All Saints Year C /Luke 6:20-31
Note: at the 10:00 service, our intern gave the children's message. He showed them (mostly 3 year olds) a picture of a famous saint, and then asked them if they thought they were saints. One child shouted out "No kids are saints!" which brought a big laugh.
"Our Lives With the Saints"
There’s a book I’ve been looking at over at the bookstore for quite some time, which I finally broke down and bought. It has an unusual title. My Life with the Saints, it’s called, and it’s by a man names James Martin, a Jesuit priest. It’s sort of a spiritual autobiography, where he connects his own life with some of the well-known saints in the Catholic tradition: people like Joan of Arc, for example, or Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi. One unusual thing about Father Martin: he started out in the corporate world, working for General Electric, before he decided to enter the priesthood. You have to like someone good-natured enough also to have written a book called In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience – even if you don’t share all of his understanding of who is a "saint". In the very beginning of the book, he tells about the very first saint he ever got to know: St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. He writes that he, like many children of his era, loved to send away for things. Mostly he sent away for things he saw on the backs of cereal boxes. But he remembered sending away for this plastic statue once, of St. Jude. Its appeal was not anything personal about the saint, but simply that he was the patron saint of lost causes. That appealed to him, having someone who would be on hand to help with his lost, his hopeless causes.
As a child, that’s how Father Martin thought about saints: someone to pray to, someone who could perhaps help him out in a difficult time. As he grew, he began to see and appreciate saints more as examples of holy living, with lives different and fascinating to him. When he writes about "his life with the saints" he is writing about people (for the most part) who have long been dead, but whose lives have been an inspiration to him, in one way or another. But what about us? One of the reasons his book attracted me is that I think each of us could write a book as well: "My life with the saints," – however, instead of writing about St. Francis or Nicholas or St. Teresa, we would write perhaps about our mother or our grandfather or a Sunday School teacher or an aunt. We might write about someone we sat next to in worship, or someone we knew from a Bible study, or someone who served funeral lunches with us. We might write about someone who visited us in the hospital, or someone we visited. The truth is, each of us could write a book "My life with the saints", because, whether we know it or not, we know a lot of saints.
What is a saint, anyway? That’s not a bad question to ask on this, all saints Sunday. What is a saint? Who are your saints? Some people think of a "saint" as an especially holy person, someone who, while not quite living a perfect life, lived a much better life than you or I.
Mother Teresa is in the process of being canonized right now. Many people thought of her as being a "living saint" because of the work she did among the poor in Calcutta. She served Christ in the poor, hungry and homeless – she became poor herself in order to serve the poor. So many have been awed by the work she did, and have said to themselves, "I could never do that" – so because of that, they assume she is a saint. Also, we assume that a "saint" is someone who is especially close to God, has a special relationship, a special closeness to God. We perhaps assume that a "saint" feels God’s presence in their lives in a way that we might not, has a certainty about faith that not all of us have. So perhaps it has come as a bit of a shock to lately learn that Mother Teresa struggled with deep doubts and felt the absence of God from her life, for much of the time she was doing her ministry. I’m relieved to discover that these doubts and struggles, no matter how deep, will not prevent her from becoming an "official" saint. And perhaps it’s a relief to know that a saint can be both a person of deep faith, but also a person of deep doubts and struggles.
What is a saint? Who are the saints, who have been the saints in your life? It’s tempting to look at our gospel reading today from Luke, his words to the people gathered on the plain, and to think of them (because of the day) as criteria for saints. Blessed are you poor, Jesus says, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.. Blessed are you who are hungry, and blessed are you who weep. And blessed are you who have been kicked around by life, who’ve been excluded, talked down to, pushed aside, laughed at for believing. Blessed are you, Jesus says. And then his harsh words to others, Woe to you who are rich, and full and laughing. Woe to you who are well-regarded by others, admired and sought after. Is that it? Should we look around for poor and hungry people, and call them saints? Should we strive to be poorer ourselves? But not all the poor are saints, and not all the rich are wicked, someone said recently. And it’s true.
Let’s look at these words of Jesus from another angle. Let’s imagine that we are out there on the plain as Jesus is speaking to the people. Who is it that is gathering to hear his words? And why do you supposed they are drawn to him? Blessed are you poor, Jesus says to the people. He’s talking TO people, he’s talking people who are poor. The people who gather to hear Jesus are people who don’t have anywhere else to go. They are people who have nothing, not even hope. They are desperate. They are clinging to Jesus’ words as a man would cling to a life raft in a storm. He’s all they’ve got. He’s all they’ve got. That’s why they gather to hear him. He’s their life raft, their anchor, their rock. Their whole lives are a lost cause. And what he’s telling them is: "You have something. You have me and my words to you. You have my life, and my promise to you." And they trusted his words. And Jesus’ harsh words of "woe" – well, don’t they, for the most part, describe reality? Especially the second and third one, where Jesus says "Woe to you who laugh, for you will weep and mourn?" Won’t all of us experience both times of celebration and times of weeping? Jesus is describing reality. The problem is when we look around in times of celebration and think, "This is IT. I’ve arrived."
The problem is when we look at our bank balance, or our retirement and think, "Now I don’t have to worry about anything any more." The problem is trust. Where do you put your trust?
What is a saint? It’s true, that we can describe a saint as an especially holy person. But please do not read "holy" as perfect. To be "holy" really means to be set aside for a particular purpose. God’s name is holy because it is set apart to be used for prayer, praise and thanksgiving.
The people of God are described as "holy" because they have been set apart for a particular purpose: to serve our neighbor and to worship God. The book of Ephesians describes it this way: Our purpose is "To live for the praise of God’s glory." Each of us is called to "holy living", to praise God’s glory, and each of us does it in different ways.
But, at bottom, a saint is simply someone who trusts God. A saint is someone who gathers to hear the words of Jesus, knowing, for some reason, that they don’t have anywhere else to go.
A saint is someone who clings to Jesus’ promises, like a man clinging to a life raft in a storm.
A saint trusts that Jesus has claimed her life, has called him "blessed", even when it looks for all the world like it is just the opposite. Saints are simply those who have been called "beloved" by Jesus, and who live trusting that name, and not any other.
What is a saint? Who are the saints in your life? In a little while, we will read the names of some of the saints among us, those who have died during the past year. And with every name read, there is a story. Some of the stories are well-known to many, and some known only to a few. There are stories of faith and doubt, struggle and peace. There’s the story of the woman who was hospitalized often over many years, and who prayed for and developed relationships with the nurses and doctors and hospital workers where-ever she stayed. She had a chronic illness, but she did not let her illness define who she was. Instead, she trusted God’s word to her: that she was a beloved child of God, a saint, with a calling and a purpose. And there are the words of another of our saints, who said of herself: "The reality of my life is that I am disabled. But the essential ‘me’ is much more than that. I want people to know me. I have interests and abilities that have nothing to do with my disability." And of course, there is the life of Mother Teresa, who although she struggled with doubt and felt the absence of God from her life, did not stop doing what God had called her to do and did not stop being what God had called her to be: a saint.
We have lived our lives surrounded by saints – and they have taught us how to trust Jesus with our lives, and in our lives. They have taught us by their faith and by their honest doubts, by their suffering, and by their joy, by living lives that bless others, even in times of adversity.
They haven’t taught us by being perfect, but by trusting that they are God’s children and God’s chosen ones. So, you see it's not true: "no kids are saints" -- is it?
On this all saints Sunday, we give thanks for those who have gone before us in faith. During this life they lived ordinary lives. Perhaps we wouldn’t call them saints. But now, in God’s presence they are revealed as the children of God they are.
And on this all saints Sunday, we claim God’s promise for ourselves too: that we are saints, that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are called beloved children of God, blessed and sent out. Even though we might look for all the world like ordinary people, even though our lives might be "lost causes", even though we struggle and have doubts... God calls us ‘saints.’ Holy and beloved, doing acts mighty and small, and in all things, clinging to Jesus, the hope of lost causes.