This post was inspired by the images of Trump (and others) espousing hateful words against those who are different, and the audiences who are looking up at him (and others) with these beautific smiles as if he (and the others) are the second coming of … something. Trump (and too many others) are playing upon peoples’ fears and I’m not sure what to do except when the opportunity arises to reach out to those who think that I am different, and perhaps fearsome, and hold out my hand. But sometimes I can’t make myself take my hands out of my pocket and I will excuse myself by saying, “Well, I am not a saint.” But what is a saint? It is a concept found in many cultures and across different religions.
There is a word that I overuse: timeless. Yet timeless is what comes to mind whenever I read the words of Theodore Parker Ferris in the book, Death & Transfiguration. It is a small book of sermons he began compiling shortly before his own death in 1972. The book’s cover is unfortunate I think because these days, especially for people who know nothing of Ferris, they are not drawn to pick up a small book with only those words on the cover in black and green on a white background. Even when I hold the book, people come up to me and ask what’s wrong, why am I reading a book about death. I’m not reading a book about death. I’m reading a book about life. About how we live and about how we could live.
I keep returning to a sermon he wrote about saints. In a sermon titled The Unknown Saints he invokes the “image of Christ” – words that fit his life and times. But looking past that historical and theological specificity to the heart of his message – generalizing his “image of Christ” to encompass the range of behavior we all recognize as holy, however labeled — do not his words fit these times as well?
“… we stand before the staggering fact that in a world so steeped in sin, there are still people who live saintly lives. By sin I mean anything that blurs the image of Christ; anything that blurs his image either in you or in the world. The word sin means vastly more than that, but seldom can we take in at any one time all that it means. Right now it means anything that blurs the image of Christ. The pursuit of money as an end in itself is one of the things that blurs the image of Christ. Everyone, of course, has to make a living, and he has the right to have the opportunity to make a living; but not everyone has to make a fortune, and when this becomes the obsession of his life, to make not only the money he needs to live on and a little extra to spare, but to make enough to give him excessive power and inordinate pleasure, then his money begins to blur the image of Christ. It does to his image of Christ what glass wax does to a window before it is wiped off; it cuts off the view.
The bitterness brought to light by a political campaign like some we have been through blurs the image of Christ. It has brought out into the open, and this may be healthy for all I know, hostilities that run deep beneath the well-paved surface of our national life. It has revealed the fact that we are much less mature as people than we thought we were, and perhaps it is better for us to know the truth; but in the meantime this bitterness which is bred by hostility, and this immaturity which it reveals, blurs the image of Christ. We look at ourselves and at our world through the distortions of the most adolescent political campaign of the twentieth century.
The desire for freedom which rejects every conceivable restraint, where there is no respect for law and order, or decency, or the rights of others, no consideration for other people, this too blurs the image of Christ. We see ourselves and our world through screens of litter, licentiousness, and violence.
The refusal to face facts when the facts hurt; this is another thing that smears the image. There is a social revolution going on in our country and in our world. In our own nation a submerged race is reaching for its rights. If it is not recognized, it will seize by force what those in power refuse to give it. Thousands of people refuse to face the fact that there is any such revolution going on and, if they do face it, they refuse to face the fact that the people who are reaching for their rights have a right to reach, and that the rest of us will not find it easy to do the right thing when we have done the wrong thing for so long that we have come to think that it is right.
By sin I mean the self-centeredness in your own life which leaves no room for the spirit of Christ. We all have to cope with this because in a sense we are all self-centered. We are all deeply concerned about our own lives. We are made that way, we can’t help it. But when that self-concern reaches the point where it excludes everything else except the things that concern our own pleasure, our own welfare, or our comfort, when it reaches the point that there is no room left for the spirit of Christ, then that self-centeredness blurs the image of Christ. In fact it blots it out.
And yet, in spite of the fact that we are living in a world so steeped in sin, there are people who are nevertheless living saintly lives. They are not perfect, not by any means. They are living imperfect lives, under difficult circumstances, without word of complaint. They do not win all the games, but they never play a crooked game. They have their faults but in some peculiar, mysterious way, they are lovable faults. They make mistakes, but their mistakes do not make them. Everyone makes mistakes, but there are some people who are made by their mistakes; they are shaped and molded by them. Other people make mistakes, but their mistakes do not make them; they rise above them, go on in spite of them, and sooner or later master them.
In an un-Christian world, these people are the unknown saints.”
Would Ferris today think that there is a whole industry today in blurring the image of Christ? Clearly there is much money being made in promoting hateful behavior. Is it behavior that has become so common, so taken for granted, that people do not even recognize what is being done to them and taking place around them?
Just something to think about perhaps. Meanwhile I am grateful for those who are able to take their hands out of their pockets and reach across the aisle.
Please note that the above words by Ferris is just an excerpt of the full sermon. His book, Death & Transfiguration, can be purchased online and at the Shop at Trinity Church in Copley Square.