“…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…”
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. It was actually on Friday, the 1st of November, but the church makes allowances for it to be transferred to the nearest Sunday. It is a Solemnity, the highest order of Feast in our calendar, right there with Christmas and Easter and Epiphany. Its roots are in the 4th century, and it where it began as a common commemoration of martyrs. (The martyrs were piling up, so they consolidated the memorials).
Anyone have favorite saint? What’s their story? ____
I always favored St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church. Wikipedia (and I guess also the Oxford Bible) places his martyrdom at 36 CE. Being full of grace and power, he was appointed with six companions by the apostles to distribute alms. The great wonders and signs he did attracted the attention and ire of the authorities, who infiltrated their meetings are reported the blasphemy he uttered. He appeared before the council and preached a long and eloquent sermon about the history of Israel and how time and again the will of God was disregarded. “You stiff necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” That didn’t go over so well. They dragged him out of the city and pummeled him with stones. With his last breath he prayed, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Saul (not yet Paul) was there, and according to St. Luke, “Saul approved of their killing him.”
Another favorite of mine is St. Perpetua and her companions. She was a young widow of Carthage in the 3rd century. The Emperor Septimus Severus ordered everyone to make sacrifices to his divine nature. (This must be where Rowling got Snape’s first name). A Christian could not make such sacrifices (that was the point of the decree), and all who refused were arrested. Perpetua, with her two slaves and two others young Carthaginians, were catechumens, meaning they were preparing for Baptim were among the persecuted.
Held in horrid conditions, Perpetua had a visions that were recorded in a prison diary, and give some of the earliest accounts of women in the church. She wrote, “And I awoke, understanding that I should fight, not with beasts, but with the Devil…So much about me up to the day before the games; let him who will write of what happened then.” Encouraging each other, they were thrown into the arena and were set upon by a leopard, a boar, a bear and a savage cow. She cried “Stand fast in your faith and love one another. And do not let what we suffer be a stumbling block to you.” I’ll skip the final gory details, which are terrible, but her hagiography ends, “Perhaps so great a woman, feared by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she so willed it.”
Then we can jump ahead 1300 years to Fugglestone, England, and the Rectory of George Herbert. He isn’t a canonized saint as Anglicans don’t have a canonization process, but he and many others are recognized in our calendar by decree of the Church and their feasts are observed identically to the saints we share with our Roman brothers and sisters. The Church commemorates George Herbert, priest and poet, author of The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, and his exposition of the life of the parish priest, The Country Parson, His Character and Rule of Holy Life, which still holds vocational water for clergy. His dedication to The Temple reads,
“Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;
Yet not mine, neither: for from thee they came,
And must return. Accept of them and me,
And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.
Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:
Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.”
There is The Reverend Absalom Jones, born a slave in 1746 Delaware. He eventually worked to buy first his wife’s, then his own freedom. Educated in a Quaker run school in Philadelphia, in 1787 he helped to organize the Free African Society, the first organized African-American organization in the nation. It eventually built a church which was accepted into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. One year later, Absalom Jones was ordained deacon, and a few years later, priest, the first African American priest. Under his leadership St. Thomas grew to over 500 members in its first year.
The Reverend Mr. Jones was an earnest preacher, with a fervent abolitionist message about a God who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.”
Our calendar also commemorates John Muir, John Calvin, the poet James Weldon Johnson, theologian Evelyn Underhill, J.S. Bach, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury and father of the modern eco-theology movement (whose feast on Wednesday). Even C.S. Lewis has been given November 22nd as his day in the holy light of Christ and Christ’s Church.
Our book of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men, accepted by the church in 2009, has the following frontspiece, an excerpt from a 12th century Latin hymn that in this translation is Hymn 238 in our hymnal:
Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs,
Holy women, holy men,
With affection’s recollections
Greet we your return again.
Worthy deeds they wrought, and wonders,
Worthy of the Name they bore;
We, with meetest praise and sweetest,
Honor them forever more.
So what’s the point of all of this, of All Saints, of all the saints? Well, there is no easy way to put it…
“Blessed are you who are poor,
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 it goes on:
“But 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.”
But wait, there is more:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” And it ends with Jesus’ spiritual coup de gras, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
To be made a saint, to be a saint, means to be an exemplar of Jesus Christ, of His Word and work in the world. We commemorate them, as our book of saints puts it, to “…give increased expression to the many and diverse ways in which Christ, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, has been present in the lives and men and women across the ages, just as Christ continues to be present in our own day… these courageous souls bore witness to Christ’s death-defying love, in service, in holiness of life and in challenge to existing practices and perspectives within both the church and society.”
Another way to put it is that the saints are those we recognize as having fulfilled their Christ-potential. They had the Sermon on the Plain, the Lukan version of St. Matthew’s longer and more familiar Sermon on the Mount, was written on the fleshy tablets of their hearts, and it found expression in myriad ways. The loyalty of Stephen. The courage of Perpetua and her companions. The holy observation and careful poetics of Herbert. The wonder of Muir, the radicalism of Calvin, the grace of Johnson, honest spirit of Underhill and on and on.
Jesus Christ calls us to be our best, to fulfill our Christ-potential. And each of our bests is specific, as specific as the bests of the saints recognized across the millenia. What the common of saints holds in common is that each and every one of them, the commemorated and the countless anonymous saints cross the ages, has at their core the desire, the willingness to sacrifice, to lean in to the Christian perfection that is enshrined in the blessings and woes and the call to love our enemies of Jesus’ greatest sermon.
So am I saying that we are really expected to believe that the poor will be blessed and woes will descend on the rich? That we are to actually do this stuff, to actually love our enemies? To give to everyone who begs from you? That we are supposed to be, I don’t know, like Jesus was? No. I am not saying that. Jesus is. Because that, the Sermon on the Plain, that is humanity at our very best.
We, you, all of us are called to Sainthood. Like George Herbert prayed, “And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.” We are all called to strive, to live fully into what we know to be right. And in this world, as these stories across the ages teach us, living fully into what we know to be right calls forth martyrs; calls forth courageous thinkers and writers; calls forth selfless servants, generous patrons, maybe even an occasional brave leader of the body politic (well, we can hope).
I’m not there; not most of the time. I’ve got my moments, as you surely do, moments when the very best shines through. But like probably most of you, I kind of bee-bop through life most of the time, keeping my head above the choppy waters of life, distracted by the chances and changes we face each with each breath we take, constantly forgetting God’s eternal changelessness.
Now there is no easy path. No simple formula or recipe at allsaints.com to set us on a God-ward course; cheap grace won’t get us there, there is always a cost to true discipleship. And we have the power to pay the cost, we do. You do. As Paul put it to his friends in Ephesus, we have “also obtained an inheritance…so that we…might live for the praise of his glory.” We have it, in our hearts and minds and bodies and spirits the ability to create what is helpful and beautiful, to bear suffering on behalf of others, we have the ability, by the grace of God, to love. We can, you can love as wildly as Francis, as deeply as Aquinas, as courageously as Romero, as generously as Day. We have the means to be the people God made us to be, people capable of fulfilling the potential of Jesus Christ.How? Ain’t that the question. I don’t have the answer, but it is there: in our Holy Scripture. It is right here: at this table we are about to gather around, in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood attended to by us, this great cloud of witnesses. It is in the check you write that keeps the power on so that our residents can be warm, Egan can be open, our children formed, relationships tended, God worshiped. It is in the person sitting next to you, it is in the space between you and them. Your potential is so much more than you can know. It is right there inside of you,“…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” AMEN