The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

STRANGE SAINTS

Delivered 8/9/98
Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Listen to another translation of those first three verses. This from Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Version: "Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds. It is betting your life on the unseen realities. It was for such faith that men of old were martyred. And by so relating our lives, we become aware that history is woven to God's design so that the seen event is a projection of the unseen intent." Great stuff!

A wonderful chapter! "Faith's Hall of Fame," they call it. If we were to read on we would encounter great names - after Abraham, we find Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and on and on and on.

Now, wait a minute. Rahab? Rahab was a prostitute, wasn't she? Yes. She lived in Jericho during the days prior to the Hebrew conquest. Two spies had been sent by Joshua to determine the strength of the city. When the king of Jericho learned of the spies' presence, he sent men to arrest them, but Rahab outsmarted the king and hid the men on her roof, sending the arresting officers on a wild goose chase toward the Jordan River. In return for her help Joshua spared her and her clan when the Hebrews destroyed Jericho.(1) To borrow Clarence Jordan's phrasing, she had literally bet her life on the unseen reality of God's ultimate conquest. And she won. In the gospels, we find a Rahab named as the mother of Boaz in Matthew's genealogy of Christ,(2) making her the great-great grandmother of Israel's greatest king, David, and by extension, the great-great-great-over-and-over-again-great-grandmother of Jesus. And we meet her one more time, along with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses in this trip through Faith's Hall of Fame. Rahab. The prostitute. What a strange saint.

By the way, I am using "saint" this morning in a way that harks back to the original meaning of the root words - a "saint" NOT being someone with a special corner on virtue, not "holy" in a sense of being "goody-goody" with a halo in place. I use "saint" to mean someone who has been "sanctified," which means "made holy," made to be DIFFERENT, set apart by God.

That being the case, we still would have to regard these famous names in Hebrews 11 as strange candidates for sainthood, the high virtue kind, the set apart kind, or any kind. Except father Abraham, of course, the patriarch of three great religions. This one really IS a saint, right? Well, perhaps.

There are legends, of course.(3) One told by the Arabs has Abraham seeing many flocks and herds and asking his mother, "Who is the lord of these?"

She answered: "Your father, Terah."

"And who is the lord of Terah?" the lad Abraham asked.

"Nimrod," said his mother.

"And who is the lord of Nimrod?" asked Abraham.

His mother bade him be quiet and not push questions too far; but already Abraham's thoughts were reaching out to the God who is the God of all.

The legends of Abraham's deep devotion are all well and good, but actually, we hear nothing remarkable about him until he is 75 years old, and then his only claim to fame seems to be that God called and he answered.

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." So Abram went, as the LORD had told him...(4)

Good for him. But, as an old black preacher once observed about our hero, "There were parts of him that had not heard the Word."(5)

For example, soon after he and his entourage arrived in Canaan, this place that God had promised would be the new homeland, a famine struck. Stay here? No way, no matter what God has to say. They headed to Egypt where word had it there was food. Upon arrival, our hero told his 65-year-old wife, just in case some Egyptian prince should take a shine to her, to pass herself off as his sister and even to marry the poor fool if he asked. That would insure Abraham's survival and might even line his pockets. Nice guy. The only reason a terrible mess was averted was the moral sensitivity of the Pharaoh who was horrified when he learned of the scheme.(6)

As time went along, our hero of faith began to question the promise which had been made about descendants. His wife Sarah was childless and now well past her child-bearing years, so, with his wife's permission (reluctant though it no doubt was), he took Sarah's servant Hagar and fathered Ishmael. The custom of the day permitted a woman to claim as her own any children a servant girl might bear after a liaison with the master of the house, so this might have worked out...except for Abraham's wimpiness. You remember. Hagar and Sarah began to get on each other's case; things went from bad to worse. The tension between the two was thick enough to cut with a knife. It got worse when Sarah miraculously bore her own child, Isaac. The dysfunctional family situation was finally resolved, not by good father Abraham stepping in to mediate, but by chicken father Abraham stepping away from his paternal responsibility and allowing poor Hagar and Ishmael...his first-born son...to be driven into the desert and left to die. What a guy! Strange saint.

Others in "Faith's Hall of Fame" are not much better. Isaac? About the only thing he is remembered for is being hoodwinked on his death-bed into giving the family inheritance to the wrong son. Jacob? As much of a scallywag as anybody in scripture. Joseph? An arrogant and self-important youngster who was such a pain to his siblings that they sold him into slavery to get rid of him. Moses? A murderer. Verse after verse it goes, and none of the heroes fare any better.

What does that say? The most obvious thing is that God uses whom God chooses. God is not limited by our nice, neat predictable boundaries. This God does not go to just the fine, friendly, church-going religious folk. This is a God who calls both weak and strong. This is a God who calls a childless couple too old to have children to establish a new nation, a God who reaches out to a prostitute inside an enemy city and invites her to become part of the people of God. God uses whom God chooses, and God equips them for their tasks with the gift of faith - 20 different times in Hebrews 11 is someone described as pursuing a goal or accomplishing a task simply "BY FAITH." Over and over the litany is repeated - BY FAITH, Abraham...; BY FAITH, Isaac...; BY FAITH, Jacob...; BY FAITH, Joseph...; BY FAITH, Moses...; BY FAITH, Rahab... (there she is again). And that has been the case through all the ensuing centuries.

They are still "Strange Saints" though. I think of that young man in North Africa who led such a wild, riotous life, that even after he decided to become a Christian he refused baptism because there was still some sinning he planned to do, and he wanted to go wild with at least a relatively clear conscience. He made a prayer once in reference to his raucous womanizing; he said, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." His name was Augustine, and even though he lived a thousand years before the Reformers, he became the inspiration for the work that they would do to change the church. Strange saint!

There was a young man in England, John Newton. Newton was so wild in his youth that Great Britain was not big enough to contain him. He became a slave trader, and eventually dipped so low that he became the slave of a slave himself. Like the prodigal son, one day came to himself, and realized how awful his life had become. He turned his heart over to Jesus and to this day, we celebrate that conversion and newfound faith with him as we sing,

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

Strange saint.

No question, we are tempted to think of saints as being special people in unique situations, and even, "If I were in their place I might do something wonderful too." Or maybe we think, "I'm just a teacher, I just balance the books, I work with my hands, I'm a senior, what opportunity do I have?"(7) The key to sainthood, these verses are saying, is faith, the trust that the God who is in charge of all this will provide the task and the means of completing the task that is the right one for you. In Clarence Jordan's words, it turns dreams into deeds. And as Hebrews 11 testifies, it makes people special.

One of my cyberfriends tells of a man he knew several years ago at a church in Indianapolis.(8) Jim could not read, but each Sunday he would be in church school and at various moments his faith would lead him to say something like "The Bible says..." and then open his Bible and act as if what he was saying was in the Bible. Jim also was in the choir and, along with his inability to read, he could not sing. But he would try. Some churches might have objected strongly to Jim's singing. But not this church. The choir and the congregation at large loved Jim. Each evening when Jim would come home from his job at a "sheltered workshop," he would get off the bus several blocks from his home to check on the church building, to make sure all the doors were locked and no windows broken. Then came the day that Jim's foster family was moving to a new city. Jim asked that he might say something to the congregation the Sunday he would be there. The pastor of the church had no idea what Jim would come out with, but gladly gave him the opportunity to voice his good-bye. He stood before the congregation and said only three words: "I love you." As you can imagine, there was not a dry eye in the house. One of God's strange saints.

Or another one. This one a drunk. And he would be the first to admit it. Had it not been for the ministry of AA and a new church in his neighborhood, he may very well have died in some gutter somewhere. But God touched him. His faith led him to become active in the congregation. He served on boards and committees. If the church needed workers, he worked. If the church needed money, he gave. He was never backward about coming forward. He was never shy about sharing his feelings. If something needed saying, he said it. If something were right, he would praise it; if something were wrong, he would try to fix it. Sometimes he would explode, and the shrapnel could be painful for those caught nearby. But for 35 years, St. Paul Presbyterian was blessed with his wisdom, his insight, his hard work, his faith, and we who were Jim Gibson's friends will always be grateful for our years with this saint.

The list of saints that you and I both know could go on and on and on. Some, we would admit, are stranger than others, but all shared the same experience - their faith allowed them to be set apart by God in a unique way for tasks that they and they alone could perform at a certain place, in a certain time, and in a certain way.

One other experience they shared: each one had his or her eyes set on another destination. As scripture describes it, "the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God." They knew their journey of faith would not be finished here. They knew that "God's not finished with me yet." All along the way they could see signs of that future, and they looked forward to finally arriving at the "better country, that is, a heavenly one" that remains our goal until the day we make that final crossing.

Are you ready for "sainthood?" Perhaps you feel, "I am not worthy, God would never want me for a saint." Maybe you have made a mistake, taken a wrong turn in life, done something surpassingly, sinfully, dumb. The memory of it weighs on you and holds you back. Let me offer you a thought from a wise Canadian churchman who said something so wonderfully insightful that I invite you to engrave it on your heart for the times when you feel down and out and perhaps even worthless. "A saint", he said, "is not someone who is perfect. A saint is someone who, when they stumble and fall, is willing to let God pick them up, dust them off and start them on the way again."(9) Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Rahab and Augustine and Newton and our friend Jim Gibson are all saying AMEN to that right now. Are you willing to let God do that for you? Scripture says it happens "by faith," "betting your life on the unseen realities."

"Strange Saints." There sure are a lot of them. Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

Amen!


1. Joshua 2:1-23, 6:17-25

2. Matthew 1:5

3. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1996)

4. Genesis 12:1-4

5. John Claypool, Glad Reunion, (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1985), p. 15

6. Genesis 12:10-13:1

7. Ross Bartlett, sermon, "Unlikely Saints," http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/c-or19-98.html

8. Robert Baum, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Discussion," #4461, 8/7/98

9. Emmett Cardinal Carter of Toronto quoted by Ross Bartlett

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