The Rev’d Daniel R. Heischman
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
All Saints' Sunday
November 5, 2017
“Who are these?” That is the question of the hour on All Saints Sunday. Who are these people we refer to as saints? On the one hand, we may speak of saints as anyone who has been baptized into the Christian community, a rank we hold by virtue of our initiation into Christ’s death and resurrection – “for the saints of God are just folk like me,” as the familiar hymn goes.
At the same time, we inevitably wonder about those “holy people,” whose lives seem to reflect a powerful and unusual presence of God through their distinctive service, temperament, or spirituality, those who stand out from the Christian crowd. These were the ones to whom, in the words of Sirach, “The Lord apportioned great glory.” It is so often these saints that come to mind and heart when we ask, “Who are these?”
If I was to venture a common attribute to these types of saints, I would say that what most commonly characterizes them is their lack of awareness about being of “saintly material” in the first place. They might be quite surprised to hear that they were candidates for sainthood, and their powerful commitment to service and deep love of others was something they would consider to be “no big deal.” The writer Kathleen Norris once observed that, “If I am Christian, I will be the last to know.” Given, I am a Christian by inheritance, she continues, and a Christian by theology. But, as she put it, “I can point to any number of people in my small town who are much better Christians than I.”
Perhaps because saints live so deeply with their belief, day after day, they are so keenly aware of how deficient they might be in their belief and practice. Their modesty about the shape and scope of their faith clearly delineates them from the self-righteous, and can leave us in awe of their humility.In the work that I do with school teachers I am often struck by the degree to which so many of them are, at root, utterly modest about the impact they have on their students. Drawing upon what Norris wrote, they are usually the last to know about their influence. Their essential goodness, coupled with their humble expression of that goodness, makes many of them such wonderful people to work with and know, let alone true saints in our respective communities.
Or, we might recall those first responders who, as hundreds were escaping down the staircases at the World Trade Center, were heading in the opposite direction – right into the very danger those hundreds were escaping. As with them, there can be a certain fearlessness we can identify in saints – at times their boldness may seem to border on carelessness, but it leaves us awestruck just the same.
Modesty, fearlessness, a willingness to sacrifice – all of those things may come to mind when we think of saints. But there is at least one more dimension to sainthood that leads us, here in church, to celebrate this great feast day – it is through a saint that we are privileged to capture at least a glimpse of God.
In the end, sainthood is not about human achievement; it does not primarily have to do with possessing a particular virtue or doing some good deed, important as that can be. Saints are not to be equated with heroes, who may well have done what they have done on their own. It is the grace of God working in that person that befits sainthood, a grace that all of us possess by virtue of our baptism.
In these times, it might be worth considering if there are particular ways that the grace of God is shining through in the saints we encounter in life. Saints can point us not only to God in general, but to the specific needs of our world in this place and time, and how God calls us to respond to those needs.
I can think of at least three.
The first is our need to recapture the basic dignity of all human beings, something clearly affirmed in our baptismal covenant. In a world that seems obsessed with rank, media exposure, and externalities, the basic human dignity that forms of the core of who we are, regardless of our status or even our achievement, longs to be recognized, and saints can indeed point us back to that fundamental reality.
In 1952, Robert Coles was a medical student in New York, deeply discouraged by a world of empty achievement and cut-throat competition. He decided to do some volunteer work for the Catholic Worker Movement in Lower Manhattan, a movement led by Dorothy Day. Making his way down to the Lower East Side on afternoon, he entered the soup kitchen where Dorothy Day was working. There he saw the woman, about whom he had heard so much, engaged in a conversation with a woman that was, while intoxicated, able to carry on in a mildly coherent fashion.
The conversation seemed to be taking a long time, to the impatient Coles, eager to meet Dorothy Day. At long last, Ms. Day got up from her conversation, came over to Coles, and asked him, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”
Coles was stunned by Day’s question – “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?” Wasn’t it obvious he wanted to speak with her? As Coles later explained, those three words – “one of us” -- cut through all of my layers of self-importance, pride, and pretense.
In a world where appearance, external accolades, and attention on the self so often is equated with human worth, Day’s simple question not only challenges us, it may well bring us to understand what God is seeking for all us to do and be in this world.
Second, a recommitment to the essential but, oh, so difficult challenge to love our enemies.
Coles encountered another saint in his studies, later on in his career, a saint who may well tell us something more about God’s challenge to us today. Her name was Ruby Bridges. In the late 1950s Ruby’s family moved to New Orleans, from rural Mississippi. At that time white children and black children went to different schools in New Orleans, and, following a court order to desegregate the schools in 1960, Bridges was one of four black girls to go to two white elementary schools. Of the four, only Ruby was sent to the William Franz Elementary School.
On Ruby’s first day, a large crowd of angry white people gathered outside the school. People carried racist signs, shouted out derogatory names to Ruby as she entered the school, escorted by federal marshals.
Ruby experienced that treatment each day for several weeks as she entered school. Ruby would not say a word.
One morning her teacher noticed that Ruby, as she passed by the hostile crowd, seemed to turn to them and say something. When asked by the teacher what she had said to the hostile crowd, Ruby responded, “I wasn’t talking to them. I was praying for them.” Every morning, she explained, she had stopped before encountering the crowd to pray for them. This morning she had forgotten, until she was in the midst of them.
In a world full of hostility, where we are quick to label the other as an enemy, where name calling and threatening language have become commonplace, a young saint continues to challenge us to pray for those who might wish us harm, who look upon us filled with anger and fear.
Finally, a love for the stranger.
We often think of saints as having mystical visions, and there is one vision I recall that may well have great relevance to our lives today. In 1958, Thomas Merton was walking in downtown Louisville KY, in the midst of a great spiritual struggle he was having over how, as a monk, he was to seek to move beyond the world toward God while living in the world. An answer seemed to be provided to him that day.
As he writes:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like awaking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and joy that I almost laughed out loud…..
Strangers do not normally engender that type of response in us – indeed, where our tendency in the world today is to keep our distance from strangers, rather than feel a deep connection with them, Merton’s vision reaches across the decades to us, perhaps with a message from God – the stranger, that mass of humanity out there, is capable of being loved, not simply assumed to be our enemy.
“Who are these?” One who turns a life upside down by her simple question; a young child praying for those who wish her harm; a monk searching for meaning and finding it in the midst of, of all things, a downtown crowd. These are the saints who show us God, who radiate the image of God stamped on all of us, and who call us back to that image, to our own sainthood, our own capacity to be truer followers of Christ.
“Who are these?” The ones we can all recall, who in turn call to us.