All Saints Day 2015
A narrative sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
based on “Saints Alive” by Thomas L. Weitzel
November 1, 2015
Why Do We Remember Saints?
Why do we remember saints? Why do we set aside one Sunday a year to name the saints and thank God for their lives? We are remembering people. It’s in our nature to remember and mark our remembering in special ways, especially when our remembering involves people. When people touch our souls, when they have some deep impact on our lives, we want to remember them. The act of remembering is just as the word indicates: re-membering, putting back together, piecing the moments and days and years together into one beautiful whole. Keeping memory alive keeps us alive. Each memory is a story, and today we enter in to that story. Remembering joins us to something much bigger than ourselves.
How does it start? It starts with someone we know, perhaps like this woman. She was like us, a child of God created in God’s image, a sinful and forgiven follower of Jesus. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a devote Catholic and a devote servant of those who suffered poverty, illness, disease, and social rejection. But maybe he is our father or brother or husband or son; maybe she is our mother or sister or wife or daughter. Maybe you don’t even know that much about him or her. Maybe all you know is that he or she is a Christian who lives The Faith, and you can see it.
Then something like this happens. We are left numb and empty. You know people who were lost in Oklahoma’s greatest tragedy; you can imagine the grief of a mother, of a father, of a spouse or sibling, as they watched with bated breath for their loved ones to be pulled from the wreckage. As the hours dragged on, and hours turned into days, and days into months, hope became scarce.
Our loss moves us to act. We bring flowers and stuffed animals to the place where so many people died. We burn candles in protest against the darkness. We build memorials, to mark the sacred and provide a place for the community to grieve, a place to weep and laugh, a place to pray.
With each of these acts, we remember. The flowers help us to remember the beauty and brevity of life. The candles help us to remember the truth of our faith, that no darkness can overcome the light. The memorials help us to remember that evil is real, but that human love and goodness will always win out. In every act of remembering, the pieces come back together and hearts are healed.
I read a story recently about a man named Chris Fields. Fields has been an Oklahoma City Fire Fighter for thirty years, one of the first to arrive at the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995. Fields’ picture made the cover of every major newspaper and magazine the day after the bombing, a picture of him holding the lifeless body of Baylee Almon, a little girl whose life was taken while playing in the daycare that day. A year after the bombing, this picture of Fields was taken.
Fields told the Tulsa World that this picture wraps everything up—you can see everything: the rescue effort, the innocence that was lost, the faith of the people of Oklahoma. Fields says that he will never forget Baylee, and the world will never forget her either. We will also never forget Fields and the countless other saints who came to the aid of the City— the generosity and goodness, the love and compassion. We will never forget; we will remember.
And the stories of April 19 keep coming, and so too do the stories of D-Day, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. We tell the stories and we remember. The remembering doesn’t die. We heal and move on, but the remembering doesn’t die. Chris Fields’ witness and impact remain for us; Mother Teresa's witness and impact remain for us. And the stories and the remembering have a deep impact on others as we tell them, until they too tell the stories and remember. And they pass it on to someone else, who passes it on to someone else. Until person by person, generation by generation, the stories and remembering effect countless numbers of people. Person by person, generation by generation, remembering pieces the brokenness back together and, in time, the world becomes whole.
This is why today we take time to mark and remember the saints. The story of the saints, living and dead, is a story that must never be allowed to die. Each time we tell the story and remember their lives of faith, we are changed and so is the world around us. So whether that saint is Mother Teresa or Chris Fields, a family member or a friend or co-worker, I invite you today to remember...to remember the saints.
What Makes A Saint?
What makes a saint? Faith makes a saint. Faith takes regular people like Teresa and Chris, regular church people like you and me, and turns them into something special. Faith does that. And baptism.
How does faith and baptism make us special? The Apostle Paul tells us when he describes baptism as death and resurrection in the letter to the Romans. “Therefore,’ Paul says, ‘we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Faith and baptism make us special by making us holy. Baptism makes us holy by taking us down into the grave where sin and darkness die, and by raising us up in Christ’s life to live for God’s glory. The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, which means "holy." I like to imagine holiness as a great cycle race, something like the Tour de France. In the beginning of the race there is a large, wide crowd of racers—there is no order, only chaos. As the race continues, a clear leader moves forward and, one by one, the other racers line up in a single-file behind them. In our race, God is the clear leader and one by one we line up to follow behind: this is holiness. Following God’s ways, listening to God’s word, accepting God’s forgiveness and love: this is holiness.
The Scriptures define saints in other ways, as well. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians that saints have active faith in Jesus Christ.
In Romans again, Paul defines a saint by saying that saints are those who are called by God to specific way of life.
In Colossians we read, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” This means that saints are inheritors, recipients of a time-tested and true faith, in-takers of a mysterious and divine grace that has passed through the generations before.
To the church in Ephesus, Paul writes that saints are not isolated or single units, but members of Christian community. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” Faith was never meant to be a solitary way of life, which is probably why Jesus initially surrounded himself with twelve other people of faith. The same is true for the saints: their faith is lived in community, not in isolation. In community there is mutuality, where the joys and struggles of life are elevated and shared, where no one single person lives as an island. In community, we firmly stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, whose cornerstone is Jesus Christ.
Saints are also living and dead. As Peter traveled throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, spreading the gospel after the resurrection, he paid a visit to the living saints in Lydda. One of these, a woman named Tabitha, was devoted to good works and acts of charity—a real saint. While Peter was in Lydda, Tabitha became ill and died. The whole town came to Tabitha’s house to mourn and weep, because Tabitha was a pillar of the community of faith who had to be remembered. On hearing about Tabitha’s death, Peter went into her house, took her hand, and said, “Tabitha, get up”. And she did. The whole town was amazed when Tabitha walked out to show that she was alive, and in that moment many came to faith in Jesus. Tabitha was a living saint who did good works and acts of charity, and in her dying and rising again, she was a saint whose life inspired others to faith.
Saints are from everywhere, and John’s strange visions in Revelation paint a beautiful picture of saints as unique and countless as the stars of the sky. “They sing a new song: ’You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
So by now we should be clear about the saints, who they are and why we remember them. Before we begin to look at the lives of some specific saints, let us stand and confess the faith into which we baptize, the faith in which all saints believe, using the words of the Apostle’s Creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen
What do saints do?
We’ve talked about what a saint is, but what does a saint do? I think we will learn what saints do by example, through the stories we tell today. The writer of Hebrews says this:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.
By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’
And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews tells us that faith in God is not a noun, but a verb, a continuous action throughout one’s life. Those who we consider to be saints had verb faith and acted on and with their faith from the beginning to the end.
For example, consider Moses.
In the third chapter of Exodus, God says from the burning bush, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; and I have come down to deliver them and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt." And Moses says, "Who? Me?”. I think my reaction would have been the same!
"Not to worry," God says, "I will be with you." Moses doesn't like this idea at all, so he deflects the conversation away from himself. Moses admits that he has trouble with his speech, how could he ever speak to Pharaoh? Moses says, “If (and that is a big ‘if’) I come to the Israelites on your behalf and they ask what is your name, what shall I tell them?" God answers with "I am who I am," and immediately turns it back on Moses: "This is what you shall say to them. Go and assemble the elders. They will listen to you."
Moses is still not convinced: "Suppose they don’t listen me?”. Go shows Moses that his staff will turn into a serpent on command, and that his hand has been healed from a skin disease at the flick of God’s fingers: this is the real deal.
God lovingly says, “Do not worry. I will be with your mouth and teach you what to speak.” Moses, still not ready to answer this call, says, "O my Lord, please send someone else." God is now angry with Moses; Moses keeps trying to dodge the call. God says, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him…now pick up your staff and go!”. We know the rest of the story. Moses is a saint we can identify with!
Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus.
A girl of barely 16, visited by an angel and told that she will be the mother of God. A woman in her mid-twenties, chasing after Jesus as he wandered off to teach the elders in the temple. A lady approaching mid-life, watching her son go to prison, stand trial, and be condemned to death. A weeping mother, standing at the foot of the cross as her son gives up his life for the life of the world. A highly favored saint, standing outside the empty tomb knowing finally that her son had been telling the truth. Mary was obedient, gracious, kind, and fiercely loyal to her son.
Consider St. Andrew, who is said to have died on an X-shaped cross. St. Andrew holds the distinction of being the very first disciple of Jesus. He had been a disciple of John the Baptist, when one day John pointed Andrew to Jesus. Andrew immediately followed Jesus, spoke with him, asked some questions, then ran off to tell his brother Simon Peter with the bold revelation, "We have found the Messiah!”. St. Andrew is a saint because of his faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that made him the first and greatest evangelist of the Gospel.
Consider St. James and his brother St. John, the sons of Zebedee.
James and John answered Jesus' call from the fishing trade to discipleship just like Andrew and Simon Peter. James and John are well-known for their competitiveness, wanting to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus above the other disciples. They learned a powerful lesson the day they asked Jesus for this: the last shall be first, and first shall be last. But neither faith nor loyalty nor competition were strong enough to keep James and John and the other disciples from falling asleep while Jesus prayed in the Garden on the night of his arrest. James and John are saints not because they were perfect, but because they were forgiven and redeemed by Jesus.
Consider St. Theresa of Avila who once said, “…the important thing is not to think much, but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love”.
Consider St. Francis of Assisi, whose kindness and care for others even extended to the animals and creatures of our world.
Or Dorothy Day, who died in 1980. Her radical social conscience for helping others and for organizing hosts of people through her Catholic Workers organization continues to inspire men and women of the church to put the good news of the Gospel into action.
Today I am remembering a saint of my life, Phil Smith, my grandfather.
Grandpa taught me that God’s beauty can be found in something as routine as washing the car, and in something as profound as Yellowstone National Park. He showed me that faith is a verb and not a noun, that one does not need to be a squeaky wheel in order to get attention, in order to get things done.
Today I am remembering the saints of St. John’s church in Maryland.
These saints took a chance on an amateur musician, allowed him to grow in skill and faith, and gave him a swift kick in the pants to propel him into the life God was calling him to pursue. These saints showed me the beauty of the church, the way the church offers healing to the world, the way that the church fails and falls and stumbles, but always gets back up.
And there are so many others, you’ve met them too and maybe today you’re remembering them today. Poets, artists, teachers, missionaries, peacemakers, pastors, Sunday school teachers, parents, spouses, siblings, people of all nations, people of position, people of little means, people of piety, people of strength. All of them are people of faith, ordinary men and women who were called to extraordinary things, and answered. Their life informs your own; their faith inspires yours; their love leads you to love.
Who are you remembering today? What is it about them that leads you to think of them as a saint? What did they do, what are they doing, to make our world a little like heaven? How will you, in the extraordinary and routine of every day life, become like them and be a saint to someone else?
You see, the list of saints will never end. In each generation, God calls people to himself and makes them saints, with plans for each of them. Some with big plans. Some with small plans. Some whose lives will touch thousands upon thousands. Others whose lives and faith may only touch a handful of people. But saints, one and all. Remember them; remember them and be grateful. Remember them and be changed!
By faith and the waters of baptism, with the example of those who have come before, fueled by the power of remembrance, we too can become saints. Not just in death, but also in life. This is God’s good purpose us. May it be so today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.