Sermon: The Measure of Greatness


There were two brothers who had terrorized their small town for decades. They were notoriously unfaithful to their wives, abusive to their children, and habitually dishonest in business dealings. Then the youngest brother died unexpectedly.

The surviving brother went to the pastor of the local church. “I want you to conduct my brother’s funeral,” he said. “But it’s very important to me that, during the service, you tell everyone that my brother was a saint.”

“But I’m afraid he was far from that,” the minister countered.

So the wealthy brother pulled out his checkbook. “Reverend, I’m prepared to give $100,000 to your church. All I’m asking is that you publicly state that my brother was a saint.” A tough choice for a pragmatic Pastor!

So on the day of the funeral, the pastor began his eulogy this way: “Everyone here knew the deceased. Everyone knows he was a wicked man, a womanizer and a drunk. He terrorized his employees and cheated on his taxes.” Then the pastor paused. “But as evil and sinful as this man was, compared to his older brother, he was a saint!”

The Catholic Church had created this idea that some people, saints, were so good and so righteous that they had accumulated more holy points than they really needed to get into heaven. Those excess bonus points —   called the Treasury of Merit – were then available for common sinners to draw from to reduce the amount of punishment, or penance, they were required to endure after forgiveness for a sin had been offered by a priest; and/or to lessen the time they might have to spend being purified in Purgatory after they died.

Ordinarily, the sinner would be required to engage in some proscribed prayers, alms, fasting, or some meritorious action in order to acquire the benefits of such an indulgence. By the late 15th century, however, various church leaders (Cardinals, Bishops, Priest) began increasingly abusing the distribution of these indulgences for their own gain.

Documents were created, which were called indulgences, and sold to the poor sinner, at a premium price, which would then guarantee – for himself or a family member – a reduced sentence in Purgatory and (depending on the amount of money paid) perhaps even prime real estate in heaven. And although the official stance of the Vatican at the time was to denounce such abuses, according to some (perhaps cynical) reports the Vatican sent a sales force out to peddle those indulgences and made so much money that they were able to underwrite the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral with the proceeds.

Martin Luther had a problem with all that. A big problem.

“We are saved by faith alone,” said Luther, “but the faith that saves is never alone.”

It was a simple, but at the time, revolutionary idea: “the Christian faith is more about living in gratitude for the gift of God’s love in Christ than it is about trying to please God by obeying rules, defending beliefs, practicing rituals, accumulating righteousness, or especially by buying indulgences” (J. Buchanan, Oct. 28, 2001).

According to Martin Luther, the Pope could not confer remittance of sins save only as a representative of God’s own mercy toward us all. By the same token, Luther suggested, the devil can turn the heart of any man into a tool for his own evil devises.

Luther then went on to say, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face, and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Today, pretty much everybody agrees – Protestants and Catholics alike – with Martin Luther’s theology of grace: Salvation is God’s gracious gift to all of humanity in Jesus Christ, the great and the common alike. You can’t earn it. Only gratefully accept it.

And, while the chair of the Stewardship Committee might not mind if I did make a connection between Purgatory and meeting one’s annual pledge, indulgences are now a thing of the distant past.

And now, although it took some time, that great old hymn that will be sending us out as disciples empowered at end our worship this morning, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” (written by Martin Luther) is being sung in Catholic churches, too.

So then, what of the saints?

If they aren’t a repository of various merit for the ordinary sinner to draw from to insure his or her salvation, what are we to make of saints?

Martin Luther suggested that all Christians are “simultaneously saint and sinner;” he redefines “saint” as a forgiven sinner.  People, ordinary Christians, are considered `saints’ not because we miraculously change into something different than what we are, but because of our relationship to God. Said Luther, “The saints are sinners, too, but they are forgiven and absolved.”

Or, as one said, “A saint is a dead sinner; revised and edited.”

Even the classic Saints of the Catholic Church were a sort of mixture of the good, the not-so-good, and the – sometimes – very weird.

Take St. Leufredus (c. 738) who apparently had quite a temper; struck bald a woman who made fun of his own baldness, struck toothless a thief who badmouthed him, and struck infertile the fields of a farmer who made the mistake of plowing on Sunday.

And then there was St. Brigid (c. 450 – 525), who was downright loony; hung her wet laundry on sunbeams, once taught a fox to dance, and changed her dirty bath water into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink. But at least she bathed!

St. Jerome, it’s reported, never took another bath again after his baptism. After all, he had now been bathed in the blood of the lamb. (As I recall my sister had a similar reaction after she shook the hand of singer Davy Jones of the Monkeys).

“No great saint lived without errors,” said Martin Luther.

More recently, Mother Teresa, who was canonized into sainthood on September 4, was known to be, at times, rather self-righteous, inflexible, judgmental, prickly, and difficult to love or even get very close to. She had a life-long struggle with doubts, waning faith, and severe depression.

And yet, during her 87 years in this world, Mother Teresa touched thousands – millions – of lives, and, through her compassion, turned countless hearts to her Lord. She would routinely tell those she ministered to who were dying and calling her name, “Do not die with my name on your lips; but with Jesus’.”

By the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s organization had 610 missions in 123 countries, which included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; providing soups kitchens, counseling for children and families, countless orphanages and schools.

Mother Teresa was beatified by the Vatican in late 2003, but it still took another 13 years (and the confirmation of a miracle to her intercession) to be recognized as a saint in the eyes of the Church.

But, in the eyes of the millions of people she reached out to, whose lives she changed, Teresa was saint already (long known affectionately as “The Saint of the Gutter”). But she was a saint, not because of some singular supernatural act, but because of her everyday divine acts of compassion.

When she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, a single minded Mother Teresa said that such earthly rewards were important only if they helped the world’s needy. And when a reporter asked her, at that time, “What can we do to promote world peace?” Mother Teresa simply answered, “Go home and love your family.”

“As to my calling,” Mother Teresa once said, “I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”

The measure of one’s greatness is contained, not in supernatural abilities, but within one’s relationship to and dependence upon God’s overarching grace.

“You must learn to call on the Lord,” Luther wrote. “Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you. Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you are. Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum! Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven. Read a psalm. Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.” (from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional)

Jesus understood well that the only difference between a sinner and a saint was the experience of God’s life-changing grace.

Wee Zacchaeus was a peculiar little man. `Short of stature,’ Scripture tells us. But he was also diminutive in spirit; short on compassion for others. Had very little respect or social standing. He was roundly despised by his fellow Jews for colluding with Rome and taking advantage of them as chief tax collector. The one thing Zacchaeus had was money. Lots of money.

At some point in his life, however, Zacchaeus apparently discovered, or decided, that that wasn’t enough in life. He was looking for something more.

He had heard about this man Jesus who was coming through town; heard about his ability to heal lepers, give sight to the blind, cast out demons. He wanted to see this man for himself, but he was having trouble making his way to the front of the crowd.

Tired of looking at the backs and the bottoms of tunics, wee Zacchaeus forfeits all pride and in near desperation dashes ahead of Jesus and his entourage. Like a school boy, he climbs up a sycamore tree; just in the hope of catching a mere glimpse of Jesus through the branches.

What a shock it must been for this little outcast when the Son of God stops, calls him by name, and invites himself over to the tax collector’s house for dinner. While the good church folk grumble about Jesus’ overture, Zacchaeus reacts with unbridled joy.

He clambers down the tree, stands up on his wee feet, stretches to his full height, and loudly declares that he will give half of his possession to the poor. Not only that, he will repay any fraud he has incited fourfold! And he makes his vow, not with a frown or under compulsion, but with heart enlightened by the experience of God’s grace. (from Feasting on the Word). Thus, Jesus pronounces, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Saints are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long,” says Fred Buechner. “Saints are essentially life givers. To be with [one] is to become more alive.”

When Diane was a little girl of five years old her mother, Nancy, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. As MS gradually robbed Nancy of her vitality, mobility, and ability to care for her child, Diane’s childhood was also being stolen as she increasingly become her mother’s caregiver and charged with the household chores.

It was that same time that a saint was consecrated in Diane’s young life. The Monger’s next door neighbor, Belva Nail, became Diane’s saving grace. With three small children of her own, Belva took Diane under her wing as well. She included Diane in family outings to the park, the swimming pool, the hamburger place. Taught Diane how to swim; gave Diane her first bike and taught her how to ride it. As the MS progressed, Belva also took it upon herself to help with Nancy’s caretaking, give moral support to Diane’s father.

Belva became, for all intense purposes, Diane’s surrogate mother; she never made a big deal out of it. She just did it. They both preserved and cherished that relationship until Belva died of Alzheimer’s on June 6, 2004.

Saints are those who have intimately, irrevocably tied their lives into the One who gives life abundant and life eternal.

“What sets them apart from us ordinary folk,” William Sloane Coffin wrote, “is the literal way they take the central imperatives of the Gospel. Does Jesus command us to feed the hungry? The saints feed the hungry. Does Jesus command us to clothe the naked? The saints clothe the naked. Does Jesus command us to see all we have and give to the poor, to go forth and preach to all nations, to turn the other cheek, to return good for evil, to love God and our neighbors as ourselves? The saints do all these things, because saints believe these commandments mean exactly what they say…Saints are lovestruck, God-intoxicated people…” And that’s precisely why they [stir our hearts] so; because they show us what a sinner can become.

I’m sure you’ve known that kind of saint in your life. They may still be around. Or they may have moved on to join that `church eternal’, to become one of the `vast cloud of witnesses’; those who have `fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.’ These are those people who have profoundly influenced, shaped, and molded you. People who encouraged you, pushed you, to become more than you ever thought you could be. People who gave you hope, unconditional love, understanding, forgiveness and grace just when you needed it the most; who, perhaps, made significant sacrifices in their own life so that your life could be just a little bit better. People who inspired you through their example of integrity, compassion, courage and faithfulness. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, pastors, Scout leaders, mentors – who, in the course of the ordinary struggles of daily living, did extraordinary things for others. These are the people whom, we can say, measured up well as disciples living in the image of their Lord Jesus Christ.