The Very Rev. Tom Callard – October 31, 2021
Happy Halloween and welcome to our Sunday celebration of All Saints’ Day, which is actually on Tuesday. All Saints is one of the major feasts of the church year, and you know it’s a major celebration because there are hymns that we only sing today, for example – I sing a Song of the Saints of God, which I don’t think you’ll hear much for the next 365 days.
And why is All Saints’ important? Because mostly when we think of the Saints, we think of just this small group of people like St. Francis or St Anthony or St. Mary Magdeline, these saints that everyone knows. Even non-Christians know who St. Francis is. And these few saints get the glory. They are ones we see in our stained-glass windows, like our friends here: St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius. The small group of saints everyone knows are the ones we see in our icons. And the ones who show up in our medallions and the ones who are on the little statues in our gardens.
But there are way more officially recognized saints than this small group. Some sources say there are more than 10,000 people who have been named as saints, others say it’s more like 200. We’re not exactly sure.
Does anybody know who was the first official Saint, the first person canonized by the Catholic Church? The first official saint was Saint Ulrich, the bishop of Augsburg, who died in the year 973 and was made saint in the year 993. By the way, the first woman who was made an official saint was St. Wiborada in the year 1047. Sadly, the name Wiborada did not take off as a baby name, at least I’ve never heard of a Wiborada, but there’s still time.
If the first saint had been canonized in 1993 instead the year 993, as Ulrich was, I’m sure we would have a well-preserved record of all the saints beginning with Ulrich then after him every other saint would all be in the database with biographies, photos, and links to the miracles they performed.
But as it is, no such database exists. We don’t know who all the saints are. Moreover, the Episcopal Church complicates it by recognizing our own saints, in addition to the others. In our Episcopal calendar we recognize notable Episcopalians like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was a good Episcopalian, along with the Reverend Pauli Murray, who was the first African-American woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, in 1977, and also the Reverend Li Tim-Oi, who was the first woman ordained in the whole Anglican communion, in Hong Kong, in 1945.
So today, All Saints, is a chance to look at the picture of all these people who have been known and recognized and upheld as being amazing Christians. And we look beyond just the ones we know and give thanks for all of them as we reflect on what we can learn from them for our own lives.
In celebration of All Saints, I want to share with you three characteristics that I see in common among this group of people we honor today. The first is this: in order to be a saint you have to be dead. Which means none of you are saints. Sorry. You may be saintly, you may be saint-adjacent, you may be trending toward sainthood, but you’re not an official saint until you are in heaven. In fact one of the requisites for being a saint in the Roman Catholic church is that you have to either have been martyred for the faith – which is the less preferable option – or you have to have performed a miracle after you are dead.
Today’s service, if you look at the readings and hymns, contains references to death throughout, from our opening hymn, where we sing “For all the Saints who from their labors rest,” suggesting that they’re now up in heaven, to the first reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon, which asserts that “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” to the second reading, Revelation, where we hear that God is shouting down from heaven that “Death will be no more.” To the Gospel and the story of the Death and rising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus.
Saintliness and death are closely united. And I wonder if part of the reason why saintliness and death go together is that when someone dies, we only want to think of them in the best light. Eulogies or sermons about the dead are never going to talk about the bad things that someone did. At funerals you often hear people say, “Oh my mother was a saint,” or something to that affect. And so we think of those who are no longer with us in the best light. And I want each of you to know, by the way, that if you die, I will only praise you at your funeral. You will become a saint. So nothing to worry about.
I also think it’s helpful for people of faith to know that in heaven there is this big group of other people of faith who have gone before us, who have, in a sense, already received their reward, and who are going to be at our side always. They will be there to greet us, and right now they are they are looking down at us as part of the glorious company of the Saints in light. And there’s comfort in that.
The other thing about saints and death is that knowing they are in heaven reminds us that the final story of our life does not end here on earth, but that there is going to be something more, something for us to look forward to which we know the saints have already received. So death, in the context of the lives of the saints, is clearly nothing to be feared.
The second thing I want to share about the saints is that most of the saints are not recognized for having done major, world changing miracles. Most of the saints are not Joan of Arc leading her country into battle. But most of the saints are recognized for doing small things right in their own community. Most of the saints are these local heroes that everyone in the village knows, that people outside of the village may not even recognize, but who, within their village, did amazing things.
One example of many is St. Laura Montoya who was the first saint from Colombia. St. Laura was born in 1874. She grew up poor but became educated and eventually went on to become a teacher. And she dedicated her life to evangelizing and bettering the lives of the indigenous Colombian community where she worked. She fought so that the people she served, these underprivileged native Colombians, could be recognized and respected. And for that she became a saint.
Do most Christians know the name Saint Laura Montoya? Certainly not. Probably many Colombians don’t even know who she is. But I don’t think she would want that. Because her focus was doing the saintly work of bettering the lives of the people around her, which is really the best thing that anyone in the world can do– to brighten the corner where we are. We do not need to attempt to save the whole world, when we have a whole world right in front of us wherever we go.
This month of course we’re talking about stewardship and pledging and beyond asking you for money, one of the important aspects of our pledge season is to encourage all of you to think about how to pledge some of your time and your talents to your local community.
The church exists to facilitate your engagement in ministries. I’ll say that again: the church exists to facilitate your engagement in ministries. Which means that we have tried to organize things so that your average Christian can walk in here and quickly and easily be in a place where you’re helping someone else – tutoring children, helping at the drop in center, making sandwiches for people who are hungry, visiting those who can not come to church, and even arranging flowers and singing in the choir. These are wonderful and saintly things one can do right here, to affect this community around us right now, which is what the saints do.
Of course, there are many other things one can do as well. But I encourage you, whatever it is, to find something that brightens the corner around you, and to commit to doing that for a while. It’s a great way to practice the stewardship of your life.
And that’s the final thing I see in the lives of these saints – that they were wonderful stewards of their lives. At its heart, when we talk about stewardship, what we’re really talking about is caring for that which is God’s, that which belongs to God. And what thing has God given us that’s more important than this life? And what is more difficult to care for?
Knowing that we are stewards of our life suggests something we may not want to acknowledge, which is that we really do have some of control over life. Sometimes we want to believe that we’re just passive victims and life’s fortune just comes over us. But the truth is that we can manage this life to a certain extent. Of course there is so much we cannot control, events, circumstances and other people. But what we can control is how we respond to things.
As stewards of life, the Saints’ stories again and again talk about people who, in the midst of challenges and struggles, respond by turning to God. Again and again they turn to God. They are not stopped by or caught by the challenges and struggles of the moment. As stewards, they invest what they have been given into more: into heaven, into love and hope. The saints do not invest precious lives lamenting over what’s happened or stewing over some slight they have received, or dwelling in fear.
When we are driven by the immediate and unchangeable events of life we cannot control, we are not good stewards. We are putting our lives in that which takes life and our energies into that bottomless pit which destroys hope and we are allowing ourselves to be drawn away from the love of Jesus.
But if, at our core, we know whose we and we keep that as the place where we rest our souls and invest our time, then we, like the saints, can do amazing things.
There is a compass within each of us. And sometimes all it takes for the needle of that compass to spin around and move this way and that is one bad interaction, one bit of unexpected news, one difficult conversation, or one thing that comes up that we really don’t want to deal with. And suddenly the compass is pointing everywhere, and it’s lost true north.
But the saints have within them the ability to find on that compass the direction of God, and to keep their lives pointed toward the direction of God, and to know that no matter what happens, they must keep focused on the direction of God. For God is eternal, and these moments are not. And God is good, even though difficult things befall us all the time. And above all, God is what counts.
The saints know that of all the crazy and noble and grand and mundane things that one does in this life, the one true thing and the one really important thing is to know God. And if that’s where we put ourselves, our energy, our time, into the things of God, we are off to a good start toward becoming saints in our own day.