When I was growing up, I didn’t believe in saints. I couldn’t have told you anything about who saints were, what made them saints, let alone that there was an All Saints’ Day. In my ignorance, born of growing up in a religious tradition (Southern Baptist) that didn’t celebrate the lives of the saints, I mistakenly thought that saint meant a perfect person, someone who had done no wrong.
I remember one day having a conversation out in the front yard with Charlie, the little boy who lived next door. Charlie’s family, the Feinauers, piled into their car every Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, to go to mass at the Catholic church. Now I’m not sure how Charlie and I landed on the topic of saints, but I do remember clearly saying to him one day: “Well, I don’t believe in saints, because there are no perfect people.”
I still don’t believe that there are any perfect people. But now I believe in the existence of saints, because now I know that saints don’t have to be perfect people. To be a saint, one doesn’t have to be perfect—one just needs to be open to living in such a way that reflects the character of God. Saints are those who see God most clearly, and those who most clearly reflect God’s character to others.
So, if that’s what it means to be a saint, then anyone has the potential to be one. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to do something remarkable or heroic (though some saints do). You just need to be willing to pattern your own life after the life of Jesus. That means you’re willing to set your eyes on something larger than yourself, and you’re willing to pour out yourself for others—even when it puts your life, your comfort, your reputation, your livelihood, or whatever is most important to you, at risk. Being a saint means you have a clarity about what is most important, a clear vision and purity of heart that come from being knit together with God’s purposes for oneself, for others, and for the whole world.
In our scriptures for today, we hear a lot about being pure. In Revelation 7, we hear about the white-robed ones in heaven. In First John, we hear of how those who look for Jesus to be revealed to them, and hope to be like him, will purify themselves. Then, in today’s Gospel from Matthew 5, known as the Beatitudes, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Martyrs are saints who have such purity of heart that they see God not only in their living but also in their dying. The parish where I served the past three years in Birmingham, Alabama, is called St. Stephen’s. It’s named for Saint Stephen, one the first deacons of the early church and also the first recorded martyr of Christianity, stoned to death because he stood up for his faith.
Stephen was a saint in part because of how he reflected God’s character in his life: as a deacon he was a servant leader to others in the church (providing especially for the needs of orphans and widows), and also was revered as a preacher and healer. But Stephen was also a saint because of how he reflected God’s character in his death: accused of blasphemy against God and Moses, Stephen was called to defend his faith before the Sanhedrin—and when he did so he delivered a passionate account of how the faith of Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel laid the foundation of his own faith in Jesus, the Messiah.
As Stephen concluded, he challenged them, charging that they were the ones who had received the law but that they had not kept it. The gathered crowd was enraged and began hurling stones at him. But as they stoned him, Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit, [and] he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). This angered the crowd all the more, but as they continued to stone him, Stephen looked up into heaven and prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. … Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then he died.
I don’t think the people of St. Stephen’s Church, me included, had thought very much about the fact that our church was named after Stephen the Martyr. But then, on June 16, 2022, we all had to start reflecting more on what it means to be a saint and a martyr, because on that day three members of the congregation were killed by a gunman while attending a potluck dinner in the parish hall.
Jane Pounds and Sharon Yeager were the backbone and the lifeblood of the altar guild, and involved in a number of other ministries including the Simply Prayer group and the prayer shawl and prayer bracelet-making ministries. Meanwhile Bart Rainey was a careful reader and listener, who sent thoughtful emails to say when he had connected with something in a sermon or a reflection I had written—or to share ideas of places my family and I might visit for a day trip, knowing that we were new to Alabama.
On the night that they died, Bart offered the assailant Findlay a seat beside him and his wife Linda at one of the potluck dinner tables. Linda had even offered to bring Findlay a plate of food. Bart, Sharon, and Jane, along with the other 18 people gathered for dinner that evening, had shared welcome, conversation, food, and drink that evening—just as every Sunday we gather to share the Peace with one another before we share together the bread and wine of the communion table. The significance of their offering to break bread around a table at church with the person who, in the end, took three lives is not lost on the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
In light of all of this, I take special comfort when I read in Revelation 7 that the white-robed ones in heaven are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And while I know that the Book of Revelation is, largely, a metaphoric, apocalyptic text that’s not meant to be read literally, I believe that an essential truth is being conveyed here, which is this: That there’s a special place with God for people “who have come out of the great ordeal.” Martyrs are wearing white robes not because they are pure, sinless ones in their own right, but rather because they have been made pure by reflecting the character of God in their living and in their dying. Saints are all those who, by their lives and deeds, reflect the mercy, grace, and goodness of God to those who cross their paths, and to those who fall within the circle of their care.
Saints are not just people who are martyred for their faith, like Saint Stephen or like Bart, Jane, and Sharon. Saints are also the people who do not count the cost and risk their lives to save the lives of others. I also think of a man named Jim Musgrove, who’d just turned 80 a couple weeks before June 16, and also attended the dinner that night. Because of his training (unknown to most of us) as a federal agent, he was able to stay calm and quickly assess the situation, taking up a chair to defend himself against the armed man before wresting the gun from him. With the help of others including his wife Lin, Jim then subdued the shooter until the police arrived. For all of this, he was given a Carnegie Medal, in honour of his great courage and willingness to put his own life at risk for the sake of saving others.
In the end, saints are people who, no matter what unexpected storms and doubts blow into their lives, somehow manage to keep trusting in and worshipping God—no matter what. When I reflect on what happened at St. Stephen’s, I keep coming back to the fact that of the 18 people who survived—and are for ever carrying the trauma of those sights and sounds with them for the rest of their lives— all 18 survivors continue to faithfully worship God and contribute their gifts to the life of that congregation. Every single one. In my view, every single one of them is a saint. They all welcomed a stranger to the table at our church, and now they all will carry the trauma of that night with them for the rest of the lives.
Last October, we invited a priest from another church to come give an evening lecture and preach a Sunday sermon, tailored to helping our congregation continue to process their trauma and reflect on our faith in light of all we had been through from June to October 2022. In his Sunday sermon, Sam Wells observed something about the pure in heart that seems especially resonant with what we’re reflecting on all this morning about what it means to be a saint:
“Then we come to ‘Blessed are the pure in heart.’ … One great theologian said, ‘Purity of heart is to will one thing.’ I’m sure you’ve all been told many times that to hold down a responsible job you need to distinguish between the urgent and the important, and to judge which things are urgent but not important, which things are important but not urgent, and which things are neither urgent nor important. Well, purity of heart is about knowing, as a matter of habit and uncomplicated clarity, which things are important. Not fashionable, not popular, not effective, not lucrative, not eye-catching, not relaxing, not clever, not witty, not dramatic, not necessarily urgent: but important. And then, in a crisis, when everyone else has lost their sense of perspective, you’ll be able to see the one thing that no one else is able to see. Because you never stopped looking at it.”
Saints are those who are able to see the one thing no one else is able to see. Because they never stopped looking at it. Bart Rainey, Jane Pounds, and Sharon Yeager never stopped looking at it. Jim and Lin Musgrove never stopped looking at it. None of the June 16 survivors, in spite of the deep trauma they experienced and continue to carry with them, have ever stopped looking at it.
What have they not stopped looking at? The countenance and the character of God. The God who blesses the persecuted and the poor in spirit with the kingdom of heaven. The God who comforts those who mourn. The God who fills the hungry with good things. The God who gives mercy to the merciful. The God who allows the pure in heart to see God for who God really is.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.