The Saints We Need
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
All Saints' Day • November 1, 2022
Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York
On this All Saints’ Day, this great feast of the church year, I feel obliged to tell you that you may be in some danger. The rector and the clergy are away on retreat, and they have left the place in the hands of a guest, and what is more a guest from a long way away; and so you may not find in what follows the sort of message you came hoping to hear.
We have taken advantage of All Saints’ Day over the years, and I confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I have been complicit in that. This is properly a day that belongs to the great heroes of the faith, those singular lives that have merited a day on the calendar of Holy Mother Church. It is really reserved for them, those few, rare examples of that exceptional quality—not just good people, not just good examples, but saintliness, a kind of transparency to the presence of God in their lives.
It is only tomorrow, the feast of All Faithful Departed, that we are supposed to remember all of those Christian lives that have helped shape our own path of faith. But let’s face it: We don’t really observe the distinction. I grew up in an All Saints’ church, and it taught me from a very early age to treasure this day as what is really the best day in the whole Christian year, this one day when the church of the living once again remembers its communion with the church of those who have gone before.
Europe is much more secular place than America, even more secular than New York; but it still lives in close proximity to the lives of the saints. I had only been ordained to this ministry for a little more than two weeks before many of my new sisters and brothers in Europe sent me greetings on my day. I thought perhaps they had been misinformed about my birthday; but it turned out they were sending me greetings on Saint Mark’s day, my “Name Day.” I hadn’t even known I had a Name Day; but now whenever April 25 rolls around, I remember that somehow, by the accident of a name, I am connected to one of the evangelists, one of the heroes in the Christian pantheon—another standard I don’t live up to.
By now it is pretty much expected of the preacher in an Episcopal Church on All Saints’ Day that I will invite you to reflect on all the lives who have guided your own journey of faith, the people who brought you to church, who taught you how to pray; the simple, devoted people in whom you saw a life of prayer in action, the people you saw choosing gentle acts of compassion when indifference would have been easier.
Of course when we do that, we mix the purpose of today and tomorrow, at least in the design of the church. But only the most devoted of us come out to church today, and pretty much no one will come out tomorrow; and so we excuse it, and even encourage it. And it is not wrong.
But do you know, I see our church from a different perspective. And I am not the only one; there are a few people here today who, like me, are connected to the Episcopal Church in Europe. It is no overstatement to say we are literally surrounded by the past, the place all those saints come from, the great and the good, the calendar saints and the common saints. We live in the place where Christendom first arose; and we live in the place where it first ended as well.
Those of us who come from that place, who see the church from that perspective, are more interested in the future than we are in the past. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the tradition of the saints; it doesn’t mean we don’t honor exemplary Christian lives.
But maybe it means we see this day through the other end of the telescope. We come to this day, and we look to the future, and what we wonder is: Who will be the saints we need, the church needs, to project as far into our future as it has roots in our past?
And friends, here is the dangerous part. Because here is where you come in.
I come to you today not to invite you to a sentimental remembrance of those who helped you find your path to faith. I come here today to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that somewhere in this moment, in the midst of this life you have been given, there is someone—maybe a good many someones—depending on you to be their saint. Maybe someone you don’t even know. Maybe someone you will never know.
What if the point of All Saints’ Day isn’t to look back to sweet and happy memory, but to look forward to our own call in discipleship? What if the point is to remind us that others are depending on us, in just the same way that we once were helped, or prodded, or inspired? What if one of the saints that All Saints is supposed to include is you?
About a month after I started this job, I found myself on a subway in Paris heading back to the cathedral from a meeting. Nobody tells you when you’re a new bishop just how you’re supposed to dress, so I looked at a lot of pictures of the other people I know who have this ministry, and what I found was that the men, at least, had a kind of uniform look to them; A suit, or a sportcoat; purple shirt and collar; and pectoral cross tucked in their shirt pocket.
I don’t know why; probably to keep it from banging into things or getting into your soup. But that was how I decided I needed to dress, too. So there I was, on the subway, suit, purple shirt, collar, cross tucked in my pocket with just the chain showing.
Almost as soon as I got on the subway, I noticed a young man looking at me. He was about in his late twenties or so, in a coat and tie, carrying a briefcase. I am not sure why I thought so then, and still think so now, but he looked very French to me; a young Parisian professional.
At each stop on the subway he moved toward the door I was standing next to. He passed at least one other door he might easily have used, if his plan was to get off. But it became sort of obvious that he was headed for me. And then two stops before mine, he came up next to me, and as the doors opened, he looked at me and said: “Je me demande pourquoi vous gardez votre croix dans votre poche?”
I didn’t quite know what to say. I couldn’t say, “Well, because all the other bishops do.” I sort of thought of saying, “Well, I know that France is a very secular country, and I wasn’t sure I could wear this out in public.”
So instead I asked him what his name was. His name was Jean-Pierre, and he worked for the Catholic television channel in Paris. Turns out there is one. We had a pleasant conversation, and I told him a little bit about the cathedral, which he sort of knew about. We said au revoir at my stop, and I went on my way.
That young man is trying to do a very hard thing; he’s trying to be a man of faith in a place that doesn’t welcome faith anymore. He is trying to be a Christian in a place where Christendom ended long ago.
And you know what he needed that day? He needed an ally. He needed a fellow Christian who would be his ally, who would help him feel less alone. He needed someone who had a cross around his neck to wear it, not hide it.
I missed my chance to be Jean-Pierre’s saint that day. But I have learned from that moment. I’ve learned that you never know when the moment will come that someone needs you to be a Christian not just with them, but for them; that you can make a lot of difference with a little thing. I learned not to keep my cross in my pocket anymore. And not just the one I wear around my neck.
This world needs saints, brothers and sisters. There are so many people out there who don’t know how to bar the doors against despair, so many people who have learned the reflex of doubt but long for the certainty of belief.
Around the corner, in the least likely place, you will meet up with them, and have a chance to join the All in All Saints. For God’s sake—for God’s people’s sake—don’t miss it. Amen.