November 5, 2017, Would You Know a Saint If You Met One? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000049
Last week, as most of you know, I took the train down to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit my sister. I’m so thankful for having had the opportunity to spend time with her. She’s my big sister, the firstborn of our family, so she is really good at planning and organizing and making things happen. That’s one of the big sister jobs. So we were busy pretty much all day everyday, and she had planned so many fun things for us to do. But the most amazing place we went was to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. It’s the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and it is literally breathtaking. It is immense, and full of a holy stillness. And it is extraordinarily beautiful.
Covering the domed ceiling and the walls and the pillars are brilliantly-colored scenes from the Bible, and from the history of the Church, especially the local history of the Church in St. Louis, all rendered in mosaics, millions upon millions – 41 ½ million – tiny pieces of glass or marble in 8000 different colors. 20 different artists worked on the mosaics over a period of 76 years. It’s one of the largest collections of mosaics, not only in this country, but in the whole world.
In the basement there is a museum that shows the process involved in creating these mosaics, with all kinds of technical details, but each mosaic began as a simple watercolor sketch. And to make the sketch – since there weren’t any photographs of Elijah or Jesus or Peter or John or Mary – each artist first had to form a picture in his mind of how they should look. Jesus and the Angels, and the Prophets, and the great Saints of the faith: how should they portray them? And what they came up with is stunning: images of incredible beauty, and glorious color. Powerful images of angels and prophets a hundred and forty feet above your head, and images of the Saints surrounding you on all sides, rich in symbolism, designed to inspire awe and worship in anyone who enters.
Today is the Feast of All Saints, when we remember with thankfulness and sometimes a little sadness the saints who have touched our lives in a personal way. Thankfulness, because the people whose names we read out today, our mothers and fathers and other dear friends and family members, these are the people God has used to care for us and comfort us and show us the way. But also sadness, because many of the people we remember on All Saints Day are people who have gone on before us to be with God, and we miss them terribly. My sister and I lit a candle at the Cathedral in our mother’s memory because even though she’s been gone ten years we miss her every day.
But I think I can safely assume that none of the special saints we remember today are much like the glorious images in the Cathedral Basilica, filling us with holy fear and leaving us breathless with their power and beauty. As wonderful as those images are, real flesh-and-blood saints aren’t anything like that, not really. If we want to know what a saint is supposed to look like, we will do much better to listen to what Jesus had to say when he sat down on the mountain and began to teach, beginning with what we call the Beatitudes, that list of “blesseds” that we read this morning. They don’t sound much like descriptions of the famous Saints of the Cathedral mosaics. But if you think about the saints you are offering in remembrance today as we go through the Beatitudes of Jesus, I think you will recognize the beloved saints in your life, and maybe understand a little better what it was about them that made them such a blessing to you.
Jesus begins right up front with poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke just quotes Jesus as saying “Blessed are the poor.” The first rule of sainthood is when a person knows absolutely “I am not God. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t fix what’s wrong.” A saint isn’t out to impress or compete or outdo anybody. Many saints are very impressive people, but they would be the last people on earth to admit that. Blessed, happy, are those who know their own poverty.
On the Cathedral ceiling, all the faces of the great saints seemed to glow with a kind of fierce joy. But the second mark of a saint, according to Jesus, is sorrow. “Blessed are those who mourn.” It almost seems to make no sense, if you translate it “happy” instead of “blessed” – “Happy are those who are sad,” you could say. But a saint, Jesus says, is one who sees the pain of others and weeps along with them. Because how does it show the love of God to the world when they see Christians with clean suits and shiny happy smiles while all around them children go hungry and men and women live in terror and families are devastated by cancer? Any saint worth their salt weeps as Jesus wept at the grave of his good friend. As we remember those saints with whom God has blessed you, remember the precious tears they shed with you and for you.
The third mark of sainthood is even less impressive than sorrow, by the world’s standards. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said, and when people hear the word “meek” they think of people who are doormats, timid souls who are afraid to stand up for themselves, but that’s not what the word means at all. It means gentle, or humble, or considerate, like Jesus when he took the little children in his arms and blessed them, like Pope Francis when he knelt to kiss the feet of refugees and prisoners, like the saints you remember today who thought of your needs and the needs of others before their own. “Blessed indeed are the meek.”
The fourth mark of sainthood is a ravenous appetite for goodness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” I have known people who have such a great gift for seeing what is good and right that they find it everywhere they go. One good friend of ours when we lived in St. Louis had that gift, and I remember he would often visit when our house was an absolute and total wreck and our zillion kids were running all over, but he always saw something good. He didn’t notice the noise or the dirty dishes in the sink; he saw the joy, or the creativity, or the love. You could tell that he was being honest and not just trying to be nice; it was just that he was tuned in to goodness like a chocolate lover is tuned in to the scent of chocolate. He hungered and thirsted after all that was good, and so he found it. And finding it, he made it visible to the people around him.
Other people I’ve known, hunger and thirst for righteousness in a different way. They are so grieved by the unrighteousness in the world around them, that they spend their lives pursuing real righteousness like a dying man seeking water in the desert. Martin Luther King Jr. was a seeker after righteousness in that way. Sometimes these saints who hunger and thirst after righteousness can even be a little difficult to live with because they are so passionate in their seeking. But it is that passion that makes them lights in the darkness of the world. Blessed and desperately needed are those saints.
The fifth mark of sainthood is mercy. “Blessed are the merciful.” Mercy chooses not to pass judgment. Mercy doesn’t just cry for justice to be done, it reaches out with forgiveness and offers a new beginning. The families of the shooting victims in Charleston were merciful, going to the jail and speaking to Dylann Roof with kindness. Mercy doesn’t look particularly strong or righteous or impressive to the world; the world very often despises mercy. It’s much more familiar and comfortable with payback. Blessed are those who know that condemnation and vengeance only do harm – but that mercy has power to heal.
The sixth mark of sainthood is purity of heart. We can see all around us every day what isn’t purity of heart. Life on the world’s terms can sometimes be an awful lot like trying to ride a bicycle while juggling knives – so many people to keep happy, so many systems to keep track of, so many dangers to watch out for, so many appetites to satisfy. But Jesus told us “Only one thing is necessary.” Purity of heart is the simplicity that comes of knowing who we are, and of following that one principle of love – love God, love your neighbor. Saint’s lives are never easy and pain-free but they are simple. A dear saint that I thought of when I was thinking about what purity of heart is, is Al Layo. When I first knew him, he already knew the horrible loss that he was facing, but he kept his eyes on Jesus, he kept loving as long as he had power to choose. And Jesus promises, Al will see – and recognize – the face of God, along with all the saints. Blessed are those single-hearted saints.
And the last mark of sainthood is being a peacemaker. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, knowing how terribly the world is in need of peace. We know that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and his saints are peacemakers because they are like him, making peace by listening to people who are hurt, by being models of peace, by seeking opportunities for reconciliation. There are peacemakers on a global scale, but I am reminded of a wonderful teacher Victoria had in the first grade who loved and understood her little students very well. When one student was being unkind to a smaller student she arranged for the smaller one to tutor the bigger student in some subject she was having trouble with. And it worked beautifully – gradually they began to get along. That teacher was a true peacemaker, one who had wisdom and kindness and patience. Blessed are the people who have brought peace into your life, and into the lives of others.
But that’s not really the last, because Jesus goes on to say that the blessed life of a saint is no bed of roses. Those great saints whose glorious, joyful images are pictured in the mosaics of the Cathedral in St. Louis – many of them were murdered for their faith, many were imprisoned, all of them faced hardship and the brutality of this world. Our kind friend with a gift for seeing good suffered years of loneliness and depression. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Pope Francis faces opposition from within the Church for being too merciful. The families and friends of the shooting victims in Charleston live every day with the loss of their loved ones. Our brother Al lies in bed every day, not able to recognize the people who come to see him. The life of a saint is hard. I know that every one of the names I will read this morning, is a saint who has suffered hardships in many different ways. They worked hard and they suffered terrible losses and they struggled with injustices and cruelty and weaknesses of all kinds. It comes with the territory of being a stranger in this strange land. And yet Jesus says, they are blessed, because they are following the way of the prophets who came before them, the way that leads to life. And today we remember and give thanks that God blessed us through them, as they walked before us and showed us the way – not perfectly, not impressively, probably not gloriously, but faithfully, by the grace of God.