Sainthood in Real Life

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January 29, 2017

Today we have a gospel treat:  the famous Beatitudes, Jesus’s list of conditions of blessedness at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount.  Traditionally, the Church has read this gospel at the Eucharist on All Saints’ Day.  It’s a happy coincidence that we are also reading it on the day of our annual parish meeting, which is a local gathering of saints, followers of Jesus sanctified in baptism and sealed by the Holy Spirit, who come together to give thanks for what God has done, is doing, and will do among us.

Despite Protestant reluctance to focus on saints, in response to historical abuses of this practice, Christians through the ages have loved hearing the details of saints’ lives, just as we enjoy learning about each other through fellowship in church and through other means such as Facebook.  Christianity naturally focuses on the particularity of saints’ lives and experiences because ours is an incarnational faith.  God, we believe, came as a particular person, born of a particular human mother.  God in Christ has manifested his presence, by means of the Spirit, in the lives of countless particular individuals, no two of whom are exactly alike.  Preeminently in Jesus and also in each of his unique followers, we see the glory of God’s marvelous works; we see what God’s power can do in and through those who believe.

This is best brought home to us through examples of those who are blessed as the Beatitudes describe.  Today, I want to highlight one of these who is not on any church’s list or calendar of saints but who is a saint nonetheless.  Her name is Annette Dove.  She is a 60-year-old African-American woman in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, whose greatest passion is to do all she can to help vulnerable young people succeed in life, despite the odds against them.  She is driven to do this work because she has been there herself.  After becoming pregnant at 16 and dropping out of school, she earned her G.E.D. and then a college degree.  She became a “star special education teacher.”

After her husband died, she followed God’s call to serve the “least of these” by quitting her job and starting an organization called TOPPS, which stands for “Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service.”  TOPPS includes an afterschool program that “also feeds 600 children a day in the summer and offers mentoring, tutoring and help staying out of jail, off drugs and in school.  The first children to go through TOPPS are now in college—33 of them.”  Remarking how many Pine Bluff families are “drug-infested,” Dove described to a New York Times reporter how she and other surrogate parents serve as mentors, helping young people believe in their potential and prepare to get jobs, to handle relationships, and to secure a college education.

As the Beatitudes describe, Ms. Dove mourns over the world around her, which seems so far from what God intends.  She hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for justice, and for peace among the troubled people for whom she cares so much.  Following the example of Jesus, she cares for them as much as for herself.  She has put her life on the line to help people like Jesse Spencer, a young man who was kicked out of his house at age 13 by his mother’s boyfriend and was in prison from age 16 to age 25, after joining fellow gang members in committing a violent robbery.  But Dove believes in Spencer’s potential and is encouraging him by helping him get a job and an ID card.

She cares so passionately about such vulnerable neighbors that she has poured more of her own money than she could afford into this program to transform lives.  Even with donations, foundation support, and a state grant, the money runs out.  When that happens, she prays.  She is so concerned about a bright boy who has no books at home and in danger of being sucked into the world of gangs and drugs that she pays him $5 each time he reads a book and writes a report about it.  “The way we’re going to break the cycle,” Dove said, “is to give these kids an opportunity and show them how to take it.”  Helping someone through her program, by the way, costs a lot less than the $200,000 the state spends imprisoning someone for nine years.  Ms. Dove has a hard life, but she is blessed in her mourning and in her hungering and thirsting and in the mercy that she shows.

The qualities she exemplifies, which are described in the Beatitudes are, of course, qualities that characterized Christ himself.  Jesus longed so passionately for the world’s healing and wholeness and peace that he gave his life, according to God’s will.  In doing so, he showed us the way of the Cross, which is the way of risking our lives for the sake of love.  Following this way makes sense to Annette Dove, but, as St. Paul tells us, it seems foolish to the world.  The Christian way puts its trust not in worldly wealth and power but in a God whose power was and is revealed in weakness.  To the world, this seems unrealistic, impractical, and even dangerous.  But to those who know God’s love and power in the crucified and risen Christ, this way of sacrificial love makes a deep kind of sense.  Saints have proven time and again what Jesus taught:  that the only way to be fully alive is to ascribe ultimate power to God and to live, work, and pray for what the world regards as impossible—the fulfillment of God’s loving purposes in the midst of a darkened world.

Our way of doing this will probably differ from Annette Dove’s approach, but we pray that it is no less passionate, no less active, and no less grounded in faith that God’s way can and will prevail.  We are not doing our job, so to speak, if the world doesn’t regard us as at least a little peculiar.  As the Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe put it, “There should be something about Christians that puzzles people and makes them wonder what is at the heart of our lives. . . . Without our lives being in some way odd, if we just conform, then our words about faith will be vacuous.”  In other words, if we don’t go against the grain a little—if, contrary to the Beatitudes, we act as though everything is all right the way it is—people may have trouble taking our faith seriously.

The philosopher Charles Péguy tells the story “of a man who died and went to heaven.  When he met the recording angel he was asked, ‘Show me your wounds.’  He replied, ‘Wounds?  I haven’t got any.’  The angel said, “Did you never think that anything was worth fighting for?’”  Like Annette Dove and all the saints, we follow a wounded Lord who fought for the right and died, but nevertheless prevailed.  God give us grace, more and more, to put our lives on the line for the sake of love, knowing that, in the Lord, our labor is not in vain.