Saint Samuel

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on All Saints Day, November 1, 2015.

All Saints-tide, I have always believed, is a time for stories. It seems to me that it’s like a family reunion at the end of the year when we gather together – as many of us will do at Thanksgiving – and tell stories about our family and especially about members of the family no longer able to be with us physically but members who are worth remembering and telling stories about because of the impact they made on our family and because of the example they gave us in some special way. Remember how Aunt Emily always insisted on three kinds of cranberry sauce and Uncle Bill made us all go play touch football before we could eat. That kind of thing: memories of special people, special members of the family.

All Saints Day is for Christian memories. Over the years I’ve just told stories about lots of the more remarkable members of our Christian family, people of every race and nation and century, who were part of our family, some of whom died only recently and some who died long ago, but all departed this life, all men and women of another age.

This year, I want to do something a little different. Instead of telling you stories about past saints, I thought, because we’re having a baptism this morning, that today might be a time for telling you about future saints: Saint Samuel, for example. That future begins in a few minutes. In just a few minutes there will be a new saint, a small one, I’ll admit, but a real one all the same because, you see, saints are not made by popes. All the ceremony and hoopla of a canonization in Rome changes nothing; it only calls attention officially to something that happened long ago and that most people already know about. It says that Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich or Mother Teresa or Launcelot Andrewes or William Laud was saintssomebody special and it’s time we took official notice. But it doesn’t make them a saint. That happened long before when someone took them to the font and someone poured water on them and said. “Francis, Julian, Teresa, Launcelot, William, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And, you see, that’s exactly the same thing we will do here this morning. This is, we might say, a real canonization. This really is “the making of a saint,” and you are here to see it.

Today we will give Samuel his name – a name already taken, if I can put it that way, by some notable saints. There was, for example, Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution, and one of my favorite names, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, who was born of Jewish parents in Lithuania and became a Christian and came to America became the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in China, the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui and translated the Bible into Chinese. There are stories to tell about these other Saints Samuels, but I want us to concentrate today on the next Saint Samuel because this is where it all begins. Not the halo. That comes later. But saints are like any other people. They begin small and they grow. Some grow faster and some more slowly. Usually they grow in spurts, very unevenly, and sometimes they stop growing for long periods of time. But once a saint, always a saint.

We’re starting something here that we can’t stop and won’t stop because God will be doing it, quietly most of the time, hardly visible to most of us, but continuing to make a difference. I’m sure there will be times when we have our doubts, very small saints can get very fussy at times and medium size saints aren’t always easy to understand. When a sculptor sets out to carve a statue out of a block of marble it’ll be a while before we can see what he or she is up to: there’ll be lots of chips flying around and jagged edges. But sculptors know what they are doing and when it comes to making saints God is the sculptor and we are the rough material.

But what I’ve usually done at All Saints-tide as I said, is tell stories and that’s what I plan to do today: tell stories about a future saint, about Samuel, Saint Samuel, and the only problem is that it’s a little dangerous to give too many details in advance. And certainly there will be times when Samuel’s parents are likely to wonder whether what we did here really “took.” St. Samuel! at terrible two, or as a teen-ager! He must have been kidding! But you have to be patient. It’ll happen slowly, but it will happen.

So look ahead. I could tell you about the time, for example, when Samuel came home from Church School in about the year 2020 – not that far away – and told his parents the story the teacher had told their class and how impressed his parents were that he remembered it so well. It actually made them go look it up themselves in the Bible and see whether Samuel had it right – and he did! And then they talked about it for awhile as a family. That was a big day because it was probably the first real sign of God being at work in Samuel’s life. Of course, it was a still a small sign which his parents didn’t even remember afterwards. But God works so quietly that that often happens and no one stopped to think that back in 2015 they had prayed that God would “open his heart to God’s grace and truth.” They asked God to make a saint and God was doing it even though nobody really noticed. There were weeks when they didn’t even go to church but when they did it always seemed as if something stuck, something happened, it made an impact.

But anyway, the years went by and Samuel was in High School, freshman or sophomore and going around with some other kids who were, well, not bad kids, but maybe a little more trouble than most. Anyway, one day one of them got hold of some of that new drug they were using back in the early 2030s, some new chemical that everyone was trying and they invited Samuel to join in a party one of the group was planning. And he really wanted to go, wanted to be with his friends, but on the other hand he had this funny feeling, not somehow feeling quite right about it, and so he didn’t go at the last minute, he made some kind of excuse and stayed home that night. His parents thought it was kind of funny that he didn’t even ask about going out that weekend but they had long ago stopped trying to figure out this young teen ager in the family so they just kept quiet about it.

They forgot that they themselves had placed this young man in God’s hands fifteen years earlier and said, “Keep him separate: ‘Deliver him, O Lord, from the way of sin and death; Fill him with your holy and life giving spirit …’” And probably they even forgot how the preacher that day had talked about how the word “saint” means “separate” among other things: separate, set apart, belonging to God, different. “Once you put someone in God’s hands,” he said, “they are always a little different, a little separate; they don’t quite identify with the rest of the world. It’s as if they had a different agenda.” And that’s tough for a kid in High School, it’s tough at any age. But that’s how you know it’s God at work when you see it happen, when you feel it happen. God makes us different, God gives us a new identity, and sometimes it shows. Sometimes you can really see it.

There was another time too. Let me see if I can fit in one more story. It was along about the year 2043, I think, not long after Samuel was married. He’d gone east for college and met this terrific young woman from Massachusetts and moved up there just outside Boston. He’d been married maybe two or three years by then and it wasn’t going all that well. He and she both had jobs and there was a lot of pressure on them and they didn’t always have time to get things sorted out. They were trying to save enough to buy a house, and suddenly they found out a baby was on the way and the tension was just too much. There were nights when it seemed as if there were constant arguments and no matter what either one said it just seemed to make it worse. They just couldn’t seem to communicate, to understand each other. And one day Samuel had enough and just walked out, just got in the car and drove.

At first he just wanted to get some space but then he thought he ought to go somewhere and he had a friend down in Hartford so he went there and they talked, they talked for hours. Samuel told his friend how terrible it was and all the arguments and fights they’d had and the friend said, “Well, why put up with it if you don’t have to? Why not just walk away from it and get a separation and just get your life back under control. Take charge of your life. You’ve got to take care of number one. You don’t have to put up with all that garbage.” And put that way, you know, it made a lot of sense and he decided to do it. He went out and got in the car and started driving back up to Massachusetts. But it was a Friday and traffic was slow and somehow as the miles went by it all seemed to get mixed up again. It wasn’t all that clear after all. But the car kept on going somewhere, going home, and after awhile it was almost as if he, too, was heading somewhere, almost as if he had a sense of being pulled, being guided.

I don’t think he ever knew that the priest at his baptism had talked about a saint as someone who has a calling, a vocation, someone called sometimes even to suffer for the sake of others and for the sake of getting to the place where God wants them to be. But somehow the friend who laid out the alternatives so clearly had really helped clarify things and he knew what he didn’t want and when his wife got home he was there and they had a really good conversation for the first time in months and agreed they both needed to cool it a bit, try a little harder to see another way of looking at things, be a little more patient. It wasn’t anything very specific but somehow after that it went a little better . . . not always, of course, but a good part of the time.

I mentioned another Samuel and I want to digress a minute to tell you my favorite story about Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. (I love that name!) He went to China, as I said, as a bishop and had a stroke that left him badly crippled and confined to a wheel chair – but it was there that he did the most important work of his life, translating the Bible into Chinese and able to type it out using only the middle finger of his partially paralyzed right hand. When a friend came to visit, toward the end of his life, he told him, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first, but God knew best: he kept me for the work for which I was best fitted.” St. Julian of Norwich said once that God never promised “you will not be tempested, you will not be travailed” but God promised “you will not be overcome.” Sometimes it seemed that way for Schereschewsky and this later St. Samuel also.

Later that same year, the baby was born and they went to the church for a baptism and the priest talked about how holiness isn’t a matter of halos but perseverance and taking the small steps one by one that add up to a difference that matters and being open to the quiet inner working of God’s Spirit. More than anything else, he said, It’s being open to God’s gift of grace that makes that difference – sometimes so quietly we hardly notice – and brings us often to a good place we could never get to by ourselves.

Well, I could go on, but you realize I have to keep the details vague at this point. But that’s the story – or something like that – or maybe I should say, that will be the story. It’s maybe not very exciting because God likes to work in the background and not be noticed. But where God is at work, good things happen. God makes us better people than we might have been left to our own devices, makes us different, makes us holy, claims us for God’s purpose, and changes the world one life at a time. One final word. We hear the stories of past and future saints to learn from their example and find some help for ourselves because no saint is up on a pedestal all alosaintsne. Saints, above all, are people involved with God and with God’s people. So Samuel’s story will be shaped by our stories and ours by his, because we are all saints together and we are all involved in each other’s stories and God is at work in all of us to write more stories and to make more saints as we are doing here this morning.

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