All the Faithful Gathered to Worship God – All Saints, Year C

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

We have two ways of thinking about the saints, and it turns out that neither one of them is very helpful. We think of “Saints” with a capital “S”: St. Peter, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, the named heroes of the faith who made their mark in the world and left a legacy of holiness that outlasted their lifetimes. And then we think of “saints” with a lowercase “s,” and here we usually mean someone of heroically long-suffering patience or rigidly upright moral conduct. Either concept is intimidatingly inaccessible to us regular folks who routinely lock our keys in our cars and have been known to shout at the television during a particularly key 4th down of a football game.

We don’t feel like we can live like the people who bravely faced the lions in the coliseum and went down to glorious martyrdom, or even our “saintly” neighbor down the block who never misses Sunday worship (or an opportunity to remind you that she never misses Sunday worship). We don’t feel like we can live like these people, and if we are honest, we don’t really want to live like these people. Dying violently or living joylessly seem to be the two dominant models for sainthood in our society, and neither fulfills Jesus’ hope for us that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The other reason we place the concept of sainthood on an elevated moral pedestal is because that otherness absolves us of responsibility. Saints are so out of touch with what our real lives are like. What does Saint Anselm know about paying the mortgage on time? What does St. John of the Cross’s lofty poetry do for us when we get a flat tire or go through a divorce or are diagnosed with cancer? The saints don’t know what real life is like. And so we don’t have to listen to the prophetic messages that their lives speak, we think.

This is what we tell ourselves to keep us safely distant from sainthood. But the original use of the term saints, particularly by Paul, was meant to indicate all the faithful gathered to worship God. Today is not just about heroes of the faith, and it’s not even just about our own beloved departed who have gone before us. This is not “Some Saints Day.” This is “All Saints Day,” and as the hymn so many of us will sing today goes, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Did you ever think of the commitment you were making as you sang that cheerful little hymn each November? Our job today is to take away some of the haloed awe we place around saints and ask ourselves: “If we are all saints, what does that mean? If it doesn’t mean heroic glory or unhappy perfection, then what should we do? How should we live?”

The great saints of the church, the heroes of the faith who gave their lives for the gospel, were in fact folk just like us. We start there. And if we think about it, we really already know that. Poor St. Peter, God bless him, certainly put his foot in it more than once, up to the point of denying and abandoning Jesus. We can easily picture a 21st century St. Peter losing his temper and making rude gestures in traffic. If St. Teresa of Avila lived today, she might use the last scoop of coffee grounds in the break room and not replace the canister. If St. Bridget or St. Francis lived today, they might have embarrassing pictures on Facebook of their younger and wilder days.

We know that the saints were everyday human beings just like us, and we can be sure they made the same mistakes and had the same frailties. And yet something within them led them to do great things for the gospel, to live and sometimes die with incredible courage and boldness. How did they do that? If we are all saints, then we are all called to live as though our lives and our memories will still be important a thousand years from now. How can we live so that our legacy strengthens generations of the faithful to come after us?

What the saints had was an unshakeable commitment to follow Jesus, no matter where that took them. And we have an incredibly vivid portrait of where following Jesus takes us in our gospel lesson from Luke today. Consider the very first sentence we read: “Jesus looked up at his disciples.” What does that imply? In order for Jesus to look up at his disciples, he had to be at a level below them. So take your mental picture from old Sunday School illustrations of Jesus standing up on a rock above a crowd of people to preach to them, and stand it on its head. Jesus was down on the ground as he taught this most central of his messages. He was crouching or kneeling in the dirt as he healed someone prostrate with pain and illness.

Picture being a disciple standing around in a circle as Jesus gently and carefully lays hands on a pain-wracked man or woman, the entire laser focus of his love trained on this beloved child of God, ready to pour out his healing grace. And hands on the dirty, bad-smelling, sore-laden body of some hopeful soul, he looks up at his disciples and says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are excluded and reviled and persecuted. You are blessed, and you are beloved, and you are mine.”

Jesus speaks to us from the heart of frail, suffering, flawed humanity, because that is where he lives. He chooses to be with and in the pain of the world, and he calls us to follow him there. That was the special charism of the great saints. They weren’t spiritual athletes, accruing an ever-escalating number of holiness points. They knew that their own weaknesses combined with the desperate need of the world created the very conditions for God to work miracles, and they gave themselves to that process wholeheartedly.

That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? It seems like the saints would bring all their strength and intelligence to bear on the levers of power and wealth. But instead they entrusted their weak and wounded selves to the Jesus they found at the bottom of the world, at the bottom of the chasm within themselves, looking up at them and telling them they were blessed. And they heard him there. They followed him there. And through them, he changed the world.

Many of us hearing this gospel today are not literally poor and hungry. But those of us blessed with economic riches and societal privileges are often desperately poverty-stricken in other ways. We are starving for meaning in our lives. We weep silent inward tears of loneliness and depression. We hunger for community without realizing it. We thirst for our own lost integrity and hope in a world driven mad by greed and cynicism.

But we need not fear looking down into the depths of suffering, both inward and outward. Whether the abyss we run from is the hungry and oppressed around the world and in our neighborhoods, or the undiscovered darkness within our own hearts, when we look down into those places, we find Jesus looking up at us.

And where he is, we need never fear to go. That is what the great saints, the heroes of the faith, knew. They saw Jesus look up at them and call them blessed, and so they followed him down into the depths. And there, they found healing, and joy, and communion with God and with one another.

An individual who follows Jesus down to join with him in lifting the whole world up. That’s all a saint is. No glory, no perfection, not even any particular holiness. Just mustering the courage to say yes to his love, his love that reaches out to touch us in our poorest and most wounded places. Want to know if you’re a saint? See Jesus look up at you and say, “You are blessed.” Take that truth into your heart and know that today, All Saints’ Day, is for you.

Written by The Rev. Whitney Rice. Rice is the Associate Rector at St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for All Saints, Year C.

The blessings of the saints, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2013

November 1, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Since the earliest days of Christendom, the faithful have gathered to give thanks for the life and ministry of the saints – women and men whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a blessing in every generation.

The witness of many of these blessed women and men – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa of Avila or Saint Augustine of Hippo – are well known. Many of their writings have become popular, their deeds inspire us to name hospitals and schools and churches for them, and their service to the Church is taught to the faithful in every generation. Yet, for others – such as Saint Simon or Saint Jude – little is known beyond their names.

But regardless of how much or how little we know about these faithful witnesses, one thing is certain: Their life and ministry has richly blessed the church. And as we gather to celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we are called to give thanks to God for the blessings that the saints have bestowed upon the church, as well as the many blessings God has bestowed upon us.

Of course, by worldly standards, it would appear that the saints didn’t know very much about blessings. Most of them didn’t know the first thing about wealth, and many lived all or part of their lives in poverty. Status and the power that comes with it was a foreign concept, as many of the saints never knew high-paying or revered jobs, choosing instead to work for little or no money at all, serving the poor and the helpless. And far from inspiring fear or subordination, many of the saints were hated and met their untimely death precisely because of the faith they so boldly proclaimed.

But worldly standards weren’t how the saints patterned their lives. They lived by Jesus’ standards. And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus’ standard for what constituted a blessing is radically different from the standards that the rest of the world is accustomed to:

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

Poverty, hunger, mourning, hatred, exclusion, revilement and defamation – these things certainly don’t seem like blessings!

But Jesus is convinced that they are. And most shocking of all, Jesus says that these are the sorts of people to whom the Kingdom of God is entrusted.

Of course, some will raise their hands in objection and say, “We can’t possibly entrust the Kingdom of God to a bunch of poor folks. They don’t know the first thing about business or what it takes to run a kingdom.”

Others may say, “The Kingdom of God is just a fancy term tossed around by theologians. It isn’t possible on Earth. There’s just too much violence and oppression and chaos.”

Or worst of all, some will hear the words of Jesus and say, “See there? Jesus will take care of the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated in heaven. Who am I to get in the way of God’s will?”

Yet, with piercing clarity, Jesus looks the opponents of the Kingdom of the God in the eye and pronounces a stern warning: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation!”

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry!”
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep!”
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

In other words, woe to you who don’t know what poverty looks like, or what hunger feels like. Woe to you who have never known an occasion for mourning. And woe to you who manage to tell everyone what they want to hear instead of the truth they so desperately need to hear.

And so, we gather here on this Feast of All Saints with words of blessing and words of woe ringing in our ears, amidst beautiful trappings and festive liturgies and memorial celebrations. But let us not lose sight of the fact that today, God is calling us to action – God is calling us to bear witness to the Kingdom of God!

And the Kingdom of God witnessed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not some abstract theological term about a time and place the world has never known. In fact, the Kingdom of God can be a place that all of us can come to know.

The Kingdom of God breaks through when we love our enemies. It takes hold when we do good to those who hate us. It comes alive when we bless those who curse us. It shines brightly when we pray for those who abuse or mistreat us. It shows up when we honor the request of beggars.

And when we live our lives by the principle of “do to others as you would have them do to you,” we become citizens of the Kingdom.

Of course, the work of building the Kingdom is not easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us here in Luke’s gospel, life with God isn’t easy, either. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful and cursed.

Life with God means that we will know what it is to be unpopular – to be discounted and overlooked.

And life with God means that we will know what it is to be hated.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is built – brick by brick, stone by stone – by people such as these: people who know what poverty and hunger and sorrow and being cursed looks like. People who know how it feels to be overlooked and discounted. People who know what being hated feels like.

So today, on this Feast of All Saints, let us begin to live by a different set of standards. Instead of worldly standards, let us begin to live by the standards of the Kingdom.

It starts today. It starts by loving our enemies. It starts by showing kindness to people who don’t deserve it. It grows into the ability to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who mistreat and take advantage of us. It manifests itself in the ability to listen and show honor to those who are forced to beg.

It is lived out, not in the comfort of our homes or our churches or our offices, but among the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated; because, after all, the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

And when we do that – when we exchange our worldly standards for Kingdom standards – the blessed communion of saints cries out, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Kentucky (Diocese of Lexington). He holds a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Watchful purpose, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2010

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

A year ago a young hotel clerk showed up at an All Saints’ Day service. He told the priest as he left that it was the one day he felt obligated to be in church. “I never miss All Saints’ Day,” he said. True to his word, he hasn’t been back since.

The Feast of All Saints has a particular appeal to Anglicans. It is one of the seven principal feasts of the church, originally observed in Rome from the ninth century, but there are references to a feast of All Martyrs from the third century. All Saints is understood as a “celebration of Christ and his whole Mystical Body – the ‘elect’ and the ‘saints,’” according to Marion Hatchett, author of the Commentary on the American Prayer Book.

The readings from scripture and the glorious hymns we sing make this feast one anticipated by many. The calendar allows it to be observed the Sunday after November 1 when All Saints’ Day falls on a weekday.

So, why the popularity? Why would a young man make this his one day of observance each year instead of Christmas or Easter?

The readings point us to some answers. First, we read in Daniel of an apocalyptic vision, the end of things as we know it. Today for all people of intelligent reflection there can be no doubt that we are rapidly depleting the resources of our planet. Our own greed and accumulation of material wealth has an apocalyptic consequence. It cannot go on for ever while the gap between rich and poor grows greater with each year. Something has to change, just as it did in Daniel’s time when Israel had lost her bearings and was under foreign domination. But Daniel’s vision includes “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” and later, in today’s reading, Daniel receives assurance that all shall receive the kingdom and possess it forever. An apocalyptic vision is followed by a vision of hope, something we need to hear in a time of anxiety.

The majesty of Psalm 149 brings all of creation together and all of humanity in a joyous hymn of adulation at the triumph of goodness and justice – a vision that many wait for in a time of short-term solutions and quick fixes that only postpone the inevitable day when the poor receive justice and the faithful who have served them are rewarded.

The passage from Ephesians celebrates the life of the church as a unique institution that is part of God’s eternal purpose where believers live in unity with God, one another, and those who have gone before, confident of the life to come where full union with those who have gone before us will be restored.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers the Lucan version of the beatitudes that are usually read from Matthew. The Lucan version uses the pronoun “you” rather than “they,” which make Jesus’ words focused on us. We hear the words of blessing as we are, poor or rich, hungry or satisfied; then we hear the woes for the part of us that has only heeded false prophets and gods of wealth and privilege.

Being a saint has never been understood as being just kind to your grandmother and not kicking the dog. Being a saint has meant hurting for and with a world in pain. Being a saint has meant being misunderstood for taking a stand for justice and against short-term self-interest. Being a saint has meant caring for the least and the lost. A struggling parishioner recently wrote: “I don’t know what God wants for me; I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Then I spoke with my spiritual director and she simply said to stop whining and jump into the whirlwind. I did that and now think I’m on the right path, but it wasn’t what I expected.”

The saints have always been the people who preached by their lives and words what the world did not wish to hear. The saints have usually been people who were born into ordinary circumstances but achieved extraordinary things because they followed God’s call, struggling and wrestling with God all the way. And many of them were folks just like you and me.

Recently a pastor presided at an interment in a rural cemetery. Many of the family of the deceased who had been in the diplomatic service came to the service. As they walked among the graves, some dating back to the early nineteenth century, they commented about the lives of the departed; they pointed to where they would one day be buried and talked about lying next to Aunt Ethel or cousin Fred. What moved the priest the most was their simple faith, their devotion to each other, and the way they cared for each other. In the midst of all the cacophony of election campaigns and the threats of a planet in turmoil, here were good people who went to church, said their prayers, and hoped for things to come.

While the young man might not say it in these words, he stands as a beacon for all of us who live with watchful purpose, praying that one day all of our hope will be fulfilled. He is one of the quiet faithful who see in life the connection with those who have gone before and those yet to come.

May that be the faith with which we all live on this feast of All Saints.

Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives in nearby Holiday Island with his wife.

Being a saint, All Saints’ Day (C) – 2007

[RCL] Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 ; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Most Episcopalians are familiar with the church year: that great cycle of prayer and liturgy that takes us from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, on through Lent and Easter, and into the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost. Fewer among us may be familiar with the cycle of the saints’ calendar. While most of the saints and great lights of the Church have a special feast day or celebration assigned to them, it is rare that they get a mention in Church on Sundays for the simple reason that the assigned Sunday liturgy nearly always takes precedence.
It is, in a sense, a pity, for there is always much we can learn from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. But what is particularly striking about the calendar of the saints is that it is a hodge-podge – messy and unpredictable. In the calendar of the blessed, saints come and go in no particular order. Ninth-century saint follows twentieth; European, American; young, old; and so on.

Just this month, for instance, ancient Willibrord, whose feast is kept on the seventh of November, hobnobs with Reformation-era, Richard Hooker, of November third, and medieval Margaret of Scotland, of November sixteenth. It must make for some very interesting conversations in high places.

The calendar mirrors our own lives in many ways. People come to us in no particular order. We probably did not choose the particular members of our parish community, for example. Friends and future spouse appear seemingly out of nowhere, although we often impute order to their presence among us after the fact. And we do not get to choose the people without whom we would not be here: our parents.

Those described as blessed, or saints, in our gospel text today are also a pretty heterogeneous lot – perhaps an unfortunate and desperate one. They are not particularly popular, or well-off, or prosperous. They are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the despised. If they have anything in common, it is perhaps that they are those not in control of things. They are those who are often described as victims and vulnerable.

No one – martyrs and saints included – wants to be victimized, used, manipulated, cheated, or made a chump. And certainly Scripture does not require that of us. We read the daily papers and shake our heads as we learn of all the evil things our fellow human beings are capable of, including the shedding of innocent blood. We certainly do not want such things to happen to us – no matter how committed we are to the Gospel.

But somewhere in our fear of being hurt or made a victim we may, if we are not careful, also lose our ability to be vulnerable; to take a chance on another human being, on life, on God. For if we open ourselves to others it is quite possible, some might say likely, that we will be hurt. But unless we take that risk, we may find ourselves living lives of fear and loneliness – in other words, lives not worth living – lives devoid of human warmth and caring and love.

So the saints do have something in common, in spite of their variety and age and culture. They have learned to become vulnerable, to be fully human, and to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or one’s own self interest. And like it or not, each of us will also be given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives – at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well.

So what about being blessed? What about being a saint? We can determine our state of saintliness and blessing by our willingness to be open to the needs of others. Sainthood becomes not so much some unattainable goal of moral excellence as it does a way of life marked by commitment to others and their needs.

We will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. We will have plenty of reason to witness to and accept our own vulnerability. But then we are in good company. After all, what words other than “vulnerable” and “committed” can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us with all the messiness of our self doubts, and strings of failures, and hurts, and even death?

It probably does not take much effort to be poor, grief-stricken, or hungry. But being blessed – that is something else. That involves a radically different way of seeing the world. It requires a worldview that embraces the poor, and the exiled, and the remnant, and the refugee. Not just for the reward enumerated by our Lord in the gospel story, but because we recognize ourselves in the very least of those we know. We recognize that our saintliness and blessing comes only in embracing wholeheartedly and without reservation those others in need of God’s blessing.

Is it easy being a saint? I am afraid it is more difficult than we ever thought. Difficult, that is, if we try to do it on our own power and with our own wisdom and cleverness and effort. But it is paradoxically easy when we embrace the blessed cross of Christ that irrevocably committed God to the world; the cross that consecrates us in the blood of the Lamb, who gave himself that we might live.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is completing his ministry as priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California, and is looking for work. He can be reached at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.