"Shaped By Saints"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
November 7, 2010
Ephesians 1:11-23


A Canadian theologian tells the story of a young pastor who served a tiny parish would celebrate the Lord's Supper to any worshippers who remained after evening services.  One night so few stayed that he pondered not serving the sacrament.  However, in the end, he decided to proceed.  He gave the invitation to the table, and then launched into the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.  When he came to the part of the prayer that says, "Therefore, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name," he stopped abruptly.  He repeated the line. "Therefore, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven..."  He paused, then prayed, "God, forgive me, I had forgotten that I was in the presence of such a large company."1

Today is All Saints Sunday, a day to remember that the community of faith is infinitely larger and broader than we routinely think, and it is not bound by the limitations of time or physical presence.

Initially, All Saints Day was an occasion for the church to celebrate a select group of spiritual superstars who had performed extraordinary feats during their lifetimes and now    reside in God's heavenly kingdom.  However, in the years leading up to the Protestant Reformation, the number of people included on this list of elites began to expand rapidly as individuals were canonized not only for exceptional deeds of mercy and purported miracles, but also for making hefty monetary contributions to the church.

You can imagine how well that sat with Luther, Calvin and Knox.  They were appalled by any practice that established a separate category for those individuals thought to be in a league of their own.  Consequently, All Saints' Day became a day to recognize not simply the giants of the faith, but all followers of Christ.  The Reformers took their lead from the Apostle Paul, who wrote letters to the first churches and referred to all Christians - both the dead and the living - as saints.  In our day, many churches use the first Sunday of November to read the names of the members, and the relatives of members, who have died in the past year.  Later in the service, we will read the list of our loved ones as we remember and give thanks for their lives.  But for now, I invite you to remember the saints who have played a positive role in shaping you.  These are not people who were perfectly pious or recognized as spiritual celebrities, but rather people who have helped you inch closer to the person God wants you to become.

For a moment, I want you to do some reflection.  Recall those saints who made you feel loved and special.  My grandfather Knox surfaces in my mind.  Twice a week for several months, year after year, he would drive from his small town to Tulsa to see me play baseball.  No matter my on-field performance, I knew I was an all-star in the eyes of my grandfather.  His unconditional support helped me understand God's unconditional love.

Who are the saints in your life?  Who loved you when you were not very lovable?  Who gave you a second chance when you were hell-bent on wrecking the house?  And then gave you third and fourth chances when you were determined to take a precarious path.  Who are the saints that touched you in memorable ways and helped to shape you?  Recall those who opened doors for you to become a follower of Christ, or perhaps someone who helped you come back to the church after a time away.  It could be a saint sitting near you, or a saint that you will not see again until you pass to the other side.

Picture those very human saints who inspired you to be compassionate to others; recall the passion of a saint who inspired you to right the wrongs that the world serves up; conjure up a saint who persuaded you to become a peacemaker in small and large ways.

We do not emerge out of nothing. We alone do not create ourselves.  We are tethered to parents and to many others we cannot even name  You may remember someone saying, "You're as sweet as your grandmother," or "Your determination reminds me of your uncle Jim."  We carry within us generations of people who lived before we were born.

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews says, "We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses."  It is a recognition that there are God followers who inspire, encourage and support us.  This cloud of witnesses is both known and unknown to us.

Some are still living and physically present; others now live eternally with God and are a spiritual presence in our lives, impacting us in ways we may recognize, but also on a deep, unconscious level.

Presbyterian pastor Michael Lindvall tells of leading a preaching retreat in Santa Fe.  The participants wanted to hone their story-telling skills so he invited everyone in the group to tell a story.

"One participant in the group was Elizabeth Lyman, a pastor in New Mexico. She told a story from the days before she became a minister.  It was 1990 and Elizabeth was a working mom in New Jersey with a very sick toddler.  Her young son, Ben, had developed severe asthma and he had spent far too many nights in pediatric intensive care for a 3-year-old.  He had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance more than once and each time she and her husband prayed a desperate prayer that Ben would still be alive when he reached the emergency room."

"At this time in their lives, they did not have adequate insurance.  She had recently changed jobs and her husband had lost his job two months earlier.  Elizabeth's new insurance would not cover Ben's asthma attacks -- it was a pre-existing condition.  For every night he spent in pediatric intensive care, they received a bill for $6,000.  Every prescription or new piece of medical equipment meant selling another antique - until they had sold them all."

"It was right then that an article appeared in the paper with the title 'State Cracks Down on Hospital Deadbeats.'  It was a story of how the state had begun to seize tax refunds to pay off any outstanding hospital bills.  That article made Elizabeth see red.  They might have owed a lot of money to the hospital, but they certainly were not deadbeats.  Elizabeth was so furious that she grabbed the phone and called the reporter who wrote the story."

"The following Sunday, their story appeared in the Newark Star Ledger along with a picture of little Ben.  Elizabeth was glad that the other side of the story was being told and she figured that would be the end of it.  However, three organizations in town took her family under their wings and provided funds to help with the bills.  The Telephone Pioneers sent cookies and a quilt.  The Sons of Italy gave them a check for $3,000 and a four-foot salami sandwich.  A high school adopted Ben as a Christmas project and six boxes of presents arrived at their door.  Their church raised over $2,000 to help with medical costs.  The hospital reduced its bill and their family became one of the reasons that New Jersey now has a program called 'The Catastrophic Illness in Children Fund.'"

"But that was not the end of Elizabeth's story. She went on to say that her little boy is now in his 20's.  He is in good health and is about to finish college.  Like a lot of young people in his generation, Ben has a tattoo.  It's one with words, words that spread from shoulder to shoulder.  His tattoo reads: 'The 'Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.'  Finally, Elizabeth told the group that when Ben finishes college, he plans to go to seminary."2

Ben is striving to become the person God wants him to become thanks to the help of countless others who helped his family avoid financial disaster, physical exhaustion and emotional despair.  These saints kept hope alive when Ben's family was experiencing a dark night and now he will be a bearer of hope to many others.

On this day when we pause to remember the saints who have shaped our lives, I hope that you will take time to thank your saints for their guidance, their time, their patience, and their kick in the pants!  And then, take the next step: give some thought to how well you are doing as a saint in the lives of others.

Who is benefitting from your God-like love and forgiveness?  Who is a step closer to God thanks to you?



1. Robert Dunham, "Homiletical Perspective," on All Saints Sunday in Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.231.

2. Michael Lindvall, "What We Shall Be" November 2, 2008.