For all the saints
Readings: Ephesians 1:11-23; Psalm 149; Luke 6:20-31
We are surrounded by Saints in St Andrews. Saints Sport – which brands all our sports and fitness clubs and activity. Saint Connect – our global online networking community. Saints LGBT+. Students even access a portal called MySaint. MyOwnPrivateSaint.
Why so many saints? Well the University and town are named for a saint, St Andrew, a disciple of Jesus, pictured in the stained glass window to the left of Christ, alongside St Leonard. Jesus himself gives the name to this chapel – St Salvator – Holy Saviour.
Friday was All Saints Day in the Christian calendar. Traditionally this was a day when all who have died for the faith were commemorated, or all who were officially known as saints. The following day, 2 November is called All Souls Day, and included commemoration of all the faithful departed. But these boundaries are often blurred. All Saints is a time then when people remember the dead.
What’s going on? Why is such a commemoration part of the Christian calendar? Why should we focus on these people in church? Shouldn’t our focus be on God? And yet we are human, and we are fascinated by other human beings. Much of what we study here is fired by this passion for the human – from the biology and chemistry of the human body to the psychology of the mind; from anthropology to human geography; from history to language and the arts; from the economic human being to the behaviour of people in business settings; collective human behaviour from Raisin to the May Dip.
In a festival like All Saints, we do come at God, but sideways. God can be hard to contemplate, mysterious and beyond our comprehension. The evidence of creation, scripture and experience is tricky to interpret. But people are all around us, and they are like us, mostly. It’s easier to reflect on our humanity than divinity.
The problem is that when we think of saints we think of people not much like us. They have a rather glassy or stony look in churches, fixed for all time in holy postures and forbidding stares. They are eternally super-spiritual, and can be dispiriting to us. As George Orwell put it:
Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
So should we quietly leave sainthood and this commemoration behind?
Yet scripture is much more generous than ordinary language. In the Bible, saints are not the super-spiritual; they are the pretty ordinary followers of Jesus, people much like us. To the Ephesians, for example, Paul writes to them all as saints, everybody who is part of the community, everyone who has any faith at all. For all the saints – means for every Christian. To be part of God’s community of forgiveness and love, of salvation and resurrection is to be a saint. It’s not about doing amazingly difficult things, about being one in a million. It’s about being human, accepting God’s faithful love, being one of the millions who are part of Christ’s body.
Today’s psalm depicts the life of the saints, of those who praise God, who are joyful, who dance, who play music in their worship. But in a particularly student-friendly verse, the psalm envisages the saints rejoicing in their beds, in v. 5. At last, the spirituality of the long lie, the religion of the lazy morning, sainthood of procrastination. Or perhaps slightly more seriously, the saints encompass the sick, the suffering, the sorrowful and the sad.
I want to talk about one very ordinary saint, to show something of what the Bible means. I’ve been thinking a lot about my father this past week. On Tuesday I led a discussion at the heart’s time, a newish group which explores poetry. The poem I chose is called Those Winter Sundays and features a father who labours hard for his family. After a discussion we all then wrote something in response to the poem. Without planning this I ended up writing a poem of how my father spent winter Sundays with me when I was growing up. We’d often play scrabble or chess, the light darkening outside, the air in the room thickening with my father’s pipe smoke. He wasn’t demonstrative in his loving, but he gave his time to me those winter Sundays.
My father, Gordon MacEwan, was born in 1924 in Glasgow. His father died when he was three – so my grandfather died in 1927. During the Second World War my father joined the RAF and trained as a pilot in Florida. He described flying as pure unalloyed joy. He flew a glider in the war carrying troops on the Second Rhine Crossing en route to Berlin. He then served in Palestine, never forgetting when on guard duty seeing a camel train by starlight.
On returning to Scotland, he became an accountant, married my mother, and brought up three children with her, I being the youngest. He enjoyed playing tennis, but especially golf and bridge. He enjoyed some parts of gardening – planting out the begonia tubers in the spring. But he grumbled at the chore of shearing the hedges around our house. He loved travelling, took lots of slides and would show these slides to slumbering guests. He was from a religious family: his father was the chief elder at church, and his brother, nephew and son all became ministers. My father himself served as an elder, and in the financial side of our local church, spending evening after evening working on the precursor to Gift Aid. He went to church every week, sang the hymns with a deep and rather gravelly, flat voice, and invariably nodded off during the sermon. This was known as resting his eyes. He had a small handful of records, but only one which he seemed to love, a collection of songs by the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. He was a reader, interested in history, political biographies and fiction. He was a pro-European Conservative who, even in the 1990s was exasperated by the euro-scepticism of the parliamentary party. He was kind, patient, hard-working. He was occasionally witty – I still hear myself borrowing his phrase to describe certain modern dwellings – a double garage with a house attached. He could be old-fashioned with curious prejudices. Every car had to have a sunshine roof. His beer mug had to have a handle. Sandwiches had to be moist – his word for this was sappy.
He died on 3 July 2008, aged 84, after a short illness. His life was not untypical, overlapping with the lives of many people from the suburbs of Glasgow across the 20th Century. He was imperfect, and many of his imperfections have been inherited by my sisters and by me. But he was faithful in countless ways, one of the millions who are part of Christ’s body. Everybody in Chapel today will know others who have been as ordinary or extraordinary as my father. These are the lives which are depicted in the stained glass windows of our hearts, imperfect saints, who were forgiven by their Father. I could have told the story of many of the people in your lives, only I knew my father better, and I feel his story is partly mine to tell. His story exemplifies the central truth of the Christian faith: Jesus became human, the Word became flesh, so that all humans can receive his faithfulness, his grace, and so be counted as holy ones, as saints.
I’ve been suggesting that human beings are endlessly fascinating… to human beings. The Christian faith acknowledges this in its culture of venerating saints, from St Mary Magdalene to St John Henry Newman, canonised three weeks ago, and in celebrating the ordinary saints we know in our lives.
But let us not stop with fascination for the famous and the ordinary. Instead, let us take inspiration from their lives. And here we are helped by the intriguing gospel lesson assigned for today. We can’t hear these words from Jesus, the blessings and the woes, the call to love our enemies, and be satisfied with the usual suspects for a holy life. If saints are those who follow Jesus, we’d better get following. Did we hear him say,
Blessed are those who spend a lot of time in Chapel praying and worshipping…
Blessed are those who conform to conventional morality.
Love the lovable. ?
Or did we hear him say: follow me and you may find yourself poor, hungry, depressed and excluded. You’ll find that’s the company I keep, that’s the people I serve, they’re the human lives where you’ll find me living. The character of the saint is not found in material circumstances, but in being prepared to be where Jesus is. And that means being outside the echo chambers, the cultural norms which usually protect us from the world. That means putting our comforts in question.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
To be a saint is to be welcomed into the community which God offers, of the foolish and the forgiven, of the ordinary and the extraordinary, of those who praise God in Morning Prayers, or catching up on sleep. Those saints are our fathers and mothers, our grandparents and friends, and all who show us how to live, how to follow Christ, in their frailty, in their fallibility, in their faithfulness. Follow him, where he goes. We have countless saints in the University, though Sinners is the busiest night at the Union. But maybe those Sinners are also saints.