Years ago – and some of you will have heard me talking about this before – I went to a performance of John’s Gospel at St Luke’s Church in Blackburn – just next to St Wilfrid’s School. I say ‘performance’ because it featured a solitary actor who proclaimed the whole of John’s Gospel from memory – not a BIble in sight.
The audience all sat in the nave, in the darkened church. The actor stood at the front under a spotlight – he was just about all that could be seen. It was an amazing experience – we don’t often hear the whole of a Gospel – just chunks, Sunday by Sunday. But the highlight was the story of the raising of Lazarus. Suddenly the performer shouted very loudly, Lazarus! Come out! Apart from making everyone jump, it was one of those moments when your perceptions did a complete U turn. Suddenly, I realised that we, the audience. sitting in the darkened church, were actually Lazarus in the tomb. And Jesus was calling us – loudly – to leave death and darkness behind and to follow him – who is light.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. Today we remember Saints old and new. These are a very unexpected and colourful crowd of people. Often, we imagine them to be rather pious – and no doubt some of them were. But many of them were as far from pious as it’s possible to get. One of them, Elizabeth the Miracle Worker is said never to have had a bath in her entire life, and killed a dragon just by breathing on it. Maybe she never cleaned her teeth either. Another, Simon the Stylite, lived most of his life atop a column – 37 years in fact. Again, I’m sure the hygiene arrangements left a little to be desired. There are mysterious characters like St George – no-one really knows who he was. The only certainty is what he definitely wasn’t English – in fact it’s quite likely that he didn’t exist at all. Non existent saints are not as rare as you might imagine!
But the ones who do or did exist all have one thing in common. And it’s this. They responded to the call of Christ, just as Lazarus did when Jesus called him out of his tomb all wrapped up in bandages and in need of a good wash. To others, Jesus used similar words ‘Follow me’. This call – follow me – is Jesus’ most frequent command – he said it at least 10 times to various people.
Saints are people who respond to Jesus’ call, be that ‘come out of the dark’ or ‘follow me’. One of the things we know about God is to do with God’s infinite variety – just look at creation, at the people around you, listen to the songs of the birds – all these are different, unique. So why do we think that all saints are sort of the same – a bit bland, very pious, rather holier than thou and probably terribly dull. When we stop to think about it, God’s saints are inevitably as varied as the rest of God’s handiwork.
There’s no text book on becoming a saint. There are very few rules – it probably helps to believe in God, although I suspect that teven that isn’t really essential. Even Mother Teresa wrestled with doubt for nearly all her life, but, despite her critics, there’s little doubt that she was a saint. Which reminds me that some saints have lived within our memories – I can remember Mother Teresa – in fact I have a photo of my Grandmother shaking hands with her. I can also remember Oscar Romero being assassinated in the middle of celebrating Mass in 1980 – the Pope made him a saint earlier this year.
Oddly, the Church of England has no mechanism for declaring new saints – we have to rely on the Roman Catholics for that. More modestly we declare ‘commemorations’ – people such as Mary Sumner who founded the Mothers’ Union or Eglantyne Jeb founder of Save the Children, and Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer..
So, official or not, saints are simply people who have responded to Jesus’ call to follow, whether that be a call to come out of the depths of a cave like Lazarus, or a call to leave the fishing nets behind and follow as for Peter, James and JOhn, a call to leave fraud behind like Matthew, a call to support family life like Mary Sumner, a call to care for destitute children like Eglantyne Jeb, or a call to caring for destitute people on the streets of Calcutta like Mother Teresa. Even a call to knit vests for Mother Teresa’s street children like my grandmother.
So anyone can be a saint. They don’t really wear halos so they’re not easy to spot. And any of us can become a saint. We can all be saints – maybe some of you already are!
To become a saint you just need to listen, or perhaps to ask God to show you what you should be doing. It means going about your life with your eyes open – as if you’re looking at the world as God does – and then waiting to see what it is God wants you to do. Waiting to know is perhaps the hardest bit – I guess that this normally means spending time sitting quietly in God’s presence and listening, waiting for that call to come ‘follow me’ ‘get up and come out of the dark’.
It’s unlikely that any of us will ever be famous saints. But most saints aren’t famous. The spotlight falls on them for a year or two – they may be leading lights in their churches or communities. But they step back into the shadows – at least from our perspective – and they slowly slip out of human memory.
But God doesn’t forget. The saints are blessed to be with God in glory – God will say, as they’re welcomed home ‘Well done, good and faithful servant for when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a glass of water, when I was sick you visited me.. And whatever you did for the least of my little ones you did also for me’.