churches named for Mary including St. Mary’s, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Czestochowa and Our Lady of Mercy - where my family went to church and my sister and I went to school.

The saints – official, canonized saints - were so familiar that to a kid they seemed pretty much as real as anything else. They were just there, part of life’s background.

We saw the saints as this large, colorful cast of characters who had done extraordinary, super heroic things in their lives and now were in heaven hard at work praying and interceding, pulling all sorts of strings with God to keep us out of trouble here on earth.

We were taught that we could pray to the saints with very specific requests. A vivid memory from elementary school is the time our principal, Sister Ellen, came on the PA system in a panic because she had lost the giant ring that held the keys to the school. All of us had to stop whatever we were doing and immediately pray to St. Anthony (of Padua, not the Desert) who we all knew specialized in finding lost items. All together we said,
St. Anthony, St. AnthonyPlease come downSomething is lost And can't be found.

To no one’s surprise a little while later Sister Ellen came back on the PA to let us know that our prayers had worked and the big ring of keys had indeed been found. St. Anthony had done it again. Here’s another one: every February the whole school would go to church to have our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise. And if you were a kid who hadn’t given much thought to throat diseases, well, now you had something new to think about.

There was, and is, a deep devotion to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes. For years every Tuesday my grandmother would cross the ten lanes of traffic leading to the Holland Tunnel to get to St. Lucy’s Church so she could make her novena, a special set of prayers, to St. Jude.

Now I guess this all might sound a little weird to those of you on the Protestant side of our Episcopal family. Well, weird or not, I can tell you that growing up in this environment makes quite an impression. When I was about seven or eight I remember realizing that a handful of saints seemed to be getting most of the prayers – Mary, Joseph, Anthony, Francis, Jude and a few others. Yet when I looked through books of the saints there seemed to be a whole lot of them who were not getting much business at all. Being a practical, shrewd city kid, I thought it would be a fine idea to pick one of these less-popular saints and ask him to be my personal saint. This way I’d get more individual attention. I have no idea why, but I chose a Fifth Century pope, St. Leo the Great – whose feast happens to be next week. For a few years every once in a while I’d turn to my friend Leo – the pope who negotiated with Attila the Hun – and ask for a little help with my troubles – which usually involved math.

As I grew up, all of this stuff about the saints – official, canonized saints - began to seem a little silly and childish. The idea that Pope Leo the Great was in heaven watching out for me, praying for me, helping me with my long division, seemed pretty hard to believe. And so at some point I put the saints away in my psychological toy box – the saints were tucked away with Captain Kirk and my stamp collection. I said good-bye to Leo and the rest of the saints.

Or so I thought. One of the great things about my time here at General has been rediscovering the saints. It turns out that I had misunderstood a couple of things about the saints. First, although we might depict them in statues as kitschy one-dimensional Technicolor images of perfection, the truth is the saints – the official, canonized saints – were plain folks. Just people trying hard to be faithful Christians. In their times and places they faced all the familiar struggles and challenges and temptations and disappointments. I mean, turn to just about any page in St. Augustine’s Confessions! What made these people official, canonized saints was the fact that through it all, despite doubts and missteps, they kept trying to follow Jesus, they kept answering the call of Jesus. They opened their hearts to the ultimate goal – life with God forever. And, of course, somebody remembered to suggest them for canonization. They are the famous men and women whose names we remember and praise.

Something else I misunderstood – yes, there are the official, canonized saints. I got that. But I bet that those of you from the Protestant side of the family have appreciated much better that there is a deeper, more scriptural understanding of saints as all those who put their faith in the Living Christ. They are the “famous” men and women whose names maybe we don’t remember, yet as the author of Ecclesiasticus assures us, “their glory will never be blotted out.” What I misunderstood back in Jersey City is that all of us – in all the sinfulness, in all the messiness, in all the ordinariness of our lives – all of us are called to be saints too.

But, still, so what? What could the saints mean for us in 2006? Well, in today’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel once again we are faced with the Beatitudes. Once again we imagine in our mind’s eye Jesus on the mountain offering his vision of life in the new community, life in the Kingdom of God. For Matthew the Sermon on the Mount is the centerpiece of Jesus’ entire message and ministry – blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are the followers of Jesus who are reviled and persecuted.

In my imagination I can see at least some of the people on the mountain listening to this and rolling their eyes. This is nonsense! What is Jesus talking about? Give me a break, there’s nothing blessed in being meek or in being persecuted!

And sure enough two-thousand years later much of humanity in all its cynicism, violence and blindness rolls its eyes and rejects the vision and message of Jesus. And so it’s still a great challenge to be a follower of Jesus. Of course, God gives us all we really need – but it’s very easy, even for us in here in this beautiful, sacred place, to read the Beatitudes and be tempted to throw in the towel, to say, no way, this is impossible, this is just too hard. It’s easy for us to say following Jesus is too difficult, we can’t do it.

And this is where the saints, both “official” and “unofficial” come in. Veterans of Church History 1 will remember that very often the early church used athletic images to describe the Christian spiritual life. In maybe the best-known example, St. Paul in First Corinthians urges Christians to run the race in such a way that we might win it and receive the imperishable prize.

I was never much of an athlete, but I do know that all athletes need coaches. In fact it seems we all need coaches. There is actually a new profession that has developed over the past twenty years called the “life coach.” According to the website of the International Coach Federation there are 9000 life coaches in 70 countries. What does a life coach do, you ask? Again from the website, “Professional coaches provide an ongoing partnership to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives.” A woman who had been life coached told the New York Times “Coaching helps you make a decision about where you want to go, and what you want to be.”

Sounds pretty good, actually. But you know God has given us the original life coaches, the saints – “official” and “unofficial.” Yes, Jesus does give us a very challenging vision in the Beatitudes. It seems nearly impossible. But, we have the saints, and hopefully we have each other, to pray for us, to support us, to encourage us, to cheer us on, to console us when we fail, to celebrate when we succeed. Our life coaches in heaven and our life coaches on earth can’t do our work for us, of course, but they, we, can help point the way to the full life promised by Christ.

Oh, one more thing. Right around this time three years ago I came here to General for the prospective students’ conference. Maybe like some other prospective students, I was very nervous and doubtful about the whole thing. I remember thinking - what am I doing here? I have a job I like - I’m a teacher. This whole idea of leaving that comfortable life behind, leaving my friends, leaving my students, giving up my paycheck, coming to seminary, becoming an Episcopal priest, this is just crazy. It’s too hard, too much.

And then we prospective students came here to the chapel for the Eucharist. I sat down and looked at the service sheet and at the top it said “Leo the Great.” It turned out that this conference was taking place on November 10, the feast day of my old, personal saint, my friend, Leo.

Coincidence? Maybe. But to me it felt like in a very direct way this saint, Leo, my life coach, was saying come on, keep going, don’t be afraid, you can do it, I’ll be right here with you every step of the way.

So today let us offer thanks and praise to God for all our life coaches, for all the famous men and women, for all the saints.