Today many congregations are celebrating All Saints Sunday, the Sunday after All Saints Day when we give thanks for all the saints “both known and unknown.” An All Saints observance, in one form or another, has been around for more than 1,500 years. Although I am what is known as a Low Church Protestant, a tradition that downplays the official practice of venerating saints, I have long appreciated the notion of a special day for all the saints. On one level, it makes me smile. It is the quintessential hedge your bets day as in, “We have days for all the really holy people, but just in case we’ve missed some, here is a day for them, too.” But from another perspective, an All Saints observance reminds us that in the early church, sainthood was not only for those who had died. Saint means “holy one,” and all the members of the early church were known as saints. Followers of Jesus sought to live holy, or whole, lives — lives that are focused on love for God and neighbor. This is a way of living to which we all can aspire, and it is captured in the words of the children’s hymn, “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God.” Saints “lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is filled with living saints who choose to do God’s will and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one, too.”
In popular parlance, saints are those who lead authentic lives and who inspire and guide us, whether or not they have been formally designated saints. Some saints are famous, and we are grateful for public figures in church and society who lead with integrity and who stir us to action for justice and peace. Last spring, the Cooperative Church Council Lenten Lunch Series focused on the stories of “unexpectedly holy” women and men.
We heard about the courageous work of abolitionists Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth, the faithful service of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who championed the dispossessed and nonviolently resisted the reign of terror in his country, and the valiant struggle of German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer whose faith led him to join the resistance to the fascism of the Third Reich.
I give thanks for these and other role models whose lives manifest a more excellent way. On All Saints Sunday we can also acknowledge that for every well-known exemplar, there are countless unsung heroes upon whose shoulders we stand. Many labor in the shadows rather than the spotlight, but their faithful service is no less important. A lesser known saint may be a grandparent, co-worker or teacher. Perhaps it is someone who always had a kind word, or who helped you at a particularly difficult time in your life.
In a social justice course I took in graduate school, the instructor started each session by inviting us to think about those who had influenced us, our ancestors and our “saints.” We would sing the words, “Those who have gone before us, rise up and call their names,” and students would speak the names of their saints. It was a powerful way to start the class and to remember those who had paved the way.
Who are your saints, the persons that encourage, inspire and support you? Who do you encourage and support? Who comes to mind? Famous saints whose names are on many lists? Others who have mentored you, but who have lived without public recognition? Think about your saints — what they gave you, how the shaped you, and what you have learned from them about living with grace, courage and love. On this All Saints Sunday, rise up and call their names.
• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church.