Ministerial Musings All Saints Day: A Sermon
When I was a kid I loved the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” It sounded very British to me and it seemed to transcend time. It sounded as if it was all about knights, and princesses, and tea time. These are the people of legends and fables and Buckingham Palace. It is not a whole lot different than the characters we see in Disney movies.
But the point of the hymn is that saints run the gamut: they are extraordinary people and they are common folk like you and me.
Look in the dictionary; there are four primary definitions of a saint: 1. A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth. 2. A person who has died and gone to heaven. 3. A member of any of various religious groups, especially a Latter Day Saint. 4. An extremely virtuous person.
That covers almost all of us, does it not? None of us may be up for canonization and we’ve yet to die, but we do belong to a religious group and (some of us) may be extremely virtuous.
A single dad, who was new to a particular community, decided to take his seven-year-old son to church one day. It was a church he had never been to before. He did not know when church school was or anything else that was on the calendar, so his son sat with him in worship.
The minister came to the pulpit and preached a sermon about the saints. He talked about the history of the church, people like Peter, and James, and Mary, and Martha — people who knew Jesus personally.
He talked about the early, fledgling church: people like Tertullian, Irenaus, Augustine and his mother Monica — people who helped clarify the faith amidst confusion and controversy; people who laid the foundation of the church.
He talked about people who lived over a thousand years later — people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Saint Teresa of Avila who challenged us to look at the faith differently and find a deeper relationship with God.
He talked about modern day saints, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King who struggled for the rights of all people.
While all this was going on, the little boy was fascinated by the stained-glass windows that lined the sanctuary. It was a very bright, sunny day, so he was overcome by the colors. It was as if a rainbow had shattered and covered the congregation with radiant shapes of red, green, gold, blue, and purple. The colors that were reflected by the people in the windows — some of the same people that the minister mentioned in his homily — the colors were beautiful and they filled the church.
After the service, when they were driving home, the father asked the son what he thought of the church service. “I liked it,” he said.
“Were you listening to the minister’s sermon at all?” the father inquired.
“A little,” the boy admitted.
“Do you know what he was talking about?” the father asked. The boy confirmed that the sermon had something to do with people called saints. Testing how awake and attentive his son was, the father then asked, “And who are the saints?”
The boy said, “They are the people who the light shines through.”
The saints are not just those who have done dramatic things in history: defending the faith against heresy, fighting for the rights of all people. They are those who have helped us open our eyes to see God in our midst when we were blinded by other loyalties or stale ways of thinking.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of deepening my own spirituality, breaking my inner eye open so that I can see God better, clearer, closer. As usual, I have turned to Scripture and immersed myself in the Word. The problem, though, is that I have read this stuff so many times that I find myself glossing over the words on the page, because I know what’s coming next.
I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to read the Bible again for the first time, to borrow that title from Marcus Borg. Once a poem or a song becomes your favorite, it loses the magic of being discovered by you for the first time. So I decided to read a version of Scripture not so familiar to me: Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
The Message, as it states, “is a contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language.” It is a fresh approach to Scripture. You get to hear the words of Jesus as if you are listening to them for the first time. For example, most of you have heard the Beatitudes (which we read today) many, many times before.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Listen to how these same verses are translated in The Message:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You have to think about it. Before, you would gloss over “the meek will inherit the earth,” because you’ve heard it countless times before. It is sort of like saying “The Lord’s Prayer”: do you actually think about what you are saying each week when we offer those timeless words to God or do you just go on automatic pilot?
Is Eugene Peterson a saint? Maybe? Why not? He has enabled a new generation to experience God’s Word anew. The saints are legendary — and they are common people like you and me. Anyone who lives by the Gospel and tries to help others do the same falls into the “sainthood” category. As the little boy so astutely observed, the saints are the ones who the light shines through.
God sent you here to make a difference, to make the world that much better, to be a saint. Contrary to public perception, that does not mean that you have to be canonized or immortalized in a statue in some cathedral. Sainthood is more ordinary and dirty than that. It is more profane than it is sacred. It is every day. It is going into this dark world and making it just a little bit brighter. This can be accomplished by word, by deed, by simply following God’s call and letting the radical, other-affirming, liberating message of Christ’s Gospel guide you and flow through you.
Embrace the task, my friends. Go into the world and let God’s light shine through you — and it may it rain the Gospel’s beautiful rainbow of truth across every road you take and upon everyone you encounter on this sacred journey. As one of my favorite songwriters has said, “Each small candle lights a corner are the dark.” Be that candle, my friends, so that others may see. Amen.
John III Tamilio
John Tamilio III is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, an accomplished guitarist, and a nationally published author. His first book of poetry, Blind Painting, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 2003. He and his wife, Susan, live in Lakewood, Ohio with their children: Sarah, “Jay” (John IV), and Thomas.