We don't mean to preach guilt.
Yet, often, in our eagerness to commemorate the work and sacrifice of the saints, our sermons communicate, "Do more. Be more. Act like them."
In other words, we might inadvertently preach:
"Why can't you be more like your big sister?"
And when we compare ourselves with the Saints who were so glorious in their actions on Earth, it's hard not to feel we'll never measure up.
So how do we harness the example of the Saints' stories without leaving our listeners feeling washed up and hopeless? There's one key element that takes the Saints off their proverbial pedestal so they can be a healthy model for our listeners.
The Example of the Saints
Pointing to the exemplary model of others can be a good learning tool.
After all, we learn how to behave, respond, and react by looking to others.
Most of the time we know what the right thing is. We know we are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know we're supposed to look out for the poor. But we don't always know how.
That's one of the gifts of the saints. They provide marvelous examples.
- Some Saints were witnesses who preached, taught, and acted in a Christ-like manner. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Hildegard of Bingen, the desert Fathers and Mothers all come to mind.
- Some Saints were martyrs, killed specifically because they practiced and proclaimed their faith despite opposition. St. Stephen was the first, and martyrdom has continued to contemporary times, including Martin Luther King, Jr., the nuns of El Salvador, the recent and tragic church shootings, and Christians in Pakistan.
- To be called a Saint is to be recognized by a church body to have lived an exemplary and particularly holy life of faith. For example, St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila.
- Then there are the rest of us saints, called so by virtue of our baptisms. We are the living saints of the still-living Christ, into whose mystical body we were reborn through the blessed waters of baptism and sealing as Christ's own by the Holy Spirit.
We are called to grow as saints, and the saints who have gone before us teach us how.
They show us courage, fortitude, kindness, and creativity. They show us ways to live that look like Christ.
The Humanity of the Saints
However, the saints—every single one of them—were also real, full-dimensional people with faults like ours.
Because history "records the victors," often the quick reference-book articles we read focus on the great and noble deeds of the saints. Their less-than-stellar attributes are often not mentioned, as though knowing their full, human character would lessen their saintliness.
On the contrary! To understand them as flawed human beings makes relatable their saintliness!
Consider these witnesses for the faith:
- Mother Teresa is known for her extraordinary kindness, generosity, and ability to move mountains on behalf of the poorest of the poor. In addition, she is known for her temper, and her published journal describes a woman tortured by decades of inner spiritual conflict.
- Hildegard of Bingen—mystic, author, musician, author, and prioress—was also a force to be reckoned with, one who "suffered no fools" by all accounts.
- The desert Fathers and Mothers fled to the desert precisely because they were plagued by "gremlins" of temptation they hoped to leave behind in the city. In the desert, they still wrestled with the gremlins of anger, pride, dejection and acedia.
Unless we do some digging, we may not learn of the saints' humanity, foibles, mistakes, doubts, vices, and difficult personalities. But it is their very flaws that make preaching on All Saints' Day so glorious.
All Saints' Day sermons aren't about Aspiring to be like these Paragons of virtue as much as they're about seeing God's grace moving through the Saints exactly as they were, just as God's grace moves through us now.
The extraordinariness of Saints, whether witness, martyr, Saint, or saint, is the willingness to notice, pay attention to, and trust in God's grace in spite of evidence to the contrary.
In spite of outer opposition and inner "gremlins."
In spite of easy-going or prickly personalities.
In spite of containing a blazing faith or barely a spark of it.
The Saints trusted in God's grace.
And it was their trust in God's grace that let the Spirit move mountains, write books, give to the poor, or sacrifice their lives.
The secret to preaching about saints?
We can't be encouraged by the saints until we connect with them.
How to Prep an All Saints' Day Sermon That Helps Your Listeners Connect:
In your sermon prep, notice, pay attention to, and proclaim that grace!
- Research lives of the saints until you can see them as full human beings, imperfect and flawed as well as virtuous.
- Tell a story about a saint in the fullness of their humanity before revealing their "saintliness." Don't name them until the end.
- Consider this example: A man with power and authority not only approves of those who kill believers of Jesus Christ, but himself enters house after house pulling out men and women and throwing them into prison. Who was this? St. Paul, before his conversion. (Acts 8:1-3). If God's grace can move through Saul/Paul, God's grace is surely moving through us as well.
- Or, flip the narrative. Tell a story of a "hero" of the faith as we know them to be. Show their contributions. But then tell the real "miracle," the richness of the saint's full story. Show how God's grace moved through them—and moves through us, too.
Help your listeners find their connection to these real people. Identify their shared humanity and shared compassion for the poor in body, mind, and spirit.
Then they'll aspire to be a Saint, too—as another vessel of God's grace.