READING: Hebrews 11:1-3,8-19
SERMON : "Unlikely Saints"
Rev. Dr. Ross Bartlett
The following is another in our summer series of guest sermons.
Rev. Ross Bartlett is an United Church of Canada clergy person
located in Halifax, NS. This sermon was first shared on our site
in 1998 while Ross was located in Kingston, Ontario.
Hebrews is one of the great books of the bible, populated with all sorts of
incredible people. In fact, if you take it seriously, it can be a little
intimidating. You might feel like a youngster in sneakers and baseball cap
walking through the hall of fame. Or like the person who has just started
music lessons and goes to hear the symphony orchestra. Or the couch potato
like me watching Olympic atheletes. We think "Ah, I'll never be like that!"
It's intimidating. And the portion of Hebrews read this morning is the
roll-call of the faithful of Israel. All sorts of people who did things by
faith. Here's Noah, building an ark for years before the rains fell. And
Enoch, who was so holy that he didn't die. One day he just took a walk and
ended up in heaven. And Abraham, who picked up lock, stock and barrel and
moved cause God said go. And Moses, the greatest figure in the Old
Testament, the one who did God's greatest work before the time of Jesus -
Moses is there. Here's Joshua, leading the people across the Jordan, and
dropping the walls of Jericho with trumpets.
And the prostitute Rahab. Wait a minute, did you say the prostitute Rahab?
Yep. It's not in our text for today but in Hebrews 11:31, part of the same
list we read today it says without missing a beat, "By faith the prostitute
Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were
disobedient". I don't know how many years I'd been reading Hebrews before I
finally recognized what that verse said. But for me, it's like a gift. It
reminds us of the freedom of God to upset our nice, neat predictable
boundaries. This is a God who works both sides of the street. This God
doesn't go to just the nice, friendly, church-going religious folk. This is
a God who reaches out to a prostitute inside an enemy city and invites her
to become part of the people of God. And a tax collector in the Temple who
finally figures out how to pray. And a thief on a cross who finally gets it
Now, we're used to talking about saints. My Anglican friends may be more
used to it than the Uniteds but both groups come out of traditions which
make fair and free use of saints. But for most people the notion of saints
is an uncomfortable one. We rest far easier with the notion of saints being
in a stained glass window rather than the pew beside us or the next desk at
work. Saints are people we look up to, not people we expect to be like. In
fact, if someone told us they felt themself to be a saint we'd be tempted
to wonder if all the connections were being made. But there it is, "by
faith, Rahab". So I'd like to take a few minutes of your time this morning
and explore the notion of unlikely saints. And by any definition Rahab is
certainly one of those. Indeed we might start to wonder, what's she doing
in this list of saints, that practitioner of a most unsaintly profession.
Abel, Abraham, Noah, Sarah, Moses - they certainly belong on the list. But
Rahab? Where will you find a stained glass window to immortalize her? Where
will you find a church named after her? I don't know of one. But here she
is in the stained glass window writing of Hebrews 11. And not tucked into a
corner either but prominently displayed.
And this isn't just a mistake on the part of the writer of Hebrews. She's
there in the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew too. She's part of
the geneology of Jesus. She's identified as the mother of Boaz, the
great-great-grandmother of King David. Thus she's the
great-great-ever-so-great-grandmother of Jesus of Nazareth. Rahab the
Prostitute! It's enough to leave you wondering. If a prostitute can be a
saint, perhaps our notions of sainthood and saintliness need to be
When one thinks of Protestant saints one thinks easily of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. A brilliant young theologian and pastor in Nazi Germany. Part
of the Confessing Church resistance to the established church's willingness
to set aside the Christian's responsibility to God in every area of life.
Resisting the notion that you can set aside a little area of life and call
that religion. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the resistance and then into a
plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested for his part in that failed attempt
and spent his last months ministering to his fellow prisoners, regardless
of background, before being hanged in April 1944.
Prior to recognizing Rahab the Harlot's place in this list I might have
gone on with similar stories. Include Sister Theresa of Calcutta or Jean
Vanier or Corrie Ten Boom. Inspirational figures, no doubt. But there's a
problem with their stories for the likes of me, and perhaps you too.
They're like Abraham and Sarah and Noah - so far above what I can imagine
myself to be that it's more depressing than inspirational. More an example
of what I can't do rather than what I might be. Theirs are not Rahab
stories at all. So now I think of different people. I remember John
Woolman, the eighteenth century Quaker abolitionist who spent his life
fighting slavery as an itinerant crusader. He walked hundreds of miles
because the boys who cared for stagecoach horses were often enslaved. He
wore undyed cloth to protest against the fact that dye-ships from the West
Indies were often crewed by slaves. But he also reasoned endlessly with
slave owners whom he included in his ministry. One thinks of Sojourner
Truth, an illiterate slave and mother of twelve, who being emancipated in
1827 and converted began a ministry of abolitionism and women's rights
based on the realization, "Oh God, I did not know you were so big." One
remembers Dorothy Day, American journalist and member of the Communist
party who, after her conversion left her lover and the father of her child
to spend a life founding hospitality houses across the nation for the most
destitute of outcasts.
I think of people I have met when I think of unlikely saints. In Brazil I
listened to a lay worker tell the story of the progress of faith in the
favella that he served, a shanty town of tens of thousands where people
were considered well-off if their shacks were made of cast-off tin and
tarpaper. Where the death squads roamed nightly but his greatest fear was
of those who preached a gospel that urged people to ignore and accept their
present circumstances. Where, wanting to start a literacy programme but
lacking any other materials, they began teaching people to read using the
bible. And as the women learned to read, they learned that Jesus healed
people and they began to question why there were no medical facilities for
their families. So they began to protest for schools and hospitals and
clinics. And such protests were not well accepted by the powers that be.
The most powerful photgraph I have ever seen was hanging in that church. It
showed the clubs of the security forces sent in to break up the
demonstration raining down on these women who had nothing with which to
protect themselves but copies of the bible. When I think of unlikely
saints, I think of those women.
When we look again at the Rahab model we see things we might have been
tempted to overlook before. That the standard of measurement for unlikely
saints is not accomplishment but faith. Being sure of that we hope for and
confident of what we do not see. Recognize please the difficulty of that
stance before you nod and smile. "Being sure of that we hope for and
confident of what we do not see." Recognize how different that is from our
cultural compulsion to assert that if you can't measure something, quantify
it and repeat it, it isn't real. The great watchword seems to be, "if I
can't see it, I won't believe it". Over against that the bible seems to
tell us, over and over again, that, for the most significant things in life
if you don't believe them, you won't see them. If you don't believe them,
you won't see them.
We're often tempted to think of saints as being special people in unique
situations. Maybe we think, "now if I was 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? The key to sainthood, this verse seems to be saying, is to find a
place to live God's will in your life and actually do it. Not because you
know how it will turn out and not because you know all the answers before
you start entertaining the questions but because that's what faithfulness
Perhaps there is someone listening today who's thinking, "I'm not worthy,
God would never want me for a saint." Maybe you've made a mistake, taken a
wrong turn in life, done something really dumb. The memory of that weighs
on you and holds you back. Let me offer you a thought from an unlikely
source. Following his stroke, Emmett Cardinal Carter of Toronto said
something so terribly insightful that I invite you to engrave it on your
heart for the times when you feel down and out and perhaps worthless. "A
saint", he said, "isn't someone who's 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." Are you willing to let God do that for
One more thought about being unlikely saints - saints like you and me. Very
few people are called to make big sacrifices all at once. That would almost
be easier I think. To go to the bank, mortgage your home, take all you have
and spend on one act of nobility and sacrifice. It sounds wonderful. But
what God says to the unlikely saints is this. "Good for you. Now take those
life savings back to the bank and change them into dollars, tens and fives.
And I want you to use them a bit at a time, day by day, in acts of love and
service to me, and to your neighbour." And it's over the long haul that an
unlikely saint is made. Willingness to stand for what is right even though
it may be unpopular. Willingness to oppose the popular prejudice that what
is different is automatically wrong or inferior or bad. Willingness to give
of one's time and one's love to people, to causes, to prayer.
Maybe as I've been speaking you've been thinking of certain people who fit
this description. They're different, although they might well deny the
difference if you confronted them with it. What makes them different?
They're not marooned on a lonely spit of life with no room for anyone but
themselves. They have learned that to have friends you must show yourself
as friendly. To recieve love you must give it. They have learned to deny
the great wisdom of the world that the only way to the top of the tree is
to be self-centred, pushy, looking out only for number one. In some
important, but sometimes intangible way they manifest that strange biblical
truth, to keep your life you have to lose it. That it's only through
spending you gain eternal life. Find through giving away. Have by losing.
Belief in what you hope for and certainty in what you cannot see. Thanks be
to God. Amen.
copyright - sermon by Rev. Ross Bartlett 1998, 2001, 2004
page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 1998 - 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.