Monday, November 2, 2009

Hostages, Holiness, and a Navy Seal

All Saints Day.-09 All Saints Church
When Thomas Merton was a young man,
he lived an undisciplined, aimless life
in New York City.
That life left him lonely and empty.
So he started reading about Christianity.
It fascinated him, attracted him, puzzled him.
It was like something from another place and time.
But he knew it was going to change his life.

One day he was talking with his best friend.
Merton described his sense of being called to something different
– not just to do something new, but be someone new.
His friend said, “Tom why don’t you just say it?
You want to be a saint.”

Merton immediately disagreed and tried to dismiss the idea.
But it wouldn’t go away.
Years later he admitted his friend was right.
Once we accept the gospel of Jesus,
we are called to become saints.
Did Merton become a saint?
He became a monk.
But he was a grouchy monk with irritable bowel syndrome.
He wrote books that changed countless lives.
But he struggled with pride in his writing.
He was a bold voice for peace and justice.
But he struggled with rigidity and moralism.

Thomas Merton wasn’t perfect.
But he was entranced by the perfection of God,
and he longed to be made whole.
He wanted to become who God intended him to be.
I believe he was a saint.

None of the saints have been perfect.
Paul was overbearing and tempestuous.
Peter was a unstable.
The list of saints includes masochists, misogynists, and misanthropes.
St. Bernard was a war monger obsessed
with destroying the career of Peter Abelard,
the greatest theologian of his time.
So what makes a saint?
Thomas Mann wrote a novel based
on an epic poem from the 12th Century.
It’s called The Holy Sinner.
The title tells the story.

It’s about Gregory, a young man born
of an incestuous relationship and given away
to hide his parents’ shame.
When he learned his origins,
he set out to overcome his birth
by doing good in the world.
He tried to do good out of his own good will.

He not only failed.
He repeated his parents’ mistake
by engaging in incest himself.
That’s when he gave himself over to God,
and wound up as a great Pope.

The author’s point is that Gregory was holy
not because he was without sin,
but because of how God turned his sin
into humility, wisdom, and gratitude.

There are two lessons for us here.
First, holiness is not for a few super heroes of the faith.
It’s for all of us.
We are all called to holiness of life.
The name of this Holy Day and this Church
reminds us that we are all called to be saints.

The second point is that holiness isn’t something we do.
It’s what God does in us if we just allow it.
God finds us in our broken state
and makes us new people.
As one of our prayers says, “God works in us that which
is well pleasing in his sight.”
God does it. We just do our best to stay out of the way.

God makes us into better people than we could have been
if we had not been morally and spiritually broken.
When we consecrate the bread, when we make it holy,
we break it.
The breaking is a part of the act of making holy.
Our brokenness is part of how God makes us holy.
God does that by joining us in it.

In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller repeats a story
he heard from a folk singer.
Miller doesn’t know if the story is true.
It really doesn’t matter.
What matters is the point.

It’s about a hostage rescue.
A commando team of Navy Seals were sent to rescue
hostages who had been held captive
by terrorists for a long time.
The Seals broke into the dark, filthy basement
where the hostages were cowering in a corner,
huddled together, shaking.
The sounds of gunfire had not given them hope.
They were sure they were about to die.

The Seals broke open the door.
They had to hurry to evacuate the hostages.
So they stood there in commando gear
carrying semi-automatic rifles
and shouted orders to the hostages
“We’re here to rescue you.
Come with us. Now!”

But the hostages did not move.
The Seals shouted louder. “Come with us now. Hurry.”
The hostages did not move.
They thought the commandos were just more terrorists.

So one of the Navy Seals took off his helmet.
He put down his rife.
He went over to the hostages and sat down with them.
He huddled together with them in the darkness and the dirt.

No terrorist had ever done that.
No terrorist would ever do that.
After awhile he said, “It’s ok. We can go now.”
Then they followed him to safety and to freedom.

Brothers and sisters, we are not heroes.
Saints are not heroes.
Saints start out as hostages to sin, addiction, fear,
and all the pain that makes being human so hard.
Is there anyone here who is not such a hostage?
I know I am.

But then Jesus comes into our prison.
Jesus joins us in the darkness and the dirt.
Then after a little while, he says,
“It’s ok. We can go now.”

So we get up and follow him.
He doesn’t bark the order “Follow me.”
He says it gently, as an invitation.
He says it kindly as you might say it to a child, “Follow me.”
Saints are just hostages who have followed Jesus.
The prison he leads us out of is not just a situation.
He leads us out of the smallest, darkest prison of all.
He leads us out of the prison of our own darkened selves.
He lifts us up from our guilt and our shame.
He makes us new.
Who would not want that?

We are our own worst enemies, you know.
Mohandas Ghandi once said.
“I have three enemies.
First, is the British Empire.
But I can handle them easily.
Second, is the Indian people.
They are considerably more difficult.
Third, is a man named Mohandas Ghandi.
With him I can do nothing at all.”

Self-improvement does not work.
It’s a dead end.

For 40 years, the bookstore shelves have been filled
with self-improvement books.
We keep buying them because the last dozen we read
didn’t change anything.
We can’t do it. The self cannot fix the self
anymore than a broken car can fix itself.

But Jesus can change us.
God gave us his solemn promise in Ezekiel.
“I shall sprinkle clean water upon you
and you shall be clean . . . .
A new heart I will give you
and a new spirit I will put within you.
I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit in you . . . .”

God puts the Holy Spirit in us if we let him.
That’s what a saint is – an ordinary person
with the Spirit of God inside,
a hostage who has followed Jesus
out of the prison.
He says it to us gently, mercifully, every day,
“Follow me.”