July 10, 2011 Gospel: Luke 23:32-43 1st Reading: Job 38:4-11
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
For this week, I was asked to reflect on this quote from Oscar Wilde, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” I always think it is important to find the context of any quote, so I searched everywhere to find out what other words surrounded these and whether it was a play or a poem or a letter or where this was written. That information is sadly missing. Instead I found out this is a questionable quote and that Oscar Wilde may likely have never said it. It may have been attributed him randomly.
But whether he said it or not, it is a popular quote today. You can find it on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and a lot of people quote it on Twitter, Facebook, or on their website. It makes you think. When I first read it I was really puzzled and had to let it percolate for a couple of days. I studied the scriptures for verses that might have something to do with it and read a little more about Oscar Wilde, hoping for a glimpse of what it might mean and how it might relate to us today.
The reading from Job is a good one for us to review. Job has lost everything at this point. He has been questioning God about why God is making his life so miserable and ranting against God and feeling sorry for himself. Many of us have been there. It seems like God is against us or at least not listening very well. We’re not sure if we can take one more setback. We’re overwhelmed. Maybe some of us were taught that you don’t talk to God this way. But I say, go ahead, Job did it. The Psalmists did it. It is Biblical. There is precedent. And being angry with God isn’t a sin. It is a true emotion we have inside of us. And it is especially healthy when we have it out with God. Just like newlyweds think they should pretend to get along and push aside their little peeves, but then it all bubbles up into a huge argument because they haven’t been honest with each other—if we hide our little arguments with God, they can build up until sometimes we give up on religion or get a divorce from God. The old hymn says, take it to the Lord in prayer. Job did it. We can do it. God can take it.
And God might come right back with a response like God has for Job, which is good for us to hear and remember. “Where were you when I was creating this amazing planet?” “Do you know my greater plan for all the universe?” We can tend to focus on our own little world and forget the bigger picture.
An example from my own family: Last year my grandma got a kitten and puppy at the same time, so they could grow up together and be best buddies. She was lonely after grandpa’s death and all her other pets had passed away. She had been looking forward to raising these 2 animals together. Last month, my cousin’s dog got into the house and killed the cat right there in her living room. She was devastated. I would be, too. And she cried for days. And she couldn’t sleep. She just felt terrible for herself and the cat and her ruined plans. The following week a cousin of mine miscarried at 7 months along. Suddenly the whole thing was put in perspective. She didn’t feel sorry for herself anymore. She was there supporting Abby whose grief was absolutely immeasurable.
Praying, even if it is railing against God, can open our minds to the bigger picture and put our own problems into perspective. What God points out to Job is that God is in charge and always has been and always will be. Which is part of what every saint has a past and every sinner a future means to me.
We all come from somewhere. In our society we talk about a “self-made man,” who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” as if they created themselves from the dust of the earth out of nothing and did every last thing for themselves. Of course this is a myth. We need other people to succeed. And we need this planet we live on, which we did not create, but God is lending us for a little while to care for and make good use of. Of course God made us in the first place and our family nurtured us—so none of us is self-made. We are a part of something greater and can’t really do anything on our own.
Every saint has a past partly refers to the good things that make for a saint, coming from somewhere outside that person, definitely from God and others God has placed in that person’s path. It also means that every saint may have negative things in their past, too, so don’t misdirect your worship toward saints instead of God because they are bound to disappoint you. Even Jesus’ family and friends in his hometown were reluctant to listen to him because they had known him as a child and couldn’t believe that God was working through him or that he could do miracles. That doubt left him powerless to help them so he had to move on.
The reading of Paul’s letter to Timothy for this morning refers to the kind of past that Paul had. Even the bad things of his past made him who he is when he is writing this letter. He came from somewhere. He’s not proud of the things he did. Paul refers to himself as the “chief sinner, a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Yet there is enough forgiveness and love through Christ even for him. God was able to turn his life completely around and appointed him to service. This is good news for sinners, because we find that God forgives us and can work through us. This is good for saints, because when we find ourselves getting too proud of our own good deeds, we can remember all the times we failed and our life lived up until now and get humble again.
And of course we are both, aren’t we? We are sinners—every day we find ourselves separate from God and those around us. We have faults. We are broken, fallible creatures. And we are saints—Christ has redeemed us and made us his own. We are saved. God is working through us, even when our intentions and actions are all messed up. So we are both saints and sinners and we have both a past and a future.
Then we read the Gospel for today. Jesus on the cross, has on either side of him, two criminals also being crucified. And leave it to Jesus to take this opportunity as he is dying to include other people in his concern, and convicted criminals at that. One criminal acknowledges Jesus at the last minute. Even though that poor guy is dying there, he has a future. Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It is never too late to confess Jesus as our savior and to learn from him. Probabaly better to spend a whole life knowing about that grace and love. However if you don’t get to it until the end, that’s ok, too. And don’t we all at times get it and other times don’t? God’s love is revealed to us over a lifetime and in those times of crisis and suffering we may come to a deeper sense of the presence of God and hope for new life.
We can also remember from this quote to treat everyone with respect. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know everything about a person’s past and what makes them act the way they do. It can help us treat them with grace when we find out. And we never know what kind of skills and talents someone might have that may shape our future together and build a stronger community. What an opportunity to ask someone you’re curious about of their life and faith and how they got to where they are now, whether you see them as a saint or a sinner or some combination of the two. That is one of the principles in organizing which we practice in the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good—to be curious and listen to build relationships between people, to understand where we have come from and what makes us tick and then to use that information to act in the future to make a better future for everyone.
So whether you are a saint or a sinner you have a past and a future. We all come from somewhere and are going somewhere. Use this quote to remind you to love one another and learn about one another’s past and to encourage you to look toward the future with hope. God loves you. God has always loved you. God will always love you. Go forth into that future in love and hope.