“Saints in the Making”- Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:28-34– Nov. 1, 2015
All Saints’ Day–the “hallow” part of “Halloween.” The same as the word used in the King James version of the Lord’s Prayer–”hallowed be Thy name,” [not Harold, as some may presume]. “Holy be Your name.”
All Saints’ Day. We Protestants don’t quite know what to do with saints. It sounds so, well, Catholic, and we watch the debates and struggles of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters over who should or shouldn’t be called a saint and how fast should be the fasttrack to sainthood with some consternation and even amusement. Calls for making Pope John Paul and Mother Theresa saints began upon their deaths. More recently, during his September visit to the U.S., Pope Francis canonized the 18th c. Spanish missionary Junipero Serra, which thrilled many Latinos who to see one of their own so honored, while it appalled many Native Americans, who saw Fr. Serra as one of a long line of genocidal conquistadors.
For the first 300 years of their existence, Christians were by and large a persecuted sect, so models of faithfulness and courage were lifted up for encouragement. Relics were preserved and the dates of their deaths were honored. “The church eventually concluded,” one commentator writes, “that all believers who had died, and not just famous saints, should rightly be commemorated,” [Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus, 10/25/15] and so in 835, Pope Gregory IV declared All Saints Day should be celebrated on November 1, though the Eastern Orthodox part of the Christian family celebrates it on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Protestants are much more nervous about this celebration, and often prefer to focus instead on Reformation Day, Oct. 31, the All Hallows Eve on which Martin Luther posted his 95 points of disagreement–his 95 theses–on the church door in Wittenberg. Prince Frederick the Wise of Wittenberg had collected quite the cache of relics–allegedly including a tooth from St. Jerome, 3 pieces of Mary’s cloak, a piece of gold from the Three Wise Men, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, and a strand from Jesus’ beard. By 1520 he was said to have a collection of 19,013 holy bones.
“These distortions of the gospel made Luther’s blood boil.” [Clendenin, op cit.] “What lies there are about relics! [he wrote] One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a twig from Moses’ burning bush. And how does it happen that 18 apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only 12?” And of course, what really burned Luther, so to speak, was that these relics were publicly displayed on All Saints Day and for a fee, the pope would reduce your time in purgatory up to 1,902,202 years and 270 days. [a bargain at any price].
Protestants are thus historically nervous about saints, especially about the blurring of the line between honoring the saints and worshipping the saints. Though there are technical definitions of saints, including how many miracles they are to have performed, it is important to note that the apostle Paul wrote in his letters to the churches in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi that all believers are called to be saints, not just faithful superstars. Martin Luther said that “every believer is simultaneously a saint and sinner,” though we shouldn’t dismiss the value of holding up models of faithful people. In our celebrity culture, it would be–and is– refreshing to point to people who, despite their fame and maybe fortune, have held on to values of humility and service and self-giving instead of self-serving. Sometimes it is the non-famous, everyday people who inspire us most and serve as models and encouragement for our own daily decision-making and actions. On All Saints Day, we are reminded that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who have gone before us, who have experienced the same struggles and failures and small triumphs that we have, and that wherever we are on our journey, they are cheering us on.
You’ll notice [now] that we didn’t sing the great Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” this morning, but rather, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” The two hymns could hardly be more different, with the weighty, sometimes dark, images of Luther’s hymn contrasting with the almost child-like images in the Scott and Hopkins hymn, with its refrain, “and I want to be one too.”
I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes dismissed that as a rather naive sentiment, but I have new respect for it after reading a passage from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain. Thomas Merton, you may recall, was a 20th c. Trappist monk whose writings have earned him a place in many people’s most sacred treasures–some would call him a saint. In this section, “a young Thomas Merton walks down Sixth Ave. [in New York City] with his friend Lax on their way to Greenwich Village.” [Suzanne Guthrie, Notes from the Enclosure, 11/1/15]
The street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores on our way to Greenwich Village [Merton writes]. The moment turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned.
I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end, Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question, ‘What do you want to be, anyway?’
I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton, the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,’ so I put the thin on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said: ‘I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.’
‘What do you mean, You want to be a good Catholic?!’
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it. ‘What you should say’–he told me–‘what you should say is you want to be a saint.’
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’ ‘By wanted to,’ said Lax simply.
‘I can’t be a saint,’ I said, ‘I can’t be a saint.’ And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes [people] say that they cannot do the things which they must do, cannot reach the level they must reach; the cowardice that says [in the end]….I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.
[cited in Guthrie, op cit.]
“What do you want to be anyway?”
“One of the scribes asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And when the scribe agreed, saying he was right, and that loving God with everything and loving neighbor as yourself is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices, Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
You become a saint by wanting to become a saint; by wanting to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and wanting to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s how you start out–by wanting to do that, by setting an intention to do that. We all know what road is paved with good intentions, but it’s also the road that leads to God. And despite the spriteliness of the hymn, we know that it is not an easy path to follow. That’s why we take the time each week to call our souls back from where they’ve wandered from the pathway.
“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Start from that One Source. Who knows who might happen to notice in the way you’re walking the path that there can be another way of living in the world besides self-promotion, autonomy, and narcissism [Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher, 10/25/15], and in that way, you become a kind of model for “saintly” living. Maybe no one will notice, except God, but you will have been God’s face and hands and presence in the world, one more piece of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
You become a saint–a holy one, one who radiates God–by first wanting to. “And I want to be one too.” That is a process of loving God, even of feeding on God. And so we come to this table, which is just a sliver of the Welcome Table God has spread for all the saints and all the would-be saints. “This is my body, this is my blood, the bread of life and the cup of blessing.” Take and eat. Take and drink. Become one with me, God says. Become one with one another and with the whole world.” Feed the saint in you. Let your light shine.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark