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Saints of the Commonplace

November 8, 2011

“Saints of the Commonplace" Matthew 5:1-12 All Saints A © 11/6/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s something at the same time disturbing and hopeful about the Beatitudes. Disturbing, because they seem either naive or impossible; hopeful, because we long to know this is the way the world is: where the poor are satisfied, peacemakers are honored, and the meek inherit the earth. Whenever I read the blessings of Jesus, I end up confused and challenged, confounded and comforted. Maybe you do, too.

The difficulty with the Beatitudes is compounded when we realize that the portrait of individual and community life we have in them was not painted in isolation on some cold and windy hill, in some high tower far removed from civilization. Our Lord spoke them to and for people who have relationships with others that sometimes go wrong and land them in court. He delivered his blessings in a world where temptations abound and our eyes wander from their gaze at God to something shiny and interesting. This vision of blessedness is somehow meant to be lived out in the midst of marriage and commerce, of strong emotion and potentially debilitating worry, even in hard times and persecution.

How is it possible to live the life we encounter in these sayings? We may feel somewhat like the late golfing icon Sam Snead. Passing through Rome in 1961, he stopped for an audience with Pope John. Snead had not been playing well for sometime, and told one of the officials at the Vatican: “I brought my putter along on the chance the pope might bless it.” The monsignor nodded sympathetically. “I know, Mr. Snead,” he said. "My putting is absolutely hopeless, too." Amazed, Snead exclaimed, "If you live here and can’t putt, what chance is there for me?" (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes: 515) We may see the spiritual life as the property and privilege of the fortunate few and despair of attaining blessedness. If those who have given up all still complain of being far from God, what chance is there for us, who live in the everyday world?

Thomas Merton. himself a contemplative who recommended separation from the world, held out hope. He wrote: "…if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those around you poison your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul" (New Seeds of Contemplation: 87).

Another writer is perhaps more helpful. He points out that the Beatitudes are “less a roll call of kingdom virtues than an affirmation of the…blessedness which is already enjoyed by those who are followers of Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes are not a strategy or an exhortation to blessedness but an indicative with the force of a promise” (Robert Lischer, Interpretation, April 1987: 160). In other words, the Beatitudes remind us we are already blessed. The thing we need to do is recognize that. They can make that claim without being hopelessly naive because God has done something radically new in Jesus Christ. He has inaugurated a new age and is continually bringing it into being among us and in us. The promise of God is to and for each of us and all of us. It is not the property of the spiritually elite nor does the realization of it in our lives depend on our knowledge of arcane secrets of the kingdom or some stringent asceticism. As the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer so bluntly put it: “…error lies in looking for some kind of human behavior as the ground for …beatitude instead of the call and promise of Jesus alone” (The Cost of Discipleship: 119).

I once read a piece by a pastor who talked about “saints of commonplace.” Nice phrase. One was “St. Sylvia of Pittsboro.” The minister wrote: “Anyone who saw St. Sylvia on the day she died…could have deduced how she lived her life. There she was in that fish bowl of a cardiac cubicle, a monitor that may as well have been an hourglass looming over her head. She knew that her family had been called. But neither the tubes, the fatigue nor the knowledge that this day would be her last could ruin it. There were, after all, memories to share, cards from dear friends to be read, goodbyes more to be felt and kissed than spoken. She would break the tension with her sly jokes and be just plain Sylvia to the end.”

The pastor goes on to tell how he had noticed in his ministry with and to Sylvia that her faith had blossomed and flourished despite “an avalanche of tragedies, setbacks and illnesses which would have broken others.” For Sylvia, there was never a day “when her heart and mind were not trained on the riches of God’s kindness and love” (The Christian Century, October 28, 1987: 934-5).

We have all known such saints of the commonplace. We could echo the words of the hymnwriter: “The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me” (Lesbia Scott, 1929). These ordinary people are nevertheless giants of faith, whose confidence nothing could shake.

In the first congregation I served as pastor, there was a young woman named Judy. She was a dancer and the mother of a beautiful little girl. But Judy got skin cancer that eventually went to her brain. On the night before the surgery for the tumor that ultimately took her life, I remember how she joked and laughed about the frequency with which she seemed to be in the hospital. Judy was one of my saints of the commonplace.

Their names may be unknown outside a small circle of friends and family, but Sylvia and Judy and all those other saints who live on in our hearts would teach us that clarity of vision which enables us to see God. They were focused, centered, sure of the blessed intention of their Lord. The minds and heart of those who experience joy no matter what are set on the goal who is Christ. Put another way, they have answered the ultimate question posed by life. As the great Catholic writer Karl Rahner put it: “What comes to us from without, in the chance occurrences of our lives, is found at bottom to be transformed into a question: how to interpret it. how to decide to make use of it, how to turn it into a blessing by handling it correctly” (The Practice of Faith: 271).

The Beatitudes of Jesus are a call not to try harder, but to discover who we already are. The saints of the commonplace we know and have known have somehow grasped that, somehow appropriated what they have been given. The

call and promise of Jesus come to us all. We live toward the blessed vision in the strength of the God whom we see in Jesus Christ. No logic can account for the reality of God’s promise, no power on earth enable its fulfillment in us. The premise of the promise is the grace of God at work in Jesus Christ; its conclusion, the gathering of the saints around the heavenly throne, casting down their crowns, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

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