Living Generously: Relationships
Every Lent I try to take on some practice or give up something, the sacrifice of which might help me think about God a little more.
Perhaps some of you try to do this as well.
Over the years the practice has become, for me, an exercise in failure. For example, there was the Lent I tried to give up Diet Coke, which lasted only one week; there was also the year I tried to keep a practice of 30 minutes of daily reflective spiritual writing, which I kind of did for most of Lent, sort of; and then there was the year I decided to become a vegan, which lasted three days. Three. Days.
It turns out I am not the only one striving for spiritual perfection and failing. I recently read a book called Flunking Sainthood, in which the author intended “a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting, and [praying] the Jesus prayer.” At the end of the year she met with her editor to report that she’d been unable to successfully stick with any of the spiritual practices she took on. Not one!
Still, when her experiment ended, she found to her surprise, the trying—and, most especially, the failing—did some serious work on her heart, softening hard edges and helping her, in the process of learning to forgive herself, begin forgiving others. It seemed she’d stumbled on holiness—a kind of sainthood, you might call it—by being honest and real. Fully human.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we traditionally remember those who have lived lives that point us toward God’s highest hopes for our own lives. We’re also continuing our conversations today about different ways in which we might learn to live generously—specifically about relationships, about how we reflect the generosity of God in our relationships with each other. And I’m thinking that sainthood, the kind of living that points us toward God, may just be found in generous relationships in which we allow room for each other to be real, and in which we are real, authentic, ourselves.
Today we’re still in Matthew’s gospel, following Jesus through his last week. Remember he’s been speaking harsh words to call out the behavior of those around him, and today it gets really personal. Specifically, Jesus publically criticized the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. They love public recognition, he said. And they demand respect by insisting on wearing flashy clothes that gain the attention of others; by sitting in the most powerful and prominent places so they’re sure to get noticed; by insisting that people call them by their titles, always showing deference toward their positions.
While those temple leaders claimed they were busy following the rules, adhering to tradition, making sure that everybody fell in line, in Jesus’ mind they were living an exercise in missing the point. In other words, they were so insistent on following the rules that they’d created a situation in which there was no room for making mistakes, for flunking sainthood, you might say. Instead, everybody went around pretending they were perfect and, to draw attention from their own missteps, vigorously pointing out when others’ weren’t.
And all of this effort expended toward sustaining the illusion of perfection had the end result of creating a community that was broken—a group of people that were disengaged, alienated from each other; a community ruled by fear, in which nobody could tell the truth, in which relationships were power-based and fear-maintained, in which God’s invitation to live lives dictated by love for God and love for neighbor somehow got lost in the empty constructs of ritual and prestige.
Jesus’ critical words here were about hypocrisy, for sure, but they hit at something even deeper than that. Nobody could tell the truth about who they were, individually or together; nobody dared come to the community with fears exposed and weaknesses out there for all to see.
And Jesus wasn’t putting up with that.
Because Jesus knew that when we define our relationships with each other by status and prestige, by titles and achievements, then we are not doing the hard work of love, of being real with each other, that risky undertaking defined by our inborn value—every one of us—beloved children of God. Instead, we are buying into the structures of this world, that tell us our value comes from outward trappings, accomplishments, possessions, titles.
Those things may create the illusion of sainthood, but they’re not real. Living in truly generous relationship with each other means being authentic, vulnerable, honest about our own failures and willing to always speak the truth with love. It’s risky business. But that kind of living is what ushers us into generous relationship, honest engagement, without which we can never be fully real, without which we can never live into all the generous relationship for which God created us, without which we can never be saints for each other.
In other words, nowhere in the Bible would you or I find a reference to St. Mark or St. John or St. Paul. The only time we ever read the word “saint” it is in the plural form—referring the Christians as a group. Remember?
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 1:1; or, I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints. Ephesians 1:15; or, I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God. Ephesians 3:17b-18.
It seems that the scriptural concept of sainthood always happens in a group—that holiness, or sainthood, is an identity we discover and live out with others, in generous relationship, seeking always to point each other toward God.
If you are like me, you probably don’t think often about the details of medieval history, but I am betting that most of you remember who Johannes Gutenberg was. Gutenberg lived in the 1300s in Germany. He was one of those guys—perhaps you know folks like this—who was constantly trying one hare-brained scheme after another to make his living.
One day Gutenberg had an idea that manufacturing metal molds of letters which could fit into a frame might possibly have some potential as a lucrative invention. He was anxious to try his idea, which you and I now know as the world-revolutionizing printing press, but he did not have the funds to create his new machine. To make some quick start-up money, Gutenberg wracked his brain to think of something that would sell quickly.
In the church in Mainz, where we was living, he heard that there would be a festival in which relics from the Holy Land would arrive and be on display. He knew that people would flock from all over Europe to get a chance to see these holy relics—a fragment of bone from an apostle, a vial of dirt from the ground beneath the cross, a scrap of cloth from a shroud Jesus wore—whatever the relics were, they were holy objects that faithful people wanted just to get a glimpse of—to have some connection to the holy.
Here was the problem that Gutenberg thought he might solve: with the press of all those people who flocked from everywhere, it would be hours, days even, of waiting in line to get close to the relics. And even upon getting close, chances are the crowd would prevent getting a good look at the holy relic. Gutenberg thought if he could somehow provide a way for the pilgrims to see the relics, he might make enough income to build his printing press.
Gutenberg got busy then manufacturing small mirrors. He mounted the mirrors on poles and sold them by the hundreds to the pilgrims, who, upon getting relatively close to the relics they wanted to see could raise their poles and look into their little mirrors, which would then be reflecting a clear view of the relic. As they gazed into their mirrors they would see then, just a little bit of the holy, enough to bolster their spirits and punctuate their long waits and their dismal lives with a little bit of the divine.
What does it mean to be a saint? The word means, “God’s holy ones”, and I am thinking, knowing myself, that if we’re going to be called saints the word certainly cannot mean that we are perfect people. Instead, our sainthood happens when we take the risk of generous relationship with each other—real, gritty relationship in which we are determined to be authentic. When we do that, we become saints, together: a living, breathing group of people whose lives reflect the goodness and grace and, even, holiness of God.
Friends, this world is desperate for places in which to lay down false pretenses and be real. It’s too hard to keep acting like we’re perfect, desperately holding onto that illusion that limits relationship and builds communities defined by fear of being discovered for who we truly are.
What would happen if we took the risk of forgiving ourselves, of being real? I wonder if that might lead to forgiving others, to generous relationships?
I suspect if we took a risk like that, our individual lives and our life together might become, well, saintly. And maybe, when we look at each other, we might be able to see, even if only very faintly sometimes, a reflection of God.
May it be so, amen.
 Riess, Jana, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, Paraclete Press: 2011, 1.