Saints and Sinners
In the new book, Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattoo-having, curse-word-saying pastor of the Church of All Saints and Sinners, tells of seeking a new saint, one she could model her life after as she began a new church. She found Alma White, who planted a church in 1901. Alma Bridwell White was the founder and a bishop of the Pillar of Fire Church and in 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States. She was noted for her feminism and “her association with [wait for it…] the Ku Klux Klan, her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility to immigrants.
Some role model, huh?
And yet, these are often our greatest role models marred? And aren’t we often struck by how flawed our saints are, and how wonderful our sinners are?
Let’s look into the text from this morning…
Our story starts with the son of Solomon, Rehoboam. Israel has made him King. (Remember, Israel is the northern kingdom, so all the Yankees had voted him in). He’s trying to figure out what kind of leader he will be. The Israelite assembly went and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our workload very hard. Lessen it, and we will be loyal.
King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon “What do you advise?” They answer, “Lessen the pain, and they will be serve you forever.”
But Rehoboam ignored their advice and sought the counsel of the young advisors who had grown up with him and now served him. “What do you advise?” he asked.
They said to him, “Say to them: ‘My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist! So if my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!’”
This is Solomon’s son, y’all! And it’s pretty clear from this text that Solomon isn’t the wise and good king that we all thought he was. And yet…
So the people instead turn to Jereboam. Lead us, they ask, but what happens then? Jereboam, to keep them interested, turns, instead to idol worship—golden calves.
So what do we do with all of that? This is another Sunday where I’m flummoxed with the choice. This text can be about leadership, sure. Sort of a “How not to win friends and influence people” lesson.
Or this text could also be about the voices we listen to—I’d call it “The company you keep.” His advisors seemed to give good advice, that would benefit the people. Rehoboam’s friends, on the other hand, gave terrible advice, even lewd advice (My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist!).
Or, maybe, the text can be about all of us… that even within our calling, our livelihood, our lives, we can do both good and bad things. I mean, you don’t see it in this text, but it’s possible that Rehoboam was a decent person, except for this one decision.
But seriously? This is where I keep going with it. That we all have both the capability of bad within us, and the capability of good within us.
It is the human condition.
Brainpickings.com had an essay yesterday about Oliver Sacks. She recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:
“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”
“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.
“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.
“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.
This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses.
Oliver Sacks says,
We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.
My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind.
The human condition means that many of us are broken by our “upbringings, our cultures and our times.” That we get broken, and which means that we then go break those around us.
A friend sent me a newspaper article by Sydney Harris, who died in 1986, called Seven Magic Words. In this editorial, the seven magic words are “See him as the child he was.” Harris continues, “Remember that he began his life with laughing expectancy, with trust, with warmth, desiring to give love and to take love.
“And then remember that something happened to him – something he is not aware of – to turn the trust into suspicion, the warmth into wariness, the give-and-take into all-take and no give.
See him as the child he was.
Because life makes us all saints and sinners.
But it’s also good to remember another word of advice from Nadia Bolz-Weber. She writes, “It has been my experience that what makes us saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.”
Thank God. We may be sinners. But God’s love makes us saints.