St. Paul’s – All Saints – November 1
In C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Great Divorce, the narrator dreams of a great procession in heaven, celebrating an unknown woman; one of the great heroes of our faith, and she is so beautiful he cannot capture her appearance in words…
Is it?…is it? I whispered to my guide.
Not at all, said he. It’s someone you’ll never have heard of. Here name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.
She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance.
Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different
And who are all these young men and women on each side?
They are her sons and daughters.
She must have had a very large family, Sir.
Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought her meat to the back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.
…It is like when you throw a stone into a pool and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.
Inevitably there will be well known people whose example inspires me, but today on all Saints Day, I am reminded that the majority of the world’s saints are anonymous. Their lives and legacy are known only to a few, or maybe only to God.
With this description of a saint in mind, I started to wonder something this week. I started asking myself as I hear about many a hero on the frontlines of COVID and forest fires and other natural disasters. What is the difference between what the media calls heroes and the church calls saints? Are heroes and the saints the same thing? Can one be a hero and a saint or are they mutually exclusive? I think there is no place for heroes in the kingdom of God. Saints yes….heroes, no. Do you know how many times the word hero is used in the New Testament? Zero. And do you know how many times the word saint occurs? Sixty-four. This then led to the question….What is the difference between a hero and a saint? I’m going to suggest five differences.
To start with, think about the kind of story that is told about heroes, and compare that with the story that is told about saints. The hero always makes a decisive intervention at a moment when things are looking like they could all go badly wrong. The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right. In other words, the hero is always at the center of the story. By contrast, the saint is not necessarily a crucial character. The saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero’s story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is always really about God. Think about the stories you tell about yourself. Are you the hero at the center of the story, or the saint, at the periphery of God’s story?
Next, think about why the story is told. The hero’s story is always told to celebrate the virtues of the hero. The hero’s strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing: these are the qualities on which the hero’s decisive intervention rests.David Wells once had a teacher he and his friends used to call Chiefly Instrumental. That was because in every one of his stories, he’d been chiefly instrumental in bringing about some kind of great initiative or achievement. Others were involved, but he made the decisive intervention. He was the hero of every one of his own stories. By contrast the saint may well not have any great qualities. The saint may not be strong, brave, clever or opportunistic. But the saint is faithful. The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith. Think about the stories you tell about yourself. Are you chiefly instrumental? Or are you just glad to be part of the story?
Third, think about what the story takes for granted. The definitive heroic icon is the soldier, who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage. The story assumes that in a world of limited resources, there’s bound to be conflict at some stage so that good may prevail. But saints assume a very different story. They don’t need to learn how to fight over competing goods, because Christ has fought for and secured the true good, and the goods that matter now are not limited or in short supply. Love, joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness – these do not rise or fall with the stock market. The saints’ story doesn’t presuppose scarcity; it doesn’t require the perpetuation of violence.
Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The soldier faces death in battle; the martyr faces death by not going to battle. The soldier’s heroism is its own reward: it makes sense in any language that respects nobility and aspires to greatness. The martyr’s sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God: it has no place in any story except that of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the martyr’s heavenly crown. The image of the passage from the Revelation of John in todays reading.Think about the stories you tell about yourself. Are you the hero, gaining the reward, or the saint, sharing what everyone can have?
Fourth, think about what happens when the story goes wrong. Remember the hero is always at the center of the story. Remember it’s the hero’s decisive intervention that makes the story come out right. Without the hero all would be lost. So if the hero makes a mistake, if the hero bungles, or exposes a serious flaw – it’s a disaster, a catastrophe, probably fatal for the story and, if it’s a big story, possibly pretty serious for life as we know it. By contrast the saint expects to fail. If the saint’s failures are honest ones, they merely highlight the wonder of God’s greater victory. If the saint’s failures are less admirable ones, they open out the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration that Christians call a new creation. A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. Think about the stories you tell about yourself. Are you succeeding in the hero’s story, the one that will finally fail? Or are you failing in the saint’s story, the one that will finally succeed? What do you think and feel when I celebrate the Eucharist and invite you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed…..It is Christ who invites you here.
And finally, the hero stands alone against the world. The story of the hero shows how she or he stands out from their community, by the excellence of their virtue, the decisiveness of their intervention, or their simple right to have a story told about them. The story of God tells how Jesus expects a response from his disciples that they cannot give on their own: they depend not only on him but also on one another for resources that can sustain faithful lives, and they discover that their dependence on one another isn’t a handicap but a central part to their witness.
Here’s the crucial point. Of those 64 references to saints in the New Testament, every single one is in the plural. Saints are never alone. They assume, demand, require community – a special kind of community that we call the Communion of Saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves: Saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith. The Church is God’s new language, and it speaks not of a country fit for heroes to live in but of a commonwealth of saints.
So there’s a message for all of us here. The message is simple, painful, universal, and liberating. Remember the story is not about you; it is about God. You’re called not to be successful, but to be faithful. The things in life that God wants to give you are not in short supply. Your mistakes will speak of God more than will your achievements. And if you’re faithful, you are never alone. Here’s the final question for you, at this most challenging season of the Christian year: might it be time for you to stop trying so hard to be a hero, and begin to let God make you into a saint?
Now let’s put all of this in context for today. Think about it… here we are with plenty of Heroes and Saints in our world fighting this pandemic. How often, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, have you said, I can’t wait until life gets back to normal? I’ve said it more times than I can count. There’s nothing wrong with saying it — of course we want to return to the lives we enjoyed before the virus changed everything. Of course we want to travel again, and welcome people into our homes, and worship in-person in our churches, and put away our face masks, and send our children to school, and hug our loved ones without fearing for their safety. Of course we want the dread, isolation, uncertainty, and grief of the past year to fade into memory.
But during this week when the church celebrates All Souls and All Saints, and the lectionary invites us to reflect deeply on Jesus’s inaugural Sermon on the Mount, I’ve been asking myself some painful questions: What exactly is normal? Who decides how we define it? What does normal look like to Jesus — and does my vision of normality align with his?
Where do Saints fit into the normal of our lives? Throughout my life I have often used the word anchors to describe those things in my life that keep me feeling grounded and steady and safe. Are they your heroes or Saints?
It might be friends, or family, or a sense of purpose, or even just a neighborhood that feels like home. Often, I won’t realize how much something is an anchor for me until it’s gone. But seasons when I feel unmoored always align with the loss of an anchor or several.
We are living in a season of immense upheaval. So many anchors have been lost that we cannot keep track. People are separated from family, isolated from friends and community. Even the reliable consistency of life’s small pleasures and ordinary routines—going out to dinner and a movie, commuting to work—have been utterly upended. I imagine many people have been feeling unmoored in these pandemic days and weeks and months. My guess is whichever candidate wins the election…will cause the people who voted for the loser, to lose an anchor.
Life as we knew it has gone, and whatever comes after this time will be a different world, a different reality, a new normal. Much like our passage from 1 John describes, what we will be has not yet been revealed. Will we tear each other apart? Will we develop greater compassion for one another, and greater awareness of the fragility and exploitation of our systems? Will we become better than we have been? Will we be a heroes or a saints?
Only time will tell us. But these verses from the first letter of John remind us that even in a world upended, unhinged, uncertain, and unwieldy, we have not lost every anchor. Indeed, we have not entirely lost our families and friends and communities, nor our capacity for small and simple pleasure. Perhaps in many ways, we are even discovering new avenues to these things, new lines to tie to them in new ways. Perhaps we are merely simplifying what it is that we rely on and take comfort in.
Regardless, as the text says, one truth remains steadfast and invincible: we are children of God. We know God and are known by God and claimed in love by God. No pandemic, no election, no worldly upheaval can change that fact. Ultimately, our hope doesn’t lie in the anchors of this world, nor in the markers of the old normal, and not even in our families and communities.
Our hope is rooted in the knowledge of whose we are. When Christ is in our midst, when the Holy Spirit is at work in and around and through us—even in the midst of chaos, we will recognize the saints and can find comfort in them, along with a calling to follow the way of God’s love into whatever future world awaits us……To Be Saints
This Sunday let’s do something radical and countercultural. Let’s remember the saints. Let’s give thanks to God for the gifts we received from the saints. And then let’s dare to learn by the examples set by the saints. All of them.
Let us pray:
as we gather today as your church,
give us the vision to be able to see all your saints of all times and places gathered here with us.
In our worship this day,
may we sense the saints cheering us on,
profit from their examples of well-lived lives and
noble deaths in the faith, and be encouraged in our attempts
to be your saints & disciples in our time and place. Amen.
Invitation to the Offering
Our mission is to engage in God’s mission to
feed the hungry,
give something to drink to the thirsty
and to wipe the tears from every eye.
This is accomplished through our gifts
of time, talent and treasure.
Give generously so that God’s will might be
done on earth as it is in heaven.
we are your people, we carry your presence.
Use us and our gifts to accomplish your mission in the world.
Multiply our effort to meet every need.
This we pray in the name of Christ,
whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
reign in our hearts and lives,
one God now and forever. Amen.
May this day bring Sabbath rest to our hearts and our communities.
May God’s image in us be restored
and our imagination in God be restoried.
May the gravity of material things be lightened,
And the relativity of time slow down.
May we know grace to embrace our own finite smallness
In the arms of Go’s infinite greatness.
May God’s word continue to feed us
And God’s Spirit lead us into the week
And into the life to come with the
Blessing of God almighty,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is with you and those who you love and pray for on this day and forever more.