Monday, November 15, 2010

All Saints' Day

A sermon for All Saints' Day, November 1, 2010 (Since this parish also celebrates All Soul's Day fully, we anticipated the All Saints' celebration by observing the feast on Sunday, October 31 and November 1. May the liturgical purists forgive us.) The lectionary readings are Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 , Psalm 149 , Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 , and Matthew 5:1-12 .

There’s a story about Austin Farrer, who as chaplain at Keble College went every morning to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. He was devoted, but his friends sometimes wondered why he bothered. “Doesn’t it get lonely in there, with just one or two students, and them, half asleep?” Dr. Farrer replied, “Quite to the contrary. What with all of the apostles, prophets, saints, martyrs, angels and archangels—well, it’s a wonder there’s any room for us at all.”

I sometimes think of that on weekdays for Morning Prayer. While there may only appear to be several of us, I can almost see Dr. Sterrett in the back, praying with us. Rev. Blackwelder is also here. There is Helen, and George, and Frank, and Margaret—telling us (gently) how the words should be pronounced.

We stumble into what Austin Farrer understood: that he was surrounded by the communion of saints. He knew that he wasn’t alone. He knew that he had help.

Talking about help from the saints can be tricky, even in an Episcopal Church. Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. Peter’s, All Saints’—but we are uncertain as to what precisely we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them one-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile?

In short, do we pray to them, for them, with them, or in spite of them?

The New Testament writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.

But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.

In Revelation, John the Divine has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.

I know that when my grandmother was alive, she prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me. Many of them have died. But my faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.

The saints surround us and help us and pray for us, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for us to have help especially for Gospels like today’s. The Sermon on the Mount is a seemingly impossible invitation to holiness. The Beatitudes, that lovely listing of “blessed be’s” sets the Christian standard so high, it feels unattainable.

But we have help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some didn’t quite meet the mark. Others came to embody the beatitudes. They became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.

The Beatitudes point us in the direction of holiness. We’re (very few of us) there yet, but we’re on the way. The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;

there are hundreds of thousands still.

The world is bright with the joyous saints

who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,

in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,

for the saints of God are just folk like me,

and I mean to be one too.

May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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