Surrounded by Saints - Rev. Michael F. Bailey

“Surrounded by Saints”
Hebrews 12:1-3
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
November 6, 2016

Hebrews 12:1-3Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

When I lived in Europe for a few years, one of my favorite kinds of places to visit, much to the dismay of my children after say, the 50th visit, was touring all of the great churches and cathedrals on that continent. I admit to having an addiction to visiting these wonderful edifices (I guess you could say I have an edifice complex)! These magnificent places were built to God’s glory, often over centuries. And in nearly all of them I came face to face with plaster, marble and stained glass saints! Cathedrals, in and of themselves, were built in times where the majority of the population couldn’t read, so, they were teaching places in their design and art. The soaring ceilings of cathedrals brought to mind looking at the interior of a mighty ship, causing the worshipers to think of journeying through this life to heaven; the people were seated in the grand nave, a term from which we get the word navy and in ancient days where rowers sat. The nave was named and aimed at teaching worshipers that the laity power the ship of the church forward; the pulpit was also a nautical term describing where, from the bow of the ship, a spotter pointed out the dangers ahead for the ship and the way of safety, that is toward the harbor, in many languages, the “haven” from which the word heaven comes. The design of the cathedrals taught so much. And scattered throughout many cathedrals one can find representations of the saints of the church. In the time of the building of the cathedrals, the word “saint” and their representations in church art, pointed to the martyrs of the faith and later those through whom miracles could be attributed. 

Later, though, the church began taking seriously the language of the Bible and the word “saint” also came to be applied to even ordinary Christians, through whom the love of God was experienced. Throughout the New Testament, the word “saint” is applied to Christians; those human works in progress, whom God had saved and was sanctifying. Paul even writes of this when he addressed perhaps his most “problem child” church, Corinth! Though beset by all kinds of problems, right in the beginning of his first letter to them, he names them as “sanctified by God, called to be saints.” Why even in some African American worship services I’ve attended, I’ve heard the pastor greet the congregation with the words, “Good morning saints!” So “saint,” grounded in new testament language, is a word that applies to all of us “works in progress” that have been saved by Christ and are being made more holy by the Spirit.

The best way, I believe, to describe us Christians is found in something Martin Luther said. In my own words, Luther basically said, “we are all saints because Christ has and is saving us and we’re all sinners, because, well, we’re fallen humans” all at the same time. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite preachers, Nadia Bolz-Weber serves a church called the “house of all sinners and saints.” Really that name describes all congregations, including us, Christ Church; we are a house of God for all sinners and saints. The church is by no means perfect; it is an assembly of sinners served and led by sinner preachers! But, it is also a place where the “better saintly side” of our natures can be encouraged and emerge. 

Today, we celebrate that we have been, are and shall be surrounded by saints, not just those represented in plaster or marble or stained glass but also those who have been and are with us now.

 I’ve shared this with you before but still like it: 

A single dad, who was new to a particular community, decided to take his seven-year-old son to church one day. It was a church he had never been to before; a great cathedral like church.

The minister came to the pulpit and preached a sermon about the saints. He talked about the history of the church, people like Peter, and James, and Mary, and Martha — people who knew Jesus personally.

He talked about the early, fledgling church: people like Tertullian, Irenaus, Augustine and his mother Monica — people who helped clarify the faith amidst confusion and controversy; people who laid the foundation of the church.

He talked about people who lived over a thousand years later — people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and Saint Teresa of Avila who challenged us to look at the faith differently and find a deeper relationship with God.

 He talked about modern day saints, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King who struggled for the rights of all people.

While all this was going on, the little boy was fascinated by the stained-glass windows that lined the sanctuary. It was a very bright, sunny day, so he was overcome by the colors. It was as if a rainbow had shattered and covered the congregation with radiant shapes of red, green, gold, blue, and purple. The colors that were reflected by the people in the windows — some of the same people that the minister mentioned in his sermon as saints — the colors were beautiful and they filled the church. 

After the service, when they were driving home, the father asked the son what he thought of the church service.  “I liked it,” he said.

“Were you listening to the minister’s sermon at all?” the father inquired.

“A little,” the boy admitted.

 “Do you know what he was talking about?” the father asked. The boy confirmed that the sermon had something to do with people called saints. Testing how attentive his son was, the father then asked, “And who are the saints?”

The boy said thinking of the windows, “They are the people who the light shines through.”

You see, the saints are not just those who have done dramatic things in history: defending the faith against heresy, fighting for the rights of all people. They are those who have helped us open our eyes to see God in our midst when we were blinded by other loyalties or stale ways of thinking.” Who have been the saints in your life?

And beautifully, we have them still with us in this life, in this church and community; people who let the light of Christ shine through their lives; quietly serving, encouraging, teaching, praying, giving. And we’ve been blessed by those who came before us! It’s only because of the saints who moved from the church militant to the church eternal, that Christ Church is the great church it is today for us. They bring to mind our need to ask the question, “what kind of church will we leave for generations to come?” 

But more, we still have the presence of those who are in heaven; we’re still connected beautifully with all the saints in our lives who are with Christ now and this is especially true when we receive communion. 

In an old book, entitled “The Presence – An Approach to the Holy Communion”  Berthold Von Schenk wrote beautifully of why the sacrament of Holy Communion is so important this day and each time we celebrate it. His words breathe new life into last sentence of the Apostle’ Creed, where we profess belief in the “communion of the saints.” Von Schenk wrote: “We must come to a sense of the continuing presence of our loved ones … and we can do this if we realize the presence of our living Lord.  As we seek and find our risen Lord we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The Saints are a part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the risen Christ face to face … while we worship the same risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the altar.”

At communion we are linked with heaven … with the communion of saints – with our loved ones.  Here at the altar - focused to a point - we find our communion with the them through Christ; for the altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our loved ones who are in His keeping.” I hope we all experience that this morning.

And the altar can be the place where we hear their voices in our hearts as we feel close to them. Dr. Teri Ott, reflecting on All Saints Sunday, wrote, “The voices I hear are the voices of my saints; my community of past, present, and future; people in my life who have guided me, and shaped me, and made me who I am today. These are my great cloud of witnesses who cheer me on as I persevere in this race of faith. I hear the voices of beloved teachers and professors; I hear the voices of family members.” 

The movie Dead Poet’s Society, starring the late Robin Williams, was one that was played pretty often in our house. Michael, Jr., an English major at UNC, found it to be one of his favorites, and I think his old VHS tape is still in the attic of the parsonage. “The story of this movie is set in New England at an elite, private high school for boys called Welton Academy. Robin Williams plays a new and creative English teacher at the school named Mr. Keating.

On Mr. Keating’s first day of class, he asks all of the boys to get up and follow him outside into the hall.  There they gather around a couple of glass cases full of tarnished trophies, school antiques, and yellowing old photographs of boys who years ago roamed the halls of Welton.

After he had gathered his class in front of these cases, Mr. Keating asked them to open their textbooks to a poem by 16th century poet Robert Herrick. One of the boys read the poem out loud, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  “Carpe Diem,” Mr. Keating explained, it’s the Latin equivalent of, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  “Carpe Diem” Mr. Keating continued, or “Sieze the Day!” in English.

Then he asked all of the boys to gather up close to the glass so they could get a good look at the old photographs in the cases. “Take a good look,” Mr. Keating said. “Look at their faces. You’ve walked by them many times, but you’ve probably never really looked at them.” As the boys leaned in to look, Mr. Keating added, “They’re not that different from you are they? And if you listen….if you listen real close…you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in,” Mr. Keating encouraged.  “Listen….do you hear it?”

Then from behind them he began to whisper…. “Carpe”…. “Carpe Diem”…. “Sieze the day boys.  Make your lives extraordinary!”

Today we gather around our communion table with saints of our past, present, and future.  We gather today to lean in and listen to those who have gone before us.  They have a message for us.  What were the messages of hope, encouragement, the dreams for your life your saint spoke to you on this side of veil? They love they had for us still exists! Those words speak still! Was it words of encouragement and love from your mother; your grandparents; a spouse a dear friend? They speak still. And they are here to remind us of our inheritance, to call our attention to the treasures of life, and to represent the fullness of God and God’s love for us. Do you hear voices? As you come for communion do you sense their presence? I do and hope you do as well.  Thanks be to God for the communion of saints, for our great cloud of witnesses, gathered here among us today.”

Sermon Discussion Starters: Surrounded By Saints

1) Share about or or more of the "saints" that have impacted your life.

2) Share ways that you've seen God work through ordinary, imperfect people.

3) Share a character in scripture with whom you resonate, particularly when you think about their imperfections.

4) Share how you think God can use you, as an ordinary, imperfect person.