Our Sainthood Problem – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon for All Saints’ Sunday is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem.  The problem started somewhere in the late 1970s, when for the first time since 1549 and Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer, the Church decided to add names to its calendar.  With the exception of a few years during the reigns of Edward and Mary, for the better part of 430 years, the calendar of the Church included only a handful of Saints, each of whom, at the very least, were mentioned in the New Testament.  Because of the overall lack of saints in Anglicanism, the void was filled by the overwhelming number of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church.  Most us, whether we were ever Roman Catholic or not, default to the sainthood model that requires two verifiable miracles that occur after the person’s death.  Many of us are also familiar with the patronage of saints, like Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes; Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers; and Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things.  What is often overlooked is the fact that of the three, only Saint Jude actually appears on The Episcopal Church’s calendar.  We talk with affection about Saint Francis and Saint Patrick, but neither is actually titled a saint in The Episcopal Church.  If you read the most recent stuff coming out of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, it is clear that our problem with sainthood is that we are still struggling to figure out what sainthood means.

With that in mind, and in preparation for today’s All Saints’ celebration, I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to answer the question, “What makes a saint?”  I’ve come up with this definition, “A saint is a disciple of Jesus who strives to live into the Kingdom of God.”  The first thing you’ll notice is that this definition is in the present tense.  You don’t have to be dead to be a saint.  In fact, if you are waiting until you die to become a saint, you’re doing it wrong and you’ll probably never get there.  The Apostle Paul uses the word saint forty-one times in his letters.  Every single time, it is used to refer to the living, not the dead.  In fact, he uses it not in reference to special people doing extraordinary things for the Gospel, but as a way of describing everyone who follows Jesus as Lord and Savior.

So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  We could look to last week’s gospel lesson and say quite simply that following Jesus means loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, but as comforting as those words are, I feel like we need to hear more about what that look likes in real life.  Certainly we could point to the Baptismal Covenant and say that following Jesus means believing in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; being a member of a worshipping, praying, and learning community; striving to resist evil, but falling back on the grace of God when we fall short; sharing the Good News of the Kingdom; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice, peace, and dignity for all of Creation.  But if we wanted even more, there is no better place to turn than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

This morning’s Gospel lesson comes from the very beginning of that most famous sermon.  As news of Jesus spread far and wide, the crowds that followed grew larger and larger, until one day, Jesus climbed up a mountainside, sat down, and began to teach the saints what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  From Matthew 5:1 through to chapter 7, verse 29, Jesus teaches his followers about being salt and light, about judging others and loving our enemies, about prayer, fasting, and stewardship, and he sums up his teaching with the Golden Rule saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”[1]  His teaching begins, not like Moses’ mountainside sermon with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but with a description of what Kingdom people look like, and it is a very surprising and rag-tag bunch indeed: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted and reviled for following Jesus.  Being a saint means following Jesus into all sorts of unexpected situations in thanksgiving for the love of God showered upon us.

During his sermon on Wednesday, Keith shared a short poem by Nobel Prize winning author and poet, Rabi[ndranath] Tagore that in three short lines sums up sainthood for me:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted, and behold, service was joy

Sainthood is a life lived in the joy of service.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.  It doesn’t mean we have it all together. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel burnt out or tired or frustrated from time to time. It means, as I said before, that saints find joy in striving for the kingdom.  Saints do their best and let God do the rest.  The history of Christianity is full of saints who weren’t perfect but found joy in serving a God who is.

Take the much beloved Francis for example. He was the son of a rich and powerful family who had rich and powerful friends and, for a while at least, lived a rich and powerful lifestyle. As his spiritual devotion grew, so did his discomfort with his worldly lifestyle until his own Father took him to court to try to force him to remain in the family business. It was only then that Francis finally threw off all the trappings of his old life, literally stripping naked in front of the court proceedings, and vowed a life of poverty. The sainthood of Francis came in fits and starts, but it was his faithfulness and joy in service that eventually led him into ever deeper commitment to the kingdom.

The same can be said for all of us, I think. Our slow progress toward sainthood has its ups and downs, two steps forward and three back sometimes, but in the end it is in the striving that we become blessed, that we become holy, that we become saints.  As I thought about our sainthood problem, the names of saints who continue to strive after the kingdom came flooding into my mind.  There’s Bernice and Esther, who give up their Sunday mornings to make sure our youngest members know that God loves them; Franklin who, among other things, ensures that our fellowship is joyful with plenty of donuts; and Carol who was here at the crack of dawn this morning to make sure the altar was properly set for the Feast of All Saints’. There’s Lyle’ who in between teaching her young sons to read, write, and ‘rithamtic, shares the never ending stream of activities going on here through the E-Pistle; Stan who drives all over God’s creation picking up day old bread to feed the hungry; and Cassie who not only coordinates Follow the Word but puts up with me as well.  There’s Doris and Pem who drive 30 miles each way to come worship with their church family no matter how ugly the weather might be; John and Ruth who redefine what it means to find joy in the service if others; and Jim who with the faithfulness of a grandfather clock shows up at Foley Elementary to help children learn their abc’s. The list could go on and on, and it includes each one of you who gives of your time, your talent, and your treasure to build the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem, but it most certainly doesn’t lack for saints, I can guarantee that. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”[2]  Amen.

[1] Mt 7.12

[2] Lesbia Scott, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

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