A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 1, 2015
Philemon 1-7 ESV
What does All Saints Day have to do with the United Church? you may be asking. I realize that churches of the free tradition like our United Church generally don’t revere the saints or observe All Saints Day. But there is no reason that we can’t learn a thing or two from the spirit of the day.
As a point of information, All Saints Day always falls on November 1st, the day after Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve. All Hallows’ was a day set aside in the Church Year to remember the dead, most specifically the saints and martyrs.
When it comes to saints, of course, there are “Saints” proper, spelled with a capital S. And then there are saints in general, spelled with a lower case s. Saints proper refers to those special Christians beatified (blessed) and then canonized by the Church and acknowledged as Saints who deserve special recognition, such as St. Francis of Assisi whom we all know and most of us admire.
But when we think of someone being a saint, certain traits may come to mind: someone who dresses a certain way; someone who lives a life of extreme piety; someone who spends much of the day on his or knees in prayer and/or reading the scriptures; someone who has renounced all worldly goods and income so as to live a life of poverty; someone who was martyred for the faith; maybe even someone who lives a perfect, sinless life in every sense of the term. These may be some of the images that come to mind when we think of the saints. But just how many of these traits actually represent the true nature of the saints?
To be sure, to be canonized as a Saint, certain criteria must be met:
- First, “Two verifiable postmortem miracles. Canonization (sainthood) requires two miracles, whereas beatification (blessed) requires only one.
- Second, evidence of having led an exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation, having died a heroic death (martyrdom), or having undergone a major conversion of heart where a previous immoral life was abandoned and replaced by one of outstanding holiness.
Formally declared saints are chosen ultimately by the pope, but only after a thorough investigation of the life, writings, and legacy of the saint candidate. No stone is left unturned. Testimony from witnesses and experts, physical evidence, and the entire life of the person is examined with fine detail. Every skeleton in the closet is taken out, and all dirty laundry looked at — if any exists, that is.” (from For Dummies) Well, such are the criteria for all those special saints.
But then, there are saints in general who are mentioned in several books of the Bible; the saints of old, and contemporary saints who meet certain criteria or exhibit certain characteristics. Such is what is most pertinent for our purposes today. The word translated “saint” in our English Bibles has different meanings, depending upon the context. Various meanings of the word translated “saint” include kind, pious, set apart, separate, or holy. Often in the New Testament, members of the Church are referred to as saints. Such is the case in Paul’s letter to Philemon that served as our reading this morning.
But the real question is this: What makes for a saint in today’s, 21st-century world? Are there saints living today? Living in Oak Ridge? Maybe saints in this United Church, even? And if so, what are the qualities that go into the making of a true saint?
As I have reflected upon the making of a saint in today’s world, a few character and personality traits have come to mind. For instance, one trait that seems to characterize those viewed as saints is humility. I think of Francis of Assisi who gave up his family’s wealth in order to identify with the poor. Francis once gave what was described as “a wonderful sermon on holy humility, teaching them that the greater the gifts and graces which God gives us, the greater is our obligation to be more humble, because without humility no virtue is acceptable to God.” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis)
A second trait characteristic of saints seems to be compassion. The modern-day saint who comes to mind in this regard is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who spent most of her life showing compassion to the poorest of the poor lepers of Calcutta, India. Regarding compassion, Mother Teresa said, “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” (A Gift for God)
A third trait common to saints seems to be service. I think of the 17th-century French-born monk, Brother Lawrence, who relished working in the monastery kitchen, peeling potatoes for his brothers and washing pots and pans. For Brother Lawrence, peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans was not only a form of service to those of his monastic community. It was also a way that he exercised his own spirituality. Brother Lawrence said, “we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” (The Practice of the Presence of God)
One interesting observation is in all three of these saints, the traits of humility, compassion, and service overlapped and complimented each other, almost like a “Trinity of Saintly Traits.” And at least two of the three Saints I have mentioned did not feel themselves to be saintly or holy at all. Francis testified, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.” And Mother Teresa felt much the same way, often feeling that she was unworthy of God’s love. She once said, “I am unworthy – I am sinful – I am weak” (I Loved Jesus in the Night).
Yes, what made these three saints “saintly” was not any personal sense of superiority or holiness; it was just the opposite. No, what made these saints “saintly” was their sense of humility which they exemplified each day, their hearts of compassion that led them to reach out to hurting humanity, and the giving of their lives in service to others.
One more curious thing about sainthood is it is not a state that one can aspire to, as one might aspire to become President of the United States. In fact, to actively pursue the title of saint would negate one ever being recognized as such, it seems. To say, “Look how humble I am” betrays the spirit of humility. And to be compassionate or serve others solely with the goal in mind of being recognized a saint is a sham. So actively seeking sainthood is a lost cause from the onset.
However, that having been said, I think we can still learn from the examples of the saints and strive to live our lives so as to demonstrate greater humility in relation to life and to others, seek to be more compassionate with all we encounter each day, and seek more ways to be of service to humanity, especially suffering humanity.
With that being a base of criteria for the making of a saint, I think we can accurately say that there are, indeed, saints in Oak Ridge; saints among us. I think I may have actually encountered a few. Amen.