Sunday, November 06, 2016

Journey of Saints

All Saints’ Sunday
Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

What comes to mind when you think of “saints”?

[pause for answers from congregation]

These are all good answers. Now, let’s bring it all together.

On the calendar, we actually have a three day period dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs, and all faithful departed believers. These are Halloween, All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). These three days are collectively known as Allhallowtide. While secular society focuses primarily on Halloween, the church primarily focuses on All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. On All Saints’ Day, we remember those whom we typically think of as saints, those who have been canonized, or specifically declared a saints, by the Church. These include the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Patrick, and the newest saint on the calendar, St. Teresa of Calcutta, also known as Mother Teresa. On All Souls Day (also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed), we remember all the “regular” folks who have died. We specifically remember our own loved ones who have entered into eternal life.

Some churches combine All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day into one celebration, remembering all the saints who have gone before – famous and ordinary, known and unknown. In more recent times, the celebration of all these saints, both famous and ordinary, occurs on the Sunday immediately after All Saints’ Day, and is known as All Saints’ Sunday.

But the definition of saint is broader still. On page 862 of the Prayer Book, our Catechism states “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” In its truest sense, a saint is any faithful person – that is, all believers. That means each of us is a saint!

We see this implied in our Epistle reading from Ephesians. Ephesians is Paul’s letter of inspiration and encouragement to the church in Ephesus as they strive to live the gospel. In the introduction to the letter, Paul writes “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints” (Eph 1.15). In this, he is referencing all believers as “saints.” In fact, that is the original meaning of “saints” as used in Scripture – one who is sanctified or made holy; a person who is separated unto God’s service.

Our Gospel reading from Luke provides some insight, some guidelines, for living a Christian life, for becoming a saint – or at least God vision of what a saint is. Unlike its counterpart in Matthew’s Gospel, which uses the third person – blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger – Luke uses the second person. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. This makes Jesus’ statements more personal. Jesus is not talking about some other, nameless people who are poor. We are all in some way poor and ask for God’s blessings. Jesus is not talking about some nameless people who hunger. We all hunger in some way and ask for God’s fulfillment. Jesus is not talking about some nameless people who weep with sorrow. We all have occasion to weep and to be in need of comfort. We are all included in those who are of concern to God. We are all included in the list of the saints of God.

But then there are the “woes.” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Lk 6.24-25). What are we to make of that? After all, if we are honest with ourselves, most if not all of us are included in this list. We are rich compared to most of the people in the world. We do not go hungry. Most of us are, if not happy, are at least content. Or at least not wracked with terminal grief. Does this mean we are any less worthy of being called saints?

Of course not. What we glean from Jesus’ words is the attributes of the saints of God. The attributes we are to make our own. These are founded on love, compassion, kindness, patience, generosity. In the “woe” statements, Jesus recognizes that living up to these expectations is a tall order. He recognizes that we may fall short. That we will fall short. That is the nature of being human. All he asks is that we try.

This is one of the reasons we have days like today where we recognize the saints in our lives. Not just the famous saints who can seem bigger than life, who can seem more devout and pious than we could ever hope to be. Although even they had their human weaknesses. But we also recognize the common, ordinary saints in our own lives, who despite their very humanness, exhibited qualities of what it means to be faithful followers of Christ. The people who touched our lives, who inspired us in our own faith journeys, who taught us something of what it means to be a child of God. And because these saints who have gone before have been instrumental in our own formation as Christians, in celebrating the saints, we gather as God’s people to claim and celebrate our own identity as saints.

When we compare our own lives with those of our saints, we may feel inadequate of the term “saint.” Our thoughts, words, and actions may not always live up to their example. The good news is that we are not saints because of what we do, or think, or say. We are saints because we choose to follow Christ, to live according to God’s commandments. How we do that, even when we fall short, is a reflection of that choice. In striving to live the gospel life, we are at least making the attempt to do as God asks. As another saint, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, famously prayed, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude). In this fervent prayer, even this saint recognized his imperfection. So these words give me comfort, for I firmly believe that even in our imperfection, our desire to please God does indeed please God. Ideally, not just the desire, but also the accompanying action to at least try to make that a reality.

What really makes us saints is our choice to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. And, of course, we do this through Baptism. The sacrament whereby we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection; in which we are birthed into the family of God; in which we are cleansed and forgiven of our sins; and whereby we receive new life in the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that continually guides us in our quest to live into the fullness of our own sainthood. That’s why we will, in a few moments, renew our Baptismal vows – as a reminder of how and why we became saints in the first place.

Of course, Baptism entails water. As I have pondered the meaning of Baptism, particularly as related to our becoming saints ourselves, and in relation to those who have been and are saints in our own lives, individually and as a community, I am reminded of another image water. It is an image I always incorporate into my farewell sermon when I leave a parish, but one that seems particularly appropriate today as I enter a new community of saints.

Peggy Tabor Millin, in the autobiography of her spiritual journey entitled Mary's Way, casts this image:

I was on a train on a rainy day. The train was slowing down to pull into a station. For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window. Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again—each carrying with it a part of the other. Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before. And as each one went on to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other . . . I realized then that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.

This is an appropriate image for All Saints’ Sunday as we celebrate those who have gone before, those who have touched are lives, those who have left a part of themselves with us. It is also an appropriate image for my first Sunday, as we celebrate our coming together. In coming to this place, I bring something of the other congregations I have served. The experiences I had at those other places will inform how I do ministry in this place. And through me, something of those places will become part of this place. In coming to this place, I bring something of the saints in my own life who have been instrumental in my faith development. Through me, something of those people will become a part of this place. And likewise, in coming together, something of who you and something of your saints will become a part of me, influencing who I will become.

Today we begin our journey together. The saints of God in this place – imperfect though we may be – traveling together, learning from each other, becoming part of each other, helping each other live into the fullness of what it means to be saints of God and the Body of Christ.

I close with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s definition of saints: “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” As sinners who have become saints through Baptism, and with the help of the saints who have gone before us, we will keep on going. Together.

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