November 2, 2014 – All Saints’ Sunday, Year A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The first Spanish word I ever learned was “santo.” It means “holy,” and fittingly I learned it in church. In the Methodist church where I grew up, we sang them hymn “Holy, holy, holy” fairly often, and there, on the adjacent page of the hymnal, was the Spanish translation: “Santo, santo, santo.” At the time, it did not occur to me that “santo” sounds a lot like “saint,” but, years later, when I went to seminary and started studying Greek, I made the connection.
Just like in Spanish, the Greek word for “saint” is essentially the same word for “holy.” That’s all a saint is, really—a holy person. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters to various churches, he almost always began by calling the recipients “saints” or “holy ones.” But he wasn’t limiting the audience of his letters to Christians of legendary status. He was writing to “ordinary” Christians like you and me. We are the “saints” he had in mind. But how many of us think of ourselves in that way? At some point in between Paul addressing his letters and the institutional church defining the qualifications for sainthood, we forgot what it means to be a saint. And today, on All Saints’ Sunday, when we celebrate the lives of all the saints, I want us to stop for a moment and remember that “there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be [saints] too.”
But what does it take to be a saint? What does it mean to be holy in the way Paul used that word to describe those first Christians?
Jesus, it seems, had his own idea of what a holy and blessed life looked like. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…” The Beatitudes are among the most well-known counter-intuitive statements that Jesus ever made. In these provocative words, Jesus lets us know that those who forego blessings in this life—the powerless, the suffering, the persecuted—are the ones whom God will bless in the next life—theirs is the kingdom; they will be comforted; they will inherit the earth. The challenges of this life, it seems, are what lead to the blessings of the next. But I’m not so sure it works like that.
The saints we think of are often people who were poor or persecuted or marginalized. We celebrate their austerity, and emulate their faithfulness. But I don’t think you have to suffer in order to be a saint. Like being a poet or an artist or musician, it probably helps. But I don’t think God wants you to be poor and miserable. (I don’t think he wants you to be rich and happy, either, but that’s another sermon.) I think God wants us to value his kingdom above all else. I think he wants us to remember that this life always pales in comparison with the life that awaits us. And I think he wants us to keep our sight focused on what lies ahead rather than getting lost in whatever is going on around us.
That’s what it means to be a saint—to embrace one’s heavenly identity while still living in this world. Have you ever met someone who seemed out of place in this life—someone whose whole demeanor suggested that he or she had one foot here on earth but another one already in heaven? I have known a few people like that in my life, and I bet you have known one or two as well. They are rare sorts—those who navigate this life while always remembering where their true home is.
One of those saints from my past was Francis Wilson, an old, retired minister who occasionally filled in at my family’s church in Fairhope. He was a sweet, sage of a man. I was too young to appreciate fully the depth of his holiness, but I remember how our youth minister described him as the epitome of prayerfulness. “When I think of what it means to pray,” she said, “I think of Francis Wilson, and I hope that someday I am able to pray like he does.” I remember how, more than once, my mother said that, if she died while he was still alive, she wanted him to officiate at her funeral. He was the sort of man who communicated faith and peace without saying a word. Even sitting silently in the same room with him for a few minutes could give you a taste of God’s kingdom. Saints don’t have to do something courageous or extravagant. Sometimes saints are wise old men like Francis, whose gentleness points us toward God.
Who are the saints from your life? They are all around us. They’re the sweet old lady who has buried two children and a husband and still talks about how blessed she is. They’re the kid down the street who sticks up for the boy everybody picks on even though he knows they’ll start teasing him, too. They’re the man in the hospital bed who says that he’ll be just fine and means it even though he knows he won’t live more than a few more days. You know them. They’re the people who endure whatever life brings them and somehow do it with grace and faith and humility because they know that God’s promises are bigger than any problems they might face. And their refusal to let life get in the way of their one-way track into God’s kingdom is a reminder to us of what our own faith is supposed to look like.