Sometimes, the line between saint and sinner is razor thin. There’s the story of a minister who died and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy who`s dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. Saint Peter addresses this guy, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?”
The guy replies, “I’m Joe Cohen, taxi-driver, of Noo Yawk City.” Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the taxi-driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The taxi-driver goes into Heaven with his robe and staff, and it’s the minister’s turn. He stands erect and booms out, “I am Joseph Snow, pastor of Saint Mary`s for the last forty-three years.”
Saint Peter consults his list. He says to the minister, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Just a minute,” says the minister. “That man was a taxi-driver, and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?” “Up here, we work by results,” says Saint Peter. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”
Hilarious, right? Sometimes, sainthood is not quite as funny.
In her book, Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Webber writes about discovering a woman named Alma White who planted the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901. So excited was Bolz-Webber that she Googled White, and discovered that she was the first female bishop in the U.S. in 1918, noted for her feminism and… her association with the KKK, her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility. When she called a friend to tell her she’d found her newfound hero was a racist, her friend said she belonged in their All Saints Day celebration. Bolz-Webber didn’t want her there – she wanted her categories kept clean, not a situation where “saints were bad and sinners were good.”
Bolz-Webber writes, “Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first will be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin. Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God in the way that the church so often has tried to convince us it does.”
Let’s look into the life of the Catholic Church – maybe they can help us clear up this saint thing. They’ve been working on it for quite some time.
Seriously though, there’s actually a five-step process in the Catholic Church to canonize a saint. First, the local bishop investigates the person’s life, gathering witnesses and information about what they may have written. If their words are considered worthy, the information is submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Second, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints can choose reject the application, accept, or investigate. Third, the Congregation approves the candidate as having lived a heroically virtuous life — not declaring them to be now in heaven, but that they pursued holiness on earth. Fourth, they determine whether or not the person took part in a healing which was instantaneous, permanent, and complete while also being scientifically unexplainable. If so, the person is declared a blessed. Fifth, to be a saint, the person must have completed a second miracle confirmed as the first.
Sounds intense, doesn’t it?
In the United Methodist Church, we call Matthew, Paul, John, Luke and other early followers of Jesus saints. And, as we do today, we recognize those people who have died before us, who are “all the saints who from their labors rest.” We remember those people of faith who lived faithfully and shared their faith.
These people did what they were called to do – sometimes boldly and sometimes simply – but they were where they needed to be and did what they needed to do.
Sainthood – it’s … complicated.
Do you know what you’re called to do? Better yet, do you know what you’re called to be?
I love the World War II drama, Fury, with Brad Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf. It focused on one team of soldiers who fought from inside of a tank against the Nazis in Europe, specifically Germany. None of the men in the tank are quite as religious as LaBoeuf’s character, called “Bible,” but they all seem to understand what he believes in. He thinks, win or lose, live or die, that God put him in a position to do something about the evil of the Nazis by fighting against them. It’s not metaphorical or haphazard: Bible literally knows he’s supposed to be where he is because he’s convinced God would want him to stop the evil Hitler was doing.
Bible has a clear sense of his calling; some of us don’t. But the Scriptures are full of people who either denied their call or who recognized a change in their call and responded to the urging of God. [To be clear, not all of them responded obediently: check out Jonah for instance, or consider the way that Cain responds to God’s call on his life!] My profession has a strong pattern of men and women who ‘put off their call’ until they were older, and switched from some career or calling to the pastorate later in life.
What if we could learn from the Bible what we were supposed to be and how we could look for those patterns in our own lives?
Let’s dive into the story of Samuel. Now, Samuel is one of the Bible’s miracle babies: he’s specifically prayed for by his mother Hannah, who mourns because she is infertile. When she discovers that she’s pregnant, she calls her unborn baby Samuel, “because I asked God for him.” When he is old enough, she gives him to the priest Eli to raise in the temple as one of God’s priests.
The first sign of calling: recognizing that we are God’s to begin with and our lives find their purpose when we acknowledge God.
Do you acknowledge God? Do you recognize that your life, the air you breathe, is God’s? Do you recognize that your money, the work you’ve accomplished and the stuff you’ve acquired, is God’s? Do you recognize that everything you have, and everything you are capable of becoming, is because God knit you together before you were born?
God breathed Spirit- air – life into Adam’s lungs in Genesis, and it made him come alive; God continues to breathe life into you and me, and it’s what makes us alive, makes us human.
The first sign of calling is recognizing whose we are.
So Samuel is raised up by Eli in the temple. Eli teaches Samuel the Scripture, and what it means to be a priest. I’m sure he put Samuel to work with the menial things, like sweeping out the temple, and counting the offering left by those who came to worship outside. As Samuel grew older, and accepted more responsibility, Eli gave him more to do, more practical ways to act out being the priest of God.
The second sign or mark of calling: recognizing the need to learn more about God and seeking out opportunities to study, pray, and grow.
Are you learning, or are you going through the motions? Do you recognize a need to know more about God, about the Bible, about the tools you need to practice prayer, and other marks of being a disciple? Are you recognizing that call to be a disciple, the marks of which many of you have taken on when you promised to be faithful by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness, in joining the church? What are you doing to gradually grow in those things, whether it’s being more intentional about coming to worship on Sundays or setting the alarm an hour earlier so that you can make it to Sunday School or increasing your tithe, what you give back to God, by a percent or two each month?
At one of my previous churches, there was a woman named Kathy. Every Sunday morning, she had a deal with the children in her neighborhood. If they met her at the community playground by 9:30 a.m., she’d give them a ride to Sunday School, church, and usually, lunch!
Kathy is a saint. And she’s constantly working other people to sainthood, too, driving kids, rounding them up, and getting them to church. The thing is: these kids wanted to be there. There’s something they knew was different about being there, and they recognized it.
Now, imagine what it would look like if we could get all the adults we knew to recognize that need…
The second sign of calling is to recognize the need to grow.
Now, Eli is raising Samuel as a son, as a priest, in the temple, even while Eli’s sons are falling away from what God has called them to. Samuel is growing in “favor with God and all the people”- people are noticing that he’s good at being a priest- even while the people are stirring against the sons of Eli. They are abusing their power as priests by taking what they wanted, in terms of offerings brought by people to pray and by manipulating the women outside the temple. God was not pleased, and he prophesied against Eli’s house that he would be calling up a priest from outside of Eli’s house. God’s people needed priests but the priests weren’t getting it done; someone had to rise up to be the voice of the people to God and the voice of God to the people.
The third sign of calling is recognizing the need for what you bring, what gifts and graces God has given you in your personality, skill set, interests, and experience.
I read a story a few weeks ago about a young man named Carson Jones. He was a senior and starting quarterback in his high school. And one day, the mother of a special needs child came to him and asked him if he could figure out who was bullying her daughter at school. Easy enough, right?
Jones could’ve gotten some of his buddies together and ‘taken care of’ the problem. But instead, he changed things subtly. He brought his new friend with him to the football lunch table; he saw that someone walked her to class. Pretty soon, other people weren’t bullying her- they were looking for ways to help her out, too. Jones knew who he was and what he could do, and he did it- and it changed everything. [From Rick Reilly’s “Special Team” as republished in Tiger, Meet My Sister.]
Sometimes, it’s as simple as being there.
Have you ever thought about what gifts you have that you could bless others with, in and outside of church? Have you ever prayed about how you could get more involved with church? Sometimes, it’s the preacher who points it out to you- sometimes it’s someone else in church. But what would it look like if you actively stepped up to get involved, whether it was helping in children’s ministry, helping paint a room or two, serving food at a mission project or fundraiser? There are spiritual gift inventories you can take if you haven’t done one before – see me afterward if you want a copy to explore!
The third sign is self-examination of your gifts and situation to see what you can bring.
Back to Samuel: It says that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (I Samuel 3:1). Is that any different from our days? Do we really think God is heard more frequently now, that the world is moving toward “your kingdom come?” But we know that we have a lot to turn off, from the television to our wifi feeds, if we expect to be able to hear from God.
Our boy-turned-priest is listening. Samuel hears God call him three times, and he thinks that Eli is calling out to him in the middle of the night to do something; stoke the fire, check the locks, etc. But Samuel is alert, even in the midst of sleep, to know that he is being called.
The fourth sign of calling is listening- there’s a difference between hearing and listening. Listening involves change, adaptation, transformation based on what we receive from the other person… or God.
How do you listen? It’s different for different people but there are many ways we can listen. We can read our Bible and reflect over it; we can actively quiet our hearts and turn everything else off and speak with God. We can have holy conversations (I’ll get to that in a minute) and seek wise counsel. But listening requires a heart primed for receiving what God has to speak into our hearts. Listening requires an expectation that God will and does speak, that God has a plan for us.
Do you show up on Sundays and expect God to show up? Do you come ready and prepared to see what God has for us in worship? Do you know that God wants all of you, from what you do to what your heart feels to what your mind thinks? God wants to talk to you. God has so much for us if we would only listen.
The fourth sign is listening to the heartbeat of God running through our lives.
Back to our middle-of-the-night story, Samuel thinks Eli is calling but he, Eli, knows that it’s really God. And it’s Eli who points Samuel in the right direction. He tells Samuel to go back and wait, and to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel was listening but he didn’t know how to differentiate the noise. He couldn’t identify the Lord’s voice correctly until he was told, until the more experienced priest showed him how to respond correctly.
Samuel was called but he needed mentorship. He’d already received training and care and direction but mentorship connected his call from God with what he was supposed to be doing.
The fifth sign of calling is confirmation and mentoring that requires community to be involved with the individual’s call.
Who is mentoring you? Who are you regularly talking with in the faith community to show you the ins and outs of faith, the ways to grow and the direction God has for your life? Leonard Sweet asks in his book 11, about the crucial relationships in our lives, who is our Butt-Kicker? There are plenty of folks who will blow smoke at us, but when it comes down to it, who is helping you stay accountable to who you are called to be, whether that’s a pastor, a Christian stay-at-home mom, a Christian retiree, a Christian teacher, a Christian businessman, whatever it is?
Who is saying, ‘God’s calling you to this and it’s time that you respond?’ If you’re not in a relationship like that, let’s be clear: you should be. For many of us, it starts with whoever first brought us to church and it grows out from there. On a Sunday when we recognize our saints, we need to see that God has set these people before us to show us the way and to direct us on the journey toward what God wants us to be.
That’s one of the things that I love about the football story of Carson Jones: he was getting ready to leave for college, and his mother wondered one night who would watch over the younger girl that the football team had sheltered. His younger brother, a sophomore, piped up: “Don’t worry, I got this one.”
Whether we know it or not, we’re mentoring; good, bad, indifferent, we’re teaching people around us what the right way to behave is. And that doesn’t matter if you’re sixty-seven or six going on seven. Sure, our role in church may change over time, but you old-timers, you need to be sharing what you know, have learned, and experienced with those who are younger. Half of the mentoring is the stories, the time together. Samuel doesn’t become who he is without Eli’s involvement.
The fifth sign of calling is mentoring and confirmation, in who we are.
Samuel goes on to have a pretty good career as God’s priest. He anoints the first two kings of Israel; he speaks for God and develops the priesthood further. Samuel’s heart and experience, mixed with the call of God on his life, meets up in what Samuel does as he goes on to be the man of God who he was called to be.
The sixth sign of calling is responding, in doing what you are called to do.
So where are you? What signs are you seeing? Are you the one that God is calling to step up and help lead the children of our church as a teacher or nursery worker? Are you the one that God is calling to help lead the next mission project, or fundraiser? Are you the one God is calling to pray more, be in church more, give more of your time and money to benefit the church?
Our call does change over time, sometimes incrementally and sometimes exponentially. Sometimes, we’re called to change an attitude; sometimes, we’re called to change careers! [Did you know the percentage of ‘second career’ pastors? Folks who were pharmacists, car salesmen, prison guards, etc. before they became pastors?] I love that part of the story from Planes: Fire & Rescue, as Dusty realizes that he can no longer race (remember he was a crop-duster first) and he recognizes a need for firefighting planes. Dusty could’ve been disappointed, or sad, or scared (and he was all of those things at times) but he accepted the challenge, answered the call, and made a difference.
Do you recognize the call? Are you listening? Will you go where you’re supposed to go? Are you responding to the call of God on your heart?
The people who respond to the call of God on their lives are saints.
In Hebrews 11:32-12:3, the author lists many more of those figures from the Bible who did great deeds – Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel – who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning;[a] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”
And yet, the author says, “none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
All of these people did amazing things – and yet did not experience heaven during their earthly lives. All of these people remained faithful, yet did not receive their reward in full. All of these people exhibited faith in something that they did not see, but believed in. All of these people heard their call – regardless of the sacrifice that it required – and answered the call of God to love, to go, to stay, to fight, to not fight, to speak, to not speak, to be who God needed them to be in the particular time and place in which they lived.
They were all different but they were all united in being the people God chose.
And they all became our “great cloud of witnesses.” They became those people gathered around us, as we run our races, cheering us on to perseverance.
I wonder how many of those people we recognize from the Bible – and from our own lives – thought they were saints? I wonder how many of them realized that they were saints-in-the-making. And yet, I think, that part of being a saint is not recognizing your own sainthood.
I think that fighting through enemy lines to share Bibles…
Or teaching Sunday School for twenty years…
Or starting a business and using the proceeds to reach those who are often ignored…
Or cooking selflessly when church events require food…
Or offering to sit with those who are hospitalized…
Or taking the time to check on people who are homebound…
Or peaceably sharing the good news of the gospel…
I think those are all the actions of saints, even when done by people who have their own problems, who drink too much, who wrestle with doubts, who wonder sometimes if they matter, who struggle with anxiety, who let their tempers get in the way, who fail to be who they know they can be…
See, I think our saints come in different shapes and sizes. I think they sneak up on us, and surprise us, and yet their lasting memory pushes us to be better people than we would be otherwise. I think they are the people whose pictures we have on our All Saints Day altar – and who we owe our faith to.
I wonder what it would look like if we honored our saints before they were our saints, before they passed on. What would happen if we recognized them by telling them what they meant to us? What would happen if we actively looked to share our faith with others because of them, honoring God and them, too? I hope today, that if one of your saints is still living that you’ll stop and call them, that you will let them know how their lives have touched you.
Each year, on All Saints Sunday, I think of my Grandma who bought me my first piano and asked that I would learn some of the hymns she loved, which inspired my love of music – and has meant that I know many of our hymns by heart.
Each year, I think of the countless Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, like Betty Nutt and Cynthia and Kelley Brown, who shaped my faith.
Each year, I think of my college chaplain, my United Methodist mentor, and my parents, who shaped my faith as I continue to grow.
Some of them have passed on to heaven; some of them still shape my life.
Too often, I think we assume that people know how we feel, and wait until it’s too late to really articulate it. Who are your living saints? How will you tell them what they mean to you?
But there’s more.
Sometimes I think we assume that someone else will be the one who shares their faith and makes a difference, that we couldn’t possibly be who God expects or plans to use the way that he used angels to announce the birth of Jesus, or Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch he’d never met, or Paul to stand on trial for his faith. We always think it will be someone else.
What if we remembered our saints by emulating them? As I stare at their pictures, I wonder – what would it take for us to be saints, who boldly stand for faith and share it in a way that it catches fire in the hearts of others?
What would it take that one day your picture, or my picture, might be on that altar, the reference point for someone’s memory of faith, the moment when they first heard the good news of Jesus or when they experienced God’s love?
At what moment will we recognize that we’re all called to sainthood – we just might not know it yet?
You’re a saint in process. A saint in the making.
When you leave worship today, I pray you live like a saint – just the size, shape, color, and grittiness you were meant to.
We can all be saints – it’s not one size fits all.