What makes a saint? How do we define the term? Typically, we think of saints as possessing qualities that elude many of us: we see them as patient and serene, forgiving and clean: in a word, flawless. Today’s reading from Isaiah promises a feast for the faithful, but much of his prophecy is far harsher and judgmental. In the previous chapter, we hear: Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter the inhabitants. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress. The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled; for the Lord has spoken this word.
This is a call to justice that is both rough and terrifying. Sainthood, in reality, is not pretty. The men and women down the ages whom the church has lifted up as saints are usually trouble-makers, those who stir up the waters, those who just can’t leave well enough alone, those who refuse to keep silent in the face of inequity, prejudice, and exclusion. Sainthood is not pretty. Neither are justice and righteousness.
Once there was a man. He had organized a meeting at his own workplace downtown, so that even if no one showed up and the meeting was a flop, he couldn’t leave. This man was a smoker, suffered from depression, was prone to migraines. It wasn’t pretty.
We think of saints as not quite real, as men and women who hold to impossible standards of serenity and goodness. Not the sort of person who would get impatient at Panthers’ game-day traffic. But saints, true saints, are rough around the edges and entirely human, focused on their tasks, and, like all humans, come complete with plenty of flaws.
Sainthood is not pretty. And when you come down to it, neither are justice and righteousness. Which is what, ultimately, Isaiah is talking about. The passage from Isaiah 24 continues:
On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished. For the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders he will manifest his glory.
And the passage for today’s reading is sandwiched between two further passages describing punishment and misery. Because righteousness and justice depend on troubling the waters. On not leaving well enough alone. On refusing to stand silent in the face of inequity and exclusion. These words from Isaiah are addressed to a people at the height of their power. To a people who are self-sufficient and complacent, who have been enough generations removed from the Exodus to turn to idolatry. Hypocrisy and social injustice are everywhere. Like a few other countries we might recognize.
Once there was a man. The man who organized the meeting at his workplace downtown. This man was like many of us. He was probably self-conscious about his height, or lack of it. He struggled with his weight. He was forever tempted by the appeal of other women. He enjoyed silk suits and good food; he liked the finer things in life. Yet he could not stop himself from speaking out. Without meaning to, he made a career as a prophet, and was often without honor in his own country.
Like Isaiah, this man called for justice. Like Isaiah, he called for righteousness. And the people within earshot of him, many were like those in Israel. Many were like a lot of us today. We’re all in favor of justice – as we define it. We’re big fans of righteousness – according to our own concept. We fully expect justice to come down – on other people. And only when it is convenient to our needs, and just from time to time as we see fit.
Justice is not like that. Justice does not wait on our schedule, and justice does not conform to our opinions. Thank God it does not. Thomas Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.” But God is not an administrator of pure justice. Imagine what our lives would be like if God gave us what we deserved. In fact, God cares for our lives with true justice, which is not retributive but which is tempered with mercy. And for that, we give profound thanks. But our relief should not close our ears to the call for justice and the cry for righteousness.
This man, the man who organized meetings, the man who was like so many of us, he cried aloud in the streets for justice. He had his own struggles and wrestled with his own demons. Therefore, many who heard him felt free to dismiss his calls for justice. He fretted about his image. His politics were suspect. He hung around with agitators.
Because of these things, many felt this his urgent public message could be ignored, because the justice he called for meant making some changes to the way things had been for a long time. This righteousness he was urging was the righteousness of God.The righteousness of God. What does that look like? One way that God has expressed his righteousness has been in the restoration of the community in time of need. Like Abraham promised his descendants; like the Israelites who finally reached the promised land.
Here in our own community, the call for justice, the cry for righteousness, is all around us. Do we close our ears to these calls because we feel that they do not touch us directly? We who are safe within our own borders, who have no need to flee government-sponsored violence in our own land, we know nothing of what it means to be outside the borders of peace and prosperity. We have forgotten how many of our ancestors fled to this nation seeking religious freedom and an end to the seemingly endless wars and conscriptions of their homelands. We can gather by the thousands in Temple Emmanuel on a Tuesday evening and raise our voices for peace, we can say the prayer for the dead, and feel safe, knowing the unlikelihood of anyone bursting through our doors and gunning us down for daring to worship Jesus Christ. We feel safe. We feel secure. But the prophets of old call on us now, in our own time, to raise our voices for justice and righteousness for all people.
This ordinary man, with his flaws and failures, in his own time and place was calling for the restoration of the community in time of need, the making right what had been long broken. And he had to speak strong words to make his point, and he had to march in the streets, and he had to go to prison, because a lot of people who heard him did not agree that the community was broken.
And those who did agree, many of them did not feel that they were equipped to cry out for justice; they thought they were too flawed to speak to the restoration of the community. They waited for perfection.
And this good human didn’t wait but got to work. And on the last Saturday of his life, he said: “We must turn a minus into a plus, a stumbling block into a stepping stone. We have to go on anyhow.”
This man, who did not led his human-ness stand in the way of the deep need to make things right, is immortalized in a statue on the National Mall. Another monument to his memory, in Atlanta, conveys the words of another prophet: “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-living stream.”
Some called him an agitator. Some called him a communist. Some called him a saint. He did not look like our idea of a saint, nor did he act like it. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
In his time, in his own way, he left the safety and security of a church pulpit and took to the streets. He helped organize boycotts. He spoke out for those who were vulnerable. He marched in the dusty roads of a hundred small southern towns and spoke before the capitol buildings of a hundred cities. He broke bread with presidents. He accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and said he accepted it in memory of the “lost ones,” the ones whose very words cried out from the blood on the ground.
He set an example and showed us that we need not be perfect or even influential to heed God’s call for justice and to answer God’s cry for righteousness. If we seek God on this Sunday of All Saints, we must seek God in the migrant caravans and in the darkened homes of the families of shooting victims. We must speak out on behalf of all those who have no voice.
And if we heed the lives of those who have gone before us, the ones who speak up, who speak out, who step forward, who call attention from their own comfort to those who know no comfort, then either none of us are saints … or we all of us are.