Fifty-Three Years Ago…, All Saints’ Day (B) – 1997
November 01, 1997
Fifty-three 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. 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 two highest positions in the Church of England. Somewhere in between all of these activities, Temple also managed to write an average of a 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 it makes it hard for me to sing, with a straight face, that well-known hymn: “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too.”
Yes, it does seem a bit ironic. It has the potential to leave me thinking there are so many people who can do, and have done, God’s work in the world so much better than I ever could. I am, of course, thankful for people like William Temple, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa–but I certainly can’t be like them. So why should I even try?
I don’t aspire to the sort of prominence or prestige that accompanied Archbishop Temple throughout most of his life. But my desire to serve my God and my Church in smaller, quieter ways doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with the superstars 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 in a classroom with me 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. 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, peacemaking. Exercising these virtues does not require that we dedicate our lives to the Church, 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 member of God’s beloved family.
It is the history of great saints, to be sure. 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 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.”
Well, yes. 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 our church who brings flowers to our hospital room or meals to our homes. Or the man who works for a better education system or helps build low-income housing. 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. None of us should feel discouraged because our part doesn’t seem very big–it is the part that God has chosen specially for us and for no one else. The great saints have understood this. Archbishop Temple wrote that “the whole harmony of creation depends upon the offering by each humblest spirit of its own appropriate note of music which no other can sound without discord.” We each have our part to sing. No one else–great or small–can sing it for us. It doesn’t matter how well we sing–if only the beautiful and strong voices join the chorus, the music will be thin and empty. Hallelujah!–Let us each sing our part boldly as we sing with and among the saints of God. Our loving Lord takes pleasure in the sound of all the voices of the saints together. Come, join in the song of your fellow saints.
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Sermons That Work podcast to hear this sermon and more on your favorite podcasting app! Recordings are released the Thursday before each liturgical date.