Saints: People who have our back

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, 2018. The scripture readings are Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 , Psalm 149 , Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 , and Matthew 5:1-12.

Because of technical difficulties, the sermon was not recorded today.

Every once in a while, someone calls the parish office and needs something done. The caller speaks with Erlinda Brent, our secretary; or the person speaks with me, and at some point, the person will ask, “Could you have one of your people do such and such?” “Your people!”   Erlinda or I will usually put down the phone and then say to one another, “they think we ‘have people!’” And then we laugh.

Our church staff doesn’t really have “people.” We have one priest, one secretary, a half-time time music director, and a one-day-a week bookkeeper.  Most days, we have one sexton working, but on some days, they overlap.

And while we have a tiny staff, we actually do “have people.”  We ALL have people, and that’s a part of what the Church’s celebration of All Saints reminds us: we got people. We’ve (all of us) got people.

Having people, having support, having help makes the words of today’s Gospel possible. Otherwise, the Beatitudes would be hopelessly out of reach. They are lofty ideals, they are high, and for many of us, the blessings they contain are far, far away from our every day experience. How many of us are very often among the poor in spirit, the meek, or those who hunger and thirst after righteousness? When have we been pure in heart, shown mercy, or practiced the art of peacemaking?

To approach the Beatitudes is a little like beginning to climb a mountain. Some in the Orthodox tradition have pictured the Beatitudes as a ladder. In a Ladder of Beatitudes, “Each one leads to the next, and is placed in a particular order. To reach the second step, we need to make the first step.”

Whether we imagine the Beatitudes as a ladder, or a mountain, or simply a series of signs that points us in the way of holiness, the good news is that we are not alone in our journey. There are others who have climbed this ladder, who have ascended this mountain, who have received the blessing upon blessing that Jesus offers. These are the saints. And they offer us holy help.

From time to time I call on holy help. For example, when I am running low on faith and when 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 hear the words of some of our local saints—of Dick Shumacher or Jackie Albert.  At various times, and in different predicaments, I imagine the advice and wisdom of Judith Jones, of Fred Burrell, and some of the saints I haven’t even met personally, but who I’ve learned about from you.  And then, I also have the people I’ve brought with me to this place—the former senior warden, the former music director—both of whom died too young, but who continue to guide and comfort me.

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.” 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!”

We have help in heaven and on earth. We’ve got people. We’ve got saints surrounding us. And by the grace of God, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be saints for one another—helping, supporting, encouraging, challenging, growing together into the likeness of God. Thanks be to God that we’ve got people.

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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