Sermon - All Saints' Sunday
In the Name...
There was once a young, zealous monk who went away on a long pilgrimage and decided not to cut his hair or beard as an act of self-denial. When he returned to the monastery he said he felt quite saintly, to which the abbot replied, "Yes, brother, I can see you do look like a saint. A St. Bernard."
I was recently reflecting on the custom of assigning 'patron' saints to places, professions, or situations. For example, we know that St. Patrick is considered the patron saint of Ireland; George of England, David of Wales and Andrew of Scotland. We may have heard that St. Jude is the patron of hopeless causes while St. Anthony of Padua helps us find lost things, but, did you know that the patron of toothache and dentists is St. Apollonia? It seems she was a 3rd C martyr tortured by having her teeth pulled out. I have a dentist appointment tomorrow, so, you know what’s on my mind.
Even television has a patron. In 1958, the mediaeval St. Clare of Assisi was designated as the patron saint of television because, one Sunday when she was too ill to leave her room, she saw a vision of the mass from the convent chapel appear on her wall. Now that's flat screen.
I was thinking that the patron of Wal-Mart should be St. Francis of Sales. No?
But, the concept of a patron saint, I believe, does illustrate a couple of important Christian teachings; one, that the Christian life doesn't end at death, and second, that there's no aspect of life on earth which isn't sacred.
In and of itself, honouring heroes is not a particularly religious sort of activity. I used to live not all that far from Canton, OH, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ever been there? It's quite a place, isn't it? Battered helmets, footballs, shoes, shirts - sacred relics carefully preserved for the adoration of the faithful. Displayed on the walls, the icons; the pictures of the men whose accomplishments were the stuff of legend; and, the galleries of statues. One can feel moved to beat one's breast and kneel. I’m sure some do.
But, hero-worship is not the same thing as venerating saints because, as one writer has put it, a venerated saint is an ordinary Christian who has done ordinary things extraordinarily well. That's not a Biblical definition but it's a place to start - ordinary Christians who have done ordinary things extraordinarily well. The men whose marble images grace the halls of Canton were extra-ordinary, specially trained, physically and mentally prepared, for a certain activity. They weren't "ordinary" in the least.
And, that's the major difference between sainthood and the Hall of Fame. The Hall is for the elite, sainthood is for everybody who plays the game. St. Paul illustrates that in his letters which he often begins by addressing them "to the saints in...Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, etc." Even though in the letters he usually goes on to tell his readers how unsaintly they've been behaving, that doesn't change the fact that as far as Paul's concerned, every Christian is a saint, a holy person, by virtue of his or her baptism. He just wants them to remember that fact and live up to it, accordingly.
Yes, that's something it's easy to overlook today. Every Christian is a saint, a holy person, not because we're all so good and perfect, but because of our baptism. There is a real difference between those who are baptized and those who are not. A real difference, not in anything we can see, but in everything we can't see. The fact is that the baptized have been given a supernatural gift which allows them to live forever while the unbaptized do not.
When the unbaptized die a natural death, they simply cease to be, like everything else on earth. They don't go to Heaven or Hell any more than a tree or a fly goes to either place. They just cease to exist. This is the missionary reason why Christians want to get people baptized. It's the primary thing Jesus told the disciples to do - get people baptized. Why? So they can live forever with Him.
And that's what sets us apart from everything else on earth and in the universe. Death is not the end, for us. It's only a life-transition.
That's why we talk to those who have died and ask them to pray for us just as we asked them when they were here on earth, because they're really still alive, just living a ways off, and, liberated from the constraints of time and place, they can do a lot more good now than they ever could while they were here.
For example, when he was walking around 1st Century Jerusalem doing his deacon thing, Paul could only pray for those who knew him personally and could ask him - a few hundred. But, after he died, he became timeless and hundreds of millions have asked his intercessions since. And the same is true for all those who have gone before us – James the Great and James the Less, Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. These and billions more join their prayers with ours whenever we ask, just as our friend up the street or our co-worker can today because the saints in Heaven are still our friends and co-workers in building up God's kingdom on earth.
Which brings me to the second point that there is no aspect of life on earth that isn’t sacred. It's amusing to think of a patron saint of toothache or of television, but the assignment of a particular saint to a particular human need, activity, or place gives those who are engaged in that activity or have that need, or who live in a particular place, a sense of connexion with the spiritual dimension of life.
When you look at traditional lists of patron saints, it's revealing how many are for tedious labour-intensive occupations - tanners, iron workers, lace makers, charcoal burners, herdsmen. These are jobs which have the potential to become soul-destroying routines. The need to have a spiritual friend, someone who takes a particular interest in what we're doing, is as real in the workplace today as ever. In modern times, the lists extend to postmen, secretaries, and, yes, even computer programmers.
And illnesses have their patron saints for the same reason; St. Peregrine for cancer; St. Abel for blindness, St. Marius for arthritis. Illness is a human experience and we don't like it. We need a special prayer partner to help us through.
In St. John's vision of Heaven, he sees an immense crowd which nobody can number standing before the throne of God. And one of St. Paul's favourite images is that of a race where we are the runners and the fans in the stands, cheering us on, are the saints in Heaven.
Death is not the end of life for those who have eternal life and death is not the end of the relationship between those on earth and those beyond earth. All Saints' Day reminds us of this. It's not the hero-worship of a past elite. It's the celebration of ourselves and our friends in this world and the next. Ordinary Christians who have done ordinary things extraordinarily well.
So, as we now renew our Baptismal Covenant, and say "I will with God's help", may we hear those words as a reminder from God to live as the saints He has made us, today and every day. After all, we may know we're saints, but is that what people see when they look at us?
Hmm. Let's not be mistaken for St. Bernards.
In the Name..