Who are your saints? Who’s inspired you to live your life with authenticity and generosity? Who, by their actions and words, has made God present to you?
What do you imagine contributes to their saintliness? Kindness? Integrity? An unwavering commitment to caring for the least of these? Joyfulness? Teresa of Avila, 16th century nun, once said, “May God protect us from gloomy saints.” Yes. Please. 🙂
Who are your saints? What makes them your saints?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus isn’t talking about saints. This is way before the concept even existed. But in talking about the kindom of God–God’s dreams for the world–he addresses a key characteristic of those most adept at creating God’s kindom: humility.
What is humility? Sr. Joan Chittister characterizes humility as a profound sense of authenticity. It’s having a clear sense of your place in the universe. You don’t think of yourself more highly than you are, nor do you think of yourself as more lowly than you are. You simply are who you are. She writes: “Humble people walk comfortably in every group. No one is either too beneath them or too above them for their own sense of well-being. They are who they are, people with as much to give as to get, and they know it. And because they’re at ease with themselves, they can afford to be open with others.”
Sadly, I don’t think Sr. Joan is talking about the Pharisees in today’s Scripture story. Matthew tells us from the get-go the Pharisees tried “to trap Jesus in his words.” In an attempt to discredit him in front of the faithful—or get him imprisoned…that would work, too—the Pharisees pelted Jesus with manipulative questions. Finally, an exasperated Jesus asked a manipulative question of his own. He asked it to show just how manipulative the authorities’ questions had been. He asked it to shut the others up. It worked.
THEN, once his detractors have been silenced, Jesus preaches a sermon. Let’s call it “Beware the Hypocrisy of the Pharisees.” He proclaims:
‘The religious scholars and the Pharisees have succeeded Moses as teachers; therefore, perform every observance they tell you to. But don’t follow their example; even they don’t do what they say. They tie up heavy loads and lay them on others’ shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to help alleviate the burden. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and wear huge tassels. They are fond of places of honor at banquets and the front seats in synagogues. They love respectful greetings in public and being called ‘Rabbi.’
Back in the day, the role of religious leader came with lots of perks. The Pharisees liked their perks; they liked their power. But exclusive power, by definition, “excludes” most people. For a few people to hold the bulk of the power, the rank-and-file have to give up most of theirs. This disproportionate divvying up of power created an unjust system, one that was the opposite of what Jesus imagined the kin-dom of God to be. Here’s how Jesus imagines the kin-dom:
But as for you, avoid the title ‘Rabbi.’ For you have only one Teacher, and you are all sisters and brothers. And don’t call anyone on earth your ‘Mother’ or ‘Father.’ You have only one Parent—our loving God in heaven. Avoid being called leaders. You only have one leader—the Messiah. The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves with be exalted.
Jesus isn’t just calling for a redistribution of power. He’s calling for a whole new kind of power, one that isn’t hoarded by some, but rather, is shared by all.
I suspect all our personal saints lived out of this understanding of power–that we’re all in this thing together, that we’re all stronger when we support each other, that lording religious authority over people doesn’t usher in God’s presence nearly as well as loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we’re grabbing for power, we’re trying to reach beyond who we are. If we allow others to grab our power, we’re dismissing our own agency in the world. But when we all simply are who we are, we discover a profound connection to God through our connection to each other. In short, the kindom of God–the world God dreams of–is created by humble saints.
Since the Catholic Church began canonizing saints, there have been books of saints. These books chronicle the lives and miracles attributed to each saint. The thinking is that stories of the saints will inspire the faithful to live even more faithful lives.
Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses, is a recent book that updates the book of saints concept. It includes canonized saints like Teresa, Brigid, Francis, and Patrick…but it also includes people who have not been canonized, some of whom aren’t even Christian, people like Anne Frank and Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi and Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Taking in stories of these saintly witnesses, readers are invited to imagine how they might live their lives more faithfully.
About a year ago, I posted something on Facebook about Koinonia Farm. The farm was established in 1942 as an intentional interracial Christian farming community. For Sumter County Georgia in 1942, that was visionary. And gutsy.
A friend from Oklahoma commented on the post. “My uncle helped found Koinonia Farm!” she wrote. Clarence Jordan gets most of the credit for starting Koinonia, in part, because he stayed at Koinonia until his death in 1968. But Clarence started Koinonia with Martin England. Martin and his wife, Mabel, were my friend, Jo’s, uncle and aunt.
I asked Jo lots of questions about the Englands. She answered what she could, then referred me to a book written by the Englands’ daughter, Beverly. The cover of By Faith and By Love: Martin and Mabel’s Journey, contains two pictures—one of Martin and Mabel and a painting of a black man leading a team of horses pulling a wagon behind them. The first thing Jo told me about her aunt and uncle was the story depicted in that painting.
Martin’s family came from the hills of South Carolina near the Georgia border. In 1861, Martin’s grandfather, Jasper Wilson, was called up to serve in the Confederate army. At some point, Jasper was badly wounded on the battlefield. After several weeks in the hospital, Confederate officers sent Jasper home. A friend “knew Jasper’s discharge was a bad sign. It meant the officers thought he was going to die.” The friend ripped open a seam of Jasper’s coat, filled it with money, and sewed it up again. “He prayed that his friend would die at home, not on the train, and that his family would find the lump in the coat.
“Jasper’s grandson Martin told the next part of the story: ‘The train crews lifted my grandfather off one bumpy, crowded train and onto the next. Finally Jasper got to the village of Walhalla, South Carolina, the end of the railroad. It was about 40 miles to his home in the mountains. No one in the family knew he had been wounded; no one knew that he had been sent home to die. He lay on the station platform in Walhalla two whole days, begging anyone to take him home or to get word to his family that he was there. Finally a black man, a former slave who had bought his freedom, an old man who hauled freight in a horse and wagon, put Jasper in his wagon and took him the two-day journey home.
“When they got to the little stream beside his house Jasper called to his wife, my grandmother Jeanette, ‘I’m home. Bring clean clothes and towels and soap but don’t come near me.’ Caked with blood and pus and the lice that spread from soldier to soldier, he warned her, ‘I’m lousy. Don’t come. Throw my clean clothes across the creek.’ And my grandmother did just that.
“The old man gently undressed and bathed my grandfather there in the stream, dressed him in clean clothes and took him home. He carried him across the creek and up to the house in his arms. My grandmother lived up in the hills and had seen very few black people. But that sight, of the old black man carrying her husband across the creek, made an impression on her.”
The story of that old man’s kindness to Martin England’s grandfather completely shaped Martin’s life, as well as the lives of his descendants. Martin and Mabel served as missionaries in Burma before and after World War II. It was during a furlough from their two tours when they started Koinonia with Clarence and Florence Jordan. The summer of 1963, when Martin served on the Pension Board of the American Baptists, he followed Martin Luther King, Jr., around the south trying to get him to sign up for a pension and life insurance. A benefactor already had paid the premiums, all Dr. King had to do was sign. At the urging of Ralph David Abernathy, who already had gotten his policy, Dr. King finally signed. The other Martin was among the first people to visit Coretta and the rest of the family after Dr. King’s death in 1968.
In our correspondence, Martin and Mabel’s niece, Jo, talked about remembering the story of Martin’s grandfather’s rescue during the struggle for desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama. She, her sisters, and her cousins were among the few white students who continued going to school during the unrest.
The story of a freed black man saving a Confederate soldier’s life, traveling two days to get him home, cleaning his putrid, lous-y body, then carrying him in his arms to the arms of his adoring wife has continued to reverberate through the England family….and through their family to the rest of the world. The stories of your saints, no doubt, have played a similar role in your life.
As I think about it, all these saintly stories do beg the question—In whose saint book might we earn a page? What story or stories might that page contain? Once we are gone, will we too be known as a humble saint?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017