Are you a “saint”? You probably would hesitate to call yourself a “saint.” I’m sure you don’t write the word “saint” in front of your name when you sign things. “I’m no saint,” you probably would say. “A saint is someone like Mother Theresa – those who go and live in a third world country somewhere and dedicate their lives to helping others – that’s a saint. The Apostle Peter or the Apostle Paul – those men are saints – the real good people. But me? No way. I’m definitely not a saint.”
Today we are celebrating “All Saints Day.” In the early church, Christians used to set aside certain days throughout the year to remember certain leaders, and they called those leaders “saints.”. There were too many saints to remember throughout the year. And so the church decided to set aside one day out of the year to remember all the saints, and they called that day “All Saints Day.”
To this day, a “saint” is thought of as one of those really good Christians from the past who still has special powers to help you through your problems. People today have different saints that they pray to in different circumstances. On the internet, you can find a saint for just about every situation. If you have trouble oversleeping, I found out that you are supposed to pray to St. Vitus.
If you have trouble twitching (I notice that sometimes during the sermons), you’re supposed to pray to St. Bartholomew the Apostle. If you have some plants outside and you don’t want them to die when the frost comes, you’re supposed to pray to St. Urban. All kinds of saints for all kinds of circumstances – that’s the world in which we live.
And so it’s no wonder that today, we resist the idea of being called a “saint.” But I disagree, according to the Bible, we can all become saints.
So how does that happen? Let’s say that we have a committee here at church, called the “Saint Committee.” And their job is to determine if we should be called a “saint” or not. And so this committee goes into our house while we’re not home, and sets up hidden cameras. They set up microphones all over the place. They set up surveillance equipment at our place of work. They bug our phone so that they can listen to our conversations. They follow us around, take pictures of us, and take notes on everything we say and do. Then, after gathering all this information, they meet as a committee, and the chairman says, “Well, what have you learned about so-and-so?
(Remember, they’re talking about us.) Is that person a saint?” What do we think they would say, after observing our life so closely?
“They are no saint,” one of them might say. “I’ve listened to their conversations. I’ve watched what they do. They are not a saint! They’re a sinner!” Do you think that’s what the committee might say about you? It is true, that we are sinners, and we have more than earned that title in our lives. If our all of our conversations were taped, and we were watched every day, we would be embarrassed by what other people would see in our lives. And yet, this is not how a person becomes a saint. If it were, then there would be no such thing as a saint. Everyone is sinful, and even the so-called “good” people have skeletons in their closet. No one deserves to be called a saint based on the sins they have committed in their lives.
And yet, the strange thing is, God does call us a “saint”! The word “saint” appears in the Bible over 60 times, and every single time it is used, it doesn’t refer to only the special, good people. Every time, it refers to those who are Christians.
When I think about it there are so many people who can do, and have done, God’s work in the world so much better than I ever could. But my desire to serve my God and my Church in smaller, quieter ways doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with the superstars of the Christian faith. If our gospel today tells us anything, it tells us that serving and loving God in even the smallest way makes us saints, too.
It’s strange because if I were to ask most people to define a saint they would probably include ‘spiritual and moral perfection’ and ‘extraordinary acts of selflessness’ in their lists. Those canonised by the Catholic Church or remembered in our Anglican Cycle of prayer. Those preserved in stained glass in our Ancient churches.
A professor at a took his young son to the college chapel. The light shone through many beautiful stained glass windows depicting the lives of various saints. He asked his son if he knew what a saint was. With all of the confidence than only a pre-schooler can muster he said, “Of course Dad! A saint is someone the sun can shine through”!
What a good definition that was! We are not just to admire the saints of the past. The hope is that something of their saintliness will rub off on us.
Throughout history God has demonstrated that he is in the business of taking ordinary thing and turning them into holy things. God takes ordinary things like bread, wine, nails, boards, and stables and turns them into something holy and likewise, God takes ordinary people and turns them into holy people.
And All Saints Day is the day when we remember and celebrate the contributions of these Holy People. God takes ordinary people and makes them holy by speaking a word to them and setting them aside for a holy purpose. That is what God wants to do for us.
Saints include all of those who are not prepared to accept the world’s definitions of the way things are. The saints include all of those who try, in their own way, to follow Jesus. The saints include all of those who seek to march to the beat of a different drummer, to say that money, power and prestige are not the most important things in life.
We have for our gospel today the raising of Lazarus. Martha and Mary, as you can imagine were beside themselves, not only had their brother died, but the one who offered them a miracle, the only one they knew could help them seemingly didn’t come. But they had faith…
This is one of few passages that shows really clearly Christ’s humanity, as we read that after he had finally arrived he began to weep. Then in the face of everyone’s unbelief and disbelief Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It’s a foretaste of Christ’s own death, and a reminder that no one is beyond the care and compassion of Christ.
Saints are the ones who look beyond themselves to the ever loving and all powerful God for their life and eternity. They are the ones who belief in miracles, and act because their faith is in Christ alone.
The saints are those who sit up with sick friends. The saints are those who teach Sunday school lessons to children who don’t seem to want to listen and who bake cakes for the neighbours’ children, and cook meals for the bereaved. The saints are those who state unpopular opinions in love because they feel called to it.
The saints are those who change tyres for strangers and occasionally get taken advantage of by someone who never pays for food or transport. Saints are those who attempt to look at life with the eyes of Christ and ask themselves what the faithful thing to do is, in this particular situation.
The saints are also those who do what they do without thinking.
As a culture and as a church community we need to recover the sense of the communion of saints. So it is that God takes ordinary people and makes them saints by speaking a word to them and often they don’t even realize that by faithfully performing ordinary duties, they become saints. The saints of our past live on in us not because of their heroic deeds of self-sacrifice and outrageous generosity. Most of them lived rather ordinary lives dedicated to their families, friends and communities. They rise from the grave to inspire us to live similarly faithful lives.
They are those who have discovered the truth of the paradox that it is only in serving God that we can find true freedom.
Saints are exactly that, people who live in the love of God, people who let the light of God’s Son shine through them. It doesn’t matter if they are an Archbishop, an elderly nun in India–or the woman from our church who takes flowers to those who are ill. Or the man who works for a better education system or helps build low-income housing. All of them share a common vision of righteousness, mercy, and peace. The saints of God are among us. The saints of God are us.
God loves us, and has a purpose for each and every one of us in bringing about the reign of heaven here on earth. None of us should feel discouraged because our part doesn’t seem very big–it is the part that God has chosen specially for us and for no one else. The great saints have understood this. Archbishop Temple wrote that “the whole harmony of creation depends upon the offering by each humblest spirit of its own appropriate note of music which no other can sound without discord.”
There are the saints in heaven, and today, we thank God for them. We remember their example of faithfulness that they left behind for us. It’s a useful thing to recall and to talk about the saints who are in heaven, described in the Book of Revelation. But it’s also useful to remember that there are the saints on earth – those who are here today and believe in Christ right now. And so today we also give thanks to God that he has made us and to recommit ourselves to His service.
So if we allow the saints of our past and present to direct the light of God to shine on us, we too can become saints of God.
The Right Rev Karen Gorham, Bishop of Sherborne