On the cover of our bulletin today, you can see some of the more famous saints: Teresa, Benedict, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, all gathered around the Blessed Virgin Mary who is holding Jesus up right at the center, where he belongs. It’s a great image, and it could easily have hundreds more people in it. After all, these are just the big names! If you ever looked at the multi-volume “Lives of the Saints” book, as you might have if you went to Catholic school, you’d run into all sorts of obscure characters. Their stories, especially the ones you would have heard if you went to Catholic school before Vatican II, are colorful, even bizarre: the kind of thing that’s just guaranteed to capture the imagination of children.
So you might have learned about St. Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and shot through with arrows when he said he was a Christian. Maybe you were assigned a brief essay on St. Zita, who they say was helped by angels not to burn the bread she was supposed to be baking. Or maybe you had to draw a picture of St. Lawrence, who, when the Romans demanded to see all the treasure of the Church, took them to a Christian shelter for the sick and the poor, and then when they decided to roast him over a fire for his trouble, allegedly joked to his murderers, "Turn me over, I'm done on this side."
The saints are very diverse, but they all have one thing in common: they didn’t become saints under their own steam. God did it in them. And he did it in them not because they were special human beings, but as a way of showing the world what is possible for any human being who says a full and complete yes to him. "In Christ,” says our text from Ephesians, “you also, when you had heard the word of truth, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” That is something God does as anyone hears and believes the Word of truth; "you also" he seals in Baptism, "you also" he sets apart – which is what the word holy, the word sanctified, the word saint, mean: set apart. Every one of us is marked with that seal of Christ’s holiness, set apart, once we hear and believe.
"You also," says Ephesians. In every one of us who belongs to Christ, a new identity is born, from the outside, given by God. Those we call saints say yes to it completely, but most of us are far more halfhearted in our yes. Now and again we may let God have what he wants, but often we shy away from concretely accepting the gifts that Ephesians prays for us this morning. They’re lavish, aren’t they? Listen again: “that you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, and what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for those who believe.” Do you sometimes laugh for joy at the experience of those riches? Do you fall silent in awe before that power? Do you rest your whole weight on that hope? Or are you still, like so many of us, living as if there may be a better deal out there than what Jesus is offering?
All too few of us notice what God offers, consciously receive it allow its benefits to transform us. But every now and again, we meet someone who does. We get a glimpse of somebody who is saying yes to God. The people who said it so fully and deeply that God got to do most of what he wanted to do in them are the saints with a capital S. But there are plenty of examples in the Christian life of people all around us who are letting God do enough that it makes them stand out. And so I’ll ask you each to think about the question we discussed at Coffee with the Rector last week: If you had to compile your personal "Lives of the Saints," who would be in it? The Emmanuelites around the table at Coffee with the Rector generated a great list, living and dead -- a sort of informal photo album to go with the more formal bulletin cover we have today.
I have a photo album like that in my head, of people who made me see that God is real and that he will do identifiable things in your heart and your life as you say yes to him. I don’t think any of those people were completely consistent in, you know, "heroic virtue." But I do know that I saw something different in them. That there was something about the way they had built their lives, something that allowed these moments to happen, moments where the light shone through. Where, when they were off-guard and just living their lives, I looked at them and saw Christ.
There’s a really old-fashioned book for priests called “The Soul of the Apostolate,” and one of the challenging things it says is basically we clergy can do all the formal teaching and planning and everything we like, but a priest who is truly consenting to the work of Christ in them will probably affect more people by the way they pick up the chalice than by all their conscious effort. And those are the snapshots I’m talking about. Who has there been in your life that you watched pick up a chalice, or a mop, or a child, and said to yourself, That’s what I want. That’s what a human being ought to be. Who has there been that, at some moment when you were watching them, the light shone through -- and you glimpsed concretely what it meant to say yes to Christ?
We could also turn that question around, of course. What those unguarded moments reveal is a person who has an ongoing inner connection with the Lord, and so we might ask ourselves: what do my unguarded moments reveal? What kind of disciple do I honestly mean to be, most of the time? What kind of Christian am I turning out as?
You know, that’s not an idle question. Nor is it a program you can opt out of; your formation as a particular kind of person happens whether you intend it to or not, and it will be visible to others whether you intend it to or not. Everything each of us does is creating a person and a parish that is either more reflective of the life of Christ, or less. Everything each of us does is creating a person and a parish which will either benefit our neighbors and the world a little more, or a little less. Everything each of us does is moving us and our parish either closer to God, or farther away.
I want to tell you a corny old preachers’ story. They say there once was a carpenter who was ready to retire. He gave the contractor he worked for a month's notice of his plans to leave the house-building business; his small condo was finally paid for and he figured he and his wife had a few good years left to enjoy a more relaxed pace. The contractor was sorry to see one of his best workers go and asked if he could postpone his retirement just a little longer to do one more job as a personal favor. The plans were all ready for a special site down by the lake, and this seasoned carpenter was by far the best person to do it. The carpenter agreed, but soon it was easy to see that his heart wasn't really in the work. He just wanted it to be over. He cobbled the thing together, used inferior materials, let shoddy workmanship stand. It was a rush job, not up to his usual standards.
On the day the carpenter finished, the contractor met him at the job site and told him, "I know this was a sacrifice, after all your years of work, but there’s a reason I asked you to stay on and finish this one job.” And he handed the front-door key to the carpenter. "This house is yours," he said, "my farewell gift to you." You can imagine how the carpenter felt. If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently. But now he had to live in the house he had built.
That's how it is with us. We can build our lives in a distracted way, reacting rather than acting. We can de facto prioritize stuff that really isn’t worth the time or the money. We can put off the steps we know we need to take. Then one day, something makes us look at the situation we have created, and we find with a shock that we are living in the house we have built. We have become that kind of person. We have become that kind of parish. If we had only realized what was at stake, we would have done it differently.
Each of you, like it or not, is building both your own life and the life of this Christian community. Each day -- by all the little choices you make to say yes to God or not -- each day you're hammering a nail, placing a board. Choose intentionally. This is the only life you will ever have. Even if you live it for only one day more, that day deserves to be lived graciously and with integrity, and if you are a Christian, it deserves to be lived as a deeper and deeper yes to Jesus Christ. And you deserve the joy of knowing that you have built something that will lead others to give thanks and rejoice. That will give rise, after you are gone, to stories about your example and your character and your heart. That will lead others to look at you in your unguarded moments, and to look at this parish in ours, and start, without even thinking, to hum that old Anglican hymn: One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green. They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.