This Sunday we are invited to remember those men and women who have inspired people through the ages because of the way they lived; and because in that living they open our hearts to the presence of God in our world.
I grew up in a family and a church where saints didn’t figure on the horizon. Certainly we didn’t talk of ‘the saints’ as people canonised by the Pope because of their godliness. In fact when I was studying in Scotland our professor of history seemed to have a real antipathy to ‘the saints’, especially devotion to the saints. I remember vividly a lecture he delivered on medieval Scotland when he spoke about how the church’s calendar was cluttered up by saints days that gave people a holiday from work and subsequently had a detrimental impact on the economy. It also meant that people didn’t get to know the sweep of redemptive history told in the scriptures because every saint had certain readings connected with their day which meant that they never got to read a book like the gospel of Mark or Matthew straight through.
So, many of the influences I grew up with carried fairly negative associations of ‘the saints’. But then I had the privilege of living and working on the tiny Hebridean island of Iona, where St Columba established his Celtic monastery in AD 563. Columba was one of the most significant church leaders of his time whose Celtic missionaries carried the gospel message into the heart of Scotland. Here was someone with a vitality and presence who continues to inspire people even today. Living on that windswept island with its rugged beauty and long impressive history had a profound effect on me. The tiny chapel called ‘St Columba’s Shrine’ was a place where I prayed early in the morning with a Divinity student from California, and the great Benedictine Abbey Church of St Mary seemed to be saturated in prayer. There is definitely something special about that place. Rev George MacLeod who founded the Iona Community and rebuilt the ancient Abbey spoke about the island as tissue- paper thin between heaven and earth; one of those extraordinary places that draw us toward God.
Columba is but one of those saints who has inspired me. There are many others who have influenced me over the course of my life, both those from ages past but also the living saints.
One in particular, former Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, has played such a powerful role for good in South Africa and across the world. Through his work with the Truth and Reconciliation commission, his inspiring example and leadership of the church, his writing (including his children’s bible stories told so simply and yet so powerfully), Tutu continues to shine. His example reminds us of God’s nearness, God’s compassion and God’s justice that is always mixed with mercy.
These saints of God are ordinary, fallible human beings who have good days and bad days like the rest of us, and yet they also draw us into the vision and purpose of God, present among us.
We don’t ‘worship’ the saints, but are encouraged and inspired by their ‘godliness’ to live the prayer Jesus’ taught us, and to pray and work for that perfect day when God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
Of course we also have our own personal ‘saints’; those in our own family, such as a parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt who do the same for us. This Sunday we will also give thanks to God for those we love who have died, believing that they are held in the nearer presence of God, and are loved and cherished by God.