Ephesians 1:11–23; Psalm 149; Luke 6:20–31

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the name of Peter and James and John.
In the name of Mary and Mary Magdalene and Martha.
In the name of Paul and Stephen and Priscilla and Lydia.
In the name of Augustine and Monica and Francis and Clare.
In the name of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.
In the name of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Wesley.
In the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu and Janani Luwum.
In the name of Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.
In the name of John and Julie and Carmen and Jack.
In the name of Mary and Keeva and Michael.

In the name of all the saints, past and present, we are gathered here on All Saints’ Day to celebrate the saints who have gone before us.

For each of us here today there is an unbroken chain of saints reaching back step by step to Jesus himself walking the hills of Galilee. Every one of us is here today because someone, or some ones, have shown us the love of Christ, and someone showed them, and an older generation showed them. We are all part of what the church calls the Communion of Saints, the company of all the saints, living and dead.

If any of you has ever tried to read the Bible cover to cover you know what it is like to get bogged down in the long lists of names. Try I and II Chronicles—one list after list another. Or the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, with all those unpronounceable names of so and so begetting so and so. I remember when I was teaching preaching years ago hearing a seminarian say that some parts of the Bible are clearly less inspired than others, and the lists are near the bottom. But that misses the point. Those obscure names are there to remind us that God’s primary way of working on earth is through un-famous people generation after generation who are faithful in their time and place. Now we are here, the newest links in the chain of saints, and today we give thanks for them. In our prayers and during the Eucharist, let us hold in our hearts our own saints—especially those who have shown us God’s love and have now died and entered more fully into God’s life.

These are hard times for religious faith, when fanaticism and fundamentalism are seizing the headlines. But All Saint’s Day is the feast of authentic faith, the celebration of lives so filled with God’s love that they were able to do remarkable things for God. The church is intended to be a factory for saints. Saints are our product, our purpose, our goal—sending out into the world people whose lives embody God’s love. If the church fails to make saints of the likes of you and me, it has failed at its essential mission.

And all of us are intended to be saints. Now you may think that a little presumptuous; after all, not all of us may exactly be models of holiness. But in the time of the New Testament being a saint didn’t necessarily mean being heroic. Paul addressed his letters to “all the saints” in the churches. The word saint actually means “holy,” or “set apart”. The saints were the ordinary holy ones, set apart by God’s love in baptism and called to be signs of Christ in their lives.

You know the story of children in Sunday School one day being asked what a saint is, as the teacher points to figures in a stained glass window. One child looks at the window, and says, “They are the ones who let the light shine in.” Saints are the ones who, in spite of all their limitations, have allowed God’s light to shine through their lives. And over the years the word came to be applied to the great martyrs, teachers, mystics, church leaders in each era.

But however famous some of these saints have been, it would be a mistake to turn them into plaster images of sweetness and light. You may know that very English hymn that begins “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true”. It has many good things in it; unfortunately that opening line isn’t one of them. Saints by and large were not “patient and brave and true.” They were often crotchety and cowardly and false.

St. Peter was impulsive, unreliable, and had a bad temper. St. Paul’s letters are full of self-pity, bragging, and accusation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote a major treatise called “On the Love of God” was responsible for enlisting more people to fight the Muslims in the Crusades than any other preacher of his era. The great reformer Martin Luther had one of the meanest tongues in history. Of the pope and his cardinals he once said, “We should . . . tear out their tongues from the back and nail them on the gallows.” And yet, flawed and imperfect as they were, God’s light shone through them.

Whatever being a saint is, it isn’t about stained glass perfection and endless joy. The Beatitudes we heard in church today are the church’s description of saintliness. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourners, Jesus says. In other words, blessed are the ones who are struggling and on the edge, the incomplete ones, the ones who have made mistakes in their lives, the ones who yearn for a peace and wholeness that the world cannot give. They are blessed because their lives have forced them to make room for God. Saints are the ones who have taken life’s hurts, injustices, limitations, and their own flaws, and instead of being defeated, have managed to let God’s love flow through them. To be a saint is to be fully alive, awake, in touch with the depths of your life and our world.

Most saints are utterly ordinary. In novelist Reynolds Price’s account of his long stay in the hospital battling cancer, he describes some saints, and in this case they aren’t the doctors.

My presiding oncologist saw me as seldom as he could manage. He plainly turned aside when I attempted conversation in the halls; and he seemed to know literally no word or look of mild encouragement or comradeship in the face of what, as I later learned, he thought was hurried death. [from A Whole New Life]

No, Price says, the saints were the night nurses, the patient black women who came in the middle of the night when he called them. They were the only ones who ever asked how he was doing and what he needed. They were able, Price says, to “blend their professional work with the oldest natural code of all—mere connectedness, the simple look and words that award a suffering creature his or her dignity.” That’s the light shining through.

In fact, when I think of saints I knew growing up, it isn’t heroism at all that comes to mind. I think of the countless teachers, Scout leaders, aunts and uncles. There is a woman juggling the demands of raising six children while in her spare time making visits to a nursing home and the local prison. There is a seminary professor who through nearly all his married life emptied the bedpans of his wife with multiple sclerosis. There is a doctor friend leaving his lucrative private practice to run the AIDS units in three state prisons.

But we also need the public saints to show us God’s love in action in every time. Here in this Cathedral our windows and stone carvings surround us with reminders of what the New Testament calls “a great cloud of witnesses,” all those saints living and dead who have shown us the light and who are praying and pulling for us. We have Isaiah looking down on us, St. Peter and St. Paul out with their towers, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, John Donne and St. Teresa of Avila.

One of the “public saints” of our time is Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun who has become famous through the film Dead Man Walking for her ministry to convicted criminals on death row. She was here at the Cathedral for our Youth Anti-violence Day earlier this year. When Sister Helen entered a Roman Catholic convent as a young woman, she focused on the otherworldly spirituality of her day. But slowly her faith began to shift, as she came to believe that Jesus was calling his followers to plunge into the world, and especially to serve the poor. “Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the hungry…”—that became the touchstone of her ministry.

And so after fifteen years in a convent, Sr. Helen decided to move into one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. She says she had come to believe she was called to give up the option of averting her eyes from other people’s suffering. Living with the poor, she saw, is a spiritual discipline as important as going to mass. “Being with them,” she says, “is to be in the presence of love, which then leads you to do what love requires.” And so when someone from the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons asked if she would be willing to be a pen pal to someone on death row, she did “what love required” and said yes. That new relationship led her into a world of poverty and despair she had never imagined. And the journey of accompanying a convict all the way to his death became for her a new calling.

She began for the first time to understand the suffering of the lost souls who become killers, the agony of the families of the victims, and the inhumanity of a society’s decision to kill people. She became a tireless opponent of capital punishment, a practice most of the Western world regards as cruel and unjust. “Every human being,” she came to believe, “is worth more than the worst thing we do.” Or, as Jesus says in our gospel lesson, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,…pray for those who abuse you.”

You have to watch out for saints. Nearly all of them end up being troublemakers of one kind or another. They make us see things we’d rather avoid. They can be gentle and kind, but more often they can be pushy and controversial. But through them, God’s light shines into the world.

Sometimes, though, the light is so subtle you could easily miss it. Years ago, in another city, I sat over a long lunch with a parishioner and friend, one of those ordinary saints, who knew that his wife was having an affair. He was in enormous pain because of it, but couldn’t bring himself to walk away from the marriage. He told me that his therapist had said to him, “You’re acting like you either want to be a masochist or a saint.” And my friend told me, with tears in his eyes, “I sure don’t want to be a masochist, but I do want to be a saint.”

That’s our calling, to be saints—God’s light shining through. It’s the reason the church exists.