Real Saints, Real People

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2015.  The lectionary readings Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A few years ago, the Episcopal Church changed the list of official scripture readings that are used on Sundays. In the back of our Prayer Book is a listing of these, called a lectionary, and it’s arranged in a three-year cycle: years A, B, and C. What the General Convention in 2006 did was to substitute that listing with what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. Overall, the newer lectionary exposes us to readings that the church otherwise might not read, but where the changes are most obvious is on certain holy days—and All Saints’ Day is one of them.

We no longer hear those majestic words from Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. … those who ruled in their kingdoms, … those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; …those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; ….(Ecclesiasticus 44). We still get a bit of Revelation, with the “new heaven and new earth,” but we no longer get the Beatitudes as the Gospel. That particular Gospel was great because a sermon would basically “write itself” from the words

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. |
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled….

While a part of me misses those older, more familiar readings for All Saints’ Day, I’m learning to appreciate the newer choices. This year, in which we get Martha and Mary, it’s just as good as those other readings, if not better. It’s perhaps “better” because Mary and Martha seem so real. They seem a little like us.

Sometimes Mary and Martha are portrayed in overly-simplistic terms. We hear the story about Jesus eating in their home. You remember the one: Martha was busy getting food on the table and got frustrated with her sister Mary, who was simply sitting there, listening to Jesus. Sometimes they are used to symbolize two aspects of the spiritual life: Mary the contemplative, and Martha the active. But they remain thin characters—a bit stylized and idealized.

But in the story we hear in today’s Gospel, when their brother Lazarus has died, we see both Mary and Martha at full strength and in full humanity. Mary sees Jesus and honors him as a teacher and friend, but she doesn’t hold back. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Had we read earlier in Chapter 11, we would have heard her sister Martha say the same words. I love what this shows us about Mary and Martha—they are secure enough in their relationship with Jesus that they can be honest with him. They can get angry, be hurt, be disappointed, question him and question the will of God. And THIS is precisely what a saint is.

In the New Testament the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” Again, 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. And finally, in Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints—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. And it is a grand and glorious company.

. . . [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!”

But more than anything else, a saint does what Martha and Mary show us how to do: talk honestly with Jesus the Son of God. Be honest with our emotion—our anger, sadness, jubilation, worry, and every possible feeling we can name or can’t name—and make it into prayer. Just as we remembered a few weeks ago at a funeral, a faithful response to death is not always quiet, prayerful, and pious. Faithful people wail at their bereavement and rail at God. Faithful people tear clothes and sometimes tear up other things. Faithful people respond as humans, because that’s how we’re created. Jesus as Jesus wept human tears when he heard that Lazarus had died, we weep human tears when we grieve.

The great children’s hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God” pictures saints in all kinds of ways and situations.

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn’t be one too.

Why not, indeed?

The two feast days of All Saints’ and All Souls’ are always a little confused in our liturgical celebrations and in our hearts. All Saints’ initially was for remembering the “red-letter” saints, the famous ones, the ones in stained glass and sculpture. All Souls’ Day was more intimate, more personal, for us to remember those we have loved who have died. The two days are days for remembering the Resurrection and clinging to the assurance of eternal life.

Thanks be to God for the stories of the saints, for those lives who inspire us and strengthen us, but also who remind us that we get closest to God by being fully human. Thanks be to God for those we have loved who have died in faith. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. And finally, thanks be to God for giving us this life of faith, that keeps us together, one family, through life and through death and into life eternal.

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

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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