On Thursday night, hundreds of trick-or-treaters were roaming around our neighbor as part of their Halloween celebration. But, you know, nobody came by my house on Friday night to celebrate what is, for the church, a much more significant day – the Feast of All Saints’. Let me just check, did any of you have a few hundred people at your house on Friday for the big All Saints’ neighborhood block party? I didn’t think so.
All Saints is distinctive because it is the only principal feast of the church that can be celebrated on the feast day itself, which was November 1, as well as the Sunday following, which is what we are doing this morning. The Feast of All Saints is the day when we remember the great men and women of the faith who have gone before us. It’s the day we are reminded that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that is a source of inspiration and encouragement. It’s one the four Sunday’s each year that especially appropriate for the celebration of Holy Baptism. The Feast of All Saint’s also provides us with an opportunity each year to explore the basic, basic question, WHAT IS A SAINT?
According to Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary a saint is defined as “a person who is officially recognized by the Christian church as being very holy because of the way he or she lived.” A saint is a person officially recognized by the church, is very holy, and this holiness is attributed to their particular way of living. Now most people, when they hear this basic definition of a saint will usually nod in agreement – “Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good definition of a saint.” After all, since at least the 2nd century, we have had books that chronicle the lives of famous saints of the church. In the Episcopal Church, we have book called A Great Cloud of Witnesses that contains an entire calendar full of men and women all of whom fit the Merriam Webster’s basic definition of a saint:
- They are recognized by the church
- They are designated as possessing a certain level of holiness
- And their holiness is attributed to their particular manner of life
Now Webster’s dictionary has been around for almost 190 years. It has sold millions of copies and profoundly shaped the character of American culture, but I have to say that in this particular case, I think Webster has gotten it slightly wrong. Because the definition that I just referenced may describe one particular category of saints, but it fails to recognize the essential characteristics of a saint that we find described in New Testament and throughout the history of the church. It fails to answer, “What is a saint?”
For starters, Webster’s definition states that a saint is someone “officially recognized by the Church.” There are certainly many saints who have been officially recognized by the Church. I’m sure if we took a quick survey of the room this morning, we would be able to create a long list of “official” saints of the church.
But for every saint officially recognized by the church, there are millions of other saints whose names we will never know. In fact, the vast majority of the saints of God are those whose names have been seemingly forgotten by history, and yet they have not been forgotten by God.
- These are folks who are living faithfully in the context of their everyday lives.
- These are moms and dads who are seeking to be faithfully raise their children
- These are workers who give of themselves to do a job nobody else wants to do
- These are teachers an doctors and nurses…offer themselves in the service of others
- These are people who stop to help a stranger on the side of the road
These are not people who set out to do extraordinary things, but they are people who do ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Their names will never be found in the published chronicles of official “saints.” Their faces will never be found on a medal worn around someone’s neck, but they are saints, nonetheless. In their own time and place and circumstance, they have worked for the building up of God’s kingdom. So, contrary to Webster’s definition, the overwhelming majority of saints are rarely recognized or acknowledged.
The second thing that Webster’s definition attributes to saints is a certain level of holiness. The definition says that the saints were recognized because they were “very holy.” Now most of us, would not place ourselves in the category of “very holy.” If we just thing about the past week, most of us could make a list of things that would immediately disqualify us from being labeled “very holy.” But here’s the good new – many of the saints that have been officially recognized by the Church were actually fairly rough around the edges.
Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. Paul persecuted the church. Augustine was a lady’s man. And Martin Luther had a problem with profanity. You see, anyone who has been a follower of Jesus for very long knows that the spiritual life is often messy, untidy, and inconsistent.
Now, this is not to say that we are not called to pursue holiness and righteousness. Not at all! We are continually called to cultivate holiness and purity in our lives. But, we pursue holiness and righteousness not to BECOME saints, but because we ARE saints! In other words, God says to each one of us, you are a saint, and then calls us to live into that identity. Essentially we are in process of BECOMING what we already ARE.
So, most saints are not officially recognized and they are not particularly holy according to our typical standards of holiness.
Finally, Webster’s definition states that all this is based on the way he or she lived. Sainthood is identified with a particular manner of life. Now it is certainly true that most of the saints we think have lived rather remarkable lives and, in fact, our lives should be wholesome examples of the Christian life, but here’s the irony, the true saints knows that “its not about them.” The true saint knows that their significance, their spiritual worth is not dependent on how “spiritual” they are or how many righteous or pious deeds they accomplish. But rather the true saint knows that their significance, their spiritual value is found exclusively in the grace and mercy of God which is unearned and undeserved. The true saint knows “its not about them.”
So, let’s take these various understandings of what it means to be a saint and write a new definition. I think it would go something like this:
A saint is a person who is rarely noticed or recognized, but who is seeking to be holy even in the midst of the messiness of life.
A saint is a person who does ordinary things in an extraordinary way and whose life is sustained only by the grace and mercy of God.
When we begin to define sainthood in this way, we soon discover that there are saints all around us. Just walk about two hundred yards and strop by our school and you will meet a saint. Stop by the hospital, or a nursing home, or the rehab center, and you will meet a saint. Make a visit to the Warfield School or St. George’s Center, or Kairos Prison Ministry…and you will meet a saint. Take a moment to greet one of the newly baptized…and you will meet a saint. Or better yet, turn a take a look at the person sitting next to you, and you will meet a saint. We are the saints of God!
One of my favorite hymns growing up was I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. The final stanza of that hymn says it best:
They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still,
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will.
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!