Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

November 1, 2020


Texts: Micah 4:1–7; Matthew 5:1–17

     When I was a little girl, my best friend Elizabeth lived four doors down from me. She was Roman Catholic as were most of our neighbors. She used to give me little cards with pictures of saints on them. She told me that she would pray to them for me because I wasn’t Catholic. As some of you may remember, religious lines were pretty sharply drawn in the 1950s and Protestants and Catholics rarely met on the same religious ground, so to speak.    Thank God, we’ve come a long way since that time. 

       Be that as it may, what struck me about the prayer cards and then later, as I began spending my Saturdays in the Mellon Art Gallery, was the depiction of saints with gold rings around their heads we call halos, a sign of the special aura that saints were supposed to have because of their special holiness or closeness to God. In Christian art this form of iconography first appeared in the fourth century, but the use of the halo is far older than Christian art and far more widespread. The Egyptian god Ra was depicted with a halo as was Apollo, indicating their connection with the sun, the source of light. In Asian art, the Buddha and certain Hindu gods are depicted with halos as a sign of their special aura. 

      We often use the word saint to describe someone who has certain qualities, such as patience, kindness, gentleness, or who seems to be really––well, holy, qualities we usually don’t associate with ourselves. This is in sharp contrast to the earliest use of the word in Scripture. Paul used the word saint, agios, in the Greek meaning holy, for all the believers in the early Christian churches. “The saints greet you,” Paul wrote in Philippians and “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed” in Philemon. In some of the more radical Reformation communities, members were addressed as saints as a way to hearken back to what was seen as a more primitive and “pure” form of Christianity. 

      I suspect, however, that most of us find Orwell’s statement that many of us do not genuinely wish to be saints true. Or at least many of us don’t want to live the lives that we usually ascribe to saints because of the second half of Orwell’s comment: because it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. 

      Most of us make sharp distinctions between our lives and the lives of persons we consider to be holy. In fact, when we examine the lives of people considered to be holy, we’re not so sure we want to be like them. So, what are these qualities that we feel that either we cannot meet or don’t even want to try meeting?

       Scripture gives us some insight into this. The traditional reading for All Saints Day is the Beatitudes but I went beyond the Beatitudes because I think that what follows is closer to how we are supposed to act and live. We are told that we are both the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We now use the phrase “salt of the earth” to describe someone practical, down to earth, or “real,” a new word in American political discourse. 

       Salt was one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world because it was the major preservative in an age before refrigeration. Roman soldiers were given an allowance of salt called a salarium, the origin of our word salary. We still use phrases like “worth one’s salt” or “true to one’s salt” to describe worth. 

      Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus also called us the light of the world. That’s more troublesome because it implies that we need to get out there and be leaders or role models in a new way of life. That’s where we get uncomfortable. No, not me, we think, I’m only a this or a that. But that’s what Jesus calls us to do: to create the kingdom of God through the way we live our lives. 

      Now, if we move beyond our image of saints as figures with halos on their heads and hands raised up to give a blessing and think about people in our own time who have lived or who continue to live their lives as part of the creation of God’s kingdom, we end up with a startling variety. Other than the obvious ones who died no less as martyrs, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Monseñor Romero, there are many who struggle to live God’s word of hope and life. I say struggle because no one can even attempt to live this kind of life without struggle. I daresay that many of you have struggled in trying to be faithful to the Gospel. But Jesus never said it would be easy. 

      Saints not only struggle with living the Gospel but with their faith. No one lives without doubts. Even Mother Theresa, venerated as a saint when she was alive, struggled with her faith. But even though she felt the absence and silence of God she continued to give her life for others. 

     There are times that we wonder where God is as we experience the pain of illness or disability or hear of the horrors of war and ethnic cleansing. I believe that doubt is essential to honing our faith for it is in the midst of our doubts that we acquire a more intimate relationship with God. 

     Sometimes it’s simply the living that pulls us through. It’s the little things that bring us back to the holy, the experience of the ordinary that is transformed for us into a crucible of faith. In that way, we are all saints, infused by the holy, infused by the divine, infused by God. 

      Let us pray: Eternal and holy God, infuse our lives with your presence so we can truly be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Help us as we strive to live as we are called to live. In the name of him who is our light, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.