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 31st sunday in ordinary time

Luke 6:20-31

Those Who Let the Light Shine Through


Pope John Paul II has never been one to side step controversy on certain matters. Several years agao, he stood firm in the face of strong opposition and confirmed sainthood on Sister Teresia Benedicta, The Carmelite nun was sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The controversy centers on whether she died a martyr for the Roman Catholic faith or because Sister Teresia was formerly, Edith Stein, a renowned Jewish intellectual. The Jewish community and her family argue that she was executed for her heritage, the Pope has chosen to canonize her for both her heritage and her Catholic faith.

There is little doubt that Edith Stein was an exceptional woman, as both Jew and Catholic. She was born on Yom Kippur in 1891 to an Orthodox family in a part of Germany that is now within the boundaries of Poland. She was a brilliant philosophy student who began her academic career as an atheist. Edith became intrigued by Christian theology and inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila. Saint Teresa was a nun in the 1400s and wrote a book on prayer entitled Interior Castles. She would later be the inspiration for another woman who would become a nun, Mother Teresa.

After being denied a teaching post at a university solely because she was a woman, Edith took a position at a girl's school. She was forced to quit in 1933 when the Nazis issued a decree banning Jews from teaching positions. Later that year she entered a Carmelite convent. When she took her vows, she offered her life in atonement for the sins of her "unbelieving" Jewish people. At the convent, she continued her philosophical and theological writings. Among her admirers was a Polish priest, the Rev. Karol Joseph Wojtyla who was later to become Pope John Paul II.

In 1938, she tried to flee to Switzerland to escape the Nazi persecution but remained in Germany because the Swiss convent did not have room for her sister. On the day of her arrest, she told her sister, "Come Rosa, we are going for our people."1

The canonization of Edith Stein served a two-fold purpose for Pope John Paul. The first was to seek redemption for the church's lethargic response during the Holocaust. Rather than take a prophet role and risk martyrdom, the voice of the Church was silent. Pope John Paul has also sought to broaden the base of the church by canonizing and beautifying people from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. He has beautified over 800 and anointed with sainthood over 300. This year alone, he has beautified 37 and canonized 5, far more than any of his predecessors. 


 The old Reformers were greatly troubled by the Roman Catholic concept of sainthood, John Calvin, Martin Luther and John Knox were concerned with the veneration of the dead and "transferring to the dead what properly belonged to God and Christ."2 They also argued that the concept of sainthood should not be used as a sort of spiritual Hall of Fame for the giants of the faith. 

As a boy, I grew up 20 miles from Canton OH, the home of the NFL's Hall of Fame. I still remember my one visit. I thought that I was in a sacred temple. Enclosed in glass casing lay the relics of fame and glory - helmets, footballs, shoes, and pads. The pictures of the men whose accomplishments were the stuff of legends hung on the walls. I stood before them with my mouth open in awe and thinking that I was not worthy to even gaze upon them. These were the men I revered, athletes who possessed physical skills and abilities greater than mine.

Some prefer to elevate sainthood to the select few. It allows them to put the relics and memories of their lives into glass cases thereby providing a safe distance. It also allows them to feel less responsibility and obligation to emulate their lives. It frees people from having to strive for holiness. It allows them to hold onto their idiosyncrasies, their bad habits, and their prejudices. By saying that sainthood is only for the super religious, it excuses the inexcusable.

That is why I commend Pope John Paul for his efforts to broaden the scope of sainthood but encourage him to stretch his parameters even more.


 In Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus, he uses the word saint twice to refer to the whole community of faith. Every church consists of "saints," ordinary people who have been called by Jesus Christ to live sanctified lives, lives that are so caught up in the plans of God that they are called saints. 

A Presbyterian minister was asked to define the word saint. He stated that a saint was someone whose life manages to be more than a "cranny through which the infinite peeps." A saint is someone who is able to allow the magnificent wonder of the eternal to break forth in the mundane of human existence. They are people who walk solidly on earth while still charting their course by a heavenly reality.3

Today is All Saints Day. In the Reformed tradition, it is a day to remember and give thanks not just for the Hall of Famers, but for all those saints who have gone before us, men and women who did common ordinary things to live out the gospel in their day-to-day lives.


 A college professor brought his little son to the school Chapel on a bright, sunny day. The sunshine shown through the numerous stained glass windows. The father said to his little boy, "Those windows show pictures of the saints. Do you know who the saints are?"

The little boy, looking up at the brilliant windows, said, "Yes. The saints are the ones who the sun shines through." He was right. The saints are people who the Son shines through. Saints are those who embody the truth of Jesus teaching - the ones who are poor and hungry, mourn with others in pain and are persecuted for defending the cause of justice.4

From my experience we need more "ordinary saints" who just let the sun shine through their daily lives. People who will never have a day designated to honor them, but who were willing to live out the divine mysteries of their faith in the ordinary course of events. People like that, are the ones who really make a difference, the ones who are willing to be poor, to be humble, to be merciful, to be peacemakers.

I remember lying in the hospital bed during my bone marrow transplant somewhat dazed and confused by the morphine. (Carol and the girls can tell you stories of my hallucinations. I do not remember them.). Twice a day the medical team would make their rounds to assess the patients' physical health to determine if any adjustments were necessary in treatment. The MDs displayed good body language at my bedside to convey respect and care. They listened attentively to my answers and took time to address all of my questions. They were very professional in every interaction, but I still felt that a barrier existed between us. They were models of medical efficiency, exemplary in conduct and highly compete in their specialty but they just could not minister to my inner soul during a time when it was really aching.

The people who really ministered to me were the nurses and nursing assistants. They were the ones who stayed by my bedside in the darkness of the night after I awoke from nightmarish hallucinations. They were the ones who encouraged me during the long days when my motivation began to wane. They were the "ordinary saints" who really ministered to me at the most critical times of my recovery. In my opinion, the church needs more "ordinary saints" who will minister to others. We need more people who will sit with a husband while his wife is having an angioplasty. We need more people who will invite a family whose father has died to a holiday dinner. We need more people who will visit people who live alone.

I can appreciate the challenges that MDs confront. They see so many patients each day who are struggling for life and in severe pain. And many of those patients will die in spite of the great advances in modern medicine. They are exposed to so much hurt and pain that they get worn down. To protect themselves they must maintain an impersonal distance from their patients. That is what is so amazing about those "ordinary saints" who keep reaching out to others in pain each and every day. They do not let the cares of this world wear them down. They refuse to allow barriers to be erected that would isolate themselves from hurting people. No matter how much sorrow and grief they have seen, they are still willing to reach out and touch a life with love.

On this All Saints Day, I give thanks for all the "ordinary saints," to those individuals who have gone on before us who have let the light shine through their lives. I also give thanks to those of you who are serving in food banks, tutoring in the schools, visiting in the hospitals, working with youth or in some other way living out the teachings of our Lord. The church should always remember the Francis of Assissis, the  Edith Steins and the Mother Teresas of  the faith but the church should also remember the "ordinary saints" who just let the light shine through.

1 Alessandra Stanley, "A Jew's Odyssey From Catholic Nun to Saint" NY Times, Oct 11, 1998.

2 John Calvin, Calvin:Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Phildadelphia: Westminister Press, 1960), p. 881.

3 Adopted from William H. Williamon, "Saints, All of You" Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 4 p. 20 citing Thomas G. Long, "Preaching in the Middle of a Saintly Conversion," The Journal of Preachers, Lent, 1995, pp. 15-21. 

4 William H. Williamon, "Saints, All of You" Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 4 p. 21.


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