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Sermon for All Saints' Day

November 7th, 2021


What is the difference between being and becoming?


That is, what is the difference between already being something and being on your way to being that thing?


For a Lawyer it’s law school and bar exams, for a Doctor med-school, a priest seminary and ordination, a soldier their time spent in training.


But what about a saint, these figures we often celebrate, who fill the pages of scripture and the history of our faith, and whom we commemorate all together today?


The difference between being and becoming for saints, I think, has mostly to do with openness – that is, our openness to what God wants to do with and in our lives.


The great English author Evelyn Waugh, in his book Brideshead Revisited, has one of his characters describe another this way, “She was saintly, but wasn’t a saint.” The character being described was saintly – pious, devout, and strict, but for others around her she was experienced as someone who made them feel guilty and unhappy.


Do you know anyone about whom you could say the same?


Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in a wonderful little book I hope we can study together in the new year, says that in his life those people are the ones that you could say, “are so nice I want to kick them,” the kind who seem so saintly, so pure, so good that in their presence you cannot help but feel bad about yourself.[1]


But this is not, Williams goes on to say, what holy people are like, what Saints are like or were like in their earthly lives. Rather, Saints are those who are so holy and so good that rather than feeling bad about yourself, you feel inspired and stirred to live a life more like theirs, saying to yourself, perhaps, “whatever they have – I want.”


To some, this day, All Saints’ Day, or indeed any festival celebration of an individual Saint may seem silly, pointless, or idolatrous – we might ask, as we may have on All Souls’ Day, if these Saints are already around the throne of God, as John sees in his Revelation, then what need have they of our veneration and celebration?


But this same question put to a 9 year old who has a poster of Sidney Crosby on their wall, or another with a poster of their favourite guitarist, would seem to them as being very silly.


Because, of course, a poster of Sidney Crosby or of Wayne Gretzky isn’t there for the benefit of the hockey players, but for the benefit of the child – they look at, even surround themselves with images and items of those whose greatness inspires them to practice, to try, to be great themselves.


The greatness of an idolized hockey player doesn’t make the young player feel ashamed of their playing, it makes them want to spend more time on the ice, show up early to practice, it makes them desire that same greatness.


This is how St. Bernard of Clarivaux thought of Saints, “The saints have no need of honour from us…But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.” Yearning, that is, for a life like theirs, a faith like theirs, their holiness, yearning for their closeness with God.


At our best we feel this, and there are certainly all people we have known who make us feel this way, people who inspire us and draw us nearer to God, but most of the time, I would think, speaking for myself, we likely feel too overwhelmed by the changes and chances of our lives to fixate too much on our own holiness.


More often than not I imagine we feel shut-up and closed off, rather than open, to what God is trying to do with our lives.


Make no mistake, though, the Saints aren’t superheroes, they aren’t people that always lived spotless virtuous lives – remember that St. Paul himself was once responsible for putting Christians to death; St. Augustine, as a young man, was filled with unbridled lust once praying to God, “Lord, give me chastity…but not yet.” No, what binds the Saints together is not that kind of nauseating in-your-face holiness, but rather that they were all open to how God wanted to transform them and their lives.


The difference between us and the Saints, to return to my initial remarks, is that while there are those whom we call Saints – the apostles, martyrs, holy men and women from all ages – who share now in the chorus of praise around God’s throne, you and I are simply in the process of becoming like them. We are all called to be Saints, but most of us are still just saints-in-the-making.


This is why we come to church, go to bible study, serve the poor, why we tithe, forgive, volunteer. While these things may not seem in-and-of themselves to be great, they are ways. which help us to grow in our personal holiness and are things which open our often closed hearts to God and what God wants to do with us. To use language I used a few weeks ago, it’s how we re-orient our hearts towards God; with that re-orientation comes openness and listening.


So it’s fitting today, as we remember all of those Saints – named and unnamed – that we also mark Remembrance Sunday.


We recall what Jesus said to his Disciples in John’s Gospel, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” the very same thing Jesus did for us on the cross, and the very same thing that so many have done on the field of battle.


While Saintliness is about being open and it is about striving for holiness, the great example we have to follow in all things, the example that the Saints followed in their lives, was the example set by Jesus. That we are, above all, to live lives of selfless love, we are called to love self-sacrificially as all those whom we commemorate today and on November 11th have.


Their examples of love, the examples set for us by the Saints who have gone before us, give us a pattern and an example for our own lives, lives we can remember and learn about, not lives that make us feel inferior because of our lack of holiness, but which opens our eyes to see that God wants to do exactly the same thing with you and me.


Through their prayers and through God’s grace, may it be so for all of us.


Amen.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Disciples, p. 50.

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