Becoming Saints


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

November 3, 2019


Texts: Joel: 2:15-29; Luke 6: 20-31

      When I was a little girl on rainy Sunday afternoons my parents would take me to the Smithsonian or the National Gallery of Art and my father would explain the various paintings to me. There were only two or three galleries and museums on the Mall at that time; they were and still are free, being supported by our tax dollars. I was always drawn to the paintings of saints as depicted by Medieval and Renaissance painters, in large part because of the extraordinary way in which they were depicted—with those beautiful golden halos around their heads. 

      My favorite saint in those paintings was St. Francis of Assisi because he was always doing something like feeding the birds or preaching the Gospel. Most of the saints, however, were painted as sitting around in some kind of adoration of Mary and the baby with looks of stunned amazement. They seemed nice but boring. That’s a saint? I used to wonder.

      In the early Christian community, all believers were addressed as saints. Look at Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example. He asks that all the saints, that is, believers, pray for him. The term comes from the Greek, hagios, holy or holy one. 

     Those who died in the faith, usually those martyred for their faith, became especially revered and by the second century, the Eucharist was often celebrated at their gravesites. The first recorded instance of such a celebration was that over the grave of Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, now Izimir in Turkey, martyred around 155 CE. These Eucharistic celebrations were occasions to remember the saint and all the good things that the saint had done. 

       Over time, stories became embellished, of course, as an increasing number of Christians were martyred. How to imagine that time? Think China, North Korea, or any of a number of countries where a simple act of worship could lead to death.

       After the church became the Church with a capital C, it developed a system of deciding who would be designated as a saint, a person who was so close to God that prayers by this saint would be especially heeded by God. Saints became thought of as God’s favorites, for lack of a better word. 

       In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a long convoluted process called beatification and canonization. Certain people are sped through the process, largely for political reasons. Beatification requires one miracle but canonization requires three. After a long drawn out process, Oscar Romero of El Salvador was canonized by Rome earlier this year. 

      The Orthodox Church has a different approach, which is less formal and connected to the process of storing the dead in ossuaries. In the East, there are many local saints with relics and icons used for veneration and prayer. Local bishops have the authority to name those to be venerated.

      So what makes a saint? Some argue that being a “saint” is having a special connection to God. Others would say that all believers or anyone who is “saintly,” whatever that word really means, is a saint. 

       If we look at various people often called “saints,” such as Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, or Mahatma Gandhi, the term gets muddled. King was a Baptist, one a Catholic, and the third wasn’t even a Christian. What did these people have in common that would enable them to be called saints? Each one of them led an extraordinary life in one way or another. 

       King, of course, sacrificed everything for the Movement. His private life, however, raises serious questions about the meaning of the term saint. Dorothy Day was hardly a woman most Roman Catholics would consider a saint by her personal life with two common law marriages, an abortion, and a child out of wedlock. Like Augustine, she had a before and after. She converted to Catholicism and gave it a different bent by establishing the Catholic Worker Movement, which spoke to issues of poverty and social justice. Do you think she would be canonized?

      Gandhi, of course, was not even Christian, but has been embraced by many as a saint, a holy person, who abandoned his career as a lawyer in South Africa to join in the movement for an independent India; a champion of simple living, pacifism, and religious tolerance, he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic. 

      What characteristic did these three share that would have them called saints? A vision and dedication to that vision, larger than themselves? A willingness to put aside the common concerns that most of us have? Is that what makes a saint?  

       Each of us knows a saintly person, possibly even more than one. That person who is considered ordinary by many has some extraordinary gift shared with others. It may the gift of charity, a willingness to give and give and give some more. It may be the gift of humor, the ability to make us laugh through the most painful moments in our lives. It may be the gift of piety, showing us how to be truly closer to God. Each of us knows such a person, a saint. 

      Most Protestant denominations do not have such a formal process of naming specific persons as saints although the Episcopal Church in The Book of Common Prayer references saints and their intercessory powers. The Baptist and Congregational traditions eschew such an approach to God. 

      Sainthood also has a negative connotation, one that presents an image of “holier than thou.” “Don’t be such a saint!” we sometimes hear. What is it that we mean when we say that to someone?  “Don’t be so good that you are better than me,” is probably what we really mean. Don’t show me up. Most of us are uncomfortable with such people. I certainly know that I often am. Saints, or saintly people, emphasize to me what I lack at times. 

      Scripture gives us some guides on becoming saints. Following the starker version of the blessings we know as the Beatitudes, we are told to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us; we are told to return evil with good and to give to those who beg and to do unto others not as others actually do to us but as we would want them to do to us. This is clearly not a prescription for living in the world of today with terrorism and war, Congress and the President, not even for walking in a small city, not to mention cities like Camden, Newark, or Trenton. 

       This wasn’t even a good prescription for living as an oppress-ed people of the Roman Empire, in a society where you had no rights, where you could be picked up on the whim of a common soldier, imprisoned––or worse. There isn’t one practical thing in any of these exhortations. Now, when Jesus said these things to the people who were listening to him, what on earth was he thinking?  

        Like Joel, Jesus was bringing forth a vision of a future in our midst. For if we really love our enemies, do good to those who curse us, and give to those who are in need, we will have a differ-ent kind of society. If we really believe what Jesus said, then we will really live the kind of life where the values of the kingdom of God are practiced. 

        Jesus preached a radical vision of equality and new life, a radical vision where the poor really do have enough to eat and coats for the winter, and where we really do treat others as we would want to be treated. In striving for that world, we then are all saints because we are all the children of God sharing God’s love with others.

        Let us pray: God of all that is holy, help us to live as your holy people dedicated to the kingdom our Lord brought us to share with the world. All this we ask in the name of him who lived your message of love, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.