For all the saints

Good morning, Friends!

Today is a special day for many churches around the world. Way back in the days of the early church and the Middle Ages, the church wanted to recognize and remember all of the wonderful people who lived great lives of faith.

They called these people saints, which means holy people. And all of the really famous saints had a special day that was set aside on the calendar for people to remember them.

People believed that the saints up in Heaven were praying for them, all the time, and that God would listen to the prayers of the saints and forgive you if you’d done something wrong.

Everyone was assigned or chose a favorite saint to look out for them, called a patron saint. Children were often named after saints, so that that saint would protect them.

That’s why so many children were named Mary, or Elizabeth, or Joseph, or Patrick or Michael, because people believed these were specially powerful saints who had God’s ear and would look out for you.

Different countries had patron saints – St. George for England, St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales. St. James and St. Teresa were the great patrons of Spain. Joan of Arc for France, Brigett for Sweden, and so on.

Different occupations all had their favorite saints – weavers, carpenters, librarians, leather workers, goldsmiths, you name it. Every big saint had a special day, till every day in the whole year was filled up with saint’s days that had to be celebrated.

But there were thousands of other saints, who didn’t have their own special day. So November 1st was set aside to remember all the saints – All Saints Day.

To hallow means to honor someone, so another name for All Saints Day was All Hallows Day.

Over a long period of time, people came to believe that on All Saints Day, the spirits of the saints were specially available, that the spirits of the saints returned to earth. You had a special chance to get in touch with your favorite saint on All Saints Day.

About the same time, superstitious folks started saying that the spirits of bad people would come out on the eve or the night before All Saints Day. The spirits of bad people would try to do you harm, so a whole bunch of fears and superstitions grew up about that day.

You had to be on your guard against evil spirits, devils, witches and so forth, and look out for black cats, which were believed to be hosts for evil spirits. They even thought you had to bribe the evil spirits with special gifts of food to keep them from playing evil tricks on you.

I’m not saying this is true. I don’t believe in superstition. But this is what many people thought, hundreds of years ago.

Today, people celebrate Hallowe’en as a fun time to dress up in costumes and ask for candy. Most people have no idea where it all came from. And even most Christians have no idea about All Saints Day.

Today, because November 1st falls on a Sunday, I thought we could go back to the original idea of the saints.

Today, if you talk about saints, people think you’re being judgmental. To talk about saints seems to imply that there are two kinds of people in the world, the “saints” and the “ain’ts”.

Even though we respect excellence in our sports heroes, we worship the beauty and glamour of our movie stars and celebrities, we bow down to the powerful and wealthy people of the world, most of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that some people are really serious about living close to God. Sainthood is something we all think is out of our reach, and ridiculous to desire. It’s sort of like wanting to have your picture in the Bible.

And yet, take a look at the greetings which the Apostle Paul routinely includes in his letters: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…” “To the church of God which is at Corinth…called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” “To all the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful…” “All the saints greet you…”

It’s as though Paul, and people he wrote to, expected that to be a saint would be every ordinary Christian’s ambition.

So today, for our Scripture, I want to take a look at a book in the Bible we very seldom read from, the book of Revelation.

Revelation has the reputation of being a pretty scary book to read. It’s full of visions, and warnings, and coded messages. When you read Revelation, you come up against angels, and dragons, riders on horseback, plagues, and all kinds of other wild and crazy stuff.

But Revelation is also full of blessings. It has some of the most beautiful descriptions of Heaven on earth in the whole Bible. And here and there, it talks about saints.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They all cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”

Then the elder said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Revelation 7:9-17

That’s what it says in the Bible about saints. They’re people who suffer for their faith, and endure to the end. They worship God, day and night. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is at the center of their faith. He’s their shepherd, and he guides them to hidden springs of living water.

Saints are people who get hungry and thirsty, just like everyone else. During the heat of persecution, or during hot times or on hot days, they get sunburned and sweaty. They get hurt and they cry. But God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

That’s what saints are.

We sometimes think that saints are perfect people. Well, one of the most famous saints of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, said that “a person doesn’t have to be an angel in order to be a saint.”

None of us is perfect. But we can try to be holy. “Holy” doesn’t mean perfect. Holy means being touched by God. It means letting the light of God shine through us.

We think that saints all lived a long time ago. And there are plenty of old-time saints who are worth remembering. There are Quaker saints – people like George Fox and Elizabeth Fry and John Woolman.

There are saints whose lives are connected with Springfield – people like Nathan Hunt, and Allen Jay, and Clara Cox. These are people whose lives made an extraordinary difference. They traveled far and wide, spreading the good news wherever they went.

They preached to thousands of people at a time. They rescued people from slavery and degradation. They changed the conscience of whole generations, and turned people around so that their lives would never be the same.

A whole lot of what I do as a teacher and as a pastor is to help people recognize and remember the lives of God’s wonderful saints.

Sometimes saints are famous people. Sometimes saints are great, but their lives are more hidden.

One of the greatest saints I ever met was a tiny little Italian school teacher named Ginny Russo. Ginny was a public school teacher in Buffalo, where I lived for a long time. She was less than five feet tall, so saints don’t have to be physically big.

Every morning, before Ginny went to school to teach, she went to Catholic Mass. Every single day, she started her day with prayer. She walked from her house to the church, and from church to school.

She had the biggest smile – saints tend to be joyful people. They’ve got the joy of the Lord in the center of their lives. And she worked with some of the most neglected students – she worked with kids who were intellectually slow and who didn’t fit in with regular classes.

Today we have special needs programs. Back then, they had Ginny Russo.

The other kids in school made fun of the kids in her class. So Ginny used to take them down the hall to the rest room and have them look in the mirror. “Isn’t that a beautiful face?” she’d say to them. Didn’t God give you a beautiful face?”

And she’d teach them to comb and brush their hair, and brush their teeth, and care for themselves.

Everybody brought their lunch to school back then. The school was in a poor neighborhood. And many of Ginny Russo’s kids came from really poor families. A child would come to school with leftover spaghetti, rolled up in a newspaper. That was their lunch.

So every day, Ginny brought a big basket with her to school from home. It would be filled with hard-boiled eggs, and carrot sticks, and peanut butter, and nutritious things the kids weren’t getting at home.
Every day.

And because the kids in her class had trouble reading, and got confused and lost easily, Ginny would ride the bus with them, over and over, and teach them how to recognize the stop where they got off.

If Ginny wasn’t a saint, I’m not sure what one is.

I remember one day, the year before my wife and I were married, we were out walking one day, and we ran into Ginny. She beamed at us, and asked how we were doing.

We talked for a while, and instead of saying goodbye, she said, “I’m going to pray for you two every day! I’m going to ask God to bless you. And if He doesn’t, I’m going to have something to say to Him about that, too!”

And I’m sure she did. Almighty God, being bullied by a tiny little Italian-American school teacher, maybe 4 foot 8 in her high heels. I’m sure God listened, too!

You all probably have your own personal saints. People who have made a difference in your life. People who made you feel that God was more real, that God was to be believed in. People whose lives glowed,

Some of them are great heroes of faith, women and men who did great things for God and who were recognized as saints in their own day. Other saints are anonymous and hidden. Only a few people ever know about them.

in the words of Jesus, saints are people who are truly poor in spirit; whose hearts are broken by the things which the rest of the world rejoices in; people who know themselves in humility; who hunger and thirst for righteousness; people who are pure in heart; who are peacemakers.

Saints are very often persecuted. They are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. If that doesn’t sound familiar, go back and read Matthew chapter 5.

Saints often have a reputation for being unworldly. They don’t care about things like money, or possessions, or positions of power.

Actually, saints care a whole lot about these things. In their journals and autobiographies, they record the struggles they faced in dealing with them.

Actually, being “unworldly” depends on what you see as “the world”. Authentic saints love the world! They love everything which God has created; they love every person in whom God has breathed the breath of life.

We tend to think of saints as people who get put up in stained-glass windows. That’s discouraging, because nobody could be that wonderful.

What we need to remember is that saints are people who have decided to let God’s love shine through them. Living saints are radiant with the love of God.

To be a saint is the only really worthwhile ambition there is. To be the special saint God created you to be is the most important task in life. To miss out on that is to miss out on the world’s greatest adventure.

Let’s remember all those saints, and look for new ones, and tell their stories, again and again.

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