Sermon, 10/31/21: The Best Place to spot a Saint!

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All Saints Sunday, 23 Pentecost

Psalm 24; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1–9; Revelations 21:1–6a; John 11:32–44

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’  Revelation 21:3

Everyone knows—even fourth and fifth graders—who saints are and where they can best be seen.  In paintings in museums or depicted in reredos in churches!  A reredos can be seen behind altars in churches, sometimes carved with (but also sometime painted) figures from the Bible or of figures from church history.  The church of my childhood had a reredos, as does St. Thomas Church – Fifth Avenue, NYC, as does Church of the Advent – Boston, as do thousands of other churches and cathedrals throughout the world where Christianity has established itself.  But tradition and art history courses teach us that, should you really want to see a saint up close, a figure with a halo above his/her head, you might best visit a museum where you can view larger than life depictions.

As a medievalist by training, I often found myself wandering the halls of museums in New York City, in Paris, in Innsbruck, Austria, in Munich, Germany; or I could be found in historic churches and cathedrals, e.g., Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in London, or in remote small country parishes, e.g., St. Agnes Cloister just outside the city of Quedlingburg in former East Germany.  When family was not along, I was often accompanied by a friend or colleague who could scarcely contain his/her excitement as he/she introduced me to the saint in the painting or in a reredos or a triptych.  A triptych (tri-ptych) would be a smaller trifold, usually behind the altar of smaller parishes.  There one could see saints galore.

In addition to observing the canonical saints, those individuals declared saints prior to the Reformation, we in the Anglican branch of Christianity observe as well feast day of lesser saints, those women and men who have lived exemplary lives and who have contributed to the building of God’s kingdom on earth.  Of the more recent saints, you will not find paintings of them in museums with halos about their heads.  In fact, I would wager that you would not find paintings or statuary of them in our museums.  And I would suggest further, that is as it should be. 

Today, one day prior to the day that our liturgy sets aside to honor those men and women, we pause in order to recall those who have preceded us in life but who, canonized or not, have led exemplary lives in the service of their fellow human being.  And as always, I come with questions.  How do we define the word “saint” and can an individual be designated a saint who is not of the same faith tradition as are we?  And did any of these individuals live lives that would guarantee that, if we were to meet them, they would stand out because of the halo that saints sport in museum paintings?  Is there biblical support for designating some and not others as saints? 

References to “saints” can be found in the Psalms, in the Books of Samuel, in the Chronicles of the Kings, in Proverbs, the Acts of the Apostles.  It is, however, the Apostle Paul who recognizes what has always been true regarding saints and sainthood.  I direct your attention to only one of the many times that Paul uses explicitly the word “saint,” and it can be found in the introduction to his letter to the Church at Ephesus: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Ephesians 1:1 – 2)  Paul was not writing to those figures with halos in museums.  For him, saints were those faithful who confessed and led lives as determined by the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.  Paul, so am I most certain, did not travel to museums to see or meet saints.  What becomes immediately clear, whether one looks at the usage of the word in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, is that saints were not carved stone statues or painted images on canvases.  Rather, saints lived real lives among real people.

Over the entrance to the main campus library of the college where I once worked, stand these words: “Remember the past; imagine the future.”  This is actually a rather liberal transliterations of the Old Testament “remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations,” taken from Deuteronomy (32.7)  That admonition continues “ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.”  Although not a reading from this book of the Hebrew Bible assigned for All Saints Day, this brief excerpt from Deuteronomy has direct bearings on our understanding of the Feast of All Saints, just as strolling through the streets of our own cities and discovering statuary and other memorials add to our understanding of who we are and to the significance of this holy day of obligation.

So, Good People, we raise further questions: What does that have to do with you and me?  Where do we begin to differentiate among, to draw the line between those special holy people and the biblical usage?  And can the term “saint” be applied to those who have not been canonized by the church?  Do we short-change ourselves and those among whom we live?  Can saints be ordinary folks?  These questions for me are not theoretical ones for debate teams.  Rather, these are genuine concerns, and that is why I find the adage in Deuteronomy most useful, for it provides common ground for our understanding of saints. 

On All Saints Day, we remember our own, we pause to remind one another that you and I, even as we live, are connected to a long line of faithful departed. It is too easy to ignore how vital and important to us they are still today, those prior generations and those whom we love, but see no longer.  We are shaped and formed for good as their imitators in ways we are only dimly aware of, in ways that we lose track in our daily lives.   

When we think deeply about the biblical usage of the word “saint,” we recognize the following.  We are not the self-made women and men, whom the American dream trumpets and glorifies.  In fact, the myth of the self-made man is just that, a tale that is told and is, to use an old-fashion term, heresy, so far as our faith is concerned.  Rather, we are the product of communities, large and small, products of individuals who have taken the time and effort to steep us in the practices and traditions that make up our culture, which includes our religious practices and beliefs.  These individuals were instrumental in teaching us to acknowledge the presence of God in our lives.

I am talking about family, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, fellow employees, scientists, healthcare providers.  Were it not for such as these, we would not have the joy and the assurance that we carry with us in moments of distress.  Were it not for such as these, I shudder to imagine what might be our daily condition.  When I hear the hymn “For all the Saints,” I get a heightened sense of connectedness to dear and beloved ones whom the world claims are dead and gone forever.  I think of those now as part of the church triumphant who were, in years past, willing to go to such great lengths to see that I should succeed in my endeavors.  That triumphal hymn leaves open the possibility of living even today among saints.

Indeed, think of days of yore.  But dare to imagine contemporary saints.  Perhaps the kindness of saints who helped you move into your first home, or second home, and get settled when you felt vulnerable and at a complete loss?  Saints who have invited you into their homes for dinner as though you were family, because they wanted you to be part of their lives?  Perhaps a classmate, new to campus like yourself, who made you feel at ease, and by whom you found yourself being received as a friend?  Perhaps a friend or colleague who, while working a hotline, has prevented a gay male or female teenager from committing suicide?

As we remember today these saints, we discover and reclaim our own sainthood, and come to give thanks to the God who has set before us the example of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life was and is the prime example of leading a saintly life.  As people of faith, we are nothing, if we are not thankful for the life and example of such as those who used God’s Messiah as their star toward daily sainthood, those who, even with and in their flaws and faults, have a luster that outshines any painted-on halo found in museums. 

We would do well to heed the instruction of the writer of Deuteronomy who has written: “remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations, ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.”  So today, remember the saints of God’s choosing, the saints whom God has empowered to make a difference that extends far beyond their time on earth.  We remember them.  They are not as far off and different from us as they seem.  Their witness to the love of God for the Creation empowers us in living into our own sainthood.  These are my kind of saints.  AMEN

I sing a song of the saints of God