A priest told the little kids they could come trick-or-treating at the rectory, but they had to dress up as one of the Saints. So the kids arrive - here's a little boy dressed up as St. Anthony, St. Joseph, a little girl is St. Clare - and then there's this kid in a dog costume. So Father asks "Where's your saint costume?” The little boy replies: "I'm SAINT BERNARD!"
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. I’ve spent some time trying to get really clear on the exact definition of a saint. It is confusing because the definition has changed throughout history and it changes through different denominations. So here’s my best shot:
In the first three hundred years of church history, a saint was someone who got killed for Christ. Listen to this bloody reference: St. Ignatius said that the “blood of the martyrs was the seeds of the church.” Our church is built on blood. We’ve heard about Christians who were horrifically killed by lions in the Roman Coliseum. Those folks became saints.
Things changed in the year 313 when Constantine became emperor of the Roman empire and declared that everybody had to be a Christian. At that point the Roman Catholic Church began to canonize saints who would intercede to God for you. For 1200 years people prayed to the saints who would then go whisper your prayer in God’s ear for you. This is how I grew up praying.
Then came Martin Luther in the 1500’s and boy, he did NOT like the idea of needing anyone between you and God. It was common practice at that time to view the relics of saints and buy indulgences, both of which purchased you less time spent in purgatory and put you on a fast track to heaven. Luther essentially cut out the middleman here. So during the Reformation, the idea of saints changed. The saints began to refer to our Christian loved ones who had died and gone to be with God. Our moms and dads, grandpas and grandmas died, went to heaven and were thought of as saints.
About 100 years ago, things changed again. Churches started making lists of people who had died and reading those names on All Saints Day. Sometimes a person who just does kind things can be referred to as a saint. And then of course, if you play soccer in England for the Southampton Saints or football in New Orleans, you are also a Saint.
According to Wikipedia: “In the Anglican Communion, the title of Saint refers to a someone who has been elevated by popular opinion as a pious and holy person. The saints are seen as models of holiness to be imitated, and as a 'cloud of witnesses' that strengthen and encourage the believer during his or her spiritual journey.”
In a book called “Making Saints”, author Kenneth L. Woodward notes the following: “A saint is always someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like—and of what we are called to be. Only God "makes" saints, of course. The church merely identifies from time to time a few of these for emulation. A saint is someone whose story God tells.”
Now, did you notice that today is about ALL saints? I’ve been struck by this as I noticed that most of the biblical references I found referred to the saints, plural. There are only two bible verses with the word ‘saint’ (singular) in it. From Psalm 106: 16-18: “They envied Moses also in the camp and Aaron the saint of the LORD.” And there is a reference in the book of Daniel to a singular saint.
Otherwise, ALL other biblical references are to the saints. I like this. I like the idea of the communion of saints, a ‘cloud of witnesses’. This image of a cloud of loving souls looking over us in a protective manner is deeply comforting. The apostle Paul shows great humility in declaring himself to be “less than the least of all saints” in Ephesians.
I think that most of us feel like less than the least of all saints. Today we remember those who have gone before us and they are not all perfect. Saints are not superhuman. Their lives are evidence of God’s ability to use flawed people (even flawed people like us) to do divine things. Through their ordinary acts of love, they bring the Kingdom of Heaven closer to earth, closer to us.
Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Paul Bunge from Centralia who traveled to Monrovia, Liberia to help victims of Ebola, or about Dr. Steven Hatch from Worcester, Massachusetts who treats Ebola patients in Suakoko, Liberia. These doctors traveled from the safety of their homes to the center of the Ebola crisis. Here is a picture of Dr. Hatch carrying 9 year old Blessing Gea, an Ebola patient. This sweet girl later recovered. If these doctors aren’t saints, I don’t know who is.
The Roman Catholic Church is in the process of making Mother Theresa a saint (she still needs to have one more miracle attributed to her). No one can doubt that the work she did, working with lepers, working with the homeless dying in Calcutta, should qualify her for sainthood. From her biography, we also know that she suffered what she described as a long, dark night of the soul for her whole working life. She eventually identified her suffering with that of Jesus which helped her to accept it. She realized that her darkness only increased her understanding of the people she helped.
Most of us have gone through dark times, have suffered emotional, mental or physical trials and have perhaps felt distance from God. This suffering increases our ability to have compassion for others who are suffering. No one is exempt. No one has a perfectly easy, wonderful life. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”
Jesus spoke to those who were suffering. His fame was spreading and everywhere he went he cured every disease and every sickness of the people. And they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics and he cured them. Coming from these crowds of suffering people, he sat down to speak to his followers. “Blessed are the poor,” he told them, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
He reminds us once again in today’s gospel that the last shall be first. Right off the bat he turns things upside down. People like us, normal, flawed, suffering people are blessed. Not the rich, not the healthy, not those who appear to bask in God’s blessing. No, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are the blessed. We are the blessed. Those who try to follow God’s teachings by being merciful, who try to be pure in heart, who try to make peace, THEY will be called children of God. We will be called children of God.
Jesus tells us to stand up for what is right, even if you are called names for it and you will have the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!
You are blessed.
Yours is the kingdom of heaven.
You will be called children of God.
You, each of you, will be saints in God’s heaven. Amen.