view of angel through the iron gate

Ordinary Saints

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on All Saints’ Sunday, November 1, 2020.

How do we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, one of the five biggest days in the Christian Year without a full church gustily singing, “For All the Saints”? Perhaps it’s just as well, as this morning I plan not to speak about ordinary saints like you and me, not legendary saints.

Last Sunday, congregant Deborah Royce did an amazing job of interviewing our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. She began by reading a quote from Frederick Buechner found in Curry’s new memoir, The Way of Love. Buechner writes,

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

All moments in our ordinary lives can be key moments. When Curry was asked to write a memoir, he told his publisher, “No one is interested in my life, not even my own daughters.” I can hear my own daughters saying the same thing. But our Presiding Bishop finally agreed to write about the people who taught him how to love, respect and forgive for others.

He spoke about figures like Josie Robbins, who after his mother died early in life, leaving her preacher husband to raise two small children on his own, asked, “How can I help?” The preacher hired Josie to help raise his children. So, she prepared their lunch, ironed their clothes and helped with homework and for decades to follow attended all of their graduations, weddings, births and baptisms. “Josie Robbins is what love looks like,” said Bishop Curry.

I suspect that we all have a Josie Robbins in our life – an ordinary saint who played an extraordinary role. Who comes to your mind? In one of his sermons, Buechner said,

“To be a saint is to live… with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world… Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night… It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.”

That sounds like a manageable job description for each of us. No book has made a greater impression on me than Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, Merton tells how his friend, Lax, and he were walking down Sixth Avenue on spring night in 1938 towards Greenwich Village. The street was all torn up and red lanterns lit where they were digging the subway. Lax turned to Merton, who was pursuing his Ph.D. at Columbia University and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”

Merton wanted to be a writer or a teacher, but he put his answer on a spiritual plane. “…I want is to be a good catholic,” he said. “What do you mean to be a good Catholic?” asked Lax. Merton gave a lame explanation… betraying how little he had thought about it. “What you should say,” said Lax, “is that you want to be a saint.” Merton recoiled. “How do you expect me to be a saint,“ he asked. Simply by wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” said Merton, reflecting on his own sins, and the false humility which makes people say that they cannot do things that they can and must do…

But Lax said, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.” God created each of us to be a saint with a small “s”, and the desire to lead a saintly life is half the battle. Yet, we so often feel dwarfed by those saints with a capital “S,” – people like St. Paul, who formulated the Christian faith, or St. Francis of Assisi, who gave away everything and served the poor, or St. Teresa of Avila, whose mystic eyes penetrated into peoples’ souls. What we need to remember is that being a saint means leading a counterintuitive life. Jesus said,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

We do not really believe that God will bless the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. That is not how the world normally works. Rather, it’s a very counterintuitive way of living one’s life, which is what Christianity is all about.

One of the saints who has touched my heart is Jerzy Popieluszko. He was the Polish priest who was courageous enough to celebrate the Eucharist with striking Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk as the Solidarity Movement stood up to the tyrannical Communist regime. Three Communists kidnaped, tortured and killed Popieluszko in October of 1984. Seven years later, I visited his grave at St. Kostka’s Church in Warsaw. Fear was still in the air. Communism had only recently fallen. The Polish people had lived for decades under police surveillance.

I asked around the church if anyone knew Popieluszko. Soon, a woman appeared out of nowhere and asked, “Are you the American priest? Follow me.” She led me outside the church to a cellar door, opened it and told me to go down. I was nervous until she turned on a light, opened a door and escorted me into a secret museum dedicated to Popieluszko. She showed me the martyred priest’s clothes, his books, his hiking boots, and a letter that President Reagan wrote to his family after he was martyred for being a Christian.

Saints make us want to live a larger, nobler life. They may be disguised as a parent or grandparent, a coach who motivated us, a teacher who believed in us, or boss who became transformed into a mentor. They showed us Christ and were a part of God’s encouraging us.

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article about Ted Aronson, who is shutting down his Philadelphia-based value-investing firm. His firm’s performance over the last five years has been horrible. So, Aronson is giving $10 billion back to his investors. Columnist Jason Zweig wrote, “Asset managers return their investors’ capital about as often as sharks regurgitate swimmers without a scratch.” Could such a man as Aronson be a saint with a small “s”?

We’re not talking medieval statures, moonlike halos or holy hats, but flesh-and-blood people about whom we can say, “That’s how one truly ought to lead one’s life.” If you’re anything like me, your Christian faith did not come by reciting creeds or studying theological books, but it came first by glimpsing something compelling in someone you knew that conveyed love. It was a Christ-like spirit, maybe an act of courage in the face of an illness or the unexpected gift of forgiveness or compassion.

Saints with a small “s” show us our true potential as persons made in God’s likeness. When asked why he painted portraits as he did, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “I want to paint people with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which I seek to convey by the radiance and vibration of my coloring.” If you look closely at his portraits, you will see an aura around the head.

Any religious faith will be judged by one thing – does it or does it not produce holy people, compassionate people of integrity and generosity, whose lives in some way mirror the Love at the heart of the universe? On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember the whole company of goodly people who have strived to walk in the light of Christ and let God’s light to shine through them.

This church is meant to be a factory for saints. If were not busy making saints, there’s no reason for this church to exist. The world can get along just fine without a church that doesn’t produce saints. But it’s baptism, not heroics, which give us our halos. At each baptism, we promise to proclaim the Christian faith, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Sainthood with a small “s” is more about little things than legendary things. There’s a moment in the play A Man for All Seasons when Sir Thomas More is encouraging his son-in-law to become a teacher. The young man protests about having such an insignificant role. “Who would notice me except God and my students?” More responds, “Not a bad audience, that.”

Not a bad audience to have God watching as we raise our children or care for an aging neighbor or support someone whose fortunes are sinking. Some aspects of religion might leave us cold, the doctrine, ritual or bureaucracy, but none of that should stifle our search for joy and the quest to be a saint with a small “s.” Why settle for less – for money, power, a career or second home when there is something deeper that tugs at the heart like the desire to lead a noble life and to discover lasting joy. Amen.