A Sermon Preached on the Feast of All Saints at
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
on November 1st, 2020 11:00 am
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5.11
Who is a saint?
A saint is any person who knows they need God. Knowledge of that need, understanding that God is not an option but an absolute necessity – that is what makes them holy. It means that God can work within them and through them.
I say this because this is the meaning of the first words Jesus speaks in Chapter 5 of the Gospel according to Matthew, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Another translation (W. F. Albright & C.S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Volume 26 (New York: Doubleday, 1971), pp.45-46) puts it this way
Fortunate are the humble in spirit, for the the kingdom of heaven is made up of them.
Let us unpack this.
“Blessed” in this passage is the Greek word Μακάριοι – like the Greek name Makarios. We associate blessing with things done by clergy in churches, but that is not its original meaning. What it meant in Classical times through to the 1st century was the state of gods as opposed to us humans. Normally we humans live nasty, brutish, and short lives, filled with toil and sorrow; the live of the gods, on the other hand, was eternal, filled with blessing and power (or so the Greeks thought). So, when Jesus is saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit” he is saying “the ones who know they are humble and lacking in spirit, in the breath of God, are fortunate.” When he says that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” he is saying that the kingdom of God will be made up of people like that – people who know they need God, who seek God’s spirit, and who become filled with it.
The rest of the beatitudes fill out this description. People who know they need God are:
- they hunger and thirst for righteousness;
- they are merciful;
- they are pure in heart;
- they are peacemakers, people of reconciliation;
- they are aware of the suffering of creation, and so they mourn – the the death of a friend, or a family member, or those who they do not even know; and
- because they are all these things they are often reviled and persecuted.
I once preached on this passage arguing that this is as much a description of Jesus, the original “Holy One”, as it is of those who heard the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of the passage it is clear that Jesus is addressing his listeners, when he addresses them directly as “you”. Inasmuch as hear his words as being addressed to us, then, we are all saints, too.
By this is do not mean that we are necessarily wonderful people, as much as so many of you are. The reality is that we are all sinners in need of some redemption and transformation. That is why we are here.
I do not mean that any of us here are particularly pious, although some of us may be more prayerful than others. The reality is that we can all grow in prayer and spirit, and that we need to pray with each other as the Body of Christ. That is why we are here.
I do not mean that as saints we are here because the church needs us, but rather that we need the church. We need each other to become more like Jesus Christ. That is why we are here.
By calling ourselves saints we do not mean that the world needs us, but rather that we need to serve the world to become the creatures that God made us to be. That is why we are here.
Saints on the Periphery
In commemorating this Feast of All Saints, then, we remember the greats of old. In most cases they are merely ordinary Christians in extraordinary situations. Let me mention some people who we may call saints, but of whom you may not have heard.
First, there is the Burmese Martyrs of 1942: Ma Pwa Sein and her five companions at the S. Mary’s Teachers’ Training School, Kemmendine in what was then Japanese occupied Burma. Stephen Reynolds in the book For All the Saints (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994) includes them as some of the “Martyrs of the Twentieth Century”, commemorated in some Anglican calendars on April 24. He writes (and I edit somewhat):
Pwa Sein was the daughter of a devout and highly respected Buddhist; while still in her teens she converted to the Christian faith and became an Anglican. She eventually rose to the position of headmistress of the Anglican mission school at Kemmendine (now called Kyimyindaing). Now, Burma then (and Myanmar now) is a complex pace; there are some 135 different ethnic groups among its over 50 million people. When Burma was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, she and her school evacuated to Nyaaugn-ngu, a village in the Irrawaddy delta, west of Rangoon (now called Yangon). The inhabitants of the village were Karen, a minority tribe often despised and discriminated against by many among the majority Burmans in Burma then and now. On June 5, 1942, this village was raided by brigands posing as the Burmese Independence Army. The raiders began to round up the Karen who were Christians. Though Burmese herself, Pwa Sein chose to stand with the threatened Karen;several others joined her. The brigands singled out Pwa Sein and her companions; they were given a few minutes to pray. Then the headmistress and five other teachers from Kemmendine – Ma Thit, Esther Sein Thit, Ma E Nyein, Ma Tin Shwe, and Hilda – were hacked to death. Altogether sixty Christians were killed in this Delta massacre, most of them Karen.
I had the privilege of going to Myanmar in 2010; the Diocese of British Columbia at the time was in a longtime relationship with the Church of the Province of Myanmar. I did not make my way out of Yangon into the Irrawaddy Delta, although I did fly north to Myitkyina, where the Kachin peoples live. It was striking to see how strong the faith of the Anglicans in Myanmar was. Despite political oppression, the loss of their schools (other than the theological college), the expulsion of foreign Anglicans, and being a minority, they were enthusiastic and positive about Jesus in their lives. The faith shown by the Burmese Martyrs continues today.
Second, there is Florence Li Tim-Oi. As described in the appendix to For All the Saints:
At her birth in 1907 Li Tim-Oi’s father called her “Much Beloved.” When she was baptized as a student, Tim-Oi chose the name Florence from “The Lady of the Lamp.” Florence is celebrated worldwide for the witness to Christ that she lived out as the first female priest in the Anglican Communion. In 1931, at the ordination of a deaconess, she heard and responded to the call to ministry. She was made deacon in 1941, and was given charge of the Anglican congregation in the Portuguese colony of Macao, thronged with refugees from war-torn China.
When a priest could no longer travel from Japanese-occupied territory to preside for her at the eucharist, the Bishop of Hong Kong asked her to meet him in Free China, where on January 25, 1944 he ordained her “a priest in the Church of God.” To defuse controversy, in 1946 she surrendered her priest’s license, but not her Holy Orders, the knowledge of which carried her through Maoist persecution. For the next 39 years, she served faithfully under very difficult circumstances, particularly after the Communists took over mainland China. In 1971, when two more women were ordained in the Diocese of Hong Kong, she was recognised as a priest, although she remained in Communist China. In 1983, arrangements were made for her to come to Canada, where she was appointed as an honorary assistant at St. John’s Chinese congregation and St.Matthew’s parish in Toronto.
The Anglican Church of Canada had in 1976 approved the ordination of women to the priesthood, and so, in 1984, the 40th anniversary of her ordination, Ms. Li was, with great joy and thanksgiving, licensed as a priest. This event was celebrated not only in Canada but also at Westminster Abbey and at Sheffield in England, even though the Church of England had not yet approved the ordination of women.
From that date until her death in 1992, she exercised her priesthood with such faithfulness and quiet dignity that she won tremendous respect for herself and increasing support for other women seeking ordination. She was awarded Doctorates of Divinity by General Theological Seminary, New York, and Trinity College, Toronto.
The very quality of Ms. Li’s ministry in China and in Canada, and the grace with which she exercised her priesthood, helped convince many people throughout the Communion and beyond that the Holy Spirit was certainly working in and through women priests. Her contribution to the Church far exceeded the expectations of those involved in her ordination in 1944. She died on February 26, 1992.
I had the privilege of attending a Eucharist some thirty-six years ago at Trinity College, Toronto where she presided. She did not feel comfortable preaching in English, but she was fine with the written text of the liturgy. I count myself blessed to have been in the presence of such an historical personage.
Who Are You Calling a Saint?
I do not expect any of these women would have described themselves as saints, but we in the church can dare to call them that because of the example of their lives. Because of war, Daw Pwa Sein and the other Burmese Martyrs were put in the position of being executed for their faith. Again, because of war, Bishop Ronald Hall felt the necessity or ordaining Forence Li Tim-Oi, so that the Anglican Christians in Macau could have Holy Communion. They were ordinary Christians caught up in extraordinary events.
And what of us? I suspect none of us would be bold enough to call ourselves saints; our lives are too mundane, our faith falls short, and our accomplishments quite limited. Nevertheless, inasmuch as we know that we need God, that we invite God in Christ into our lives, and manifest good works as fruit of the Holy Spirit, we are saints, too. May we all be inspired by their examples, and so become like Jesus, the one who, though without sin and being the Word of God in human form, nevertheless sought the fullness of the Holy Spirit and was obedient to the Source of all being, and thus became a servant of all.