The Greatest

“…being a Saint isn’t about being the Greatest. It isn’t about perfection, or miracles, or accomplishments. Being a saint isn’t about world records. Being a saint is simply about being a person who makes known the love of God through the life that they lead.”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, October 31, 2021 at Trinity on the Green

All Saints, Year B: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 | Psalm 24 | Revelation 21:1-6a | John 11:32-44

Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.

Last week, I finished watching the newest documentary from Ken Burns on the life and legacy of Muhammed Ali. I mean it when I say finished watching, because I didn’t actually watch all four episodes. That distinction goes to my husband, who is a great lover of history and often introduces me to things I wouldn’t pick up on my own. 

The documentary follows the life of Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay. Ali was born and raised in Louisville, KY, where he trained for boxing at a young age. Despite his athletic promise, Ali took a forced three year hiatus starting in 1967, due to legal issues surrounding his status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He became even more famous during this time. Esquire magazine featured Ali with an artistic cover depicting him as a beleaguered St. Sebastian, wearing his boxing attire with arrows sticking out of his body. Talk about All Saints Day! Over the next decade of his career Muhammed Ali won a total of 56 fights. He only lost 5. He is the only person to win the title of heavyweight boxing champion three times over, a success that has led to Ali’s famous nickname, The Greatest.

I tuned in to the documentary around the point in Ali’s career where he regained the title of heavyweight boxing champion for the third time. It was fascinating to learn about Ali’s complicated personal life, his famous bravado, the endless ups and downs of his career. But the part that stuck out for me the most was not his rise, but what happened after Ali retired from boxing in 1981. His health had been uncertain for some time, and in 1984 Ali made public his diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. The Greatest was now stooped over, stripped of the fluidity of speech with which he used to taunt his rivals.

These later years softened Muhammed Ali. He apologized to old feuds and old flames; he returned to his Islamic faith with renewed fervor; he became a philanthropist, especially among his Muslim community. And then, in 1996, Ali famously lit the torch for the Olympic Ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia, surprising everyone when the penultimate torchbearer, a famous swimmer, passed the torch to a much changed Muhammed Ali, face slack and hands shaking from his disease. Ali nearly turned down this opportunity, not wanting others to witness how much he had changed. And yet a close friend encouraged him to do it – to accept the honor as a kind of thanks for all the spirit that Ali gave to the people who watched his life and career from afar.

It was at this point in the documentary that I completely lost it. Usually Will is the feeling one in my family but there I was, crying along with him. At that point one of Muhammed Ali’s daughters came on the screen and offered these words:

“Daddy evolved, he became better… daddy said that ‘I’m bigger than boxing.’ That meant boxing was this much. His evolution into the person he is today is bigger than him just boxing. And I think he knew that. And he carried it with him, his love, and he gave it to every single person he met” (Muhammad Ali 2021, Episode 4).

What is it that makes a person a saint? Is it that they were the greatest, like Muhammed Ali? The greatest boxer? The greatest preacher? The greatest prophet? The greatest giver of service? Is a saint a person who accomplishes miracles? The miracle of resurrection perhaps, as described in the story of Lazarus in our Gospel Reading today. Or the miracle of resurrection as described in the story of Muhammed Ali, who just kept coming back to prove himself again and again. What is it that makes a person a saint?

Now, before I go on I want to note that I am hesitant about labelling people of other faiths as saints. It’s not that I don’t believe that God moves through people of different faiths – I do! But I also want to be careful not to overshadow the integrity of someone else’s faith with my own Christian worldview. Muhammed Ali was deeply committed to his Muslim faith, and I think it’s important that we remember him that way. But even so, we can still recognize God at work in the people around us, and throughout history.

This week, reflecting on the life of Muhammed Ali taught me something important about All Saints Day, which we commemorate this Sunday. It taught me that being a Saint isn’t about being the Greatest. It isn’t about perfection, or miracles, or accomplishments. Being a saint isn’t about world records.

Being a saint is simply about being a person who makes known the love of God through the life that they lead.

And often this doesn’t look like perfection! It doesn’t look like “sainthood” in a conventional sense. Instead this kind of sainthood looks like a person who grows and changes over time. It looks like a person who makes mistakes, learns, and apologizes – charting a different way forward. This kind of saint accepts themselves for who they are, rather than focusing obsessively on some arbitrary standard of success. This kind of saint loves, and allows themselves to be loved in return.

 I think it is fitting that we read the story of Lazarus, who is raised from the dead, as our Gospel portion for this All Saints Day. Christians revere Lazarus as a saint, and we have done so for centuries. What did Lazarus do to deserve sainthood? He didn’t raise himself from the dead. And yet I would like to suggest that Lazarus was a saint even before Jesus performs this miracle. Lazarus was a saint simply because of the impact that he had on the lives of the people around him – so that Mary and Martha, and even Jesus (who knows how the story will end), grieve deeply at his loss. Lazarus was a saint because he showed the love of God to his dearest friends and family, and when he was suddenly gone his loved ones felt that loss deeply.

You might be starting to wonder: well, if this is the criteria for sainthood, then isn’t everyone a saint? And my answer to that question is, well, yes. Each one of us shines the light of God into this world in different ways. Sometimes we let that light get dimmed because of our selfishness or mixed up priorities – but ultimately every one of us is a saint. 

You will find this definition largely consistent with the Bible, especially the epistles. Paul is continually writing to this Christian community or that Christian community, and addressing them as saints. In these cases, the word saint is almost a kind of shorthand for people living in faith and fellowship with one another. In this context sainthood isn’t something you earn. Rather, sainthood is a lens through which we can view ourselves and one another, as individuals who are each called in some way to make known the love of God.

So: what next?

Some of you may be in the position today of needing to be reminded that you, too, are a saint. There is nothing you have done, or ever will do, that can separate you from the love of God. And your worth in this world has very little to do with what you accomplish, or fail to accomplish – and a lot more to do with how you live, and how you love. You don’t have to be the greatest at anything. You matter simply because you are a child of God, and there is an aspect of God’s divine love that shines through in you in a way that it can’t shine through any other person. And that makes you a saint.

There may be others of you out there today that need to hear a different message. And that message is this: everyone you meet is a saint. Everyone you meet is a child of God, knit together in one complicated and messy human family. And yet day by day we cut ourselves off from the love of God that we might find in one another. We do this by gravitating towards some people, instead of others. We gravitate towards friendliness, or popularity, or success, or people who are more similar to ourselves based on our gender or skin color, political beliefs or life experience. And yet when we do this we miss out on aspects of God’s love because we have turned our back on one another. I challenge you to move through the week ahead with a different lens – one in which you look at every person you meet this week as if they are a saint; as if they had something to show you about the love of God that no one else in this world can convey. Because, I believe, they do.

We are all, each one of us, saints in one holy communion. Our vocation in life is not to be the greatest boxer, the greatest teacher, the greatest doctor, the greatest volunteer, or even the greatest Christian. Our calling in life is to be the greatest version of ourselves: 

To love, and be loved.

To change, and be changed.

To give, and receive. Amen.

Works Cited

Burns, Ken, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. Muhammad Ali. Film. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 2021.

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