A sermon preached on November 2nd for the Feast of All Saints at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver.
What is a saint? This is a fair question, really. I’m not sure there is a concrete answer, but I’m an Episcopal priest, so you probably shouldn’t ask me for concrete answers. We’re not sure, in our tradition, what exactly constitutes a saint. We’re rejiggering our calendars of saints at the moment. I said calendars because have three calendars of saints days at the moment, and next summer we might vote on another. So we definitely like saints in The Episcopal Church, but we’re not sure how decide who the saints are. Our guiding principle in nominating saints might have been best articulated by Justice Potter Steward, the Supreme Court justice in the 1960s who said, “I know it when I see it.” (He wasn’t talking about saints, but that’s okay, we are).
In my view, one of the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from Madeleine L’Engle. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She pointed to the constellation of lives that guided her journey of faith. Who makes up your constellation? Who points you to Jesus? That seems as fitting a description as any I can reach.
Since today is the celebration of the Feast of All Saints, I thought I’d offer two cents on the matter, three cents if you’ll let me. We’re not sure exactly what defines a saint, but we know one when we see one. There are holy lives that we point to in the church, lives that guide us in our journey. This morning I want to argue that the saints are those who exemplify specific virtues, surprising virtues. Saints exemplify the virtues that guide us in our journey.
A quick note on the word virtue: I mean it in the classical sense. For Plato Aristotle and Aristotle, virtues were personified. Temperance, Prudence, Courage, and Justice were often depicted, like the muses, as heavenly beings. The virtues were embodied and the work of the moral life was for humans to try to embody the virtues. Another way to say this: we grow into our full selves by learning the virtues. So, talking about saints as embodiments of particular virtues is nothing new. This morning, I want to take a look at just three virtues from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Generosity, Gentleness, and Wholeness, and look at each of these virtues through the life of a particular saint.
Generosity– “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We who are pretty financially secure love that “in spirit” part that Jesus adds in there. But don’t be mistaken, Jesus is turning the values of the world on the head here. To describe poverty as a virtue would have seemed nonsensical, and seems nonsensical today. The world of Jesus, and our world, believes having a lot of stuff is a sign of blessing. “You’re so blessed” we say. Jesus turns that economy of blessing on its head. Blessed are the generous. Blessed are those who sacrifice some of their comfort.
I wondered about starting with generosity. This one is a rough virtue to start with, because I think we often like to ignore money questions. We like to think of a lot of virtues as “private.” Stanley Hauerwas used to quote a Judaism professor at Notre Dame who said, “any religion that doesn’t tell you what to do with your pots and pans and your genitals can’t be interesting.” The same goes for our money.
My former Rector, Luis Leon used to stand in the pulpit each pledge drive season and say, “Money is a powerful instrument. If you can give your money away, you have power over that instrument. If you can’t give your money away, your money has power over you.” We have to choose how to have a relationship with our money, and the virtue that Jesus holds up for us is the virtue of generosity.
It seems appropriate here to talk about Saint Barnabas. I don’t mean St. Barnabas the parish. I do hope that you value this place enough to make plans to support the ministry here, but I’ll leave the NPR pledge-drive moment to my friend Bradley White later on.
St. Barnabas the disciple, before he was a saint, was a wealthy landowner. He sold one of his fields and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. They called him the “son of encouragement” or the “great encourager” because he was generous with his wealth. He supported the church, and he supported the young leaders. He’s the one who brings Paul to the apostles. He takes Paul on his first trip to Antioch, where the Paul’s converts are first called “Christians”. Barnabas saw the potential in a young leader, Saul, and in a young community of believers, the Christians” and through his generosity with his time and his treasure, he supported the growth of the church. That’s what we know of Barnabas, and it is one of the ways St. Barnabas points us to Christ. Barnabas invites us to practice the virtue of generosity.
Gentleness– “blessed are the meek.” Blessed are the meek is probably better translated “Blessed are the gentle.” And again, Gentleness is a surprise virtue. Today we value might, and they valued the warriors in Jesus time. Yet Jesus said, “blessed are the gentle.” How do we live the virtue of gentleness?
I want to point out a saint on this one, and it is a little dangerous because he is still alive. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was dying a few years ago, and a church in San Francisco prematurely painted him in a mural of saints. Then Tutu got better, but still he is dancing up in the mural with the saints of old. And he is still dancing with us today. Thanks be to God.
I’ve met Desmond Tutu a couple of times, and what strikes me about him is the time he gives to everyone. He makes time, and he makes you laugh. He is free with hugs and encouragement, and he treats people very very gently. Now, people who knew Bishop Tutu well, those who served on his staff as archbishop say that he could be demanding. He had high expectations. Maybe it is true that gentleness is a virtue that is easier for the retired, but many stories that come out of Bishop Tutu’s work against apartheid show this virtuous gentleness.
In one incident a group of armed guards burst into the Cape Town Cathedral while Tutu was preaching and surrounded the worshipers. They took out notebooks, ready to cite him for preaching against the regime. He looked at them, smiled bit, and said laughingly: “you are powerful…but God cannot be mocked. Since you have already lost, I invite you to join the winning side.” See Tutu is gentle, which is different than meek. Gentleness can be bold. In response to Tutu’s sermon the congregation burst into singing and dance. That laughter, that smile, is how Desmond Tutu’s gentleness won so many over. Blessed are those who can smile at their oppressor. Blessed are those who can smile at the people who make them nervous, like the homeless on the street. Blessed are those who can laugh WITH the opposing political side. Blessed are those who treat humanity gently. We thank God for Desmond Tutu, a saint with us, who points us to laughing virtuous gentleness.
Wholeness “Blessed are the Pure in Heart.” What exactly does purity in heart mean? I’ve chosen to name this virtue “wholeness,” let me say a little bit about why. The mystics of many religions teach us that we as human beings are subject to a great deal desire. We want this. If only that. When this occurs, then I’ll be happy. All that desire can be disorienting. What goal do we seek? How do we spend our energy? I think Jesus wanted people to have pure hearts in the sense of wholeness. The pure in heart are wholly oriented toward one goal. In that wholeness of purpose we find freedom from the whims and waves of desire. This is the virtue of wholeness.
We learn wholeness the hard way when we don’t achieve some goal. When we don’t reach something that we desire, we can learn about wholeness.
For St. Julian of Norwich the way to wholeness was through suffering. She grew up in poverty in the time of the black plague. In her late twenties, she herself was very ill. Laying in what she thought was her death bed, Julian had a vision. The heart of the vision were words that have echoed through the centuries: “All Shall be Well, and All Shall be Well. And All Manner of Things Shall be Well.” Julian recovered, and the clarity which came through her illness was startling.
Julian dedicated the rest of her life to the vision God had for us, a vision of health, of wholeness. Julian found not simply recovery from illness, but a clarity of purpose. She found a confidence in God’s care for creation, which included her own well-being. All shall be well. There was freedom in that clarity. Julian was able to lay all else aside and “seek first the kingdom of God.” In such, Saint Julian of Norwich’s life became an invitation to the virtue of wholeness, the freedom that comes from wholeness of purpose.
I’ve named just three saints and three virtues they point us toward. There are many more. Perhaps you’ve been counting your own saints along with me, pointing out the guiding stars that lead you on the way. My husband Ellis and I drove out here from Missouri for today’s baptism, and along I–70 as you leave St. Louis there is an black evangelical church that had a billboard advertising their services: “turning sinners into saints.” If you’re interested in learning more, we’ve got some spare seats on the ride back. We could drop you off. But really I think you can learn about sainthood right here, in this community.
We learn from the saints the way through life, the way to holiness, the way to grow in grace and gracefulness. At the end of the service we’ll sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true. The most difficult line of that song is “and I mean to be one too.” One of the saints of God. This morning we’re baptizing two new saints of God. We’ll pledge together to support them in their life of faith. I have to say to you Reid, when I heard your story, I was impressed. This 10 year old boy asked his parents to bring him to church. He wanted to be baptized.
My niece Claire isn’t quite articulate enough yet to ask, but we’ll baptize her as well. Reid and Claire’s baptism is our formal recognition of them as fellow travelers along the road. We are all walking together, walking the way of the saints. Ram Dass likes to say, “We’re all just walking each other home.” We all need guides to teach us the virtues it takes to keep going. We are all fellow travelers.
Who shows you how to be generous? Who teaches you to give away your money and to spend time mentoring the next generation? Who demonstrates gentleness for you? Who showed you how to smile at the people who make you nervous? Who is your example of wholeness? Who do you look to who has a a sense of clarity of purpose? What other virtues are you learning from the other saints? Who leads you toward Christ?
They are all of them saints of God, and I mean, God-helping to be one too.