Sinners and Saints
We’re following monthly themes in our worship and other activities here at Essex Church and this month we’re working with the juiciest of topics – good and evil. I guess when most of us think of terms like saints and sinners – we’d place ourselves somewhere between the two. We know that no-one is all good nor even all bad, we know that to be human is to carry potential within us, and depending on our circumstances and our personalities, the times in which we live, even the people we meet along the way – all these factors shape the ways in which we live our lives.
We also know that it is a rare human being who is brought up in such a way that they feel fully accepted in the world, just as they are. This is the process of socialization, through which we internalize certain messages. I wonder what kinds of messages you were brought up with? I come from a big family and was told that I had to share, that I mustn’t be selfish. Maybe you were told you had to work hard, that you couldn’t be lazy? Or you sensed that your anger was not acceptable? Or that in your family everybody was tough and didn’t cry or admit to being frightened? Or that you must be grateful for what you have and not ask for more? Or that it’s not OK to make mistakes or to say you don’t understand? Do any of these sound like messages you might have internalised as a child?
And there’s also something quite punitive in human nature isn’t there. In many parts of the world, including here in Britain and in the States, we have legal systems that punish wrong doers severely – with an emphasis on retribution rather than rehabilitation. Even though simply locking people up for breaking the law tends to lead to more criminal activity once they are released. The issue of good and bad behaviour is a concern for us all.
Our service title ‘a house for all’ comes from the work of an American Lutheran priest Nadia Bolz Weber. Her quotation that we’ve used on today’s order of service speaks to me. “Whenever people annoy me beyond reason, I can guarantee it’s because they’re demonstrating something I’d rather not see in myself.”
She’s a Lutheran priest from Denver Colorado and has become popular around the world because she’s a powerful communicator and because of the inclusive message she bring from her church community. They are called ‘a house for all sinners and saints’. Most church communities say that they welcome everyone, whoever you are, wherever you have been or whatever you have done – but the reality sometimes doesn’t quite match the advertising. It can actually be quite uncomfortable to welcome people who are very different from ourselves, can’t it? It’s more comfortable to stick together with birds of a feather.
What Nadia Bolz Weber does so well is to take Christianity back to Jesus’ life and say – look who he was hanging around with – the down and outs of an occupied land in the far outreaches of the Roman Empire: “I’ve never fully understood how Christianity became quite so tame and respectable, given its origins among drunkards, prostitutes, and tax collectors.”
Now what does that tell us about the kinds of communities we could be creating today?
Nadia Bolz Weber is worth finding on You Tube and having a listen to because she has a strong presence and a strong message. She swears a lot, she has some amazing tattoos and she challenges us all to consider the ways we limit our love and acceptance of others. She’s also delightfully frank about her own shortcomings.
In one of her books, called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People, she describes a day in her church where they make gingerbread saints to honour special people. She knows she must write the name Alma White on her saintly biscuit and she describes her struggle to do so. Alma White had set up a church in Denver in the early 1900s, she’d campaigned for women’s equality and access to education, she was the first woman bishop in the United States. (So far so good.) She was also known for her support of the Klu Klux Klan, her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, as well as being quite hostile towards immigrants. Nadia tells a fellow priest of her dilemma and that priest says ‘email me her name and I’ll add her to the litany of saints along with all the other broken people of God’.
Bolz-Weber explains further: ‘Personally I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests – it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin.’
Now I hope that all of us here today have had moments of knowing we are accepted in our entirety – warts n all, as the old saying goes. I hope we have people we can be honest with about our failings and our foibles, I hope we don’t feel we have to act like someone we’re not in order to be accepted. But let’s not pretend this is easy; or that for most of us this is a regular feeling of being accepted, just as we are. It’s not easy, even in a loving friendship group or family or neighbourhood. It’s not easy in a church setting like this.
To want to create a house for all sinners and saints is a worthy aim. But you can’t build a community just with words, or just with high ideals. It’s real work with real people. And it’s messy, uncomfortable work at times. The work starts with ourselves when we catch ourselves behaving in ways we would rather we didn’t behave and we pay attention. We don’t pretend it didn’t happen. We acknowledge the truth – OK I’ve had that nasty thought about so and so – again: I’ve just avoided talking to …. again; I’m not telling people how bad I’m feeling ….. again; I’ve had a problem with so-and-so this Sunday – maybe I won’t bother coming to church next Sunday.
I wonder if it’s happened to you yet. Have you been disappointed by our community in some way? Have I let you down or said something that riled or rattled you? Because it happens everywhere doesn’t it. We get disappointed by others. And we ourselves behave in ways that we feel awkward about. This is what it is to be human, we stumble and fall, we make mistakes, we pretend to be something we’re not because we can’t quite imagine that we’ll be accepted in our entirety. We back away, we retreat – in shame, in rage, in fear, or an all-masking feeling of boredom or sense of ‘it’s time to move on’. And we live in the kind of society where we can always move on. But if we stick it out, if we endure our discomfort and explore our difficulties rather than hiding them – I promise you a more authentic way of being in the world and a deeper sense of connection with others. This all takes practice – we are amateurs in the task of encouraging ourselves and one another to be all of who we are. It’ll be the work of our lives if we choose to take it on. And we’ll gather some emotional knocks and bruises along the way. Our egos will be dented, our ideas of ‘how people should be’ will be shaken up. Diversity takes on a whole new meaning when we really start to get to know one another beneath our socially acceptable veneers. But isn’t that what love’s all about? Can we truly speak of love if we can only love and accept a small part of one another rather than the whole of who we are and who we might be? We recognise good and evil as extremes – as ends of a dualist continuum of human behaviour. And most of us are shuffling around somewhere between the two. I think we can be called to be our best selves through recognising our whole selves and I hope our Kensington Unitarians community here at Essex Church can help each of us in that task. Amen.
‘The Other Beatitudes’
These alternative beatitudes came from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s talk at the Greenbelt Festival. After our ‘sinners and saints’ service we chose the blessings that best applied to us. Here they are:
‘Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as the ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the parentless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who ‘still aren’t over it yet’. Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. Blessed are the losers and the parts of s that feel so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten and the hidden. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.’
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 12th March 2017