Revelation 7:9-17; Matt. 5:1-12
I was a teacher at Ewha Girls’ High School before I came to study at Drew Theological School in 1989. Ewha was established by Mary Scranton who was among the first missionaries to Korea over 130 years ago. One day, I asked my students about how they thought of the Kingdom of heaven. How would you describe the Kingdom of Heaven? What is your first thought about heaven? They responded, “No Mathematics class in heaven!” “No English teacher, either!” They laughed a lot. It sounded like they did not like their English teacher. “No grades and report cards!” “No war!” Suddenly, they became serious. “No conflicts!” “No communism!” “No military dictatorship!” And a student who was heavy and always made the class laugh, stood up and said, “You know, you don’t have to be on a diet in heaven.”
Yes, we have great hopes for heaven. We hope most of all that it will be like earth only better. We will all be thin and beautiful, bright and happy, healthy and vigorous. For many of us, heaven is a necessary dream that keeps us going, gives us hope that one day everything will be as we want it.
Today we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. It is a day on which we remember special people, people who now dwell with God in heaven, people whom the scriptures and the church call saints.
Revelation chapter 7 is one of glimpses of heaven and of what the life of the saints is like there. In heaven there is no suffering, nor death, nor grief; all that has passed away, a new reality has come, a new life has come, a glorious life. It is a life in which there is peace, and joy and praise; a life in which there is love and tenderness, serenity and excitement.
The saints are there, the saints we remember this day. I know it because at times I can feel them around me, telling me to hang in and not to give up, telling me to be faithful, telling me that something wonderful has happened to them and that it will happen to me as well. Who are these saints that speak to me, reminding me of what I should do, and what God has planned for me?
Well…, the saints that occasionally reach out to me, the saints that I think of, are MY PERSONAL SAINTS. They are people who by their actions and words revealed the love of God to me. They are people who, before they went to heaven, strove in their own special way to be faithful, and in their faithfulness, they touched my life and gave me a special gift, always a gift of love, often a gift of wisdom.
What I am going to do now is briefly describe a couple of the saints I have known, the ones that still talk to me even though they are not here. As I tell you about my saints, I want you to think of YOUR SAINTS; and, after I am done, I will say a just a few more words about saints and about heaven and about us here on earth.
Because my father was a refugee, he has no relatives in South Korea. My mother was also a refugee, but she was lucky because she escaped North Korea with all her family members. Accordingly, all my relatives are from my mother’s side. And there are many ministers in my mother’s family.
One of them was my mother’s uncle. He was very tall and big. He was wise, strict, and very quiet. He rarely expressed his emotions. When I was young, I didn’t like him very much, because he didn’t talk to me a lot. But I knew later that it was his personality. He was a person whose action always goes first. He had lived his whole life as an ordained pastor in a small town. He didn’t try to serve a big church in a big city, because he loved his small congregation. I heard he was a very handy man. He spent long hours not only for his sermon preparation but also working for his members’ houses fixing this and that. People said that he was like Jesus meaning Jesus was a carpenter.
I was told by someone in the family what my mother’s uncle once told to his son, who is also an ordained pastor. His son wanted to be a so-called successful minister in a big city. So he wanted to move to Seoul, saying that there is no hope in his small town. “Son, remember this,” he told to his son, “Jesus did not call us to be successful. Jesus called us to obey his will.”
Serving small churches in small towns for over forty years, he retired in a nursing home. Even in there, he was serving people around him. One cold winter day, he was found dead in his room sitting in front of his small desk. His hands held together and his elbows were on the desk. His fore head was on his hands. In other words, God took his soul into heaven while he was offering a prayer that morning. The last moment he was seen by other people was that early morning. He was removing snow that fell during the night. That was his last service to the people on earth. And he joined all the saints in heaven.
What a humble life! What a glorious life, too! He was a man who claimed what little good he did was only possible because of God’s love. The thing that can still cause me to share tears in my eyes when I think of him – even though I know he is in heaven – was his humility and how he loved people, how he lived out the gospel, and made me want to do the same. Grand-pa…, thank you for being my saint!
My mother’s aunt also was an ordained pastor long ago. She was a small-timer, too. But she was a very sincere and hard-working pastor. When I was a seminarian, she once asked me if I believe all the miracle stories in the Bible. When I said, “yes,” she smiled and continued, “You cannot believe with your head (meaning reasoning). If you can believe, I thank God for that. It is God’s grace not your intelligence or anything else that makes you believe, because faith is not something that you can explain away.”
As a woman, it must not have been easy for her to serve a church as a pastor. Being a woman pastor in Korea is still not easy, because the patriarchal Confucianism prevails even in the modern Korean society. She didn’t tell me directly but someone in my family told me that some people in her church did not like receiving benediction from a woman pastor. I remember that she had fasted for forty days, praying for her troubled church and for her ministry. For her, doing ministry was a matter of life and death. Having never been married, she dedicated her whole life to the glory of the Lord. Her ministry was not successful in terms of the size of her church. I am not sure if she could enjoy her ministry, either. But, what is important is that she got a calling and responded to it. She obeyed and finished her faith journey as an ordained pastor.
Her dream was for her to go see the Holy Land where Jesus changed water into wine, talked to his disciples, gave the sermon on the Mount, and walked to the Calvary. In 1990, her dream came true, and three days after her trip to the Holy Land, she died peacefully in a hospital. I would say this way: She finally got permission to rest from God on that day. Grand-ma…, thank you for being my saint!
Yes, they are saints to me. They were faithful in their way to God. They were poor in spirit. They were meek. They were hungry and thirsty for righteousness. They were persecuted, especially during the Korean War. Their hearts were pure and they were peacemakers. In short, they lived out the gospel as best they could. Who do you remember today? Who showed you a bit of what God is like? Who sought to love their neighbors, and to love God? Who loved you?
The list of saints includes not just the famous people, not just the ones that Bishops and Popes have declared saints because of their deep faith and impressive works. No – the list of saints includes all those who love God and who have striven to love their neighbors as themselves. It includes all those who have sought to be faithful to Jesus Christ. Saints are people who made a difference to others, because they attempted to love and serve God, and to love and serve God’s world.
Each of the saints that I remember in some way directed me to God. They revealed by some portion of their lives that God made a difference to them. And because of their faith, they made a difference to me. That is what being a saint is all about – making a difference, a positive difference, a loving difference, the kind of difference that inclines the hearts and minds of others to God and his/her praise.
Each one of us, my friends, is called to be a saint, and, each one of us because of the love of Jesus Christ, can be a saint. At times it can be difficult to live up to this calling, at times it is hard to love, at times it is hard to do things that shows God’s care, at times it is hard to act on our faith, at times it is hard even to have faith…. And that is where the saints in heaven come in.
Our saints, the ones we remember, and the saints of the whole church, are with God and we can still hear them and we can honor them, by listening to them and by remembering how they lived and how they believed.
We can take strength from the saints who are gathered around God’s throne, we can take strength from them – and in that strength, as the church has always intended by naming the saints, we can then go forth to imitate them; to copy in our behavior and attitudes those things which cause us to name them as special and holy to us and to God.
My brothers and sisters – some day, we will join the saints with God in Heaven. In the meantime remember the saints. Take strength from them and honor their memory, by being more like them. It is that to which we are called by God, and by his Son Jesus Christ. AMEN.