If we properly moved Reformation Day to 10/25 and celebrated it there as we’d ought to have done, then All Saints’ Day invites us this Sunday to explore, receive, embrace, recall, and celebrate “saints.”
Proclaimers, we have some options before us—–a) turn our liturgy into a memorial for the dead that makes us feel like we’ve attended a stately funeral for old royals, b) assle around and proclaim a message that seems to say, “Heathens, Live better,” c) offer some idea that ultimately climaxes with something akin to, “Be good—then die—-and guess what? We’ll light a candle for you, too.”
Those options are not good enough for me. They don’t offer grace.
I am Lutheran—-which means I see the Christian life as being that of 100% saint and 100% sinner—-both together—both at once. It is not a matter of being “either” 100% sinner, “or” 100% saint. It is a matter of knowing that we are both; we are both —-mixed, shaken, and poured, into the single same martini glass that is us. We live in the reality of grace that affords us, at precious cost, and that not of our own doing, a life of progress which demands not one bit of requisite perfection. So we are SAINTS NOW. The business of being a saint is not death dependent.
Case in point—-sometimes people tease me and say, “You’d make a great bishop.” Normally, my response to such a tease includes scintillating strings of expletives careening carelessly into a decided, “Hell, no!” And my response, which is unlikely to change, is rooted in years of good ole Protestant work ethic peering out from under the cloak rim of image issues. I’m still embracing the reality that being a saint is the business of the Holy Spirit at work, and perhaps never more efficiently than when I am at rest. Besides, being a bishop is important work—saintly work.
I look to bishops for support, guidance, insight—–not because they’re somehow more sainted than me, but because God has called them to the Church, through the Church, and brings giftedness into the Christian community through the office of bishop. It is trying holy work. It’s no small wonder that many bishops land on the Church calendar for veneration.
But—in the remote and exigent chance that God should smite, and consequently afflict upon the Church me as bishop, I’d hope to live into a certain kind of example. I’d hope it’d look like the bishop of Les Miserables. See—that’s what being a saintly cleric looks like to me.
In light of the bishop’s example, even despite my saint-sinner theology, I will make myself believe—in terms of saints—-that I’m not there yet, that I’ll probably never get there, and that even my desk says so; piled as it is with a “Wag More; Bark Less” sticker for my car that never made it, a 6 month old note to call a colleague in Boone to schedule a meal that never happened, my pad of “I live at the corner of BITE ME BLVD and NO FRICKIN’ WAY” stationery still unused though years old, a stack of books waiting for digestion growing cold under the UNICEF Christmas cards purchased in the hot fervor of providing immunizations for children yet never sent to celebrate anything. All the time I flirt with leading a selfless life and fall back into self. Yet—-despite my demonstations otherwise, both theology and Baptism call me saint whether I like it or not.
Which begs a question? Who embodies the selfless love of Christ to you? A mother? A father? A child? A spouse? Pope Francis I? A first grade teacher? The boyfriend that let you go? The young girl who said, “Yes,” thus changing your life forever?
What about a hooker? Can there be such a thing as a saintly hooker? Could one who sells body for gain be a saint—-yes—a sinner sinning as sinners do—-yet still be God’s child in the business of reconciliation even while working the streets?
Around the corner from Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Utica, NY is a hotel bar. I was drinking a Long Island Iced Tea after dinner. I was weary. It had been a long 14 hour dirty shift. It had been many weeks since I’d seen my wife and sons. I wanted a dark quiet corner in which to sulk and brood. The bar had seemed perfect but it was packed and the northern accents of fast-talking people numbed me more than my drink. So many voices, all speaking so quickly. Answers formed to questions, even pro-offered from hearers before so many speakers, who’d no doubt thought to complete their questions, could finish them. It was wearing on my nerves. I got up. I moved from the crowded tables to the near-empty bar, mentally gasping for air in the sea of blue collar town criers.
The bar stool felt good, just the right height for my feet to rest on the beam beneath the top. The noise, though no less than before, was directed towards a sports game on the television screen affixed high on the opposing wall. It seemed better over here. A shiny bar mirror advertised two local beers: Utica Club and Matt’s Lager. Softly—almost invisibly—a figure mounted the stool beside me and ordered water. I could see her Italian features. Her black hair shined. She wore Eternity perfume. Such an apt name for a perfume, well-suited to a girl whose ebony hair seemed as nebulous and inviting as midnight sky.
I blushed when our eyes met—she’d caught me staring. I looked down and away. She chuckled, told me her name, asked for mine. Soon we were talking. She ribbed me about my accent. I returned the favor. Conversation turned to grits and how we Southerners go out in late October with our grit-poles to knock the grit-cones out of the grit trees during the grit harvest. And she was enthralled to learn of grit-orchards and grit agriculture. She shared about Utica and how long she’d been there, how she came there from some other NY town.
Time passed too quickly and a guy at one of the tables motioned for the girl to leave the bar. She joined him. And pretty soon she came back, this time making an offer of her body. And it was terribly tempting. My arrogance often leads me into believing that I can hide things better than most. This thought crossed my mind, “Why not take her up to room 417?” Other thoughts like, “This would damage everything and everyone you love,” pelted the take-her-to-417 temptation. The short of it is that I did not take her to #417 and that friends left the bar with me that night.
But what of the girl? I declined her offer. I paid her bar tab which eventually had included more than water. And I paid her for services which I did not receive. Why? Because it was 1:45AM and she needed rest. In fact, I paid her enough that she could afford a hotel room at the Radisson on Genesee Street. I still pray for her, and for her pimp, too.
But here’s the thing—–she had given me four to five hours of company. She could have worked that room for other clients. She could have made her play, discovered early on that I don’t roll that way, then moved on to business. She gave her time—something she can never regain. She entered into a relationship with a fool that lied to her about grits. She let me babble along and laughed at how falling grit-cones can hit you in the face if you aren’t careful. Set sat with me quietly when I wasn’t interested in talking. And she shared her own stories with me, too. Not stories of prostitution, but of bagels and lake effect snow, and how pretty the stained glass windows are at Grace Church.
She brought this dead man to life—and not in the aphrodisiac sense. She gave her time and was kind. She was a saint—so totally a sinner yet so completely a saint. I am entirely, even theologically, convinced that saints are dirty window panes through which God’s grace shines.
I’m really glad for the readings which are apportioned to this Sunday. A dead man is given new life.
Seems like a grand story in which to remind ourselves that the words in Lesbia Scott’s hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” hold so true:
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.
This is a better proclamation than some word on the dead. After all, we’re not all dead yet.