Saturday, November 04, 2006

A saint in your own kitchen?

Today we are celebrating the feast of All Saints – and as this church is also called All Saints that makes it our patronal festival, our special day.  Have you ever felt it might be more fun if you went to a church named after St Francis or St Aloisius or St Beatrice? – colourful people who acted in improbably holy ways and met extravagantly sticky ends as a result – stories to fire up the imagination even as you – secretly – find yourself taking the claims with a grain or two of salt.  Maybe All Saints sometimes just seems like a day for the rest of us, the Also Ran’s, the saints that never qualified for stained glass.  And yet – the name All Saints that this parish chose for its church also focuses our minds, doesn’t it? – in a way that St Hildefonse never could – on the fact that every one of us has a vocation and a calling to be one of God’s saints.  Our name day is an opportunity for something more than a good yarn – it’s an opportunity to check in on how we’re doing.

It also means we’re free to pick out any saint we want for a special look.  Now, the fourth century produced lots of saints.  It seems to have been a fairly odd century, for a start it was the century in which the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, and that meant Christians all of a sudden went from being eaten by lions to running the empire.  Everyone seems to have gone a little bit mad, and one of the most extravagant ways of going publicly mad was to go out into he desert and sit on top of a pole.  That’s what St Simon the Stylite did.  He got to be a saint by sitting on top of a 60 foot pole for 30 years, which means everything he needed had to be pulled up with a rope, and everything he needed to get rid of had to be lowered down by rope.  People used to come out into the desert just to gawk at him, and no doubt because he was a saint no doubt they also expected a few wise words, but because he was 60 feet up in the air he could have said just about anything he liked and nobody would have known.

So that’s St Simon, praise be to God.  Anyway, when I was about four, and my sister Bethwyn was six, we somehow heard about St Simon the Pole-sitter, and because we were good Christian children we decided that sounded like a fine idea.  Unfortunately there weren’t any 60ft poles lying around at home and even if there were our Mum had other ideas.  She persuaded us that a 6ft kitchenette was really just as good and there was a lot less chance of falling off – so up on top of the kitchenette we climbed – or at least that’s where she put us, and gave us our lunch up there, and what with the elevated view we felt that sainthood was just around the corner.  Unfortunately there isn’t much to do up on top of a kitchenette and after an hour or so we’d started to fight so Mum said that was enough to qualify us as polesitters – we were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t managed to go the full 30 years but Mum told us practically nobody can manage to be a saint in their own kitchen, anyway.

Or wherever it is, for you, that the messy stuff happens.

I don’t know about you, but for me, when I cook, it isn’t pretty.  I drop stuff, I make a mess and while I’m looking for the turmeric the onions are burning.  There’s always at least one ingredient missing, the tomato paste has gone mouldy, the cheese sauce turns out lumpy.  Actually, I quite like cooking, but it’s not like the cooking shows on TV.  Unpredictable stuff happens. There’s always some sort of compromise to be made, you’re under pressure because you’ve got people coming for dinner in 20 minutes and the recipe you’ve never actually tried before just doesn’t work.  The kitchen is where confrontations happen, where relationships depend on the outcome of negotiations about washing up and emptying the rubbish.  You know what I’m getting at?  In real life, where stuff isn’t perfect, when you’re just trying to get by and you really haven’t got all the answers, it’s not easy remembering where God is.

There’s an exception to every rule, of course.  Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk in the 17th century, spent virtually his whole life in the monastery kitchen so nobody really noticed until he was quite old that he was a genuine saint.  Brother Lawrence wrote one little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, about the spirituality of pots and pans, the finding of God in the act of scrubbing a floor, about discovering the beauty and the companionship of God in the middle of the mess.

If you can get your hands on this little book, you should read it.

Saints in general, though, judging by the evidence of the stained glass windows you find in grander churches, don’t do much scrubbing.  Mostly they look calm and dignified, even when they’re being burned alive or whatever.  Their favourite activities are praying and preaching and looking holy, they never seem to have the slightest doubt and they certainly don’t get frazzled.  Stained glass saints, it seems to me, are the glossy magazine equivalent of what it means to live a life of faith, they set up an ideal that the rest of us just can’t live up to.

The really good thing, however, is that Jesus isn’t one of them.

So today, Jesus gets to Bethany where his friend has just died.  Now we know that Jesus is especially close to this family, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.  Out in the desert on the other side of the Jordan, Jesus had got word that Lazarus was sick, and for whatever reason he dithered.  Jesus didn’t arrive until it was too late.  Maybe he couldn’t have got there in time anyway.  In any case, by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.

And this is the reception he gets.  First Martha, then Mary – where have you been?  If you’d been here this wouldn’t have happened.  You can hear the anger, the hurt, they feel let down, they’re challenging Jesus.  This scene is just thick with emotion, when the gospel writer says Mary has been weeping the word he uses (klaio?) suggests more than just a few polite, saintly tears, it means her whole body is shaking, her face is red and blotchy, she can’t control her voice.  ‘My brother died four days ago.  So, where were you?’

This whole situation is one big mess. To add to the grief and the anger, there is also confusion. No one thinks it ought to have happened like this – not Martha, not Mary, certainly not the neighbours who make the obvious point that it’s not much use having a famous healer for a friend if he doesn’t turn up when he’s needed.

When they get to the tomb it just goes from bad to worse.  Jesus wants them to push back the stone but the smell of a four-day-old corpse is overpowering.  This isn’t a neat and tidy, stained glass miracle, in fact the whole thing is like some revolting horror story.  Jesus’ friends are distraught, angry and confused.  Jesus himself is overwhelmed with emotion – the Greek word suggests that Jesus is shaking as much with anger as with grief.  The onlookers are incredulous, critical, even scornful.  And even when Jesus calls to Lazarus and out he comes, there’s still no neat and happy ending – some of the onlookers are impressed, the rest think Jesus has gone too far this time, so they go straight off to the Pharisees to dob him in.

The point is that this isn’t a stained glass miracle.  Martha and Mary aren’t beautiful plaster of Paris saints, but real human beings who haven’t a clue what is going on.  Even Jesus struggles to understand what he is doing as he first delays and then has to face the consequences of that delay.  Martha, Mary and Jesus are brutally honest with one another – there’s no pretence that everything is all right.  Their faith in God – their faith in one another – never quite breaks, but it’s tested to the limit.  ‘I do believe in you’, Martha says to Jesus, right in the middle of telling him off.  Maybe at that point it’s a faith that seems to be wearing a bit thin.  But even within the confusion and anger Martha and Mary cling to the faith that God still IS – even though their world has turned upside down.  And they cling to the hope that, somehow, God will act, even if they can’t imagine how.

You can’t really be a saint by sitting on top of a pole.  Real saints, it seems to me, work out their trust in God by testing it in the marketplace of human relationships, real saintliness thrives on mess and tears and honesty.  Because it’s in the middle of the mess that God acts – by transforming who we are.  Real saintliness gets worked out in the context of our failures and our compromises and conflicts.  I’m still hoping to see St Evan, who dares to keep trusting in God even when the cheese sauce goes lumpy.  It might yet happen.  Because if you can’t be a saint in your own kitchen, there’s not much point trying to be one anywhere else.