All Saints Sunday. November 2, 2014. (Text: Matt. 5:1–10)
I want to start this morning by doing a couple of “person in the pew” interviews. If this was a huge church I’d need one of those microphones on a pole, but I think if you’ll just speak up, everybody will hear you. Questions: Are you a saint? …Would you like to be a saint? …How would you have to change in order to become a saint?
Have you ever listened to children trying to deciding what to play and overheard one kid say to another, “I know what! Let’s be SAINTS!”? When I was a child of about six, back in East Texas, playing with my good buddy Hubert Horace Bullock, Jr. (known as “Bubba” to us) we’d say “Let’s be knights!” Then we’d make cardboard shields and whack at each other with wooden swords. And we played cowboys and Indians, or Superman and Batman. (Characters with masks or capes were always popular.) Bubba and I liked to pretend we were wild animals sometimes, too, but only fierce, heroic animals, like eagles or lions. Neither of us ever wanted to be a pony or a bunny rabbit. But one thing we never played was “saints,” even though Bubba was a Catholic parochial-school boy, a server at weekday mass, and as devout a kid as there could be in 1951. He knew all about saints. If we were playing baseball and hit the ball somewhere we couldn’t find it, Bubba would pray right away to St. Anthony. (I assume he was the patron saint of missing baseballs.) I don’t know if the girls on our block ever played “saints,” but the thought never occurred to us guys.
Of course, Bubba and I never expected we might someday actually grow up to BE knights in armor, or cowboys, or super heroes. Even at the magical age of six I knew I could never really turn into an eagle or a lion. We played out fantasies we brought home from Saturday afternoon movies. —But saints... Well, saints were real, not made up people like Superman. There were no saints in our Saturday movies.
The girls we knew played “house” and “mommy.” Houses and mommies were real. The girls were sure that one day they’d grow up and have houses and be mommies. And they were right. So maybe the girls, who seem always, and at every stage of life, to be better in touch with deeper reality than boys are, played “saints” too, and even expected to become saints. (Maybe one of you grown up girls can tell me if that was so.)
What does it mean to be “saints”? I’ll tell you one thing saints are not. Saints aren’t a bunch of “goody-goody,” sticky sweet, ultra-pious people who seem to be posing for a stained glass portrait. Saint means “holy,” and to be holy means to be “given to God.” Being holy doesn’t mean being perfect. Saints are always intensely aware of their own moral failures. I saw a church sign once that put it just right: “God can only make saints out of sinners.”
And a saint doesn’t live all alone in a cave like a hermit—cut off from everybody else. The Bible only talks about “the saints” – plural – never about this saint and that saint. Holiness is something we only come to together by the grace of God, in the rough and tumble of real life, through loving one another and showing mercy to the people around us.
One basic thing about saints is this: they’re passionate about Jesus. We know about passion in America, don’t we? The World Series was this week, and anybody who saw the San Francisco and Kansas City fans on TV knows very well what passion is ...what it looks like, what it feels like, and—especially—how it rubs off on other people.
The healthiest churches—large and small—are made up of Christians who are just as passionate about Jesus every Sunday when they worship as the most fired-up Giants or Royals fans were last week about their team winning the World Series. Passionate Christians become saints.
We didn’t sing it this morning, but the best-known All Saints hymn in the Episcopal Church is a quaint one from the 1890’s: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Some of us could sing it from memory. The first verse goes like this:
I 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 shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
The last verse ends: “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too!”
Back to one of my interview questions: “Do you want to be one too?”
Saints are passionate people who feel strongly about the One they believe in. Such passionate people act on the basis of what they believe. They put their hearts and hands and minds to work because they’re motivated by their vision of what God intends our life together to be like, a vision from Jesus that turns worldly thinking upside down: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.
...Love your enemies? ...Bless those who curse you? ...Turn the other cheek? ...Give to everyone who begs from you? People tells us, “Be real. Only a saint could act that way.” —Yep. Exactly right. Only saints can act that way. —So… Do we want to be saints?
Saints are idealistic enough to take the words of Jesus seriously. Saints take loving their enemies as a goal because they want to turn those enemies into friends. Saints take blessing those who curse them and praying for those who abuse them as wisdom worth incorporating into everyday life. Turning the other cheek, giving help to those who ask for it, treating others in the way we ourselves would like to be treated —all of this is serious business for saints. Saints don’t brush off the wisdom of Jesus as “impractical idealism.”
The healthiest churches are communities of people who are passionate about Jesus Christ. —And there’s something contagious, something compelling about passionate people. Their enthusiasm and spirit inspire others, draw them in. People see them and want to be like them.
This is our last Sunday with you for about six months. It has been inspiring to share your life, even as just a part-time supply priest. This little congregation has a sense of mission, a purpose. But today I want to say: Why not go all the way? Let’s be SAINTS! --That’s our calling. That’s our goal. That’s what we’re meant to be. Sure, we’re imperfect, but God is at work in us and He isn’t finished with us yet.
To want to be saints is not spiritually arrogant. Saints don’t set themselves up on a pedestal. They aren’t isolated from real life. They don’t even think of themselves as unusual. Saints reach out, often without realizing what they’re doing, and draw us into a relationship with them and – through them –with God. Saints are given to God and they share with us that sense of givenness, that sense of belonging to God. —It is incredibly attractive.
You heard the counsel of Christ to his passionate disciples in today’s gospel. He sets the bar high. He calls for the best we can offer. He calls us to aim for holiness. Jesus doesn’t want merely tepid allegiance from us. He wants idealism and heartfelt commitment. —He wants us to be saints!
God takes us seriously. Sure, God will forgive us if we “go for it” with all our heart and yet fall short of the mark. But He doesn’t want us to give up trying. Saints keep trying. They’re passionate about their calling, and their passion is contagious. Those who are infected by it will be changed forever.
So, let’s be saints!