1 John 3.1–3
I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying. — Nelson Mandela, 1999 speech at the Baker Institute, Rice University, Houston
In the lives of the saints, we see in our own time the qualities that make life possible. — Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year
Last Thursday, 1 November, was All Saints’ Day. So today, we’re hearing the readings for All Saints’ Day. On this day, we celebrate women and men who have been examples of faithful and joy-filled service for us who are still on the pilgrim way.
What would make you call someone a saint?
Now, some of you may remind me that every single Christian is a saint. A saint is someone who is called to be holy. The Apostle Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth — in other words, to the whole congregation. Some of them were living in pretty ethically dodgy ways. But Paul called them saints.
However: today, I’m using the word ‘saint’ in its everyday sense. In an ordinary way. In everyday terms, a saint is someone in whom we see something of the goodness of God. Someone who has some quality of love, or compassion, or faithfulness, or patience that we recognise taps into a very deep well.
Recently, I was speaking with young woman whose life has been full of difficulties of late. In the midst of the conversation, she told me something quite lovely: she said that her husband is a saint. (I know this man; I tend to agree with her.)
Let me tell you about someone who I look upon as a saint — at least for me. He was one of my teachers in primary school.
Mr B was an ordinary man to look at. You probably wouldn’t give him a second glance if you passed by him in the street. He wasn’t much to look at: he was short, paunchy, and he wore glasses with a grumpy expression.
Mr B had a scary reputation around the school. It was a daunting experience to walk into his class for the first time. I made sure I found a seat somewhere towards the back.
But Mr B was a teacher who wanted the best for his students. He taught me to have confidence in myself as a learner. He encouraged, cajoled and prodded me into doing better. I left his class with my head high. He affected my life for good. In both senses of that phrase.
You know, I never said “Thank you” to Mr B back then. The long summer holidays came, I ran off, and returned for the next class.
I had often wondered about saying thank you, but all I knew about him was that he lived in a very pleasant little market town in North Yorkshire called Pateley Bridge.
So why didn’t I just go there and talk to him? My family had emigrated to Australia. Brisbane is a long way away from Pateley Bridge.
Finally, on a trip back to England around ten years ago, I decided to go to Pateley Bridge and see if I could find Mr B. It’s not a big place. If he still lived there, if he were indeed still living, people would know.
I went into the local museum. I thought that was a good place to start. Yes, I was told, Mr B still lived in Pateley, opposite the old railway station. So I walked down the hill, found his door, and knocked on it.
And there he was. Thirty odd years on, I was realising just how short he was.
We spent a good long time talking. I encountered a humble man. I found out that Mr B was a Methodist, who grieved the slow death of the churches around his area.
The Methodist Church was strong in that area once; on 24 July, 1766 John Wesley himself preached in little Pateley Bridge, writing in his Journal that it was the largest congregation he had seen since preaching in the great city of Newcastle.
Now, the church was in decline. And Mr B grieved.
I haven’t been in contact with him since. I don’t know if he is in his house in Pateley still, or if death has taken him.
Why do I feel about Mr B the way I do? It’s not to please him. I mean, if he were here today he’d stand up and tell me to shut up because I was talking rubbish!
You know, they called Nelson Mandela a saint too. He said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Mr B, though he could be irritable, showed great patience with me. He kept on trying. He wanted the best for me. He never gave up on me.
Why do I feel about Mr B the way I do?
I’m not sure I would have felt he was a saint in my life if I hadn’t gone back to thank him. I suppose I saw something new when I visited him. I saw a man who reminded me of some of the Beatitudes. It wasn’t possible to see that as a lad of nine or ten.
But I saw a who was man poor in spirit, a gentle man, a meek man. I met a man who hungered for the righteousness of God. I saw a man who — once he got over the initial shock of my surprise visit — was willing to share honestly with me.
Was Mr B a saint? Well, he was in the sense that the Apostle Paul used the word. He was called to be a follower of Christ. And I believe he was allowing himself to be formed in the image of Christ, to be more like Christ.
Was Mr B a saint in the everyday sense? I don’t know. I especially don’t know how his wife would have answered that question! I never got to do more than pass the time of day with her.
But Mr B was a saint in my life. And that has made a huge difference to me.
Perhaps there are people who have been saints in your life. They have mentored you, supported you when you were down, helped you when there were few others who would come to your aid.
Have you thanked them? Consider doing that.
And if you can’t thank them, thank God for them. Lift them up in prayer to God.
And just possibly you are a saint for others. You might not think you are, but I doubt Mr B would have expected me to call him a saint.
If others look up to you, make is easy for them. Be a person who reflects the qualities of the Beatitudes. Be a person who lives in faith, hope and love because of Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you.
Saints are everywhere. Even here!