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

STRANGE SAINTS

Delivered 8/12/01
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.(1)
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, was she not? 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.(2) 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,(3) 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.

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.

"Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." So Abram left, 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 Englishman who wrote that, as a youth, he had "few equals...both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God." He was an impoverished general handyman who married an equally poor woman whose only dowry consisted of two devotional books: The Practice of Piety and The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven. One Sunday, after hearing the vicar of Elstow preach against breaking the sabbath by working or playing, he went to the village green to play tip-cat (a game similar to rounders or cricket), his usual Sunday afternoon activity, and was just about to strike the 'cat' when he heard a voice from heaven saying, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?"(7) Whoa! Or not! Our hero carried on with his game, but the 'voice' had an impact. He searched the scripture, and despite occasional feelings of forgiveness, he continued to agonize over his salvation. He came to understand Christian faith as a pilgrimage rather than some static event and he put his thoughts on paper producing an eloquent and beautiful description of a disciple's journey through life's pitfalls and perils to the safety of the Almighty. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress became a literary landmark and has become one of the most widely-read works in the English language.(8) Still, John Bunyan would be the first to admit that, with his background, he is a strange saint!

Or how about the young man from Iowa, a talented baseball player who joined the Chicago White Sox at age twenty and almost immediately seemed on his way to stardom. He excelled as a base runner and once won a game by stealing second, third, and home on three successive pitches. But this young man got religion, and his conversion not only changed his life but his career. He became an itinerant evangelist who spoke to enormous crowds huddled together in hastily built wooden tabernacles. He was a born actor with an instinctive flair for street talk, and an uncanny ability to literally scare the hell out of sinners.

Lacking formal education, he invented his own down-to-earth preaching style, punctuated with lots of body language. "If the English language gets in my way, I tramp all over it," he said. As for sin, he said he would "kick it as long as I've got a foot, and I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist. I'll butt it as long as I've got a head. "I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth."

But there was a serious no-nonsense side to him as well. He worked for the YMCA, was ordained a Presbyterian minister, made generous donations to charities, advocated racial equality, women's rights, and sex education in the public schools in a day long before any of that was fashionable. Billy Sunday was a colorful figure - he made people laugh, and when they did, he said he shoved the gospel down their throats when their mouths were open.(9) Billy Sunday. No question, a strange saint.

Listen to the testimony of one more: "I never was a child. I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider. I was born out of wedlock, but that had nothing to do with all this. To people like mine a thing like that just didn't mean much. Nobody brought me up." Those words are the beginning of a best-selling autobiography, the story of a black girl from the urban ghetto who rose to stardom and acclaim, not only on stage and in film, but in the church as well.

Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, she describes herself as "a real dead-end kid: I just ran wild as a little girl. I was bad, always a leader of the street gang in stealing and general hell-raising." She stole for food and earned $4.75 a week as a maid before seeking out the stage where she soon found success and fame singing the blues. In the late 1950's she joined the Billy Graham Crusades and sang at any number of his meetings. She particularly loved to sing one special hymn she learned from her grandmother:
Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
And long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion
My constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches me.(10)
Ethel Waters.(11) One more of God's strange saints.

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 with 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.

The poet Phyllis McGinley says, "The wonderful thing about saints is that they were human. They lost their tempers, scolded God, were egotistical or testy or impatient in their turns, made mistakes and regretted them. Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven."(12) Great line: "doggedly blundering toward heaven." Ever feel that way yourself?

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."(13) Did you hear that? "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."

Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Rahab and John Bunyan and Billy Sunday and Ethel Waters 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...all "doggedly blundering toward heaven." There sure are a lot of them. Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

Amen!


1. Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Hebrews and the General Epistles, (New York : Association Press, 1973), pp. 35-36

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

3. Matthew 1:5

4. Genesis 12:1-4

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

6. Genesis 12:10-13:1

7. http://www.bedford.gov.uk/bedford/tic/john%20bunyan%20elstow%20creen.htm

8. Hugh Kerr and John Mulder, eds., Conversions: The Christian Experience, (Grand Rapids, MI : William Eerdmans Publishing, 1983), p. 48

9. ibid., p. 160

10. Civilla D. Martin

11. Conversions, pp. 219-220

12. Quoted by Carroll Simcox in "The Saints: Dogged Blunderers toward Heaven," in Best Sermons 4, James Cox, ed., (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p. 119

13. Emmett Cardinal Carter of Toronto

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