Ordinary Saints: A Homily for The Feast of All Saints. Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, Nov 5th.
Readings for All Saints: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
What does it mean to be a saint? Who can be a saint? Today we celebrate our parish’s patronal or namesake festival, The Feast of All Saints, and while its calendar day is always 1 November, we use the readings and prayers for today because we as Anglicans always enjoy a good party.
All Saints, like its companion feast, All Souls, which we celebrated on November 2nd, invites us to remember that we keep good company. Today, as we do every day of our lives, we live and move and have our being amidst those believers across the centuries that we call the saints.
All of us, if we were pressed to define what it means to be a saint, might appeal to different strands of our Anglican tradition. Some of us, comfortable with the Catholic heritage of our faith, might think of the saints spiritual superheroes in life and who now act as special conduits of grace, as friends and advocates who ask God’s mercy and favour on our behalf. Others, schooled in our Church’ Reformed heritage, might simply say that the saints are especially notable Christians whose lives and stories provide us with models on which to fashion our own faith lives.
The problem with both of these ways of thinking is that they tend to elevate the saints to, well, sainthood. It’s difficult for us to relate saints to our daily lives, unless we’re searching for our keys and we invoke the help of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost items!
Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “Tommy”, wrote that “single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints”. Kipling’s poem was written in defence of the rough, common soldiers who defended Britain. However, his phrase “plaster saints” draws on the idea that saints are somehow remote, fragile, even irrelevant figures is unfortunate, as I suspect that most of us could say that we have known a saint in our lives.
I’m sure that each of you could name some particular person who was a role model of faith to you and whose memory you still cherish. As Isaac Villegas notes, saints can simply be those “who’ve made possible our faith”, who have shown us how to be disciples, and to whose faith we are still indebted.
These saints are obscure. They are not mentioned in books and they are not depicted on icons, but they live in our hearts and they accompany us. me there’s one particular person I come back to, someone who was a cherished part of my early teen years.
Father Wilbur was the priest in the small parish that my family attended in rural British Columbia. He happened to follow a rector who was tall, handsome, and eloquent. Fr. Wilbur was none of these things, but he was funny, kind, and generous with his time to the awkward and lonely boy that I was. He let me spend many hours with his unruly family in the rectory, he taught me to be an altar server, and, thrill of thrills, and he allowed a thirteen year old to swing a metal orb full of flaming coals to produce thick clouds of incense. Nothing could have been cooler!
Five years later I returned to that small town and met Fr. Wilbur in the last summer of his life. He was still kind and he remembered me fondly, though he had trouble talking because of a sizeable and inoperable brain tumour. I wish I could have promised him my prayers, but by then, after a year at university, I was foolish and arrogant and already cooling on religion. I regret that I wasn’t more moved by his serenity and by the same, simple holiness that was his great gift as a priest. Alas, I used him as an excuse to walk away from the church, reasoning, as only a callow youth can, that if God could treat Fr. Wilbur so poorly, then God wasn’t really worth knowing.
It took me many years to discover the truth of what the author of Hebrews says, that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Her 12.1). Fr Wilbur’s memory never really left me, and after my life had run aground in disastrous ways, I came to see his simple and generous heart for the gift that it truly was.
I came to realize that God had never abandoned Wilbur. It was I that had abandoned God, and yet I am convinced that Wilbur’s love and even his prayers from his place in the heavenly host pulled me through some dark places and times. And since, in the twenty years I’ve been ordained, I’ve always tried to be as good a priest as Fr. Wilbur.
For me this example pulls together several strands in our thinking about sainthood. A saint can be a role model and also be a conduit of grace, and perhaps the best saints of all are the ordinary ones. Not all saints need be martyrs, nor do they have to embrace some austere and impoverished vocation. We need these ordinary saints, for most of us are called to ordinary things; not all of us, to quote a beloved hymn, are called “to kiss the leper clean”.
For those of us called to live ordinary lives, and to serve in ordinary ways, we need ordinary s4aints. A simple priest in a small town, a greeter, a lay visitor, a hospice volunteer, a cancer patient who still takes part in the parish prayer group, these are all examples of saints who touch the lives of others and push them with graceful hands into the paths of righteousness. We need ordinary saints to remind us that we too can be ordinary saints, for really, what is a saint but someone who has heard and answered Jesus question to each of us, will you follow me?
Rowan Williams has written that there are two people named in the Apostles’ Creed, Mary and Pilate. Mary says yes to God, while Pilate says no. As Isaac Villegas writes, most days “we wobble from one figure to another”, but if on our best days we can say yes to God with Mary, follow Mary’s example and say yes to God and because we do so, it is because we have been given the gift of sainthood.
Sainthood is simply the grace that allows us to say yes to God and follow Christ. Thus Saint Paul in the openings of his letters, always greets the hagioi, the holy ones or saints of the churches he addresses. Paul is writing to ordinary Jesus followers, ordinary saints doing ordinary saint things, and sometimes falling short, but still saints because God in Christ has made them his holy people.
Ordinary saints doing ordinary saint things. Recently we held an event called a Ministry Fair, where we showcased the various volunteer positions and jobs that make our parish so lively. What are the qualifications for these positions? Well, you have to be a saint, which simply means all ministries, arises out of our response to God’s call, the yes we have given to Jesus as his followers. Together, your ministries will be local, specific, ordinary, and yet terribly important to those whom they serve.
So, are saints special avenues or sources of grace that bring us closer to God? I would say yes. Are saints also role models for our own discipleship? Again, I would say, yes. So. tonight we rejoice in the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, some great, and some known only to a few, who have shaped our lives and shown us God’s grace, love, and wisdom. We give thanks for their life and witness, we entrust them to God’s love and care, and and we open ourselves to their influence in our lives.