Today is All Saints Sunday, the day when the church pauses to recognize that we are surrounded by saints. On this day we read out the names of those who have died in the faith in the certain hope that they are not dead but continue to live in and through us in the power of Christ.
One of the reasons I love All Saints Sunday is that the church is in the business of producing saints. I can almost feel you squirm in your seats when I say that. But it's true.
The church collectively is made up of saints, those ordinary people who have been called by Jesus Christ to live sanctified lives, lives that are so caught up in the plans of God that they are called saints.
The most important thing we do collectively is the week-in, week-out worship of the church gathered. How many troubled souls find life-giving sustenance and nourishment each week in the worship of the church. There are many folk out there who couldn't make it if it were not for what they receive on a Sunday morning.
Those words reminded me, a preacher, of the importance of the work as the church, gathered and scattered. Today I'm thinking that one of the most important things we do here is that ordinary equipment we receive to be saints, to be those whose lives are caught up in God's work in the world - saints.
When we hear the word saint, we’re often too quick to think of Mother Teresa or Saint Francis. But I want us to think today in a more mundane, ordinary sense of saint. In fact, I'm talking about you.
According to a great preacher, a saint is someone whose life manages to be more than a “cranny through which the infinite peeps.” We hold the saint’s life up and through it we get a glimpse of the infinite and the eternal, a sighting of God. The saint is someone who somehow manages to live in two worlds. (1)
And the apostle Paul celebrates those saints! The saint's faith has enabled him or her to release some of the tight grip by which most people hold on to this world and then is paradoxically able to receive this world as a gift. With an eye on the infinite, the saint manages to be thoroughly involved in the finite. The saint manages to chart his or her life by the stars, but walks on thoroughly solid earth.
In my experience, saints are best known through seemingly small, earthly gestures, deeds of love and mercy made all the more holy because they are so earthly. Many of those we will remember today did not set out to be saints, they just were in their many very earthly actions.
Too often saints are depicted as people who are so extraordinary that we could never identify with them. Their commitment to God and virtue is unwavering, their trust in divine providence unshakable, and their unselfish service of others puts everything that we do to shame. Such a depiction is unfortunate, because someone who was not first a genuine human being would probably never grow into the kind of holiness to which we are all called.
What actually makes a saint? Extraordinary feats of courage or self-denial?
No! It is the love that God has bestowed on us that makes us children of God. And as children of God, we are already saints, because divine life flows within us and through us. The differences between individuals have to do with the degree and character of our willingness to cooperate with God’s grace and to be like God.
Most of them are hidden in obscurity, known only to those who were in some way touched by their lives. But these are saints of God nonetheless.
The saints we have known are people who shared their possessions, who grieved over the tragedies of the world, who did not fall into the traps set by power plays, who sought to make the world better, who showed mercy, who lived authentic lives and who did what they could in the name of peace. They lived the beatitudes in their daily lives, even if they had to pay a price for their integrity. We all know such saints.
And if we are honest, we must admit that we too can become saints as they did. When the saints come marching in, we can be in their number. We are already God’s children. With the grace of God, who knows what we might yet become?
Don't you see that makes it all the more amazing that in ordinary places you can still find these practical saints, folk whose faith has enabled them not to be worn down by the cares of life, not to avoid those who are in need, not to steel themselves against the feeling and responding to some of the hurt and the sorrow of others?
On this All Saints' Day, like Paul, I give thanks to God for the saints, all of them, including you. It is no small achievement - whether one is in a hospital ward, or a hardware store, or a high school classroom - to live like a saint. Amid the cares of everyday life, somehow to keep your eyes fixed on the things of God, to reach out in compassion to others, to testify to God's promised kingdom in the middle of our kingdoms and their demands - this is no small spiritual achievement.
I hope that in the church you receive the gifts you need to keep at it. I hope that you receive the encouragement, the equipment, the grace needed to keep on keeping on.
And what about those days when you don’t feel so encouraged? Saints are people who can hold together the glorious promise of our inheritance in heaven which sends the author of Ephesians into ecstasy not on the rich and powerful but on the poor, the hungry and the tearful. And sometimes the saints are themselves the hungry and the tearful.
There has much in the press this year about the fast-tracking of Mother Teresa to sainthood, but the secular press was wrong-footed by the so-called revelations that for most of her life she was serving the poor and giving herself to prayer at the same time that she was doubting God presence and care. That seemed to the world as a negation of her faith and dedication, but the church nodded wisely and knew otherwise. (2)
Indeed our readings today point to the fact that the truth lies elsewhere: they remind us that Christians are called to hold all those truths together, that doubt and despair are not the negation of faith but at times integral components of it. And those we honor today as saints give us examples we can follow precisely because, in many cases, they struggled.
All Saints’ Day is about aspiration: God asks ordinary people do extraordinary things. In everything we play our role as revealers of grace -- singing God's graceful melodies -- by responding to the needs of the world, letting our light shine so that our world may know that God is alive, seeking beauty, healing, and justice in our midst. You can aspire toward holiness; you can be a person of stature, grace, and hospitality; you can share God's healing love and break down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality throughout the ordinary business of everyday life.
Walking through our beautiful Nave earlier this week, I was reading the names, familiar in the families that are still at Church Street and wondering about their stories. The sun streaming in on the bright fall day reminded me of a story about a man who brought his son to beautiful Duke Chapel on a similar sunny day. The sunshine shown through the numerous stained glass windows. The father said to his little boy, "Those windows show pictures of the saints. Do you know who the saints are?"
The little boy, looking up at the brilliant windows, said, "Yes. The saints are the ones who the sun shines through." He was right. The saints are the ones who the Son shines through. Saints are those who embody the truth of Jesus' promise, "If you abide in me, I will abide in you." They are the ones through whom we see the Son. (3)
For all the saints, who from their labors rest, we give you thanks this day, O God.
For all those dear people who loved us, who told us stories of Jesus, who lived the faith before us and exemplified the path of discipleship, we give thanks.
Remembrance of the saints and their witness reminds us that we are not here by our own efforts. Rather, we are here in your church by their gifts and grace. And the saints remind us too that, "In Christ you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory."
Let us pray
Lord, help us so to live that others might profit by our example. Give us grace to live faithfully in our time and place, to live the Christian life in such a way that others might see our lives and want to follow you because they see some of your light reflected in us.
Lord, give us the strength we need to serve you all our days, to be faithful in all things great and small, and to love you not only with our hearts, but also with our hands, to risk ourselves in loving acts of service to you and to our fellow human beings, your beloved children. Give us strength to be saints; in the power of Christ. Amen.
(1) Tom Long, Christian Century
(2) Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith, Time
(3) Bishop Wil Willimon, Reflections on All Saints Sunday