A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 3, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Hebrews 11:1-16 and 12:1-2
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of my earliest memories is of my mother sitting on the side of my bed, teaching me the Lord’s Prayer.  This woman, who was never sure what she believed about Jesus (other than believing that he was wise and worth emulating), was one of the most important mentors in my faith journey.

As I look back at how the foundations of my understanding of being a Christian and of being church were formed, I see my parents as key.  I grew up long enough ago that my mother was able to be a full time mom throughout my childhood.  My mother ended up being a counselor of sorts to many of the other moms in our neighborhood.  They would come over for a cup of coffee and a chat and they would end up talking about their troubles – parenting issues, marriage issues, work issues, self-worth and self-identity issues.  And it was instant Taster’s Choice coffee, so I don’t think it was the coffee that kept them coming.  My mom would listen, often as she folded laundry.  I imagine she would ask the occasional question, maybe even offer the occasional piece of advice, but mostly she listened.

During this same time, when I was in grade school and junior high, the war in Vietnam was raging.  My father, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, was very opposed to the Vietnam War.  I’ll have to ask him for a more nuanced explanation of his opposition.  What I understood then was that he thought that war was bad, and so he looked for a place to organize against the war – and church was the place where that happened.

I learned from them, though I don’t think they were trying to teach this, that being a Christian means being compassionate to your neighbors and that the church is a place where Christians come together to make the world a better place.

I tell you these stories about my parents because today is All Saints Sunday.  For a long time, when I thought about saints, I thought about the Roman Catholic Church.  The local Roman Catholic Church in my childhood was St. Brigid’s, the only church I knew of with the word “saint” in its name.  I don’t know when I first went inside a Catholic church, but I had heard stories of the Catholics decorating their churches with paintings and statues of saints.  It may have been over 300 years since the Puritans held sway in Massachusetts, but there was a judgment in the Protestant ether that condemned such gaudiness, especially in the church.

And then there was the issue of praying to saints.  There was a judgment in the Protestant ether against that, too.  Interesting that a tradition that invites the whole church community to pray with them about something would condemn people for engaging members of the church eternal in their prayers.  But such judgment was there.

When I came home for Christmas during my freshman year a college, I told a friend that I had joined a church near campus called “St. Paul’s United Church of Christ,” he couldn’t hear past the “saint” part of the name and, with shock in his voice, asked, “You joined a Catholic church?”  Even after I reminded him that my college was in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was a bit skeptical.

In other words, the Catholics had saints, but us Protestants didn’t.  At least not in my mind.  Never mind the fact that Protestantism didn’t break off from the Roman church until the 1500s, so any saint named such by the church prior to 1500 is part of our Protestant tradition by default.

That all started to shift for me thanks to St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.  It was their practice in the early 1980s to recite the Apostles Creed pretty regularly – at least when communion was celebrated, and maybe more often than that.  One of the phrases in the Apostles Creed is “I believe in … the communion of saints.”  As you can imagine, this raised questions in me, especially this one:  What is this “communion of saints” I’m saying I believe in?  And thus began a new understanding of saints.

According to Merriam Webster, the English word “saint” comes from the Latin sanctus, which means “sacred.”  Though I don’t know much Spanish, I notice that “St. Barbara” is “Santa Barbara” and “the Holy Bible” is “la Santa Biblia.”  “Santa” in Spanish means both “saint” and “holy.”  Or Sacred.

According to one source[1] I looked at, in King James Version translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word “saint/saints” appears 61 times.  But in the New Revised Standard Version, the word is chosen for the translation only once.  In the places where the KJV used “saint/saints,” the NRSV uses “holy ones” or “faithful.”  A clue, perhaps, to what we mean when we use the word “saint.”

Interestingly, the KJV and the NRSV both use “saint/saints,” again this source says 61 times in translating the New Testament – though it didn’t say if it is the same 61 places.  Other translations use, instead of “saints,” words like, “set apart” or “the church” (Peterson in The Message) or “faithful people” or “God’s people” (Today’s English Version).

So, the way the word is used in scripture, to be called a “saint” does not mean that the person or people are especially holy Christians.  Rather, it is a word that identifies those who refer to Jesus as special.  Those who call Jesus the Christ are the people who are called saints.  Those who claim Jesus is God’s way for them in the world are the saints.  We become saints not because of our goodness but because of God’s goodness.

In chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, the author defines faith.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Then the author lists a whole bunch of people who, by their lives, give us examples – potential role models and mentors – for living by faith.

Noah builds an ark even though there isn’t a cloud in the sky.  I’d add that his wife doesn’t leave him, but the author leaves her out.  Abraham and Sarah leave their home and travel to an unknown land, faithful that the promise to be the parents of a great nation will be fulfilled.  Trusting in God, Moses confronted Pharaoh and demanded his people’s freedom.  The author goes on, listing other faithful heroes from the Hebrew Scriptures.  And then the author talks about people who were martyred because of their faith.

The writer draws a conclusion from this list.  “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  This “great cloud of witnesses” has become my understanding of the communion of saints.

Anyone you look to as an example of faithfulness – a role model or mentor in the faith – is part of the communion of saints for you.  That’s why I told you about my parents.  They modeled faith in action for me.  But a saint doesn’t need to be someone older than you.

It may be hard to imagine calling a toddler in the throws of the terrible twos “a saint,” but Hannah’s mother could have called her that.  A gift that came into her parents’ lives when they didn’t think they could have a baby, Hannah had this knack for doing things and responding to questions and asking questions in such a way that her mother found herself better understanding God and being aware of the presence of God in her life.

Just as a stained glass window lets you see it image when light shines through it, someone once said, a saint is someone who lives their life in such a way that the light of God shine through it brightly enough for you to get a sense of the presence of God or a better understanding of who God is.

The invitation this All Saints Sunday is to remember and give thanks for the saints in your life.  For me, the list includes my mother and father.  It includes Brad Ellis who, by his faith, challenged me to wrestle with the most basic elements of my own.  It includes Ed McLane, one of the ministers at my childhood church who not only shared my birthday, but encouraged me in my journey.  It includes professors who asked me to be more critical in my theological thinking.  It includes Mister Rogers, who let God’s light shine through him in wonderful ways.  In includes Keith Spooner and Paul Forman, generous colleagues and mentors.  It includes Lizann Bassham whose evolving theology has challenged me to allow my theology to keep on evolving.

For these saints, living and dead, I give thanks.

So think about who is on your list.

For all the saints, we give you thanks, O God.  Amen.

[1] Richard J. Hull, II, Celebrating All Saints Day, a pdf produced by the Christian Church Foundation.  The document has now date or copyright notice on it.