From 1st through 7th grades, I attended an Episcopal elementary school, where we had chapel every Monday. My favorite hymn in was called “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” and I seldom hear it out of Episcopal circles. Still, it seems fitting to share a little of it with you today.
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true
Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green
They were all of them saints of God and I mean, God help me, to be one too.
I did a little research about what Lesbia Scott intended when she wrote this song. The doctor referenced in this song is St. Luke, the first-century physician who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts in the Bible. The queen is Margaret of Scotland who dedicated herself to aiding the orphans and poor people of Edinburgh in the 11th century. Joan of Arc is the shepherdess from France who felt called by God to help defend her country from its enemies in the 1400’s.
Who are the saints you sing of? Do you know any medical professionals, or people in positions of political power, or inspired teenagers who offer their lives to care for others? Saints are not super-heroes, necessarily. They seldom walk around under literal halos, though the descriptor haloed/ hallowed does mean holy. Saints are people from every walk of life, claimed by God in the waters of baptism to live lives of courage and hope and generosity.
The second verse of “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” explains sainthood like this:
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast; and there’s not any reason—no, not the least—why I shouldn’t be one too.
I could tell you that the soldier was Martin of Tours who is reputed to have seen the face of Christ in a beggar’s face. It prompted him to climb off his horse, tear his beautiful cloak in two, and throw half of it over the man’s shoulders. Not long after that, at the ripe old age of 24, he felt that he could no longer serve as a soldier. He had come to believe that following Christ meant living a life of non-violence. He eventually became a priest and bishop in the French city of Tours, though he spent much of his time on the road, founding monasteries and bringing the Word of God all around the diocese. He’s not the priest in the hymn, however. That title refers to John Donne, a poet-priest whose sermons and other writings glorify God. Ignatius of Antioch was slain by a fierce wild beast. He served God and his neighbors as Christian letter-writer and bishop, encouraging 1st century Christians when they were being persecuted. He was condemned to death in 115 A.D. Roman guards in Antioch arrested him and sent him to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum in Rome. Upon hearing his death sentence, he is supposed to have said, “Let me follow the example of the suffering of my God.”
Who else would you add to this list of saints? Who else died violently because they lived a life of faith? What soldiers or teachers or police officers or actors or physical therapists have been saints in your life? Who demonstrated for you a fierce and true love for God and the world God made? From Mother Theresa to our own mothers or grandmothers, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., on this All Saint’s Day, we delight in our relationship with all of God’s children from every time and place, blessed saints every one. Living or dead, old or young, the people of God are saints, and All Saint’s Day our family reunion with all of them.
Contrary to popular belief, a saint is NOT just a very, very good person. Martin Luther described all Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner.” He explained that all of us are both fallible AND forgiven, both broken AND filled with the Holy Spirit. Another way to think about saints is that we are all, as Luke’s Gospel puts it today, both blessed AND full of woe.
We saints and sinners are blessed to be in each other’s company—those who are poor and those who are rich, those who are hungry and those who are full, those who are weeping and those who are laughing, those who are spat upon and those who are popular. Whichever role we are in now, we know we will probably find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum sooner or later. If today you are laughing, you know that sooner or later, there will come a time when you are not. If today you feel hungry, there will be a time when you will be full again. And it is for this reason, I believe, that we are gifted with the blessing of Church.
Now, not every person who believes in God is part of a congregation or a faith community. Nor does a person’s unbelief mean God is not at work in his or her life. It is certainly possible to encounter God while walking through the woods on a Sunday morning, or to know God’s majesty by gazing at the stars or hearing a baby’s laugh. But, sooner or later, we all are going to encounter times when we don’t experience God in nature—or anywhere. We are going to find ourselves doing things we know are destructive, or witness other people doing them. We are going to lose courage and hope. We are going to be in physical or psychological or emotional pain. Whether we are in the blessed section or the woe section of today’s reading from Luke, sooner or later, we’re going to be on the other side.
This, my friends, is exactly why we need the Church. I don’t mean the building. The building, though lovely and practical, is beside the point. I mean you and you and you and you. The Church. The kingdom of God. When it gets dark, we need light to see by, and we need people who will shine it for us when we can’t carry on alone. When we feel full of light and joy, there are others who need us to share our blessings. It isn’t that God needs us to share our bounty with the poor and marginalized (God will always find a way to provide); it is that WE need to do so—and in our giving, we find ourselves blessed. God will not force us to be generous, but when we are, we will find that not only are others relieved of woe, but we are too.
The final verse of “The Saints of God” talks about the gift of modern-day saints:
They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are folk just like me, and I mean to be one too.
Saints stand beside us, sharing bits of bread and wine and daily trials and delights with us. Saints sing out loud when our hearts get stuck in our throats. Saints pray when our pipeline to God feels clogged up. The whole universal, timeless family of God supports us and we support them too. There may be particular saints we desperately wish were still among us in the flesh, but the grand and glorious truth is that the Church, the communion of saints, is always present, just as our family is always related to us, whether we like it or not, and even if we live far apart geographically. We live amid a great cloud of witnesses that is connected in ways we cannot even imagine.
Marked with the Cross of Christ on our foreheads, we are part of the communion of saints for eternity. We are people of hope and blessing, as well as people of woe and repentance. We are the Church, the very real presence of God’s body on earth. We are simultaneously saints and sinners. We are beloved. Blessed are we.
~Pastor Susan Schneider