After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then the elder said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within God’s temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the realm of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the realm of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Will you pray with me? Loving God of us all, both the living and the dead, open my mouth to speak only your truth to these your people. Clear our minds of all that would distract us from you, and give me words to speak and all of us hearts to hear you. In all your names, amen.
Today we are celebrating, remembering, All Saints Day. All Saints—all the saints.
Which begs the question—what is a saint? We are probably most familiar with the Catholic church’s definition—someone who died for their faith and has performed miracles for the living, the miracles have been investigated and authenticated by the Church and the person has been declared a saint by the pope. But in Paul’s letters to the early church, he refers to all Christians as “saints;” to Paul, a saint is someone who is following Christ. I have attended African-American churches where the congregation is addressed as “saints; Saints, we know this to be true;” and so on. And then in common speech we describe someone who is especially kind or generous or caring as a “saint,” too. Sometimes saints are most simply people who have died, whom we remember with fondness.
Personally, I like Paul’s definition—saints are people who have, or who are, following Christ. They have been sanctified—made holy—not in the sense of “better than others,” but in the sense of being aware of their shortcomings, working to overcome them, and every time they fail, working harder to conquer again. Most saints would refuse the title—they are all too aware of the mistakes they have made, their stumbles, their failures.
There are saints of the past—St. Francis of Assisi, for example. He was a pretty wild young man, given to dressing well and spending a lot of time in the taverns of Assisi. His father was wealthy and could afford for Francis to do this; so when, after experiencing war, Francis took a vow of poverty, it was a complete reversal of his way of living. Francis renovated an old church, and gathered others around him who gave up their worldly lives to live simply and only for God; they grew their own food, cleaned their own church, and ministered to all the sick and hungry of the area.
Francis had been a wild young man—but he changed his life, and was called a saint. He did not live a perfect life from beginning to end—and indeed, he himself would probably find faults in himself even on his deathbed. He was not perfect. But—“blessed are the meek.”
Another saint…this time in the present. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. After the horrors of apartheid in his country were officially abolished, he refused to take the easy way of hatred towards white South Africans, and instead insisted on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission—emphasis on reconciliation. He knew that it would be very easy, and natural, for black South Africans, and those called “Coloured,” to hate and in their turn oppress the white South Africans. But he also knew that was not the right way—and so he works for peace and reconciliation. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
There are other saints around us here in the present. I am sure you know some of them—I know I do—some here in this church. I had a choir director once, named Don. He was a wonderful musician, lovely tenor, managed to get the most wonderful sounds out of a motley crew of volunteer choir members, many of whom could not read music. The whole congregation loved him—the saying in that church was, “If you want to ask the congregation to do something that they will resist doing, have Don ask them. They will do whatever Don asks.” He was considered a saint. But—he had a terrible temper. It was rarely shown, because he worked so hard to keep it under control. But every once in a while it would burst out—usually at the end of a long rehearsal, right before Easter or Christmas, when the choir wasn’t paying attention or the organist missed a stop. And then we realized how much of a saint he was, that he kept this incredibly hot temper under control so much of the time, so much so that most people never knew he had a temper. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the realm of heaven.”
Saints of the past, saints of the present… What about saints of the future? Who will be the saints in the future?
Saints, my friends, are made, not born. The saints—whether the famous ones like St. Francis, or the more recent ones like Archbishop Tutu or the hidden ones like my friend Don—made choices that brought Godly results. Other options were available to them, after all. Francis chose to give up his wealth and wild way of living. He chose to become poor and to live among the poor. Don made the choice to control his temper—and when he failed, he tried again—he did not give up and say, “it is too hard, I might as well just be who I am,” Archbishop Tutu could have given in to the desire for revenge on those who had oppressed him and his race for so long—instead he worked and works for peace and mutual understanding.
All of us who make those choices for good are saints—we are choosing the way of Christ. It doesn’t mean it’s easy—but it does mean it’s the right decision. But what about after us? Are we setting enough of an example that others will want to be like us? There are children in our lives--the children of this congregation, of our extended family and friends, and in our neighbourhoods--and we need to set an example for them. But there are also other people, adults, for whom we can set an example—our family, our friends. I am not saying that we have to be perfect, because no one is perfect except God.
I am saying, however, that we can show the world—or that part of it we know—that it is possible to live well—loving and caring for others, healing and teaching and caring—in short, to follow Christ—just as we are, imperfect as we all are. Each one of us has our faults—we are judgemental or angry or too willing to give in or do not think of ourselves as we should or we are envious of others, or a hundred other things. But when we do not let these failing dictate our lives, when we make the choices to act in other ways—then we demonstrate the power of Christ’s love.
Now it is an odd thing that what people say they admire in other people, people whom they don’t see on an everyday basis—but figures in history, or famous people, or whom they only see at church—in these people it is easy to admire the generosity of spirit, the peace-making, the work of self-control, the choices for what is Godly over what is easiest or feels good at the moment. But when we are faced with a saint in our workplace, in our home, in our neighbourhood, it can be very different. Don’s wife once told me, “It can be hard, living with a saint.” How many times were saints made martyrs, killed for their beliefs and their clinging to what they heard as God’s call on their life? How many were scorned or laughed at as weak or even traitors in arguing for peace and reconciliation?
But these are the very people—these saints—who can show us how to live our lives. The individuals we are remembering today—our relatives and friends—we all know they were not perfect. I remember one of my mentors—he was sweet and generous and kind and had a wonderful sense of humour—I loved him dearly. And yet he had a hard time changing his opinion, opening his mind to other ideas, once he had decided how he felt about something.
What we remember them for, what we honour them for, is not that they were perfect. We honour their continuing struggle to make the choice for good, for light—to follow Christ. And as we too make that choice, we too become saints. As we make the choice for God’s ways, as we struggle to be what God has called us to be, in every choice, we become the saints of the future.
In all God’s names, amen.