Date: Nov. 6, 2022 All Saints Sunday
Scripture Lessons: Luke 6:20-31 & Matthew 11:28-30
Sermon:What Makes a Saint?
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
What is a saint? It’s All Saints Sunday and shortly we are going to name those we consider saints. So, what makes a saint?
I have been in Spain going in and out of countless churches and they are were filled with saints. Statues and paintings and carvings and stained glass windows portraying all kinds of representations of saints. We were also in museums that displayed one work of art after another depicting saints.
We saw many renditions of one particular saint, San Roque, always portrayed with a dog and a loaf of bread. I finally caved in and had to find out about the dog and the bread. At one point, we asked someone about San Roque but she was from England and was a bit vague about the whole thing. Turns out he was from France but died in Italy. He lived in the 14th century. He was a Franciscan. Evidently, during a time of plague, he worked helping the sick and infirm. He ended up getting sick himself. He went off into the woods to live in a hut made from branches. Apparently, a hunting dog found him and brought him bread and licked his wounds which helped him to get better and that explains why he is depicted with a dog and a loaf of bread. [Maybe the dog should be named a saint?]
When it comes to saints, the Catholic Church has a very careful definition of a saint. There is a burdensome process for the naming of a saint. It can take decades or even centuries for a person to be designated as a saint.
But we are Protestant. We did not continue the saint tradition of the Catholic church. But we still talk about saints. I grew up singing the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” which we will sing a bit later in the service. It was one of my favorite hymns as a child. Who was a saint? A doctor, a queen, a shepherdess in the old version, a prophet, a priest, someone slain by a fierce wild beast. Where do you find saints? You can meet them in school, on the road, or at sea, in a church, in a train, in a shop, or at tea. Hm. So saints can be anyone, anywhere. That is the message I got. But faced with the many saints in Spain, I pondered, what makes a saint a saint?
Everyone in life faces adverse circumstances, heartache, tragedy, grief, sickness, and loss. And everyone faces the challenges, injustices, and pain of the world around them. These things characterize the lives of all people, of every time and place. So I don’t think it is the circumstances that make a saint. I think what makes a saint is the response to the circumstances. To the human condition.
We heard those beautiful words from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain today:
“To you who hear me, I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat, let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back.
“Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Jesus doesn’t say, that we know of, do these things when it is convenient. When it suits you. When you are in the mood. When there is no risk or cost to you. When there is no threat. When it is popular. When you have plenty. No, Jesus is outlining an approach to life that is rooted in love and generosity – self-giving – no matter the times, the circumstances, the conditions, the cost. And I think a saint is someone who lives that way, from those other-centered values of love, regardless of the situation or setting.
When we think of ‘love your enemies,’ well, if you think of Putin as an enemy, there is little risk or cost to loving Putin. Maybe that means praying for him and not badmouthing him. Maybe it involves expressing pity for the man. Pretty low risk. But what about when ‘love your enemies’ means the white supremacist who lives next door? And makes racist slurs against your brown children or grandchildren? And the kids down the block? Or the spouse who is leaving you for another partner? That’s a completely different kind of challenge. And we know the ravages of those challenges in our deeply hurting world right now.
So I think that being a saint has something to do with living out the teachings of Jesus regardless of the circumstances. Or choosing the way of Jesus because of the challenging circumstances.
Maybe when we name our saints this morning, someone will mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He certainly made a witness to Divine Love in his life. He truly endeavored to live the way of Jesus and to bring the love of Jesus to bear on the movement for civil rights for all people in this country. Earlier this year, I read several books about King. Apparently, with degrees from Cozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and a doctorate in theology from Boston University, King accepted the call to serve Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. There had been some problems at the church. He was focussed on bringing the congregation together, strengthening the congregation, improving the financial status of the church, and other internal issues. He was, as he should be, serious about taking responsibility for the health of the congregation and the church as an institution. When the bus boycott was developing, he was paying attention out of the corner of his eye but his focus was on his church. Other pastors in Montgomery saw King’s potential as a leader in the emerging movement and they wanted him not only involved but helping to lead the effort. So they scheduled some of the first strategy meetings at his church. So he would have to be there. And get involved. And it went on from there. King was definitely not seeking out a prominent role in the nascent bus boycott let alone a full blown national civil rights movement. He was concentrating himself on the ministry and leading the church in the way of Jesus. But the way of Jesus led him directly into the civil rights movement.
Another person I think of as a saint, and she has even been named a saint by the Catholic church, is Mother Teresa. Now Mother Teresa of Calcutta was not from India. She was not of Indian ethnic heritage. She was from what is now North Macedonia. Her ethnic background was Albanian. Now she could have stayed in Skopje and taught school which is what she first did as a nun. But instead she went to where there were the poorest of the poor and devoted herself to serving those abandoned and forgotten as they lay dying. She later founded the Sisters of Charity and they started programs to serve the poor in countries the world over including the United States. There are questionable aspects to the work of the Sisters of Charity, but basically they try to help those who are poor and forgotten to feel loved and cared for.
In the face of life’s challenges and the problems of the world, we can gripe. We can put our heads in the sand and ignore the realities around us. We can numb ourselves with drugs, alcohol, and money. We can become hardened and apathetic. We can choose anger and fear as our response.
When we are faced with life’s challenges and the troubles of society we have many choices about how we will respond. I think a saint is someone who chooses to respond in the way of Jesus. I think saints are people who see the struggles of life, and the pain, and they choose to respond in love. Embrace the pain, the suffering. Be in solidarity. Offer consolation. Trust in the power of love for reconciliation and healing and transformation.
Being a saint is not about being perfect. Never making a mistake. Or about doing something specifically heroic. It’s not about gaining fame or fortune. It’s not even about being devout. I think it’s about living, making choices, based on love. Letting the image of Divine Love that is within you come out.
Now, when we were on the Camino, we carried backpacks. We were careful to bring only the essentials to keep the weight of the pack down. To be honest, I carried my pack for the first week or so, and then my knee started to complain so I used the bag carrying service provided by the post office in Spain and I did not carry my pack much after that.
But the way the pack is designed is really amazing. You put 20 or 25 pounds of gear in it and it really doesn’t feel like much. You strap it on and forget about it and off you go, up and down the steep hills of Spain, through the mud, across the fields, mile after a mile, with little thought about the load on your back.
Now, if you had that same gear in, say, a draw string bag, slung over your shoulder, boy, you would know you were carrying it. It would be unwieldy and inconvenient. The rope would be cutting into your shoulder and the load would be swinging around getting in the way and making you lose your balance – something you don’t want happen especially somewhere like on a narrow bridge without a railing or on the narrow shoulder of a busy road. That kind of bag with that weight would not only be a burden but a hazard. But the backpack, with the padded straps and waist belt and ventilation for the back, it makes carrying that load a breeze. [Show back pack and filled draw string bag.]
Now we all face trying times in life. We all go through struggles and trials. We all have our burdens to bear. And the world around us confronts us with pain and misery and suffering. So how are we going to deal with the conditions we face? I think of the way of Jesus like the backpack. The way of love helps us to carry the load. It brings us into relationship with others who share the weight of trying times. The way of Jesus, the way of love, helps to get us through and get us through with relief, joy and celebration.
We heard those familiar lines from Matthew,
“Come to me,
all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon your shoulders
and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble of heart.
Here you will find rest for your souls,
for my yoke is easy
and my burden is light.”
Jesus didn’t call us to the way of love to make our lives harder but to make the burdens of life easier to bear. He didn’t teach unconditional love to weigh us down but to lift us up. He didn’t show us the way of sacrificial love to make us miserable but to help us find joy in life.
All Saints Day is a time to celebrate all those who show us the truth of the gospel and who inspire us to live fully and freely the way of love – no matter the circumstances of our lives and the nature of our historical times. These saints show us the goodness and blessing of the way of Jesus. They teach us how to manage our load with grace and joy.
Jeff and I followed the yellow arrows and the scallop shells mile after mile after mile in Spain. Today we celebrate that we are blessed with all the saints who have gone before us and those who are among us showing us the way. Leading us on. Inviting us to community and joy whatever the circumstances of our lives. As Dr. King put it, “Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist.”
Let us celebrate the saints that bless our lives and show us the way. Amen!