Revelation 7:917; Psalm 34:110, 22; Matthew 5:112
I remember a few years ago talking to a friend who said she was thinking about giving up on religion. Her discomfort has been building for a long time—the violence committed in the name of faith through the centuries, the ways Christians have treated the Jews down through history, how often one religious faith has forced its beliefs on another. And 9/11 became for her the last straw.
Thousands of people lost their lives in the name of a perverted form of religion. Andrew Sullivan writing in the New York Times Magazine said that what we are seeing is a religious war—not one, of course, between Islam and Christianity, but a clash between fanatic fundamentalists in all religions and the true voices of open-minded, compassionate religious faith. Fundamentalists use authoritarian power, they often wield religious texts like clubs, they frequently threaten eternal suffering to those who don’t obey and eternal bliss to those who do. They can sometimes be the antithesis of true religion, whether we’re talking about Osama bin Laden or the 13th-century Christian crusaders heading off to slay the infidels. When the new atheists who have written so many books lately want to argue that religion is bad for the world, they can find plenty of evidence.
Any religious faith, though, is ultimately to be judged by one thing—does it, or does it not, produce holy people, people of wisdom and generosity, whose lives in some way mirror the Love at the heart of the universe? We can see the hatred and violence of fundamentalists and fanatics for the corruptions of religion that they are—if we can point to religious people who actually have been channels of God’s love.
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, the feast of what we could call the real thing, true religion—lives so filled with God’s love that they are willing to do remarkable things for God. Today we remember the famous ones and the not so famous, the whole goodly company of those whose lives have shone with Christ’s light.
Maybe the most famous is a fellow named Francis Bernardone. Born into a well-to-do family, he had a fine education and loved his wine, parties, and a good fight now and then. But after months of battle and a brutal time in prison, he came home with a growing awareness of the poverty around him and began giving away the clothes from his father’s shop. One day he rode by a leper, and when he saw an especially ragged-looking man he nudged his horse to hurry on, tossing a few coins as he went to ease his conscience. But then as if from nowhere he was overcome with an intense wave of pity, and so he turned around, went back to the leper, got off his horse, took all the money he had and shoved it in the man’s hands. And then he did the unthinkable, embracing the man, open sores and all. After that Francis tossed away everything for God and became known, of course, as St. Francis of Assisi.
On the other hand, you may not have heard of Saint Maximilian, who was the first conscientious objector and refused to serve in the Roman army when he was drafted. He said his only loyalty was to the army of God. This broke his father’s heart because he knew it would mean his son’s death. And as Maximillian prepared to be put to death he noticed the shabby clothes of his executioner and asked that his own clothes be given to the man, and they were.
Or there is Constance and a group of New England nuns serving in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1870s when a yellow fever epidemic swept through the city. More than half the city packed up and left when the plague began, but Constance and her companions stayed there, easing the discomfort of the dying, emptying their bedpans, and all of it for God. The marker with all their names on it is still there in a Memphis cemetery.
And then there is one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great theologians of the century, who was a pastor in Germany as Hitler came to power. Bonhoeffer joined the tiny Confessing Church made up of the handful of pastors who refused to give in to Hitler’s demands of absolute loyalty. He wrote books, created a new seminary to train faithful ministers, and eventually became involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. When he was found out he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and, on a Sunday in 1945, just as he was concluding a prison church service, he was hanged.
Dorothy Day, working among the poorest in New York City in 1950s and 60s; Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda killed for defending his people who were being slaughtered by Idi Amin… We honor these saints because they show us so clearly what living Christ’s love can mean.
Novelist Frederick Buechner describes in one of his stories a writer who became so enchanted by the heroic stories of these saints that he began getting himself to church to learn what made them tick. Buechner says that watching these saints became for this man like looking out the window at a swarm of crazy people running around the street below in a frenzy of excitement over something they were all pointing to in the sky but that, because of the overhang of the roof, he himself was unable to see. So he realized eventually what he had to do was come down into the street to find out for himself what all the excitement was about. And so he began to make his way to church where, little by little, over time, he thought he was catching at least a glimpse of what all the shouting was about.
We come here to church week by week to see what the shouting is all about, to spend some time in the company of the saints who have gone before us. In the New Testament understanding, of course, all of us are saints. Sainthood isn’t something you achieve, it’s given. It’s what we become when we’re baptized. We’re marked as Christ’s own forever. Saints in the New Testament are not religious super-athletes. Most of them are like us, ordinary people called by Christ to live an extraordinary way. Listen to how Jesus himself describes saints:
Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you…
The saints are the ones who don’t have their lives together. They seem to have to struggle to get by. They aren’t rich or famous or particularly brilliant. They are people like you and me, who have been broken open enough to know God’s love and to trust it, and open enough to trying to live Christ’s way right where they are.
Every Sunday when we gather here the air is thick with the saints who have lived this way. They are everywhere around us. Every window and carving points to another one–St. Paul and St. Teresa of Avila, St. Chrsysostom, the silver-tongued preacher, and Florence Nightingale the nineteenth-century nurse, Martin Luther King and Howard Thurman, the African American preacher and mystic. And so when we step into this Cathedral we are caught up in the communion of saints, the company of all who have lived their lives in God through the centuries. We believe they are with us here, and so are our own personal saints, our parents and grandparents and coaches and teachers who showed us Christ–all part of God’s eternity, still encouraging us, inspiring us, pulling for us.
As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Because we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
I have to say, I know plenty of ordinary, everyday saints here in this Cathedral, and I admire them enough not to embarrass them by naming them today. But they are the ones who show me Christ’s light day in, day out. They are the great cloud of witnesses that keep showing me what it means to live Christ’s way.
This is the real thing. This is what Christianity is for. The Church is meant to be a factory for saints. If it isn’t making saints it isn’t worth bothering with. And if it is, then it is something the world can’t get along without.
And so, my fellow saints, our lives are intended to be the only real answer to the age-old saga of religion gone bad. Of course we could try the excuse that it’s hard to be a saint when you work in an office or classroom or lab, or don’t have a job at all. Saints are made of more heroic stuff, we may tell ourselves. But we can work out our sainthood anywhere. We can ask God to fill us, to help us keep our heads straight and our hearts open in a pinched and frightened world. We can pray and read scripture and keep our promises and serve the poor. It’s not that hard.
Sainthood is mostly about the little things, about what you do for God this afternoon, or tomorrow. There’s a moment in the play A Man for All Seasons when Sir Thomas More is encouraging his son-in-law to become a teacher. The young man protested, “Who would notice me except God and my students?” And More responded, “Not a bad audience, that.”
I have a friend who is a Lutheran pastor, and five or six years ago he and his wife took in three Sudanese young men, the ones that have been called “the lost boys of the Sudan,” orphans abandoned in the terrible wars there. When the boys moved in their new home, they insisted on sleeping in the same small room, because they could remember no other life than being jammed in a tiny space. But over the next few years they found their bearings, went to American schools, and are making their way into new lives. My friend talks about it all matter of factly. It’s just what he and his wife felt called to do.
It has been hard, but they’ve never regretted it. That’s the real thing. It’s sainthood. It’s your call and mine. It’s the only real justification for the church.