“Can Only Christians be Saints?”

1 John 3:1-3 (MSG)
South & New Life Presbyterian Churches – November 1, 2015 – All Saints Day
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

Does anyone here know the name of Algernon Crapsey?

He was an Episcopal priest and father of poet Adelaide Crapsey, and he lived from 1847–1927. He was a real proponent of the social gospel movement and in 1879 he was appointed rector / pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church right here in Rochester, NY.  That is today known as Calvary St. Andrew’s in the South Wedge.

His progressive thinking and teaching made him very popular here in Rochester and St. Andrew’s soon became the best attended church in the city. What is most notable about him, however, was that he was the first – and perhaps only – Episcopal priest charged and convicted of heresy in this country and ultimately stripped of his ordination.

His heresy?

The humanity of Jesus; he questioned the virgin birth.

I am proud stand in the lineage of Algernon Crapsey … I worshiped at Calvary St. Andrews as a seminarian, I was ordained there, and I served on its staff for 16 years. But I bring this up today because what I am about to preach will seem heretical to some, I’m sure.

As we celebrate All Saints Day … and in our tradition we are not talking about a few people with haloes on their heads in famous paintings or icons, we are talking about the priesthood of ALL believers. We are talking about ALL who have lived their faith and passed it down to us … as we celebrate All Saints Day, I have trouble limiting who is in that category.

Can people who are non-Christian be saints?

The word “saint” itself comes from the French word meaning  “holy.” Same root word as “sanctify.” Wikipedia says that “A saint is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, or likeness to God.”[i] In general parlance, we here that “so-and-so was a saint the way he cared for his mother.”

Different religious groups define the word differently.  In the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches there are very prescribed processes to go through before someone is accorded the title of “Saint.”  For us Presbyterians, we recognize that ALL believers are saints. You and I are saints … we were brought up by others who shared their faith with us and THEY are saints. The fore-fathers and –mothers of this congregation are saints. Right?

But what about good people … people who, in the words of Wikipedia, demonstrate “an exceptional degree of holiness, or likeness to God.”  Would THAT person be a saint if they weren’t Christian?

Mohatma Ghandi.  Saint?

The Dali Lama.  Saint?

Eleanor Roosevelt.  Saint?

Is a saint a humanitarian?  Probably. Though not all humanitarians are saints.

Is a saint a peacemaker?  Probably. Though I can imagine there might be someone who serves as a peacemaker but who does not live his or her life  “close to God.”  As a woman put it the other night in our Back 2 Center worship:   You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.  Once again, it all comes back to the same thing we often talk about – INTENT.  What is your intent?  What MOTIVATES a person to do something? The answer to that probably figures into sainthood somehow.

But for some Christians, the whole idea of  privilege … of uniqueness … of moral superiority creeps in to this discussion as well. CAN someone have “an exceptional degree of holiness, or likeness to God” without being a follower of Jesus?

Do we really believe that the only way to curry favor with God … the only way to be CLOSE to God … is by becoming Christian?

Can we really embrace the notion that God would only welcome and embrace one PART of humanity?

I think the answer to that for many of us rests in Jesus, himself. Did HE believe that someone needed to worship in one specific way … BELIEVE one specific thing … PRACTICE only one specific religion in order to be a beloved child of the Great Creator?

Well, clearly the answer is no. He didn’t. He CONSTANTLY engaged people of other faiths … from the Wise Men, the Magi who were most likely Zoroastrians from Persia, to the Syro-Phonecian woman at the well, to the Roman Guard’s daughter whom he healed. Jesus was not exclusionary.

NOR did he come to start a new religion … HE was a Jewish man who worked all his LIFE to be a good Jew – to help others get to know the God of Abraham whom he praised. So as followers of this Son of God, are we not ALSO to be embracing all and helping THEM get to know the Creator God, the loving PARENT whom Jesus knew, loved, and preached about?

I heard a story once about a mother who hadn’t seen her three children in years. They had left home to find their own ways in the world. One kept in touch all the time, the second was rarely in contact and the third was occasionally reaching out to her.

Now this woman lived at the end of a long dirt road … I always pictured the mid-West because she could see people coming and going on her road … the  land was flat and open and her little farmhouse  and barn were the only structures for several miles in every direction.

And one day, she see three different cars heading up her dirt road. Her heart leapt for joy because she just KNEW they were her children and they were all coming home. It had been years since she’d seen them and even longer since they’d all been together under one roof.

As they all pulled up next to the house and hugged each other because they hadn’t seen each other in years, either … she noticed that one was driving a fancy sports car … the second was driving  an SUV and the third was driving a Prius hybrid energy car.

Saying that God is going to care about how we get home to being with God is about as silly as saying that this mother would send one or more of her children away because they weren’t driving the right kind of car.   SHE’S not going to care. She just wants to be with her children!!!

If I truly believe that God is Love and that God is the epitome of Love … if I truly believe what we read in scripture today that we are, each ONE of us, a child of God … then I have to believe that God just wants to be with us and doesn’t care WHAT kind of car we’re driving.

And people who KNOW that loving God … people who are in touch with God enough in their lives that they have “an exceptional degree of holiness, or likeness to God” … then YES!!! They ARE saints – REGARDLESS of whether they are Christian or not.

So on this All Saints Day … I invite you during our communion service … to think of those people in this world – whether you have known them personally or  have just heard about them – whoever they are … to think of those people in this world … in your LIFE – living or who’ve already been reunited with God in that farmhouse – who have touched and TAUGHT you about faith … about GOD … about the love of Christ!

This is our day to gather with them around this table AND to say thank you for being in our lives.

Amen, and amen.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint as viewed on 10/31/2015.


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