November 5, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Joshua 2:1-4, 15-21
This is the day we pause to remember our saints. It’s important that we do so. The culture around us encourages us to move on. Spend as little time grieving as possible. Take two bereavement days and you should be fine. Maybe three if you are really having a hard time. But life is for the living. Keep busy. Keep mind and body occupied and you won’t have time for sad thoughts. What’s past is past. Leave it behind and get on with your life.
The church has never followed that advice. The church has always lived with a profound sense of gratitude for those who have gone before. Also a deep awareness that they aren’t really gone. They are with us still.
We get that in Hebrews where it says there is “a great cloud of witnesses” all around us (12:1). Also in Revelation. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them” (14:13).
These are the saints who have died and yet they still live. And they live not just up in heaven with God. They live down here with us. And in us, and through us. Today is the day, more than any other single day, when we not only believe that but we also know that. We feel the presence of our departed saints in a very real and powerful way.
So what is a saint? In our area we are very much aware of Latter-day Saints. If you haven’t yet taken a tour of their new Meridian Temple, don’t miss it. Even more impressive than the building itself is the hospitality you will be given.
And you probably are somewhat familiar with what the word “saint” means in the Catholic tradition. There is a process with multiple steps that must be followed, including at least two verified miracles. So a lot of very good people never become saints by the strict Catholic definition.
The definition most of us go by is the one in the dictionary. A saint “is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God.” Look at our list of saints in the bulletin today. Many if not all of them fit that definition.
But I want to make the case that the Bible’s definition is broader than that. And I don’t know of a better place to begin than with the woman we met in today’s scripture lesson who goes by the name Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute. She was also a saint. So how do we explain that?
Here’s the story. The Israelites have reached the end of their forty years wandering in the wilderness. They are ready to enter the Promised Land. But they haven’t yet crossed the Jordan River. They are still looking across the river at the towering walls of Jericho. They know they are going to have to deal with Jericho before they have any chance with the rest of the Promised Land.
So they send two spies on ahead to learn all they can about Jericho. The spies get to the city and are pleasantly surprised that the city gate is wide open. They can just walk right in. We aren’t given any specifics on their espionage operation, only that they end up at Rahab’s place, where they find lodging. And the Bible does nothing to conceal Rahab’s profession. We’re just told straight out that she is a prostitute.
The King of Jericho is given intelligence that spies have entered his city and that they have been tracked to the home of Rahab. She is given the message: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land” (Joshua 2:3).
Rahab says that, yes, these men were in her house but they aren’t there any more. They left at dusk, just before the city gate closed. She says, if you hurry, you might still catch them. That’s what she says. And that’s a lie. The truth is the spies are hiding on the roof of her house. So what we have here is a prostitute, who is also a liar, who is also not even a believer!
She’s not part of God’s chosen people, the Israelites. She is a foreigner. But we are told that she has heard about the God of Israel. She’s open at least to the possibility that this God is the one true God. In fact, by lying to her own king, what she is really doing is betting her life on this God. She says to the spies, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to me because I showed kindness to you” (2:12).
They promise. They tell her to tie a scarlet cord to her window. That way when Jericho is captured, the invading army will know where she lives and will protect her and her family. A scarlet cord. Yes, that is apparently the origin of our expression “red light district.”
This window with the scarlet cord hanging out of it was built into the wall protecting the city. So Rahab lowered the men from that window, so they could safely escape.
The rest of the story is the one you may have learned in Sunday school. (You were probably spared the detail that Rabab was a prostitute.) It’s the story made famous in the song, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls come tumbling down.” The city is destroyed and the people are killed. All except Rahab and her family.
Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all
who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho – and she lives among the Israelites
to this day (Joshua 6:25).
Centuries later, in the famous “faith chapter”, the writer of Hebrews compiles a list of the greatest saints of all time. And guess who makes the list?
By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people walked
around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute
Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed
with those who were disobedient (Hebrews 11:30-31).
So what is a saint? If a prostitute, who is also a liar, who is also an unbeliever, can be one, then what does the word even mean?
Karl Barth gives us a definition in one of his theological tomes. Here’s what he says:
Sanctification (that is, “sainthood”) means the separation, claiming, commandeering, and preparation of a person . . .
with a view to [the] higher purpose destined for [that person].
And that’s pretty much what happened to Rahab. She was “commandeered” by God for God’s higher purpose. God got a hold of her and put her to work. In other words, she’s a saint not because she is a saintly person, but because God used her for a saintly assignment.
Rahab isn’t the only one. There are others in that same hall of fame list in Hebrews who didn’t exactly wear halos. There is drunken, naked Noah. There is Abraham who was ready to kill his son. There is Sarah who laughed at God’s promise. There is Jacob who stole his father’s birthright. There is Moses who was a murderer. There is Samson, the terrorist. There is Jephthah who apparently killed his daughter. There is David who stole another man’s wife. If people like these can be saints, anyone can. Which seems to be the point!
Nadia Bolz-Weber, another example of someone who breaks our sainthood stereotype, says it like this: “Sainthood is to be found not in our ability to be saintly, but in God’s ability to work through sinners.”
It’s all laid out for us in the speech Moses gave to the Israelites, before the spies were sent to Jericho. He said, “You are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 7:6). So what does it mean to be “holy to the Lord your God”? It means we do a lot of things that please God, right? We are saintly. We are good. We bear “an exceptional degree of holiness or likeness or closeness to God”.
Except the very next verse doesn’t say that at all. It says:
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loves you (7:7-8).
It’s God’s love, not Israel’s goodness, that makes them “a people holy to the Lord your God.” It’s God’s love, not our goodness, that makes us saints. And since God loves us all, no exceptions, that sure seems to mean that anyone can be a saint. Even Rahab. Even you. Even me. Even Alma White.
Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story in her book, Accidental Saints. She planted a church in downtown Denver in 2008. By 2008 it was common for women to be pastors, and not unheard of for women to be founding pastors of new churches. But in 1901 it really was unheard of. That was the year Alma White planted her church in downtown Denver. She called it Pillar of Fire. It’s still there. In fact, Alma White not only started a church. She started a whole denomination. It’s known today as Pillar of Fire International. These churches are all over the world.
So Nadia Bolz-Weber had a new hero. She had been blessed with a number of strong female role models throughout her life, and now here was one more. Maybe the greatest of them all. She eagerly started doing research.
Alma Bridwell White lived from 1862 to 1946. She was the first female bishop in the United States. She was an early feminist. She was part of the movement that resulted in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. So far so good.
But there was more. And this part was not so good. Alma White was also associated with the Ku Klux Klan. She is remembered for her anti-Catholic, ant-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and white-supremacist views. If you know anything at all about Nadia Bolz-Weber, you can imagine what she said when she learned about this. She didn’t say “darn it”. And then she said this:
The next day I called my Episcopal friend Sara to tell her the story of how I thought I had a hero only to find out she was just a lousy racist. Sara’s response? “E-mail me her name. I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.”
We are all broken people. We are just broken in different ways. We all fall short of God’s high calling for our lives. Falling short does not disqualify us from sainthood. What saints have in common is not their saintliness. What saints have in common is their willingness to be used of God for a saintly assignment.
We should all look within and try to be better. That’s what our series in September and October was about. We all need to work on our heart habits. In fact, now that I’m done with that series, I’ve come upon something Benjamin Franklin said that I would have used then, but I’m going to use now. He said: “Great beauty, great strength, and great riches are really and truly of no great use; a right heart exceeds all” (page 149, Carl Van Doren’s 1938 biography of Franklin).
We all have heart work to do. We all need to look within and try to be better. But that is not what makes a saint. You don’t get to be a saint by being good enough. You get to be a saint by letting God’s light shine through your brokenness. It takes more than looking within and becoming better. It takes listening to God and saying, “Yes!”
As did Rahab. She wasn’t even sure she believed in God, but still she listened to him. She did what she thought she heard him telling her to do. She risked her life. She bet her life on a God she barely believed in. She offered herself to be part of what God was doing. And so she made the list in Hebrews.
Also in James. There isn’t really a list there. It’s just Rahab and Abraham that we find mentioned in chapter 2. Both are offered as evidence that faith without works is dead.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead (2:25-26).
Yeah, I guess. But I think Hebrews has it more nearly right. Rahab is a saint not because of her good works. She is an odd one for James to be using as an example of virtue. But she is a superb example of what God can do. God can take any one of us, broken and sinful though we all are, and work through us to accomplish something good. As long as we will say “yes” to God. That is all it takes.
That’s why we read this morning from Hebrews and not from James. Where Rahab makes the hall of fame list of saints. And where it is made clear that she’s on that list, not because of her works, but because of her faith. Her faith in a God she barely believed in.
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the
spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient
So today we remember and we honor all the saints. Not just the ones who displayed “an exceptional degree of holiness.” Saints like Rahab, Samson, Jephthah, Alma White, and all the rest. They lived, died, listened, responded, and now have something important to say to us: If they can be saints, anybody can. Anybody.
Dear God, we have lost some wonderful people this year. None of them perfect. All of them shaped into something truly beautiful by your grace. We will not forget them. How can we? They will live on in our hearts forever. And they will live on in this their church, which is a far better church because they were part of it. Comfort their loved ones. Inspire us to find that higher purpose you have for each of us, and to let you commandeer us. For if it’s going to happen, it won’t be because of our goodness. It will be because of your love. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.