Becoming a saint

A family had sold everything possible to pay bills and to buy food. Nevertheless, a burglar broke in one night when the family was gone. The family returned and found the door knocked off its hinges.

"What did the burglar get?" the police investigator inquired.

The head of the household just shook his head. "Practice," he said.

The New Testament’s authors define a saint as any Christian,[1] the word’s meaning in today’s epistle reading.[2] But during Christianity’s first centuries, saint morphed to connote heroes of the faith, men and women whose embodiment of Christianity played large on history’s stage. Still popular among these heroes are Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and the twelve Apostles, which is why they are known as St. Matthew, St. Luke, etc.

We Anglicans follow a flexible method for determining who to include in the roster of Saints with a capital “S”. We dub an individual Saint to recognize a person who lived the Christian faith writ large. The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts contains our calendar of saints, our roster of faith heroes. Episcopalians are now arguing whether to include non-Christians, for example Gandhi, in our roster of Saints. The Hawai’i diocese is currently lobbying the national Church to include Queen Lili’uokalani as a saint. Her proposed feast day, November 11, is approved for local commemoration.

The gospel reading concluded with Jesus’ summary of his ethical teachings, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”[3] That summary, sometimes called the Golden Rule and common to all major religious traditions, exhorts us to love our enemies, pray for our abusers, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. We do not have to like these people or their evil deeds. We must do good to them, love them and pray for them. The instructions are simple; conforming our behavior to those ideals is the problem.

“A disciple once came to Abba Joseph, saying, ’Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast and my little prayer. I strive to cleanse my mind of all evil thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?’

“Abba Joseph rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’”[4]

To become a saint, a hero of the faith, a person totally on fire for God, requires inner transformation. The Greek word makarios, translated in the gospel reading as blessed, highlights the inner joy that a Christian experiences because of his or her intimate and personal relationship with God.[5]

Theologian Ilia Delio describes saints as

… icons of evolving love. When Francis of Assisi heard the words, “Go, rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin,” he first took the words literally to mean repairing the broken-down church where he was praying. So, he gathered stones and began to rebuild the walls of the church. In time, however, he realized that the church is not built with stones but with human hearts centered in divine Love. So, he threw himself into the project of love, making the love of God the sole purpose of his life. This was not a starry-eyed love sequestered in the privacy of a cloister. Francis encountered divine Love in the disfigured hand of a leper. Overcoming his revulsion of lepers, he found a God who delights to be among the simple and rejected. The world is pregnant with God, he discovered, but it is only a heart in love who can see God.[6]

To live as an icon of evolving love, intentionally practice loving one unlovable neighbor at a time. Choose someone near or far who hates you, dislikes you or abuses you. Pray for them. Do good to them. Figuratively “adopt” a houseless person. Campaign for justice in the Middle East or in Hawaii’s prisons. Conversely, an icon of evolving love never cancels anyone. Cancelling a person connotes treating the cancelled person as a non-entity: not speaking to them, not acknowledging their presence, denying their humanity. In contemporary culture, individuals cancel a person with whom they disagree or whom they believe has treated them rudely or with disrespect. Cultivating these two habits – learning to love one unlovable person at a time and never cancelling anyone – will change you, slowly transforming you into the living image of Christ. Becoming a Christian is a long journey, not an event.

A parent was teaching their child about how a Christian should live. The parent said that Christians should forgive their enemies, help those who are in need, treat all people with justice, and tell others about the love of Christ. When the lesson was over, the child asked, "Have I ever met one of those Christians?" Would a child know that you were a Christian?

May you and I be saints, on fire as icons of evolving love. Amen.

Sermon preached for All Saints Day, commemorated November 3, 2019
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 2:19.
[2] Ephesians 1:11-23.
[3] Luke 6:20-31.
[4] Michael Battle, “Wild fire,” The Christian Century, 17 October 2001, p. 15.
[5] F. Hauck, “Makarios,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 548-549.
[6] Ilio Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011), Kindle Location. 3866-73.


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