All Saints’ Sunday

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 5:1-12

Sixty-eight years ago, on All Saints’ Day, a Requiem Eucharist was celebrated for the Archbishop of Canterbury. To be sure, William Temple was one of the giants of Anglican Christianity in the twentieth century. (And, as an aside, he preached from this very pulpit when it was still attached to a parish church in Dewsbury, England.) During the thirty-five years between his ordination as deacon and his death at Lambeth Palace, Temple was a parish priest, headmaster of a boys’ school, convener of conferences on the role of Christian faith in public and political life. He laid the groundwork for what we now know as the World Council of Churches, served in the House of Lords, and held the highest positions in the Church of England and the Anglican Church. Somewhere in between all of these activities, Temple also managed to write an average of one book for every year of his ordained ministry.

Does it somehow seem ironic that a Christian powerhouse such as William Temple was laid to his final rest on the one day of the Church’s year that we set aside to honor the lives and ministry of very ordinary baptized people? Even thinking about that makes it hard for me to sing, with a straight face, from that well-known hymn: “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too.” Me like Archbishop Temple? Archbishop Temple like me?
Yes, it does seem a bit ironic. It has the potential to leave me thinking there are so many people in the church who can do, and have done, God’s work in the world so much better than I ever could and have.

I am, of course, thankful for people like William Temple, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa, just to name a few – but I certainly can’t be like them. I could never live up to that kind of “saintliness.” So why should I even try?

Most of us don’t aspire to the sort of prominence or prestige that accompanied Archbishop Temple throughout most of his life. But our desire to serve God and the Church in smaller, quieter ways doesn’t mean we have nothing to offer or nothing in common with the greats of the Christian faith. If our gospel today tells us anything, it tells us that serving and loving God in even the smallest way makes us saints, too.

We have heard these words from Matthew’s gospel so many times that we can easily ignore them, or think that they don’t apply to us. Compared to many people in the world, I am not poor; anyone who has been around me in my worst moments would probably not call me “meek;” and I frequently find myself examining and questioning the purity of my own motives. But, in some ways, even our greatest Christian role models did not have these qualities. Archbishop Temple was born into a privileged family, Dr. King and Mother Teresa certainly were not meek in speaking up for those who could not speak for themselves. So, what is it in these twentieth-century saints that we can see in ourselves?

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel what we should look for in saints in every generation: righteousness, mercy, peace-making. Exercising these virtues does not require that we dedicate every moment of our lives to the Church or to some helping cause, but rather that we dedicate our lives to God. It does require courage, because showing mercy, or doing what is right, is not always popular. The history of the Christian faith is a history of people who love mercy, justice and peace so much they have been willing to die for those things. It has been the history of people who have given shelter to the poor, worked to free slaves, treated women as equal to men – in short, people who have believed that God created everyone and everything and are willing to treat all of their sisters and brothers as equal members of God’s beloved family.

It is the history of great saints, to be sure, but it is also the history of nameless saints. Those who routinely give of their time to feed the hungry or visit the sick, those who write their newspapers or elected representatives when they see injustice in our social and political systems. They are the people who work to produce goods and services that sustain our lives and try to do that in a way that respects the earth as God’s precious creation. They are the people who take time to mentor a child or to mourn with the bereaved. They are the nameless people who work for what is right, and good and fair for all people, rather than just for themselves or the people most like them. The saints of God are among us, and touch our lives every day.

A church I know well in another state has a bank of stained glass windows that runs the entire length of the nave; those windows depict many great Christians throughout the centuries. Among them are martyrs, bishops, priests and nuns, to be sure, but also artists, poets and politicians. The rector of that parish told me a story of a young boy whose mother explained the windows to him, saying that the people pictured there were saints. The little boy quickly responded, “Oh, I get it. Saints are people that the sun shines through.”

That’s a pretty good answer, I think. Saints are people who live in the love of God, people who let the light of God’s Son shine through them. It doesn’t matter if they are an Archbishop in England, a civil rights leader in the United States, or an elderly nun in India—or the woman from church who brings flowers to our hospital room or meals to our homes. Or the man who helps another adult to read or helps build low-income housing; or those who make and hand out sack lunches on Saturdays or fill snackpacks on Wednesday evenings or who cook and serve at Let’s Help. All of them share a common vision of righteousness, mercy, and peace. The saints of God are among us. The saints of God are us.

God loves us, and has a purpose for each and every one of us in bringing about the reign of heaven here on earth. It doesn’t have to be all outreach and pastoral care. It can be music people or fellowship workers or Sunday school teachers or youth workers. It can be money counters and money givers and every week worshipers and every day pray-ers. None of us should feel discouraged because our part doesn’t seem very big; it is the part that God has chosen for us. The challenge of sainthood is accepting a part and doing it the best you can, with all the love and faithfulness and devotion you can. Because God has chosen you.

And today, we welcome three more of God’s chosen ones as members of the church – our little brother and sisters. Max and Kiera and Alexis. They aren’t big, but they are great! And they are saints.

So, let us do all we can do to help them find their place in this place, and in God’s kingdom, and may God’s light shine through them, and us, in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.