One of the nicer things about living out here in the quiet of this neighborhood is that there are still a lot of mature trees in the area; because of the open space legislation, this neighborhood has been spared another McMansion neighborhood. All around our parish grounds, in the grove by the rectory, and as far as the eye can see, these trees stand, proud, tall and strong. They have weathered many storms and stand like sentinels guarding the open, grassy areas. Other smaller trees grow like brush; they may be twisted and curved, but they are survivors. They flourish sometimes in the strangest place. As you look at them, there is something unique about each tree. No two trees have exactly the same number of limbs or branches. No two trees grow in exactly the same configuration. If you cut them down, you would see that even the grain of the wood is different. Each tree, in its own way, gives glory to God simply by being alive, sprouting new buds in the spring, displaying magnificent color in the leaves of fall. Each tree, by being itself, magnifies the Creator.
So it is with all of us. Each of us is as unique as our fingerprints. No two of us are exactly the same. Each of us has our own history with its defeats and victories. All of us have suffered blows that have scraped bark off our branches. We each have private wounds and personal sorrows known only to ourselves.
The Saints of God, whom we remember this day, had these same qualities as we do. God chose weak, fallible creatures like us - with problems, worries and struggles - to show forth God's presence in the world.
It has been like this from the beginning. Jesus chose very ordinary people to be his apostles - fishermen, tax collectors, publicans. So it was with the early Christian community in the first generations. They were ordinary people who were often persecuted and even put to death for their beliefs. In the Book of Revelation, there is a verse that speaks to those persecuted Christians who have been bruised and battered and nearly crushed: "they will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb ... will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7: 16-17)
On this Sunday of all Saints, we remember all those who have gone before us, who have fulfilled God’s plan for humanity here on earth, who took up the call from God to join Him, and all those who suffered greatly and died for their faith. On this day that we commemorate not only those saints who are well known to us, but we also commemorate those whose names that are not as well known. Just look at the church calendar and you will see that every single day of the year with exception to the major feast days of Christ and the Mother of God, our blessed Orthodox Church commemorates the memories of many different saints.
Most of us get to celebrate our name when our named Saint appears on the calendar, but there are many who have names of non-saints. If your first name is not a name of a Saint, today is your lucky day, for today is also the day we celebrate the name day of all whose names are not the names of saints. When you look around the church, and see the different icons on our walls, we can see from the icons on our church walls that our Saints came from all different walks of life. We have Saints who were doctors, soldiers, bishops, monks, priests, nuns, kings, queens, married couples, and we even have repentant prostitutes as saints of our church. We have saints who died young, and saints who died very old, for age is no barrier. Many of the Saints, and especially many of the martyrs, were teenagers and young children. For example, the Apostle and Evangelist Saint John the Theologian, the same one who wrote the Gospel bearing his name and the book of revelation, was only around 14 years old when he was chosen by Christ to become one of the 12 disciples. Even the Mother of God was a mere teenager when she gave birth to Jesus.
What makes the saints different from us? It isn’t something in their nature, for we are made of the same “stuff,” the same substance, the same flesh and bones. It isn’t in the power they have received on high; for, like them, “we have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith…” as we profess in the hymn after communion. In our baptism, our nature was transformed, just as theirs was transformed; they received the life of the risen Lord, and so did we. When we were chrismated, we received the same Holy Spirit they received. So, what makes the saints different from us? Why are we not more like them?
The answer is simple: we don’t love God they way they love God. We love ourselves and our sins more than we love God. When we’re faced with a choice between doing what we want, and what God wants, more often than not, we choose to please ourselves – even if this means that we sin. You know, it’s hard to fight against our passions when we so often indulge them; and, if we don’t struggle against our passions, we can never hope to defeat them, we can never hope to transform them, so that what we think and do and say and want will be pleasing to God, rather than offensive.
What are the terms and conditions for attaining sainthood?
#1 We must confess Christ before all people. This means that we don’t hide our faith as if it’s something to be embarrassed about. Don’t wonder what people might think if you go to Church every week. Don’t feel ashamed to make the sign of the Cross in public or pray before a meal even if you are dining out. Don’t disregard the practice of praying or reading the Bible as if it’s something that either only priests or religious fanatics do.
#2 We need to love Christ before anyone else that we love. We need to love Christ more than our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands, as we heard in today’s Gospel. This is often a sore point with many Christians and it is quite a hard condition to fulfill. However, what we need to do is to focus our attention on Christ and to focus our love toward Christ. After this is done, love for one’s family members follows naturally.
#3 The final point of taking up ones Cross and following Christ is interconnected with the second. The message of Christ often creates conflict and division within families due to people’s unbelief and total disregard for the Creator. To carry one’s Cross to the end, the true Saint must be prepared, if absolutely necessary, to sacrifice even family relationships. The true Saint must also be prepared to endure the hardships that this world brings.
So that is the criteria for being saintly: confessing Christ, loving Christ above everyone else, and taking up one’s cross and following Christ.
My dear brothers and sisters, we may not be called to suffer, or be tortured, or to become martyrs for our blessed Orthodox faith. Our suffering, our torture, our martyrdom may be nothing more than to struggle against the passions and desires that lead us into sin. But we must not be confused. We are called to walk the same path the saints walked during the time of their life on earth. We are called to be transformed into vessels bearing the light, and life, and love of Christ. It is not possible to be a saint without the power of the Holy Spirit being present in us. We know the Holy Spirit has come, for we have just celebrated the Feast of His coming, the feast of Pentecost. Now, just as the calendar of the Church makes clear, we are living in the season after Pentecost – and so it is in time and space as well, for the Holy Spirit has come, and all who ask for His help and presence shall receive what they need to live a holy life. We have all been given the life of Christ; we have received the heavenly Spirit. Let us resolve ourselves to embrace these gifts, and to work to show them forth to the world, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls. That, my brothers and sisters, is what we celebrate on this Sunday of All Saints.