A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish
of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 2, 2014 (All Saints’ Sunday)
“That Helen is such a saint.” Now it’s not that Helen is necessarily an extraordinary Christian — I don’t even know if she goes to church. Or a dedicated follower of Jesus — she may or may not know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. But she did do all the dishes after that hearty Thanksgiving feast last year while everyone else was lying comatose on the sofa watching football. And if that’s not a saintly act, I’m not sure what is.
But is Helen really a “saint?” She’s selfless, perhaps. Always willing to lend a hand when a task needs doing. Of course, maybe she’d just rather wash dishes than interact with her extended and somewhat dysfunctional family. It’s hard to say. But when we reduce sainthood to simply being nice or cheerful or helpful we miss the whole point of what we’re celebrating today.
Because this morning on All Saints’ Sunday we hold up examples of those men and women who have followed Jesus Christ in ways heroic and simple, prophetic and contemplative, dramatic and prayerful. We commemorate those we read about in Scripture or see in the stained glass windows that surround us every week. Remarkable people from every generation who offer inspiration and encouragement at those precise moments we need them most.
So, if it’s not about doing the dishes — although it’s true that somebody had to clean up after the Last Supper — what makes someone a saint? Well, it’s not about meeting certain legal criteria or checking off a proscribed number of boxes. Nobody runs for saint or submits an application for saint or lists “becoming a saint” as the objective at the top of their resume. Working toward sainthood is not a career path.
Yet there are certain saintly qualities that seem universal, which is why it’s no accident that we read the Beatitudes this morning. Jesus offers some insights into the qualities God desires in all of us — being pure in heart and merciful, striving to be peacemakers and hungering for righteousness. And he names as particularly blessed by God the marginalized and persecuted and reviled. In other words, not the people society generally holds up as worthy of praise — not the wealthy and comfortable and well-fed.
Nor does Jesus, I think it’s important to highlight, say ‘blessed are the perfect.’ Because God doesn’t seek perfection in his saints — which is good because, frankly, if that were the case we wouldn’t have anyone to celebrate today. I think that perhaps the greatest popular misconception of the saints is that they were perfect — meek and mild, loathe to offend, goody two shoes, head down, praying without ceasing. As someone who spends a fair amount of time with saints, let me tell you — that’s nonsense. Saints were utterly human; people who were sinners, who had vices, who didn’t always do the right thing. No, they’re were not perfect, but they were faithful. That’s the point.
And that’s all God asks of us. God desires that we do the best we can, that we strive to be faithful in all things, that we seek to find Christ in one another. And even if an unattainable “saintly perfection” isn’t the ultimate goal, Jesus does invite us to embody the kingdom values of the Beatitudes. He doesn’t command us to do so — there are no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” embedded in the Sermon on the Mount. And he knows we won’t always get it right, but he encourages us to try.
The thing is, saintly qualities flow from the heart, they can’t be bought on eBay or acquired of our own doing; they are the outward and visible signs of our inner relationship with Jesus Christ; they manifest themselves in our interactions with those we encounter in everyday life.
I have certainly met people over the years who have exhibited saintly qualities — as I’m sure you have. Yesterday at Trinity Church in Copley Square I attended the funeral for Bishop Tom Shaw who, as many of you know, served as bishop of this diocese for 20 years, announced his retirement, and died of brain cancer a month after leaving office. Here was an unusual man in that he was both a monk and a bishop. Someone with a deep interior life of prayer who also had a very public role in the church. But no matter what was swirling around him, he always exuded a prayerful centeredness. His faith defined him. And it was this spiritual core that set Bishop Shaw apart in my mind. And it’s why I will continue to be inspired by him in the years to come.
And that’s one of the reasons we honor certain individuals in the first place — to be inspired along our own earthly pilgrimages. We all need examples of people who have remained faithful during difficult times. None of the saints we honor walked this journey of life and faith alone — they had people they looked to for inspiration; people who modeled what it means to glorify Christ in their own day.
And if we inspire others in the process of living out our lives, even in small ways, even just now and then, we join our souls to the great saints who have come before us in the faith. The great cloud of witnesses that unites us to all of those in every generation who have worshipped God in heart and mind and soul. That’s such a great phrase isn’t it? “Cloud of witnesses.”
The term comes from Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” And isn’t that an encouraging image? There are literally hordes of saints rooting for us, praying for us, watching over us at each moment of our lives.
In other words, we are not in this alone. Which is why baptisms are such an appropriate thing to do on All Saints’ Sunday. A central tenet of our baptismal vows is proclaiming “I will, with God’s help.” The life of faith doesn’t happen in isolation or by ourselves but only with God’s help and the help of the entire Christian community in the broadest possible sense of the word.
In a few moments, as the kids walk in from Church School we’ll belt out the classic “I sing a song of the saints of God.” And not just because it contains my favorite verse in the hymnal: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I’ve been a soldier, I am a priest, but I do hope to avoid option number three. No, we’ll sing it because of the line “And I mean to be one too.” Not because we’re hoping to end up in stained glass but so that we too can inspire and be inspired and one day take our place among that great cloud of saintly witnesses into which we have all been baptized and into which we, like Bishop Shaw and all the faithful departed from every generation before us, will one day be welcomed.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck