Monday, 4 November 2013

The Saints

Hear the sermon here

Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. It is a day we set aside to remember all the saints, known and unknown to the church. The word “Saint” is related to the word “Sanctus” and it basically means “holy one”. Something that is “holy” has dedicated for God’s purposes and is used by God in this world.
The saints are those who have been “hallowed”, which means “made holy”. “Halloween” comes from the phrase “All Hallows Eve” which is the night before “All Hallows Day”- the day we call “All Saints”.
There are a couple ways to think about the saints. In one way the saints are those who have shown amazing holiness. They have done good and amazing things. They have shown an incredible character and courage in the face of impossible odds. Their lives have also shown the presence of God’s Spirit in a variety of ways.

            We find some of these saints in the Bible. The Apostles and Jesus’ mother, Mary, are remembered as saints. Mary said “yes” to God even when it looked like it would make her life very difficult. As a young unwed girl, a pregnancy could put her in a very dangerous position with her community. If she didn’t say “yes” to God who wanted to place Jesus in her womb, she could have lived a much more comfortable life. She could have gotten married, then become pregnant, then she could have had a family and lived a nice quiet life as the wife of a carpenter. It would be a modest life, but a quiet life. Instead she said “yes” which meant her fiancé and her community might reject her. She would see her son, Jesus, be rejected by her community as a heretic and crucified as a traitor and rebel. In courage, Mary said “yes” to God even though it meant a difficult life. In the end it meant a life filled with God, but it wasn’t the safe comfortable life most of us desire.  

  After the time of the Bible Christians went through persecution. Many were executed for being Christians. The tombs where these Christians were buried became special places for Christians. There people were remembered for their courage and faith even when confronted with death. They were remembered as people who gave everything for their love of Christ. Eventually churches were built over certain tombs and the church would be named after that Christian- So the original St. Timothy’s may have been built over his tomb in Ephesus.

            When the times of persecution ended in the Roman Empire certain people continued to stand out as examples to the faithful. They gave everything for their love of Jesus in a different way- not by dying, but by going to the dessert to live lives filled with undistracted and intense prayer. These desert fathers and mothers were remembered as examples of people with powerful devotion to God. The saints are also remembered as people who God used in astonishing ways. Sometimes God used them to bring healing and to show miracles. Sometimes they showed superhuman character in the way they loved.               

Many of the friends of Jesus were filled with courage and grace to do amazing things. St. Patrick had been a slave in Ireland in the late 300’s. Living a difficult life as a slave and a shepherd, he learned to pray. When he escaped his slavery he eventually returned to the island to show them the love of Christ. There are plenty of fantastic stories that seem to arise with the saints. One of my favorite stories about St. Patrick has to do with some soldiers who were hunting Patrick and his companions. Patrick called his companions to grab ahold of his staff and suddenly the group were transformed into deer. When the soldiers tried to ambush them they only found the deer.       

            My favorite saint is St. Francis of Assisi who was born in the late 1100’s. He was a rich merchant’s son who gave up a very promising career in the family business to live in poverty and prayer. His life was marked by joy and a love for God and all that God made. One of my favorite stories about Francis has to do with a time he visited a town called Gubbio.  There was a large wolf that terrorized the town. The people were so afraid that if they had to go outside the walls of their town they brought pitchforks and weapons with them. When Francis came to town to preach he heard about the wolf and decided he would go out and talk to it. When he left the people were sure they would never see him again. Francis went to the wolf and when the wolf was about to attack him he made the sign of the cross and began to tell the wolf that he had been acting terribly by destroying and terrorizing the creatures of God. He said that he knew the wolf was doing this because of his hunger so he proposed a deal. If the wolf would stop terrorizing the town and attacking the people and their animals he would make sure that he was fed. The surprised townspeople saw Francis walk back into the town followed by the wolf. He told the townspeople about the deal he and the wolf had made. The wolf raised his paw and put it in Francis’ hand to show he agreed, and the townspeople agreed to feed the wolf who would go from door to door to get table scraps. Supposedly he became something like the town pet. Some of these stories seem kind of silly, and you are no less a Christian if you choose not to believe it. However, I did read that they were repairing a chapel in Gubbio in the 1800’s and discovered a wolf skeleton under the floor.  So, believe what you want. I tend to be a bit of a romantic about these things

            Some saints are remembered for the great and beautiful things they did that were inspired by their love for God. Not all of them were hid away in caves and desserts living in poverty. William Wilberforce is remembered in the Anglican saint calendar for his part in abolishing the slave trade in the early 1800’s. In Wilberforce we are inspired to change the world for the better and to act to fight against unjust systems even when the odds seem against us.

            Other saints live among us or have only recently passed away. Mother Theresa worked among the poor in Calcutta. She was one woman and started teaching a few children in the slums. The challenge seemed incredible. The poverty was and is unimaginable for most of us. Many would give up and walk away overwhelmed with the task. Mother Theresa saw Jesus looking at her through the eyes of those she was helping.       
            The saints are those who show us what is possible in a life lived with God. They have a certain effort and dedication in their lives, and God inspires that effort and uses it so that their lives are marked by God working through them. There is no conflict between the effort of the saint and God’s spirit active in their lives. They are one and the same. The writer and pastor Frederick Beuchner says, “Their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them”. God works through these people to give us a glimpse of heaven on earth. In them we see a love and peace and a courage that is beyond our understanding.  The saints show us the mystical experiences we can have when we dedicate ourselves to prayer and God breaks into our lives in a new way. They show the courage God can give us to stand up against impossible odds, even when we are faced with death. The saints show us self-sacrifice as they pick up their cross and follow Jesus. They show us examples of ways God can use us to transform the world. One writer has called them spiritual scientists because they apply the methods of spirituality that the church has historically taught and as a result they experience God’s powerful presence in their lives. It is a repeatable experience if we will dedicate ourselves to the methods. The author G.K. Chesterton once wrote "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The saints are examples to us of what happens when we do try.  In the saints we see God’s grace manifested in human lives, which then blesses world.         

I said there were two ways we use the word “saint”. One way is what I have been describing. The second way we use the word “saint” is the way the Bible uses it. In the Bible the word “saint” is equivalent to the word “Christian”.  “The saints” are who we are because that is what God has made us to be. God has made us the saints through what Jesus has done on the cross and through his resurrection, and it is what we are becoming because of God’s Spirit working inside us transforming us.  So “saint” is both what we are and what we are becoming by God’s mercy and grace. 

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