Sunday November 6, 2010 Feast of All Saints
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Title: Saint Search
More than any other Sunday in the Church Year, today is a kind of designated family reunion day. With this beautiful Ofrenda for El dia de los muertos in our midst we celebrate the major feasts of All Saints and All Souls. This is an important time of checking in with our family members, ancient and modern. It is a time to take out the family photo albums and scrapbooks remembering where we came from and hopefully to get some perspective on where we are going. All Saint is a time to remember our ancestors in the faith, men and women who served God in innumerable ways and to heighten our awareness of the millions of saints living around us.
All Saints can be rather daunting as a day set aside to recognize persons of heroic spirituality, whose deeds and lives we recall with gratitude and at times wonderstruck amazement. You might think of St. Francis who walked away from wealth and privilege into the countryside around Assisi communing with the birds, serving the poor, and sharing everything he was given. You might muse about Joan of Arc, a young girl who eschewed dresses preferring armor and swords, leading men twice her size into battle. She was a woman of rare determination with the voice God so loud in her head nothing else mattered. If you’re of a more mystical bent you might be attracted to Dame Julian of Norwich living in her cell attached to the church with one window facing the sacramental altar and one looking out on the street, a blending of the sacred and secular Christians still strive toward today.
But if you look a little harder, you will find others, obscure but no less interesting and inspiring. For instance you might happen upon Samuel Issac Joseph Schereschewsky, a priest so facile in language that answering a call to help in China he learned to write Chinese on the voyage there, eventually translating the Bible and Prayer book into Mandarin. After being elected bishop of Shanghai Schereschewsky was struck by paralysis. Samuel resigned as Bishop but not his life goal of translating the Bible into Wenli. With heroic perseverance Schereschewsky completed his translation of the Bible, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. Before his death he said, “I have sat in this chair for over 20 years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”
You might find Hilda of Whitby, a remarkable woman and Abbess of the famous double house at Whitby a monastery for men and women with a chapel in between. Hilda and her monastery became famous as the sight of a meeting in 664 which decided the fate of the clash between the two vigorous Christian traditions on English soil, her native earthy Celtic Christianity and the more organized, powerful and wealthy Roman Christianity. Hilda, the host of the meeting, greatly preferred the Celtic customs in which she had been reared, but in the interest of unity and peace she used her moderating influence in favor of the acceptance of the Roman Way. A decision so difficult it staggers my heart.
You might stumble upon the story of Saint James the Greater, brother of Saint John, who was so full of grace on his way to his death that the guard assigned to him fell on his knees and confessed faith in the prisoner’s God. James raised him up by the hand, kissed him on the check, and, “Peace be with you.” Then both men were executed together, but their last sweet exchange lives on in our Eucharistic exchange “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” (story from Barbara Brown Taylor).
There is a sign on the Winchester cathedral in England that reads as you enter the church, “you are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you’re dead.” To be a Christian partly means that we don’t have to reinvent the spiritual life. We don’t have to make up this faith as we go along. The saints will teach us, if we will listen. And for modern, North American people, it takes a kind of studied act of humility to think that we actually have something to learn from the saints.
In his book Wishful Thinking, Fredrick Buechner writes, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” This seems to suggest that the creation of saints is more God’s doing than our own, but regardless the main point is that saints do exit. There really are ordinary men and women, boys and girls whose love of God has led them to do extraordinary things. And while Billie Joel might rather “laugh with the sinners, than cry with saints” that really is no reason to ignore the reality of the saints for ourselves. In fact, the opposite is true. The more we encounter or learn of the saints the more open to the possibility of encountering saints around us in everyday life we become.
I want you to think for a moment about how you were called to be a disciple? Is following Jesus something you thought of yourself? Was it revealed to you by staring up at the stars, or walking through a sacred grove? No, my guess is that you are here, if you really reflect upon it, because of friendship with other Christians. Someone had to tell you the story. Someone had to live this faith in such a way that you said to yourself, “I want to know more about this. I want to be part of that.” Perhaps it was a believing parent, or someone you met at work or in school, or by reading the scriptures. We get by only with a little help from our friends. We get saved with a little help from our friends. St. Paul calls these followers of Jesus, saints.
The truth of the matter is that faith is probably more caught than taught. We learn how to follow Jesus by hanging out with other followers. You may never have thought of it but we are saved – as a group, praying together, correcting one another, forgiving one another, stumbling along after Jesus together, memorizing the moves until his way has become our way. Our way. Even when we pray the most familiar of prayers “Our Father,” we are naming the way we are saved, together in the communion of the saints. To celebrate All Saints is to acknowledge the mystical and communal dimension of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. So on this Feast of All Saints and All Souls we not only remember the strange and eclectic crowd of saints that have been athletes for God and the many faithful family and friends who surround us today, but we also consider the wild idea that we are surrounded by saints ourselves.
Now I’m not trying to be cute or clever. I’m proposing that if you understand yourself to be surrounded by saints this feast becomes a good deal more interesting. Think of it as our own little reality show, Saint Search at St. Michael’s. I feel like I run into saints all the time, but I wouldn’t dare tell them. They are people who are heroically caring for an aging parent, or trying to forgive someone who hurt them deeply. They are quietly working behind the scenes, teaching our children or guiding our youth. They may be the prayer warriors of St. Michael’s who daily bring the needs of the parish into the presence of God. Or they may be doing something that no one has noticed, but that reflects such faithfulness it would humble us. There are so many people who serve without reward, love without measure, forgive with the greatest of ease, sit in the silence of God’s presence so joyfully, speak words of encouragement so naturally, mentor with such attention – these are the saints of God in our very midst and I challenge you in the midst of this feast of All Saints to join me in a little game of Saint Search.
Open your eyes and hearts and consider the saints in our midst. Sainthood means desiring God enough to include God in your journey. It is not so much something we aspire to as it is the fruit of following Jesus in a such a way that your life is bent more and more in a God-ward direction. Join the Saint Search, look for the telltale signs of sainthood, joy in the journey, a willingness to grow, the ability to share another’s pain, the courage to admit failure, the hopefulness of sharing a vision, prodigal forgiveness, the abiding sense when you are with them that even when things go wrong, they trust that God is present and working at bringing the kingdom near.
To be sure as Christians we believe that our friends in faith extend not only to those who happen to be in the pew beside us, but also to those whom we call “the communion of the saints,” that is, that great community of those who have gone before us in faith. You are never alone in church. Every time we gather to pray, the saints pray with us, as if leaning down from the ramparts of heaven to join their voices with ours in the praise of God, as if to cheer us on in our current struggles to be faithful.
And while it is deeply comforting to know that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses that cheer us on, it is also a deep comfort to realize that we are not alone on our journey here and now. We have companions who are along-side us puzzling out the faith, working out their own fears, sharing their pain as they struggle through their issues, laughing at their own efforts to be a faithful and patient parents, or looking into the aging eyes of our own beloved and realizing that life is a wondrous mystery and that sainthood is not far away, rather it is very near, in our very midst, in our shared journey to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength. Let the Saint Search begin.