Today is the Feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate not just one Saint or another, not just Lucy or Barnabas. We celebrate ALL of them. Now, saints are sort of tricky business for Episcopalians. We’re not exactly sure what to do with Saints. We have a calendar, well, actually we have about four different calendars of saints, and our governing body, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church sort of left a mess of which one we are supposed to follow. I’m not sure which Saints we’re actually counting at the moment.
So we’re a little unsure about the saints officially, but unofficially, we Episcopalians really like saints. Most of our churches are named after them. But In my view, the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from the author Madeleine L’Engle, the writer of A Wrinkle in Time, an Episcopalian. She used to canonize her own saints.
Madeleine wrote about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She talked about the lives she looked to who helped point her to the divine. I like Madeleine’s idea, because she makes the saints seem a little more approachable. We know JS Bach was a great composer and a very human being. We know Einstein was a genius, and he could be a bit of a mess. Think about that hair.
We have a capacity as human beings, to hold up certain examples. We learn to be better human beings by emulation. We grow by following examples. We learn kindness and gentleness, patience and prayer, when we see these virtues modeled by those we admire. We learn to be generous when we see our parents or grandparents faithfully giving away their time, talent, and money. We learn prayer when our families pray together over meals or before bed. We learn strength when we walk with a friend who is facing cancer and who will still take time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.
The major Saints which we honor in the church, and the minor saints, the personal saints, the mentors and godparents, they help point us in the direction of the heavenly banquet. We measure our spiritual health by their example.
I do love that very Episcopalian hymn we sing for All Saints day: “I sing a song of the saints of God.” As an aside, I know the hymn isn’t exactly what you’d call “a fine piece of music.” Many organists I know have complained about the childish tune, and I can be a bit childish about the words. There are several alternatives. My favorite goes like this: “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was both, if you know what I mean.” But if you continue, you get to the best theology in the hymn. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
In a few moments we will stand as a congregation, and we will make promises together. We’ll repeat again our baptismal covenant, our shared rule of life. We’ll promise to continue the apostle’s teaching, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. We’ll promise to resist evil, and when we fall into sin (notice we say “when” not “if. We suspect there are no perfect people, at least not here), when we fall into sin we will repent and return to God. We’ll promise to proclaim God’s Good news in word and example. We’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. We’ll promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
We will also promise to do all in our power to support the children we will baptize, their parents, and their godparents in their life in Christ. We stand together, or we don’t stand at all. We don’t grow, we don’t live our our vows and promises alone, but only with the support of our family, our friends, our co-parents, our church. We only can live out that intention, we can only mean to be a saint too, if we support one another, if we check in on one another, if we pray for one another, if we show up with a cup of coffee and the gift of time, an extra hour to listen. We only survive this life of faith, we only survive the extreme joys and the deep depths of this life if we walk together, if we stand together.
We walk this way together, because the way if difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Gospel that Jesus brings is counter-cultural. Jesus’ teaching is challenging. The promises we make at our baptism are counter-cultural, and we need support. We need the saints, those who went before us and those who stand with us, because they point us to the way of Jesus, the way of love. We promise to live this rule, to fulfill this covenant as a way of growing into what St. Paul called “the full stature of Christ.
Let’s look together at that challenging way of Jesus. Today’s Gospel, in our Common English translation, is marked for the words “happy are you” and “How terrible for you.” Jesus holds together both the blessings and the curses.
In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. Jesus lifts his eyes to his followers and says: “Happy are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.” #blessed.
“Happy are you who are poor” Jesus says. The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Happy are you who hunger, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus challenges us to see the world from a different angle. Jesus asks us to grow. And we will need one another, we will need examples, we will need a fellowship of saints if we want to live this demanding counter-cultural way.
And then Jesus has a word about those who strike us down. The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault writes about the gift of the enemy, much like Jesus’ famous teaching to offer the other cheek, she says:
“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”
Imagine if we learned to hold together. Imagine if we learned not just from our saints, but from our adversaries. Imagine if we found a way to live with less polarization. Imagine if we saw difference as an opportunity.
This church, Holy Communion, seeks to hold together folks who the world often sets up as polar opposites: black and white, women and men, immigrants and natives, LGBTQ+ and so-called-straight, young and not so-young, so-called able-bodied and so-called disabled folks. We hold together this surprisingly diverse body, because we believe the saints of God come in all shapes, sizes, genders, identities, orientations, and abilities. We believe that to know the fullness of God, to live the fullest life in Christ, to walk the way of love, to walk the way of Jesus, we need all kinds of examples. We need mentors and friends, godparents and chosen family who do not look like us, who do not love like us, who do not move like us, who do not think like us.
Our service today seeks to hold together the opposites. This morning we give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize four young souls, and we will bless those who have come to the end of live. We call to mind those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. This morning we will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.
We sing a song of all the Saints that went before us, and the saints who stand with us today. We thank God that we don’t walk through this life alone. We don’t make promises to grow, to challenge this injustices of this world, we don’t aim to live this life of faith alone. We give thanks today for those who came before us, for those we love but see no longer. We also give thanks for the next generation of saints to come. May they be patient, and brave, and true.