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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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All Saints - November 5, 2006

A young man once came to a great rabbi and told him that he too wanted to be a saintly man and wanted the rabbi to tell him how to do it.  It was winter.  The rabbi was looking out the window at the yard while the young man was going on and on about his piety and learning, saying “I always dress only in spotless white like the sages of old.  I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips.  I discipline and punish myself by having sharp edged nails inside my shoes and even in the coldest weather I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh.  Every day the synagogue sexton gives me forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance.

The old rabbi continued to look out the window and as the young man kept talking a white horse was led into the yard and over to the water trough.  It drank, and then it rolled in the snow as horses sometimes do.

“Look!” cried the rabbi.  “That animal too is dressed in white.  It too drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes, rolls naked in the snow and I’ll bet it gets at least forty lashes on the rump every day from its master.  Now I ask you, is it a saint or is it a horse?”

   A little girl was sitting in church on a sunny Sunday morning looking at the stained glass pictures of Jesus and the saints in the windows around the church.  Looking at the sunlight on the colored windows she said, “I guess saints are people that the light shines through.”

All Saints Day does raise questions about what a saint is and how you become one.  In the two brief stories I started with I think the little girl had a pretty good definition of a saint while the young man quite clearly had the wrong idea about sainthood and how to become one.

In the Bible, the word translated as saints literally means holy ones, holy people.  The word holy basically means to set apart or perhaps we could say holy means special.  The Holy Bible is a special book.  Holy Communion is special fellowship with God.  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy means make the day special.

So a saint is a holy person.  A holy person is a special person.  But how do you become holy?  In the Bible, people and things became holy by coming into contact with other holy people or things.  More specifically we would say that one becomes holy by being in contact with God who is most holy. But how do you do that?

In the Old Testament it was only a few people, the priests, who could come in contact with the holy things, but Jesus changed that.  Jesus makes it possible for all of us to approach the holy God and become holy ourselves.  As Lutherans, we would say that by the grace of God we become saints in the waters of baptism.  So we don’t do anything to become saints; it is what is done for us. 

Moat of us though are not real comfortable with that identification.  I know if I spoke to one of you individually and said, “You’re a saint,” your response would be, “Oh no, not me Pastor; I’m no saint,” because when we hear the term saint our first thought is of those individuals recognized by the church for having lived what are thought of as especially holy lives, from saints of the Bible, through the fathers and mothers of the early church along with martyrs and monks, through modern day saints like Mother Theresa.  These are people who do seem to have done things that make them saints, living lives that the light of Christ shines through, people that we don’t want to compare ourselves to.

Are such people better than you and me?  I would say yes and I would also say no.  I think you know that Lutherans do less with saints than some other traditions, most notably Catholics and Orthodox.  We do have what we call lesser festivals that honor Bible figures recognized as saints but we don’t go too far beyond that.  Even those lesser festivals get passed over if they don’t happen to fall on a Sunday.  For Catholics and Orthodox on the other hand, there is hardly a day of the year that some evangelist, martyr, teacher, bishop, priest or monk is not remembered for their holiness.

The reason though, that Lutherans do less with saints is Luther’s belief that in Christ’s kingdom, all the baptized are saints, all have received the same gift of grace, all are equal, no one better than anyone else; so he was cautious about a hierarchy where some could be seen as better than others.  That was one problem.   He was also cautious about praying to the saints as intercessors for us before God, believing that in Christ we have direct access to God and need no intercessor.  However, writing about Holy Communion, Luther said, “Christ and the saints intercede for us before God, so that sin may not be charged to our account by God’s strict judgment.”  So it sounds like Luther wasn’t totally settled in his thinking about this. 

Mostly though, his caution concerning saints goes back to the indulgence controversy and his problem with works righteousness.  He was opposed to the idea that the saints were so good that in their lifetime they had accumulated a surplus of merit, a surplus of good works, more than they really needed to get into heaven.  This surplus of merit was stored up and the pope claimed to have it at his disposal to distribute as he thought fit.  The idea was that less worthy people could use some of this unused surplus merit to get out of purgatory if their loved ones paid the appropriate amount.  Uncle Charley himself hadn’t done enough good things, but with proper payment the family could buy some of the surplus merit of the saints for Charley so could be granted heavenly access.  For a number of reasons, Luther had a problem with that, another reason that too much talk about the saints was discouraged. 

It may not be strictly Lutheran, or maybe it is, but I kind of like the idea of the saints interceding and praying for us.  I agree with Luther that we don’t need such intermediaries, and I agree with him that we can’t buy the surplus merit of the saints, but there is some comfort in thinking of them praying for us.  I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy worshiping with the monks up at the Jampot and if you’ve ever been in their chapel or another Orthodox church, you are surrounded by icons of Jesus and the saints, so you are visually reminded of their presence with you and I like that too.  I like the idea of the saints as our guides in the faith as we learn about their experiences and read their writings.

Their presence should also serve as a reminder though, that in a very real way, we are the same as they are; having received the same gift.  That was Luther’s point.  Common sense however tells us that some people do more with the gift.  Again, it may not be strictly Lutheran, but could we say that such people do more to cooperate with the gift of grace?  Strict Lutheran theology would say that we can do nothing to cooperate, that it is all the work of God but it sure feels like we have something to do with it, free will and all that.  We have the opportunity to make use of the means of grace, word and sacrament, and by doing so we draw closer to the holiness of God.  We have the ability to engage in other practices and activities, devotional and otherwise, that bring us into closer contact with God.  All receive the gift of grace, so all are saints in that respect, but it seems evident to me that we then have choices.

Again though, whatever our response is, whatever choices we make we’re already saints by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It’s important to remember that about yourself.  If you don’t know that identity it’s hard to live it out and that’s part of what we think about on All Saints Day.  We also might think about the great, recognized saints of the church and their presence with us as intercessors and guides, but even more, on this day, we remember saints we know more personally.

These are the everyday saints, ordinary people who will never be recognized by the wider church, but who have lived their lives and witnessed in some fashion and have made a difference.  We need both kinds.  The honored saints of the church can be a source of great inspiration, but the ordinary saints are often the ones that have the most impact although often it is unseen and unknown except to those directly effected, and to God. 

One of the things you learn when you do funerals as I do, is that everyone is a saint to someone.  When you sit with people as someone is dying or after they have died you hear stories, often little things someone did that may have seemed relatively insignificant, but in fact were very significant…to someone who saw the light and life of Christ in what was done.  That’s why it’s important for each of you to know that you are a saint, that God has taken care of that.  What you may never know though, on this side of things, is how important your sainthood is and who it is that might see the light of Christ shine through you.        


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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