Who Are Saints?

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We give thanks today for the saints of God who have lived before us. 
We give thanks for the light of God that shone in their lives and
continues to shine in ours because they lived.  We are richer because
they walked the earth.  We give thanks knowing that that light came from
God and that it will bring them home to him.

And we pray that the love and light of God will shine in us.  In
spite of our weakness, our sins… our stubbornness, may God’s power… as
promised… create in us hearts and lives pleasing and useful to God.  O
God, make our lives a blessing to the ones we love… and to our church…
and to our world.


All Saints Sunday

November 4, 2012

Isaiah 25:6-9. Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

Peder Stenslie

Today is All Saints Sunday… a day to commemorate the lives of the
saints of God… and to give thanks for the gifts and sacrifices they
offered that have strengthened our lives, our church and our world.

So what’s a saint?  That’s an important first question.  We have a
tendency to think of saints as being serious, confident… holy men.  We
think of Saint Peter, Saint James, Saint John and Saint Paul… and think…
these guys were righteous giants.

But that doesn’t really describe who these guys were.  We read in
scripture about how weak, wrong and just plain lost they generally
were.  They far more often look like fools than righteous giants.  So
who were they, really… and what is a saint?

I once owned a book… a collection of legends of Saint Francis.  Saint
Francis of Assisi was an Italian preacher and monk of the Middle Ages. 
Though he was born to wealth and privilege, he eventually committed
himself to a life of poverty and service to God.  Today, Francis is
absolutely one of the most widely known and deeply loved saints of
Christian history.  As I read through the ancient legends retold in this
book, I would often react with a… “That is sure a strange story…” or “I
don’t think I like that.”

It didn’t take long, however, for these stories to hook me and lead
me into deep thought about the wonder of God’s love and the nature of
our relationship with him.  Though I gave away the book many years ago,
some of the strange stories have stuck with me… and I think of them
surprisingly often.

This week, one of these stories has been on my mind as I have
pondered All Saints Sunday.  Saint Francis had a loyal follower and a
dear friend named Brother Leo.  One day the two of them were on the road
and didn’t have the book of daily prayers from which they liked to
share devotions every day.

Since they lacked the book, Francis said to Leo:  “Dear Brother, this
is what I want you to do.  I will speak and you will respond as I teach
you.  Be careful not to change any of the words that I give you.  I’ll
say this: ‘O, Brother Francis, you have done so many evil things and so
many sins in the world that you are worthy of hell.’  And you, Brother
Leo, will respond: ‘That is true.  You deserve the lowest place in
hell.’”

Brother Leo, who was completely devoted to Francis, replied:  “Of course, Father, begin, in the name of God.”

Saint Francis then began praying, as he said he would, about how he
was deserving of hell.  When it came time for Brother Leo to reply, he
said:  “God will do many good things through you, and you will be
welcomed into Paradise.”

Francis stopped his prayer and said, “Don’t say that, Brother Leo! 
When I say, ‘Brother Francis, you have done so many evil things against
God that you deserve to be cursed by God,’ you will respond like this:
‘Truly, you deserve to be put among the cursed.’”  Brother Leo answered,
“Yes.  Of course, Father.”

Saint Francis then began to weep and groan… and he said in a loud
voice, “O my Lord of heaven and earth, I have committed so many sins
against you that I thoroughly deserve to be cursed by you.”  Brother Leo
then spoke:  “O Brother Francis, God will do so much through you that
you will be greatly blessed.” 

Saint Francis became very upset that Brother Leo was getting it
wrong.  He scolded him, saying:  “Why don’t you respond the way I teach
you?  I command you by holy obedience to respond as I say.  I will say
this: ‘O evil little Brother Francis, do you think God will have mercy
on you?  You have committed so many sins against the Father of mercy
that you don’t deserve to find mercy.’  And you will respond: ‘You in no
way deserve to find mercy.’”

“Do you understand, Brother Leo, little lamb?”  Deeply shaken, Brother Leo replied, “Yes father.  Please begin.”

Once again, Francis began to plead his case… how he was deserving of
nothing but punishment and condemnation.  When it came time for Brother
Leo to reply as Francis had ordered, he opened his mouth and said:  “God
the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sin, will have
great mercy on you, and grant you many blessings.”

Angry and upset, Francis demanded to know why Leo was being so
disobedient; doing exactly the opposite of what he was told.  Flustered,
Brother Leo replied:  “I have tried in my heart, each time, to respond
as you commanded me, but God makes me speak as it please him, not as it
pleases me.”

The legend goes on to say, in spite of Leo’s words, Francis pressed
on.  Again and again, he offered his confession of sinfulness and
unworthiness and Leo replied with a promise of great mercy and
blessing.  According to the legend, it went on until daybreak, when at
last Francis gave it a rest.

(A version of this legend can be found in Tales of St. Francis: Ancient Stories for Contemporary Living.  By Murray Bodo OFM.  Doubleday, 1988.)

It is, indeed, a strange story, but it conveys several very important
lessons about God and his saints.  First, God’s saints often struggle
with terrible feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness.  That seems
ironic; but it is because those who have seen deeply into the goodness
of God, know and feel how far they are from what God has called them to
be.  It’s painful knowledge to bear, which is why the message of God’s
unending love and mercy must become the rock to which we anchor our
lives.

Secondly, Francis and his bumbling attempts at prayer remind us that
we often think we know what God is doing and how God responds and reacts
to us when, in fact, we don’t.  Francis was sure that he stood
condemned before God.  He was so sure of it that he put those words into
God’s mouth.  He commanded his companion to speak them in God’s name.

But the truth is… like Francis, we always underestimate God’s grace
and mercy.  What we are sure is unforgivable, God takes away so that he
can lead us to new life.  Our terrible sins, which we think define us,
simply cannot stand against the ferocious and unrelenting love of God. 

We also underestimate God’s power to turn our night into day and to bring life out of death.

This is heard in today’s beautiful readings from Isaiah and
Revelation.  These lessons are well worth another listen.  From the
prophet Isaiah…

[God] will destroy…

   the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

   the sheet that is spread over all nations;

  he will swallow up death for ever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,

   and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

   for the Lord has spoken.

 

And here’s from the Revelation of John…

See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.

The shared promise of these lessons, separated in their writing by
about 800 years, is that the power of God will unravel sin and death and
all its many faces, so that one day we will know life without fear or
sorrow or pain.

The final lesson of the Saint Francis story is this:  What makes a
saint is not a person’s moral achievements or lofty faith.  It is the
work that God does in and through them.  The prayers of Francis were
fixed on his own shortcomings and sins.  He thought these had the power
to condemn him.  Brother Leo, however… who spoke the will and promises
of God…  declared that it is the love and power of God that makes us
holy and that will bring us at last to paradise.  It is God who makes
and sustains saints.

We give thanks today for the saints of God who have lived before us. 
We give thanks for the light of God that shone in their lives and
continues to shine in ours because they lived.  We are richer because
they walked the earth.  We give thanks knowing that that light came from
God and that it will bring them home to him.

And we pray that the love and light of God will shine in us.  In
spite of our weakness, our sins… our stubbornness, may God’s power… as
promised… create in us hearts and lives pleasing and useful to God.  O
God, make our lives a blessing to the ones we love… and to our church…
and to our world.

Amen.