With All the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for November 3, 2019, celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. The scripture readings are Daniel 7:1-3,15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, and Luke 6:20-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Not too long ago, I met someone at a gathering who goes to a Baptist Church. Her church wanted to do something for the children around Halloween, but a number of their church members were uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging kids to dress up as devils or vampires… or perhaps even worse as popstars a little too sexy for their age. And so, my friend asked about the tradition of All Saints’ Day. If her church were to encourage children to dress as their favorite saint, where should they look for the official listing of saints?

I hesitated. Should I point her to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site, for the official listing of Roman Catholic saints? (Even there, there’s a problem, since the official saints vary from country to country.) Should I send her the Book of Common Prayer listing of saints, or the latest official listing called, “Holy Women, Holy Men”? Or, does she just want the Biblical saints, or the famous saints from over time? [I ended up suggested a book of general saints that includes lots of pictures, thinking maybe the kids could look at a picture and choose something that attracted their eye, and then hear about the particular saint and dress like them.]

Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. James’, or even All Saints’—but then, sometimes we’re not really sure what we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them two-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? Or are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile, or the superstition of Catholic grandmothers?

The idea of communicating with the saints—especially our familiar ones—has gained new popularity with the 2017 movie, “Coco,” which has to do with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. In parts of Mexico (and increasingly, in much of Mexico and parts of the United States) home altars are made that include photographs of loved ones who have died, some of their favorite foods or drinks, and marigold flowers, which (from Aztec times onward) have helped guide the souls of the ancestors to return.

While the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, emphases the close communion of the saints around the 2nd of November, the Christian hope in eternal life assures us that we are close to those who have died every day—not just around the Celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’.

We can look to the New Testament for some help, as we notice that 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.

One thing for sure is that 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 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 various of my ancestors were alive, they prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. I often feel the prayers of a certain former senior warden. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me.

Though they have died, 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.
That the saints surround us and help us and pray for us, gives us what we need to live into those various blessings we hear today in the words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount can sound like an impossible invitation to holiness.

But we have holy help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some might have failed miserably in those qualities Jesus talks about. But others struggled, prayed, and gradually got better. Others became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.
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.

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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