All Saints Sunday.
Believe it or not, we are called to be saints. As strange or unlikely as that sounds to our ear, it’s true. We are called to be saints.
What do you imagine when you hear that word? To me, it has always seemed to be a fairly loaded term. It conjures up visions of apostles, martyrs, monks, nuns, and other self-denying and spiritually over-achieving people of history who often lived impoverished lives and died untimely and very messy deaths. Indeed, the landscape of Church history is peppered with these larger-than-life people: St. Francis, St. Columba, St. Clare, St. George, St. Teresa, St. James to name only a very few – people whose zeal and courage in the faith was an inspiration to many, and whom the Church has identified as people worthy of remembrance, and worthy of imitation. These are people whose faith, vision, and integrity have set a pretty high standard for us who choose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We are called to love God that much, though – we too are called to be saints.
But it always feels to me that a little perspective is needed here, a little injection of reality. It’s often said that the difference between a petty criminal behind bars and the average citizen, is that the one behind bars is the one who got caught. Bearing this in mind, I want to suggest that the saints that we hear about, read about, and make stained glass windows to commemorate are the ones who, so to speak, “got caught”. They were the ones who for some reason were in the spotlight of society’s gaze; they were the ones who had a high public profile – perhaps an advisor to a king, or a wise mystic to whom people came for spiritual counsel, or a person of compassion whose life was devoted to comforting the dying. These people were often visible, known, admired, and acknowledged – in their life, as well as in their death. Every age and every time seems to generate these exceptional, Spirit-filled larger-than-life holy people.
If these are the people who “got caught” while in the spotlight of human endeavour, then it’s a safe bet that there are likely thousands (well, probably millions) of others who were not caught, or who have not yet been caught. The author of the letter to the Ephesians talks fairly candidly about these saints – and they indeed do seem to be high in number – “…to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus….” he writes; and Paul, in other letters to the young churches addresses them, “…to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints, grace to you and peace…..” and again, “….to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Clearly, Paul didn’t have a hang-up about saintliness. For him, it was simply the logical conclusion of believing in Christ Jesus and living faithfully according to his teaching and example. The Church, the body of Christ on earth, could be filled with nothing less than a holy people.
That being the case, saints are all around us – not just in the cloud of witnesses who have gone before (and who we acknowledge with thanksgiving today), but they are all around us physically in the here and now. But if ascribing saintliness to the person in the pew next to you is a bit of a stretch for today, we don’t have to look too far to know that there have been holy people in our own lives – people whose light of faith has illuminated our own path. They are the people who have made a difference in our experience of faith: perhaps by supporting us when our faith has failed, or praying for us when we couldn’t find the words, or simply being gentle and forgiving when the occasion demanded. In all likelihood these are all people that you wouldn’t give a second glance to on the street, just normal people…..and yet… not normal people – saintly people – and not because of some elusive state of moral perfection, but simply because of their faith. To these holy people faith was and is something of value, something to be lived, something to be shared. We all have personal saints, known and unknown, who have travelled with us on the road of faith, and I invite you to join me in giving thanks to God today for their witness.
So amid all of today’s awareness of saints’ lives offered and often sacrificed, let our real and lasting knowledge be that true saintliness is found most often and most remarkably in ordinary lives lived in all their human frailty and vulnerability, for this is the place where God is present and at work. Reflecting the light of God is, after all, the destiny for which all of us were made, and with humility today we count those who have gone before us, those who are yet to come, and yes, even ourselves among the blessed communion of saints. For this we give thanks and together say, Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams