11/2/2014 sermon: “Who’s a saint?”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Tex: Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints’ Sunday

Who’s a saint?

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we remember every saint, known and unknown, who have gone before us in our faith. So today is a day designed for us to ask these questions: Who is a saint, and what makes them a saint?

Last Sunday, we learned in Rev. Sarah’s most-excellent Forum that there are only two ironclad criteria for being designed an Episcopal saint. To be one, you have to be dead, and you had to have been a baptized Christian. The other seven criteria are all advisory. In general, though, the seven “shoulds” for the Episcopal Church to consider someone to be a saint is this: To be named a saint, a person must have been a example of exemplary Christian witness, a lifelong hero of our faith whose life is in some way a useful witness to us today.

We have this concept in our modern vernacular, also. We think of someone as a saint when they are in some way an extraordinary example of being or doing good. We think of sainthood as being rare, and yet in my lifetime I undoubtedly have met at least half-a-dozen living saints, and arguably thousands more. Except for the fact that they weren’t dead yet, they were saints. And yet, each and every one of these living saints-to-be emphatically denied their own sainthood. Each one of them insisted that they were only ordinary Christians, ordinary baptized people of God, doing what God would have them do. Their witness is that we all can be a saint, just like them.

Certainly St. Paul, in his letters to the new Christian churches, always greeted those first Christians by calling them “saints.” So the reality is that all baptized Christians are saints-in-the-making, in that they are each a living witness of and for God.

The only viable answer to “Who is a saint?” is that we are all saints, or at least saints-in-the-making. We saints-to-be will become full-fledged saints when we persevere through the end of this life. Of course, the lives of some saints are so remarkable that we choose to remember them long after they are dead. These saints remind us to persevere in living our faith devoutly, boldly, heroically, in the face of whatever life throws at us. What makes us saints is that we persevere to the end and beyond.

In a way, All Saints’ Sunday isn’t so much to remind us of those dead and faithful Christians who lived before us. Rather, this day is to remind us that we can be, we are, we will be saints, too.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus preached a sermon about saints. In this sermon, which biblical scholars say was based on Psalm 1, Jesus tell us what the character is saints are.

  • First, saints are “poor in spirit.” They do not emanate their own spirit, but rather are filled with someone else’s spirit, the Holy Spirit.
  • Second, saints mourn. Not for themselves, but for others. All others. Saints mourn even for those whose calamities are their own fault. They hurt for others’ woes.
  • Third, saints claim little for themselves, but seek the welfare of others.
  • Fourth, saints long to be emptied of themselves and to be filled instead with God; they crusade for righteousness on every front.
  • Fifth, they forgive early and forgive often, to ridiculous lengths.
  • Sixth, saints do not have hidden motives. The good they do is for the sake of the other, even when (maybe especially when) the other doesn’t deserve such a saintly response.
  • Seventh, saints live in harmony with others. They seek harmony, rather than to be right.
  • Finally, saints persevere, even when persecuted and are ill-treated for their actions. Saints often do not have a smooth road in this walk of life.

At one time in my life I understood Jesus to mean here that we should strive to be all of these blessed things. Or maybe that we would be blessed—consecrated, or made holy—if we accomplished these things. I now understand, though, that Jesus is describing what blessedness is, what sainthood looks like, what discipleship entails when we are “walking the walk” of our faith. The reality is that none of us can be these things by ourselves, or all the time. Only through God working in us could we ever be blessed in the way Jesus describes.

I spent a good portion of my adult life demanding a blessing from my church. What Jesus teaches us today is that the way we become blessed is to be a blessing. The rewards are great, and Jesus enumerates them. What the rewards all promise is future
fulfillment. What we need to do to reap these rewards is to persevere.

The saints named by our church for special remembrance are all those who, when offered an extraordinary challenge, persevered in an extraordinary way. The martyrs continued to claim Jesus even though they were killed for their faith. The healers responded, because of their faith, to some great medical crisis at great personal risk. The missionaries recognized some great opportunity to spread the gospel in new lands, often risking or sacrificing their lives.

These saints all rose to the challenges of their lives. Except for their extraordinary challenge and persevering response, those named saints were just like us. None of them responded perfectly, but they persevered to the end. The only difference between them and us is that we are not yet dead. We still have time to measure our blessedness against Jesus’ description of sainthood, and time to rise to whatever challenge God gives us.

Perhaps our challenge here at Resurrection is to devise and model for our world what church means today, not a building but a way of life given to living God’s purpose for us.

Today we will begin Sharen’s and Zach’s and F’iona’s saint-journeys. We’ve told them about the journey. We’ve helped them to prepare for the trip. Now we are going to bid them safe travel, even as we gather them up, enfolding them in our own Resurrection journey. We will not let them walk alone. We promise to be saints for them, reflecting God’s light to illuminate their way as they start being saints, too.

We sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen
and one was a man living on the green
they were all of them saints of God
and we mean, God helping, to be some, too.

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