Last Saturday night I got sucked in, and ended up watching almost all of the induction ceremony for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Some of it was silly, but some was also quite moving. Some of these men – massive, extraordinary athletes – found their way out of difficult circumstances with the help of family – often a single mom – and a coach or two who recognized something. They fought through school – a few had things interrupted by drugs along the way – but received the enough support to use their gifts to amaze us on the football field for years. One wide receiver who was kicked off his first NFL team for drug abuse thanked the player assistance program of his next team, took time to thank someone who seemed like his substance abuse counselor. These men spoke of their families and friends, of the bonds with teammates. But there was one thing that struck me as odd. Preachers listen to language a bit differently sometimes, and the announcers for this grand occasion in Canton, Ohio, kept using the same word over and over: immortality. I didn’t hear any of the men inducted into the hall use it, but the announcers did repeatedly. I think they meant that these men would be remembered for a long time, but you would hear someone say, "And now, [Warren Sapp, Chris Carter, whomever] has achieved immortality.
There is something about the language, "the communion of saints" that begins far off in the distance. As early as the year 100 Christians were honoring other Christians who had died, often martyrs who had given their lives in the face of persecution, asking for their intercession. But, like anything, our tendency is to formalize. Canonization, the process the Roman Catholic Church uses to name a saint [capital S], has only been in place since the tenth century. For hundreds of years saints were chosen by public acclaim, which was a nice open process but one easily manipulated. Gradually, the bishops and finally the Vatican took over authority for approval. A local bishop investigates; a panel of theologians evaluates. The pope names you "venerable." If proof of performing a miracle exists, then comes beatification. After an additional miracle the pope will canonize the saint. The title of saint tells Catholics that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not "make" a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.1
But, as some catholic friends of mine helped me understand this week, this process, the way of naming people as Saints can cut a couple of ways. At its best, seeing these people’s lives can provoke instances of gratitude.2 God surely is at work through extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things. Look at God’s power, look what God has done! But, a formal process like this can also create distance. St. Francis of Assisi was amazing, but I can’t live like that. I find it hard sometimes to identify with pious folks who worked in the academy or lived in monasteries far away. I need someone real. Dorothy Day, who spent decades on the ground with the poor, who engaged in relentless advocacy, leading to the Catholic worker movement, houses taking care of the poor that you now find all over the world, is about as good an example of a saint, a person from whom we can draw inspiration, as I can think of.3 But, when the US Conference of Bishops began the process of canonization, the gathering was haunted by her words. Years before, in the heart of the Depression and afterwards, occasionally folks would tell Dorothy she was a saint. Often her response was, "Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily."4
What Day articulated was something I think we all feel intuitively. While I am glad to give glory to God for extraordinary people who lived amazing lives centuries ago, I have a hard time figuring out what they have to do with me. Calling someone a saint, even when intended as a compliment, can, as Day understood, be a way to push people away. Perhaps, even, it can be a way for us to try and wiggle out of any sense of obligation to try and imitate the lives of those people. I can’t sell all I have like Francis. I can’t life in the slums of Calcutta like Teresa. I can’t do that. I am just a normal person, feeling busy and overwhelmed. A little inspiration now and then is fine. Just don’t ask me to imitate some of those people. That might demand too much.
Which is also why I think we need to reclaim the word. The word the New Revised Standard Version translates as saint, hagios, ‘the holy ones’ appears 64 times in the New Testament. One time is at the end of Matthew, in the earthquake when Jesus dies, tombs are cracked open and those who have died, ‘the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.’5 The word shows up 4 times in Acts, and the rest are in the epistles and Revelation. While the traditional definition of saint describes someone who is distinctive because of their relationship with God, it seems like, especially in the correspondence of Paul and the early church, that they don’t mean ‘saint’ as a lofty term to describe someone who is far away, out there, way better than we could ever be. It is a word Paul uses to give the people identity, to help them understand who they are in Christ. You see it in beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where ‘called to belong to Jesus Christ,’ and ‘God’s beloved,’ and ‘called to be saints,’ are virtually synonymous.6 "To God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints" Paul writes. "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…" "To the saints in Ephesus." Paul wants the early church communities to know who they are: You are no longer stranger and aliens, no longer people without a place and a name, but you have been claimed by Christ. You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. THAT, Paul says, is who you are.
And it’s who you are, too. Us. Both saints and called to be them, people known for their relationship with God, people connected to each other through God’s love. The communion of saints is, if anything, an acknowledgement that relationships matter, and that they do not end. That God draws us together with saints here among us, with those who have gone before, and with those who will come after. In our work to live into our own sainthood, we do seek those around us who teach us about God’s love in special ways. I bet if you look around you’ll see a couple on the pews around you. I know there are some saints downstairs in the nursery – both those keeping our baptismal promises to our children, and some children down there who have much to teach us. There are saints, both middle school youth and adults, who just got back from serving in Washington DC this week. Most social workers and teachers I tend to think of as saints, folks on the ground with children, with the sick, the poor, and the mentally ill. Nurse aides who care for and clean up after older saints in retirement communities. Folks at Hospice. But also I think the saints among us are the parents who take the time and read their kids an extra book, friends who pray for each other. I have a neighbor who has a couple of older folks in the neighborhood that he visits, each week, just to sit and chat. He was with one of them recently when he died. Let’s take the idea of a saint and bring it down, close to us, here, knowing we are both made saints and called to be saints one to another, through relationships that do not end, even at the grave.
In July on vacation in the mountains I got some good time in with my maternal grandfather, who turned 101 last Tuesday. His wife of 69 years died the morning of our daughter Ella Brooks’ baptism 7 years ago, and he’s been a bit unsure since – of who he was called to be, of why he was even still here. We talked about it a lot those years, until one day I walked in and he said, "Chris, I’ve figured it out. I can’t do much, can’t get out and go help, I can give a little bit to the church. But, what I can do is be as kind as I can be to the person in front of me. That’s it. That’s what I am here to do." And he’s been doing it in these years, as he has gotten weaker, as we moved him into the health care unit over Memorial Day weekend. One visit 3 weeks ago he was pretty confused and I got up to leave. He grabbed my hands and asked me to pray. We don’t normally do this – I am grandson, he has 2 wonderful pastors. I mumbled out something, and then he interrupted me…. "Thanks for all this, O God. For these people I love, for Chris and his family. Hold us. Keep us on the right paths, for you…."
And he trailed off and was about to fall asleep. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be with us. But I do know that truth we express when we say, ‘the communion of saints,’ is tinged with an immortality that goes far beyond the NFL Hall of Fame – that the relationships that matter here, that matter to us, that are grounded in love, matter to God. And those relationships do not end. God binds us together in God’s astounding grace, forever.
So I want you to turn to the person next to you and repeat after me. Hi, Saint. You are a saint. I am going to try….to be one, too.
Let’s do it together.
All of us.
All of us. Imagine what we could do, community across time and space, faithful, working to glimpse a bit of the kingdom that is breaking in, even now.
All praise be to God, who binds us together, saints, one to another. Amen.
1. Most of the background comes from http://www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php
2. I am grateful to my friend Mark Higgins, who connected me with Rev. David McBrier, former priest at Immaculate Conception in Durham.
3. The Catholic Worker Movement, http://www.catholicworker.org/
4. "Don’t Call Me a Saint?", James Martin, SJ, http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/dont-call-me-saint. (With gratitude to Rev. McBrier for the quote.)
5. Matthew 27:52. Research done at http://bible.oremus.org/
6. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeir, ed, (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p 958.