Reflecting on (and with) the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24

A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017.  The scripture readings are Revelation 7:9-17Psalm 34:1-10, 221 John 3:1-3, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, out in Long Island, I officiated at the wedding of Erica and Michael Wosczyk.  Michael’s mother, Linda, is the longtime director of the Merricats Castle School, which is located over in St. Christopher’s House, above our social hall.  At one point at the wedding reception, I was a little jarred to see another priest across the way, awkwardly trying to dance when there was one of those command performances, after everyone had been compelled to join the dancing.  But, then I noticed that it was actually not another priest. I was looking across the way into a mirror and the awkward dancing priest was me!

While it’s not always easy to look into a mirror, in some ways, the feast of All Saints invites us to do just that:  to look into a mirror, to notice our reflection and all that makes that reflection what it is.  We’re invited to notice what in our own lives reflects those who have gone before us, and to consider what, of God’s goodness and love, we might occasionally reflect to others.  As we consider the saints, we first can notice. Then we ask for help. And finally, we can give thanks for the resemblance and the ability to grow in faith, wisdom, and love.

This may sound strange on a day that often encourages us to look at others. All Saints’ often points us to the images in stained glass windows. The day asks us to think about the statues and memorials in our churches and cathedrals, to meditate upon those who have lived strong lives of faith and who have been rewarded for their living with life eternal.

But it seems to me that the very best way of observing All Saints’ might be to notice the windows, the statues and memorials, the famous faithful we have read about and heard about and known, AND THEN, to do, perhaps three things:  Notice the saints, ask for their help, and then give thanks for the resemblance.

If you’re at all like me, you might find it really difficult to think of yourself in the same context as a saint.  When we compare, it’s easier to see the distance and the difference. We get stuck on shortcomings and failures, the places where we have been less than faithful, and certainly less than perfect. But the saints are closer (and we are closer to them) than perhaps we have noticed.

In the New Testament, the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In scripture, 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.” 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—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!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

And so, the saints are the ordinary and the extraordinary faithful. They’re the ones in the stained glass windows and the ones in our photo albums. And they live eternally with God to pray for us and to offer us help.

In the Middle Ages, it became popular (and profitable for the Church) to pray for loved ones who were imagined to be stuck in a purgatory, and in-between place, and need our prayers in order to move on to heaven.  Sometimes, perhaps our beloved dead, do need our continued prayers of love and encouragement in order to know a peace that perhaps they never knew in this life.  But more than anything, the faithful departed watch over us, pray for us, and encourage us.

From time to time I call on holy help. For example, when I am running low on faith, and doubt is about to do a number on me, it helps me to know that St. Teresa of Avila once went years wondering whether God was really listening. When the political nature of life begins to get me down and discourage me it helps me to know that Hugh of Lincoln, bishop-saint of the Middle Ages, was able to be prophetic with kings as well as commoners. Our local saints inspire and help me, as well.

When I’m discouraged about some problem facing our church, I can ask Dick Schumacher for wisdom.  When I need a more practical understanding of people and their confusing behavior, I can call on the words of a former senior warden, Nancye.   On and on my list of support goes, as I ask for help, insight, and confidence.  It’s through the encouragement of the saints that we grow along the path of the Beatitudes, those blessings Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we notice the saints, we remember to ask for help, but we also should pause to give thanks for the ways in which we resemble some of our spiritual forebears.

At yesterday’s wedding, it was great fun to trace the family resemblances. Though I knew Michael’s mother and had met his sister, I was able to meet more of the extended family, and to meet Erica’s larger family.  The best part was watching the resemblances.  A smile might come from a grandmother. Eyes from an uncle. A booming laugh from a cousin, and a few dance moves from a parent.  But we also have those deeper qualities that we have received from the saints—the famous saints and the familiar ones.

In a few minutes, as we pray the names of those saints we have known and loved, I encourage you to use the prayer as a kind of mirror, and to notice those places where we you are most like the saints—those parts of yourself that are loving, merciful, and wise. Notice those parts of your own spirit that have stood for justice and fairness and God’s way. Notice that part of yourself that is generous and kind and Christ-like, and give thanks—not only for all the saints, but also for the saintliness that is within you. May God give us “grace to follow (and become) the blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

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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