Because it is my birthday week, and I am off having a little fun, I’ve decided I can have two Thursdays to do a throwback. This is a sermon I preached a few years ago. One of my favorites. It has taken on the identity of the Great British Farts and Poo Sermon–in my own mind, at least.
All Saints’ Church, Staplehurst
1 November 2009 (All Saints’ Sunday)
Each day on my bus journey between Herne and Canterbury, I pass a variety of things. There is the farm shop and Asda, a garden centre, and fields with horses, goats and sheep. I also pass a Southeast Water wastewater treatment facility. In the warmer months, the other adults on the bus will wrinkle their noses and breathe shallowly. Frequently, someone whose age has not yet hit the double-digits will loudly and gleefully inquire who has performed a particularly unsociable bodily function.
The truth is, we all did. All of us, no matter our jobs, income, education, family background, political or religious views, contribute to the need for a way to cope with the effects of this most basic reality of being human. I am thankful that there are men and women who go to work daily to make sure that the smell, mess, and impact on the environment are minimized and well contained.
In perhaps less obvious ways, all of us deal with at least some human smell and mess almost every day. Whether it is a difficult relationship with a partner or child, or a sensitive situation in the workplace, life is rarely sanitized and tidy. And as hard as it is to admit that we contribute to the odour, it’s just as hard to accept that those we love most can stink too. So what does all this talk of smell and mess have to do with being saintly?
The English word ‘saint’ shares the same root as the French santé—health. Both are derived from the Sanskrit sanatana—wisdom. To get healthy, sometimes we need to deal honestly with unpleasantness and things we’d rather not talk about. Whether that’s at the personal level of physical, relational or financial difficulties, or the wider level of social inequalities, there is nothing saintly about avoiding an honest confrontation with whatever is making us sick. Instead, that honest confrontation is the only possible first step towards health and wholeness. There is no true health or holiness without wisdom. Saintliness, I think, is an integration of body, mind and spirit.
‘Take away the stone.’ ‘Lord, already there is a stench.’ ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’
I’m convinced that this short exchange is a summary of what it means to live a saintly life. Jesus reminds the ever-practical Martha that God’s goodness and mercy are present—even when the best that can be said of a situation is that it stinks. Her job is not to avoid the unpleasantness, but to work through it. It’s facing the horror of death honestly that will allow Martha to know the power of God.
Only the Lord can raise Lazarus from the dead. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the Vatican’s insistence that for someone to be declared a ‘saint’, they have to have three ‘miracles’ to their credit. These usually involve dramatic healing that seems to go against the ‘normal’ course of nature. Most of us won’t be able to meet this requirement— and when I hear of ‘miraculous’ healings these days, I always suspect something not quite kosher.
And yet, the New Testament routinely refers to all followers of Jesus as ‘saints’. Martha is certainly a follower of Jesus, she believes in his divine power; otherwise, she would not have hoped that Jesus’ presence alone would have prevented her brother’s death. But she does indeed follow Jesus’ example of miraculous behaviour. That ‘miracle’ is one we are all called to perform every day—rolling back the stone that conceals the stench, so that the goodness and mercy of a loving and generous God can be shown even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
Saintliness—being true followers of Jesus—has far less to do with whether we can raise the dead, than it does dealing honestly with what we’d rather avoid. It’s about finding ways to cope with the smell and mess of being human, not about pretending that the smell and mess don’t exist. And it’s about being confident we will find the mercy and goodness of a loving and generous God in that smell and mess just as surely as we find it in a well-tended rose garden or an incense-filled cathedral.
Saintliness isn’t about three miracles, or shutting ourselves away from the most basic realities of human life. It’s about living with integrity, justice, wisdom and compassion in the world in which God has placed us. Our growth as modern-day saints doesn’t happen so much in the monastery or the hermitage as it does in the office, the classroom, the doctor’s office, the life of the family and community. It’s in our failures and embarrassments as much as it’s in our successes. Mostly, I think, it’s about rolling back the stone and uncovering those things in our lives we’d like to keep contained, and letting the glory of God be seen.