All Saints Day was not a religious festival that I recall hearing about in my growing-up years. Much of that was (and perhaps still is) due to a disconnect with the word “saint.” For those who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, Sainthood is connected to an understanding of the Saints as intercessors, and the process of canonization. Typically, they lived very devout lives, often died as martyrs, and in most instances are believed to perform miracles. For those who grew up in Reformed Protestant Churches, like The United Church of Canada, the term Saint wasn’t used frequently but when it was, it was generally reserved for the Apostles – the disciples who walked with the earthly Jesus, and first-generation leaders like Paul, who encountered the risen Christ and ministered in his name. And our reading today from the book of Ephesians, is addressed “to all the saints” (v.1) and praises the recipients of the letter for “their love toward all the saints” (v.15) which clearly implies that it was a broadly-used term in the early Church, applied to any follower of Jesus. While the term “saint” could be used for spiritual leaders who had died, in the early Church it referred mostly to active, living believers.
Rather than trying to bring this all to a firm resolution, for our purposes today I’m going big: asserting that all of us are Saints, inasmuch as we strive for a connection with the Holy, and yet beyond that, we do hold a special degree of honour and gratitude for those who have really lived that connection, particularly those whose selfless love has touched us personally.
Who are some of the saints in your life’s story? Perhaps it was a teacher, or parent, or co-worker, or Church friend, or someone famous who really touched your life. I’d like us to spend some time with this – remembering and, in a short while, sharing the stories of our saints. As you bring to mind the stories of those who have influenced you, either up close or from afar, I’d like to share the story of the first person I can remember identifying as a Saint in my life: Mrs. Elizabeth Roley Cruickshank: “Betty” to her contemporaries but always Mrs Cruickshank to me.
I had known of Mrs. Cruickshank for a number of years before we actually met, as she wrote a nature column in the Regina Leader-Post called “Liz Roley’s Nature Notes.” When I was sixteen and started attending worship at Westminster United she’d see me come in, and wave me over, and we’d sit together. That welcome was crucial for me at that point of my life… and eventually, I came to know the rest of her story. During the 2nd World War, she opened her home into a “home for unwed mothers” – most of whom had become pregnant by boyfriends serving overseas. If you think that NIMBY is strong now (“not in my back yard”) you can only imagine the cool reception she received from her neighbours in 1943. But she understood her life as an expression of the brave, compassionate love of Jesus, and her practical, courageous version of Christian Outreach was one of my inspirations as we have worked through the Affirming Process here at Ralph Connor. In her I saw an example of what it means to walk with Christ into difficult places, where humans in need were judged, labelled and snubbed by others. Ephesians 1:23 describes the Church as the body of Christ, and Mrs. Cruickshank was one of those who showed me what that meant.
There’s a ‘saint story’ from me… and as you feel comfortable to do so, I’d like you to spend the next five minutes sharing our saint stories with one or two people around you. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, perhaps indicate so by clasping your hands together in “prayer position” – but otherwise, please find a person or two to talk to. I’ll give you time markers along the way, then will bring us back together for the next part of our sermon time….<5>
The first chapter of Ephesians talks a lot about our “spiritual inheritance” (v.5, 11, 14) and our connection with these personal ‘saints’ is a primary way that this legacy of faith and love and holy connection is transmitted. My hunch is that among the stories that were just shared, we heard of a diverse group of people from many timeframes & many backgrounds, some still alive and others not, who lived in many different places – truly a “great cloud of witnesses.”
As I was preparing for today’s message, I got thinking about what a gift it is when we honour and embrace how diverse the saints really are. Many of us have been influenced by Christian leaders from afar, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Julian of Norwich, and many of us have lived in other nations at some point in our lives. And even on a daily, face-to-face basis, the most profound influences in my faith life have come from widely different perspectives. The importance of this diversity, and seeking it out to fill out my spiritual understandings of life, is one of the things most different for me now, than in my earlier days in Ministry.
Back in the pre-internet days, a preacher relied a lot on this: a personal bookshelf of Bible Commentaries. Some clergy were wise enough to get together with other preachers, to broaden the range of authors and colleagues they were hearing from, and there were a few mail-out preaching resources that helped broaden the field a bit more, but for the most part we were limited by that bookshelf, and would eagerly add to it anytime there was a Church event with a book table Problem was, nearly all of the commentaries were written by middle-aged, Protestant white straight males, living in the USA or Canada or northern Europe. The version of the Christian message being shared, the “legacy” of faith, was scholarly and thoughtful and valid, but basically of one voice.
Since coming back into Ministry, I have discovered the abundance of resources online that broaden our opportunity to hear other voices. Christian bloggers and podcasters – collected on sites like Jenee Woodard’s “the text this week”, widen the field tremendously, viewing life and faith from many perspectives, carrying with them a variety of cultural and ethnic and gender perspectives, sharing the faith as they have experienced it. Here at Ralph Connor, you experienced the “Opening Out” work that Bill Millar did, help us see Church in inter-cultural ways; and further afield, there are educational events like the annual “Awkward Conversations in the Church” event I attended two weeks ago in Edmonton, to hear first-hand accounts of the impact of racism in the Church. I don’t always avail myself of these diverse resources, but they do change my intention in approaching scripture, and help me from relying too much on authors whose perspective is just like mine.
So, on this weekend of All Saints, we are grateful for those who have been and continue to be “the Saints” for us, and we challenge ourselves to make sure that we are open to many voices and many perspectives. We appreciate the full rainbow of human diversity and a broad spectrum of Christian understandings. And we also, with the encouragement of the first chapter of Ephesians, look at our personal role in this notion of “sainthood.”
Being a saint, you see, isn’t somebody else’s job. There’s good reason that the writer of Ephesians referred to one another – everyone and the whole group together – as saints – because all of them had decided to take the risky step of declaring their allegiance to God, as they experienced in Jesus Christ, rather than falling in line with the priorities of the Emperor. They saw their lives as founded in Christ and oriented towards Christ’s two-fold law to love God, and to love one’s neighbour. They experienced the Holy Spirit as a tangible thing that moved them away from a life lived in strictly-defined circles – men here, women here; Jews here, Gentiles here; owners here, slaves here – to a life in which all are honoured, and interact with one another. And for some of the early saints, their faithfulness would cost them their lives.
In all of this, there was a unity: not because they all came from a similar background or perspective, but because they were part of this one holy entity, committed to one God, with Christ at the head and all of them forming his body. When we acknowledge that we are the “hands and feet of Christ” in the world – not to mention the “voice” – we align ourselves with those first believers, who were doing something so new, and amazing, and dangerous, by proclaiming God’s love for all the world.
Whether you know it or not, you have the power to be a “saint” in someone else’s life, and perhaps you already are. Who knows, you may have been named in somebody else’s “saint story” here this morning! And I hope that this comes across to you, as a joy rather than a burden. In kindnesses you offer naturally, and in your intentional attempts to reach out of your comfort zone to listen and care and advocate, you are saying ‘yes’ to God’s broad, loving intention. And when you say that ‘yes’ you positively impact not only the life of another, but your own life as well.
This past Friday in our book study of Fr. Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ, we considered this line: “I have never been separate from God, nor can I be, except in my mind.” (p.44) Whether we see it or not, God’s loving intention for all of creation – a love for all of humanity, and this whole planet, and whatever is beyond it – is the lifebreath of my life and every life. When we engage God’s in-dwelling, out-reaching love, we affirm our personhood, and our connection to others, and our relationship with the Divine giver of this gift. When we say yes to letting our lives be shaped by love, we are going even farther, I believe, than what the author of Ephesians had envisioned in those early days of the Church; we’re not just ‘claiming an inheritance’ in an individual way, we’re recognizing that we are intimately connected to God and to all that God loves. As we hand ourselves over to God’s foundational love, again and again, it becomes more and more a part of our being, in ways that reach to others, in ways that address our own wounds and brokenness, in ways that confirm our hope in the basic goodness at the centre of this holy gift of life.
In this time of All Saints, we give thanks for all those, alive on earth or continuing their lives beyond in that “great cloud of witnesses,” who have lifted our lives. We confirm our willingness to be a healing presence in the lives of others. And we receive God’s ever-present gift of love, as that which binds us, and others, and God, together as one. In the name of God, Creator, Christ and Spirit, Amen.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. NYC: Convergent Books, 2019.
Woodard, Jenee. http://www.textweek.com/
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.