Friday, November 13, 2015
Saints and Ain’ts
Yes, there are Baptist churches that do such things.
I always found it a very meaningful experience. We had already remembered those folks when we held their funeral or memorial services, but we focused on them then as individuals. All Saints’ Day reminded us that our departed sisters and brothers were and are a part of our church family. It also reminded us that all of those who have gone before us constitute that great cloud—and after all these years it truly is a great cloud—of witnesses that surrounds us. You can’t be a saint without being among the saints. It’s the saints that come marching in, not the saint.
A saint is someone who’s been sanctified, which means it’s someone who’s been made holy. The thing is, it’s hard for us to know who’s holy and who’s not. Sister Bertha Better Than You (thanks, Ray Stevens) thinks she’s holy, but she’s actually holier-than-thou, which isn’t the same thing. She’s holy, to paraphrase, Mark Twain, in the worst sense of the word. Some people who think they’re saints give saints a bad name. Some people think that the most ludicrous thing you could call them is “saints,” which is in fact evidence that that’s what they are. Some of the people that we judge to be holy really aren’t. Some of those that we judge not to be holy actually are. We have low and shallow standards. We think not being bad is the same as being good. We judge a book by its cover.
We don’t know what we’re talking about. The truth is that only God really knows who’s a saint and who isn’t. I’ll give you one little rhyme to keep in mind, though: if you think you’re a saint, you most likely ain’t.
The Gospel of Luke contains a couple of stories that should make us stop and think about what it means to be holy, or at least to be on the way to being holy. In the first (Luke 18:18-25), a rich ruler comes to Jesus wanting to know how he can inherit eternal life. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” to which Jesus responds with “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” You might want to keep that in mind when you get to thinking that hey, maybe you are good after all.
Anyway, Jesus tells the man that he knows the commandments and the ruler says that he sure does. Why, he’s kept all of them since he was just a little rich ruler. Jesus doesn’t argue the point. I imagine the fellow really was good at not doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. Instead, Jesus told him, “You lack one thing. Go sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor. That way you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The man went away with his possessions intact and his heart broken.
Everybody would have told you that man was saint. But he wasn’t.
Then there’s that famous wee little man, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was rich, too, but he padded his portfolio by cheating the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. He worked with the hated Roman occupiers of Israel. Everybody would have told you that he not only wasn’t a saint but had no possibility of ever being one.
But when Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus wanted to see him. I guess he had heard that Jesus was a friend of sinners and if there was anything Zacchaeus knew about himself, it was that he was a sinner in need of a friend. He was so determined to see Jesus that he tossed his pride aside and went running down the road to get ahead of the crowd. Finding a climbable tree, he climbed it. You can imagine his neighbors pointing up and laughing at him. You can also imagine him not caring. When Jesus saw him up there, he told Zacchaeus to come on down because he just had to spend some time with him.
It had probably been years since anybody except other shady outcasts had shared a meal with Zacchaeus. But Jesus did. And Zacchaeus was glad to have him. As soon as Jesus accepted Zacchaeus and Zacchaeus accepted Jesus, the little big man started throwing his money out to anybody who would take it. “I’ll give half of my stuff to the poor. If I’ve cheated anybody, I’ll pay them back four times what I bilked them out of.”
You see the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler, don’t you? When Jesus challenged the ruler to sell his stuff and help out the poor, he couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, didn’t have to be challenged. He just started sharing.
That’s what love and grace will do to you.
My point here, though, is that everybody would have said the rich ruler was a saint. He kept his nose clean, he had a sterling reputation, and he was an upstanding citizen. But his heart was cold. His wealth (and no doubt the power that came with it) was more important to him than anything else, including God and people. Everybody would also have said that Zacchaeus was an irredeemable scoundrel. But when the love of Jesus sparked his heart, it erupted in a blaze of generosity and reconciliation.
So the next time you get to thinking that somebody’s a saint or that somebody isn’t, you might want to just go think about something else and leave that one to the good Lord.
When I was just starting out as a preacher, my father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, advised me, “Son, when you start doing funerals, don’t feel like you have to preach everybody into heaven, ‘cause everybody ain’t going.” I’ve since presided over hundreds of funerals. I’ve treated some of the deceased as if they were saints and I’ve hedged my bets on quite a few. Still, I once had a friend say to me, “Mike, I’m Methodist and you’re Baptist, but I want you to preach my funeral. You can find something good to say about anybody.”
I guess I can.
But saying it doesn’t make it so . . .
(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on November 10, 2015)