Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Readings for Sunday, Nov 6, The Feast of All Saints (transferred): Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31.
Who are the saints? How do we recognize them? What do they mean to us? Or even, if we speak ambitiously, how do we become them? All of these questions are in play at this time of the Christian year, when the church celebrates All Saints (Nov 1 though we’re observing it today) and All Souls on Nov 2, when we remember those who have died in the faith.
So who are the saints? Let’s say there are saints with a capital S, those heroes of the faith, “ extraordinary Christians” in whose lives we see enacted “the divine purpose of justice, mercy, and love” (For All The Saints, ACC 2007, p. 11). We usually associate these Saints with types – biblical apostles, early Christian heroes (particularly martyrs), hermits, bishops, teachers, missionaries, doctors and healers and so forth.
We name churches after these Capital S Saints, and we go on pilgrimages to their shrines (the Camino in Spain, the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, and the nearby Martyrs’ shrine in Midland). Part of the appeal of the pilgrimage is that it takes us to a spot where we believe heaven has come closer to earth thanks to the holy life (and often faithful death) of the saint. And maybe that’s a good working definition of a saint, someone whose life shows us something of the kingdom of God.
But then there are also those we might call “small s saints”, those who have no shrines or churches named for them, but whose lives nevertheless make the kingdom of God more visible. I am sure that if you think of those who had a formative effect on your faith life, or who brought you to Christ, it might be a Sunday school teacher, a relative, a minister, or just someone who showed a particular kindness to you in a moment of need. As our Communion hymn will shortly remind us, “the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will”.
So in answer to how we recognize the saints, both Capital S and small s, we know them as saints because there is something about them as persons that is deeply connected to Jesus. They model some aspect of obedience to God – in works of charity and kindness, in humility and an unusual absence of ego, in forbearance, meaning the way they put up with poverty or disease, or in a commitment to prayer. St. Paul in 2 Corinthians talks about saints being fragrant, giving off a “life giving perfume” (2 Cor 2:16) meaning that they’re just good to be around. They inspire us to try and be better followers of Jesus by the disciple virtues that they show us.
If we wanted to learn more about the “capital S” saints, there are places to learn about them: stained glass windows, books like our Anglican Church’s For All the Saints which gives us another way to mark the passage of time through days dedicated to the saints (as those of you who have been recently following our parish Facebook page know by now). As we get closer to Lent, I’ll be promoting a fun activity called Lent Madness that allows us to learn more about saints (for a sneak peak, see: https://www.lentmadness.org/2022/11/happy-all-brackets-day-3/). But what about the “small s” saints? Where do we find them?
Well, look around. There are “small s” saint sitting right beside you in the pews. That’s right. Say hello to your fellow saint. And if you balk at being in that category, if you think you’re not worthy, then don’t blame me, blame St. Paul. At the start of his letters, Paul greets the people of the churches he is writing to, calling them “hagioi” which is Greek for “holy ones” or “saints”. Thus he begins Romans with greetings “To all God’s beloved in one, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7).
Several points are worth noting about this phrase, “called to be saints”. The first is the word “called”. It is not our idea to be saints, indeed, we should beware of those who want to be thought of as saintly. Rather, it is God who calls us to a way of life that is properly thought of as a vocation. On top of our profession or occupation – doctor, mechanic, parent, teacher – is God’s call for us to be in relationship with God and one another. We can call this relationship the way of the disciple, the way of the Christian, the life of faith, but it is a call to be a saint, a call to a way of life wherein we love God, we love the world God created, and we love one another, the people that Jesus died to save and to make holy. So that’s the first point, that to be a saint is to accept the life and work that God calls us to.
The second point is that our vocation as saints is not an easy one. The difficulty of that vocation is fully apparent in today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus sketches out the qualities of a saint. In this way of life, the poor and hungry have value, and the rich and well-fed are called to notice them and share with them. This way of life calls us to show Christ’s love and forgiveness even in situations when we would rather repay an insult or a wrong with sharp words or worse. For our vocations as “small s” saints to thrive, we have to let go of those injurious things – anger, selfishness, greed and ambition – that make us focus our selves rather than on God and those around us. And because this calling is hard work, we need the help of others, which is why the Christian life is intended to be lived in community.
It’s easy to say that we find God when we are alone in our comfortable spaces, pursuing our favourite activities. Easy, but also self-delusional, I think, because we find our inspiration and our role models in the examples of our fellow saints. We all have different gifts, whether in work, in prayer, in leadership, or in pastoral care, but regular fellowship and community with our fellow disciples gives us the encouragement and the role models that help us pursue our own vocations.
We need to work at being saints together. Rowan Williams has written that the religious life is a discipline, requiring constant practice in the way that a sport or a craft requires repetition to develop our skills. Church as a community encourages us to practice our common vocation together. Church is where the saints come to learn to pray together, to worship together, to help and minister to one another, and, yes, to forgive one another. I saint forgive one another because, to be honest, saints are not always saintly. Church, like any other community, has its oddballs, its difficult types, bossy boots and control freaks, blowhards and bores. We step on toes and we forgive one another. We’re all learning together, learning to be fragrant, learning to be the saints that God has chosen us to be.
To conclude, there’s one more thing that needs to be said about saints, and here we come back to my point at the beginning about how All Saints and All Souls overlap. There are the living saints, and then there are those who, as the hymn says, “from their labours rest”. Just as we learn from the living, so we learn from the stories we tell, not just of the great saints like Francis or Bonhoeffer, but we also learn from the stories of all the “small s” saints who we remember, bishops and Sunday school teachers, caretakers and greeters, kind and faithful people who were the church in their day. Each story has something to teach us, which is why every congregation needs historians and storytellers like Bruce and Mary Lou, who keep these saints’ lives before us.
We use that lovely phrase, “the Communion of the Saints”, to describe the many generations who have passed into the care and keeping of God. The last gift of the saints, and perhaps the greatest gift, is that the saints teach us how to die without fear. The poet Monk Gibbons writes this of death: “Go bravely, for where so much greatness and gentleness have been already, you should be glad to follow”.
It pleases me to think that when we go to stand at the table, in communion with Christ and with one another, we are also standing in communion with all the faithful who have gone before us. To be clear, we are not standing with ghosts, for the saints are very much living, having received what St. Paul calls “the glorious inheritance” of the resurrection. But for a moment, we stand in a place of grace, with Christ the Alpha and Omega and with all the faithful gone before us, all standing in a place where time is no more, where death is no more, and where all of us saints are gathered into the company of the risen Christ.
May God, who has graciously called us to be saints, give us the strength to be true to this calling, together with all the saints, in this life and the next, who are in communion with us. Amen.