She was born in Skojpe, Macedonia in 1910 as the youngest child in a middle class family. Her father died when she was nine years old. Her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic and at the age of 12 she decided that she was committed to a life of service. In 1928 she left home to join the Sisters of Loreto and never saw her mother and sister again. She went to study English in Ireland and then moved to India in 1929 where she began to teach at a small school in the Himalayas. In 1931 she took her first religious vows and became a full fledged nun in 1937. She moved to Calcutta where she began to teach as well as work with the poorest of the poor and the untouchables.
Of course later on she was to become known as Mother Teresa who until her death in 1997 worked untiring and endlessly on behalf of the most destitute. When her work was celebrated by the British writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, she became known internationally and was awarded the 1979 Nobel peace prize. Her funeral in 1997 was attended by hundreds of thousands of followers and in 1999 Gallup named her the most admired person of the 20th century.
If you were to name a saint, I am sure, Mother Teresa would be one of the first person’s you would name. Who else might there be? Some might name Martin Luther King Junior or maybe Albert Schweitzer or Gandhi. Generally these saints are people who are so wise and so faithful, that you just feel enriched being in their presence. I remember being on a City Tour in the City of Atlanta in 1995. One place we got to go was Ebenezer Baptist Church and there I got to sit in the pews of the very church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached many of his sermons that changed the world. It was very inspiring. Yes for some people who have become internationally known because of their inspirational presence it is easy to see that they are saints.
Some people are a little less widely known but still widely considered to be saints in their small corner. I remember as a small boy, hearing that Lois Wilson was elected as the first female moderator of the United Church of Canada. Later on I was to read her book, “Turning the World Upside Down” and read of her call for greater justice in the world. I wondered who this super woman might be who seemed to be so much larger than life. When I met her, I was very surprised. Instead of a larger than life person, I saw this small woman. Yet from this small woman came such a strong message. She was not quite as well known as Mother Teresa, but she was definitely a person of God.
I think though what is really surprising though is when we find the presence of God coming from a very unsuspected source. I was the minister of Hope United Church in Hope, British Columbia. In this small community, each minister was to take turns visiting at the local nursing home. One person I had to visit was Elly. Elly was in a wheel chair. She had completely lost her sight. Her mind though was as sharp as a tack. Elly had been born in Scotland, had come to Canada as a war bride after the First World War and had followed her husband who helped to build railways to remote northern communities throughout British Columbia. Elly had no children of her own and her family in Scotland had long since passed away. Elly became a teacher and was gifted for working with her students where she would love to tell them stories. But now she was in a nursing home. The only time Elly got to share her stories was when a visitor came.
I went to the hospital the day after a troublesome board meeting. A few members of the church were quite upset with the disruptive presence of children during worship. They just wouldn’t sit still and sometimes even whispered while the hymns were being sung. These few members just could not wait until the Children’s Time was done and they went down to Sunday School. And some of these children wore jeans and t-shirts to church. They were not as well behaved as the children of 15 or 20 years ago either. These few people were very upset and were even thinking about leaving the church.
For myself and the rest of the board, we listened to these complaints with surprise and horror. We knew that the children brought a needed energy boost to our church. The children were enthusiastic, supporting mission activities and helping with church concerts and fund raising programs. No they didn’t always sit still and behave, but they did bring a needed vitality to our church. We did not want anything to jeopardize their contributions to the church.
The board meeting ended and the treasurer pulled me aside. She said she could not believe the gall of these few individuals who wanted to stifle the children. It was just not right said the treasurer. But then she reminded me that these few individuals contributed about 2/3 of the offering each week. The treasurer said that I would have to think long and hard about how to deal with their concerns while not upsetting the children and their parents in the Sunday School.
It was with these heavy thoughts that I went to visit Elly in the nursing home. I was listening, I thought intently to her stories, when she stopped and asked if something was wrong. I shared with her my dilemma. She sat silently for a few minutes after I had finished and then said, “Don’t these people realize it’s everyone’s church? Don’t they realize it’s God’s church? Don’t these adults know that the children have more to teach us about faith then we realize?”
As Elly spoke I quickly understood that it wasn’t the words of a lonely, elderly, blind woman seated in a wheelchair. God was speaking to me then. And God was saying that in order to quell the complainers, I needed to show them what kind of contribution our Sunday School was making.
So we began a six month initiative. The children would leave for their Sunday School class as soon as church began. Suddenly there was no noise to bother the complainers enjoyment o worship. The children would come in for the last 10 minutes of worship. However, instead of sitting through boring readings and hymns with words the children could not understand, the children had a job to do when they came back to worship. They would teach the congregation what they had learned in Sunday School. Since we used the same lessons in Sunday School and in worship, the children helped us to explore the meaning of scripture in new ways. Suddenly the complainers were understanding how valuable the children were to the church and what richness they added to our time together. God had spoken to me through a person like Elly of that I had no doubt.
Sometimes places take on new meanings for us. In 2009, as part of my work for the General Council Offices, I took part in a two week exposure trip to Colombia. I attended an event called the People’s Forum in Bogota and then got to spend 5 days in the middle of the jungle in the Magdalena River Valley in the oil producing city of Barrancabermeja.
On our first day in Barrancabermeja we went to visit with several families. These families all had one thing in common. On May 16, 1997, masked men entered into their city during the middle of a street festival, opened fired and killed 7 people outright and 25 people were disappeared, never to be heard of again. These families had all lost someone or someones on that date. They talked of their pain and suffering and their quest for justice. They then asked if we wanted to see the place where the massacre happened. We walked three blocks to a fenced in soccer field. There we noticed three youngsters playing soccer on the field, seemingly oblivious to the pain and suffering that had gone on there before. A few minutes later a woman joined us who had not been part of the original families that we had met with. She said that she too had lost a son on that day. Suddenly, this soccer field, became more than a sports stadium. It was a shrine to all of the victims of the 40 year long civil war in Colombia. I realized that it was a holy place. The children continued to play blithely on, the families continued to talk of their loss. The grass grew as it had always done. But for me, it was now a holy place, because I realized the saints and God were present here.
In the ordinary, we come to see the presence of God. In talking with Elly, I am sure that God spoke to me and gave me a way out of my dilemma. She was an ordinary woman at the end stages of her life, but when she spoke those simple words my life was changed. The soccer field, was just like any other athletic field around the world. It was nothing special. But as I stood there, it became a shrine to all who have been lost in an unending war. Soon the soccer field would go back to being just an ordinary sports field, but for a moment, I understood more.
In the same way, Jacob was a very ordinary man. One might call him a scoundrel. He was born the second of twins. He had to use his wits and not his strength to get by. He tricked his brother into getting the family’s birthright. He tricked his father into receiving his family’s blessing. Then he had to flee, fearing for his life and his brother’s wrath.
It was to this very flawed man that God came. In a barren stretch of land with rocky soil, God shows Jacob an elevator to heaven. God was made known there to a liar and a cheat, not a glorious saint whose life was a symbol of virtue. God was made known there in the barren desert and not a glorious cathedral. God came into being, not where one would expect and not to someone who you would expect. God comes where God is least expected.
In the movie Amadeus, Wolfie is a flawed man. Crude, lude, without decorum. But he is a brilliant composer whose music is the voice of God. Sallieri has devoted his life to God but his music never quite makes muster. Sallieri is left wondering why God has chosen the music of someone so crass, rather than a saint.
It is just as Jacob, Elly, and the soccer field of Barrancabermeja teach us. God comes to us in the expected sources like the Gandhis, Lois Wilsons and Mother Teresas. God comes to us in the great cathedrals and other holy shrines. But God does not stop there. God speaks to us through the stranger. God speaks to us in the most mundane places. Our God is here and everywhere. God is present in the saints and the not so saintly. God is here and we can give thanks. Amen.