Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
How does one become a saint?
I’m not talking about the official process of canonization in the Roman Catholic church, or even the less rigorous process of becoming a Holy Woman or Holy Man in the Episcopal Church…I’m talking about how does one become part of the great cloud of witnesses?
I guess first we should ask: What does it mean to be a saint?
Obviously, these are questions that arise today because we’re celebrating the feast of All Saints…but they are important questions not simply because of today’s celebration…
Yes, the parish was founded on Nov. 1st 1894, this is our 125th anniversary…we were founded on All Saints day, and so All Saints is the name of the parish. But there is more to it…(there always is)…context…context is important… Our first rector, Daniel Addison said, “The parish of All Saints was not founded and sustained because we wished to be respectable simply, or because we wanted to foster the social life of the people, or to observe fittingly the first day of the week, but because in our hearts there was the longing after the worship of God and the religious training of ourselves and our children…It was the idea of sainthood that was present in our minds, even if vaguely.” (quoted in Saints Alive 21.4, p2) It was the idea of sainthood…that is present…even if vaguely…and that is something that is true not just for us, but for all Christians…It’s not simply that we are called All Saints…rather, as Christians, we are all called to be saints.
But what does that mean?
Some of you might be thinking…”oh this isn’t for me…I don’t want to be a saint…too hard…too scary…don’t they have to do superhuman stuff and die in horrible ways? Some did…many did not…if that’s what’s going through your mind right now, I invite you to take a deep breath and hear something Thomas Merton said, in his autobiography Seven Story Mountain, “People who look like saints to us very often are not and those who do not look like saints very often are” (Seven Storey Mountain, HBJ, 1976. p. 170).
So the people doing big, bold things…even people the church considers saints may not actually be…and those who don’t look like saints…the ones living quiet, simple lives, might well be.
So what does it mean to be a saint?
Merton is a reliable guide here, and remember back in September, I quoted him saying, “a tree gives glory to God by being a tree.” But we’re different, we get to choose whether to be true or false…our vocation he says, “is not simply to be, but too work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny … “To be a saint,” he says, “means to be myself.” (New Seeds, p. 32). But not just my natural self, but the self that God created me to be, and the self that I must work with God…collaborate with God… to creatively achieve….
To be a saint means to be my true self…
Is it really that simple?
Yes and no.
In Seven Storey Mountain, Merton tells the story of walking down Sixth Ave in New York, years before he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, with his friend Lax, who asks him, “What do you want to be anyway?” Merton goes through a list of things he could say, Thomas Merton the author, the literature professor, but decides to say, “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” Lax rejects this and says, “What you should say is you want to be a saint.” Merton writes, “The thought struck me as a little weird…I can’t be a saint…My mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities…How do you expect me to become a saint?” And what Lax says would become life-changing for Merton. And remains challenging and important for all of us…
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to, said Lax, simply…All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.” But most of us don’t want to be one, for a lot of reasons (fear, uncertainty, false humility), but Lax goes on…”Don’t you believe that God will make you what [God] created you to be, if you will consent to let God do it?” (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 238). Do we believe that God can and will do that? In my experience, my personal lived experience and my experience of pastoring people, I find that most people most of the time 1. don’t have this kind of faith in God…don’t believe that can actually change them, and even if they do…they have a really hard time 2. consenting to it…allowing God to do it…because it means giving up control…it means turning ourselves over to God in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable…. But that’s what saints do…They have faith that God will make them what God created them to be, and they consent to let God do it. “Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) “Not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42).” Saints, says Merton, “are those who live in the light of God alone.” And shouldn’t we all strive for that?
Merton writes, “When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s … love plays upon the human soul, the same kind of thing takes place.” (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 170). Our souls, our lives, our true selves are crystals that the love and light of God shines through, transforms, and by which the world is illuminated. That’s what becoming a saint means…allowing the light of God to shine through you… This little light of mine…I’m gonna let it shine…
That’s it. But it means having faith, trusting in God, and consenting to…allowing God to do that work. And that’s where we often need help.
You’ve probably heard the line that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car…just showing up is good, but its no guarantee that we’ll act more like Jesus…or become saints.
What we need are practices that will help crack open our stony, crystal hearts, and teach us how to trust…consent to God…be open and ready to let go of the controls…to surrender…Which I’m not good at, and I don’t think many of us are…but all of these things that we’re practicing…finding time for sabbath…doing centering prayer…writing down our gratitudes…reaching out across difference…sharing our stories and learning how to really listen to one another…making commitments of time, talent and treasure…all of the spiritual practices that we offer here, they are all ways of letting go of control…ways of cracking us open…they are ways of letting the light in…You know the Leonard Cohen line, right…”there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” These practices help crack us open so the light can get in. And the more we let go of control…the more the Holy Spirit can get in a work…
Time spent in silence or prayer is when the Holy Spirit can slip in and speak peace to our confusion, courage to our fear, comfort to our distress.
Expressing gratitude and giving of time and treasure makes a cracks where the Holy Spirit can work on our fears of never having enough.
Being in the moment makes cracks where the Holy Spirit can root us in the present and help us stop chasing the receding future and ruminating on the past.
Living simply so others can simply live makes cracks where Holy Spirit can help us re-prioritize our resources.
Practicing sabbath cracks open time for the Holy Spirit to remind us how vital it is to have times of reflection and an appreciation for the simplest and most profound things in life.
The parish of All Saints was founded 125 years ago, but not simply because we wanted to be respectable, or contribute to the social life of people…but because we longed to worship God, and train ourselves to become saints…
How do you become a saint? By wanting to…by desiring it…by practicing letting go…and loving your enemies, and praying for those who trouble you, and giving when you’re afraid there’s not enough and sharing with no thought of quid pro quo, doing unto others…by consenting to letting God change you into what God has always intended you to be…by walking only in the light of God, and letting it shine through you, always.