Homily for the Feast of All Saints
November 1, 2006
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Revelation 7:2-4,9-14; Psalm 24; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12)
I’m sure I must have said it here before, but I’ll say it again. All Saints is one of my favorite feasts in the whole liturgical year. Why? Because it’s focused entirely on praise, on celebration and joy. We’re here tonight to praise the incredible creativity of our God . There are simply no limits to the imagination of the Lord in designing different models of holiness.
Just think. Among the saints there are liars and cheats. Royalty and slaves. Prostitutes and cutthroats. Rich people and poor people. Husbands and wives. Scholars and illiterates. Adulterers and thieves. As John describes it in the Book of Revelation, they are from “every nation and race and people and tongue.” There are saints from every corner of our earth, from every country. There are native saints from countries where the Gospel began to be preached less than a century ago – and among them the men and women who left the security of their own homelands to bring that saving word to them.
And that’s just counting the canonized!
I’m sure you know that they are not the only ones we’re celebrating when we rejoice with all the saints.
We need to remind ourselves that having an official, institutionalized process for determining someone’s suitability for canonization – all the witnesses, the documented testimony, a reliably attested miracle for beatification, then two for canonization, and a devil’s advocate challenging it at every stage along the way – all that superstructure is a Johnny-come-lately in our church’s story.
For centuries prior to all that bureaucracy people in towns and villages simply acclaimed their local saints. Because they knew them personally and had experienced the effect of their holy lives. There was no waiting for Rome’s approval, they knew the Spirit of the Lord had been at work in their midst. (After the official, legal process was established, it seems that those earlier saints were sort of grandfathered or grandmothered in. Rome and those Italian popes were wise enough to know that it isn’t very smart to try telling the citizens of some small village that their guy or gal didn’t really ‘count.’ Do that and things can get very nasty....)
But even extending our sense of the saints to embrace those who were declared so by the will of the people doesn’t go far enough.
We need to go back to re-capture the mind of the early church, to the time of the New Testament itself.
Listen to Paul as he ends his epistle to the Romans. It was his custom in several of his letters to greet particular individuals he had known earlier, people whose names we rarely hear because those sections of his letters don’t make it into the Sunday lectionary. In Romans he sends greetings to Rufus and his mother, to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister Olympas – and then “all the saints who are with them.”
The “saints” were all the community of the baptized! These were the holy ones of God, men and women called by the Father, baptized into Jesus the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be his continuing presence and revelation to the world.
And that brings the matter to us, to you and me, today’s holy ones, today’s saints. The body of the Lord in today’s world.
You know, holiness is not to be confused with sinlessness. If it were a matter of being without sin, only Jesus and Mary would qualify. No, our creative God can transform our sinful selves and use these broken, cracked vessels to perform wondrous deeds of holiness in our world.
And we know well the signs, the criteria. The Gospel of the Beatitudes gives us some clues. People who console others, who are peace-makers and reconcilers, people who are single-minded and show mercy. The scene in Matthew 25 expands the list: people who do things like clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, people who comfort prisoners and outcasts.
We have people in our midst who are selfless in welcoming the stranger, who look after the widow or the homebound. We celebrate what the Lord did in inspiring this whole community to reach out in so many ways to care for Excell Walker and his children after the tragedies they experienced.
You know, for centuries the church has had us celebrate All Saints Day and then on the next day to celebrate All Souls Day. The intention may have been good, but I’d suggest that the theology behind it was a little questionable. In the popular consciousness of the faithful I think the message they took away was that the ‘Saints’ were the really holy ones – the official, canonized ones; saints in lights – while the ‘holy souls’ were people like Uncle Willie and Aunt Bessie. They were the ones we hoped made it through, the ‘poor souls.’
No, the fact that someone happens to be canonized by the church is quite secondary and almost accidental. The Lord works through the unnamed just as well. (Perhaps even better, since most of them did what he taught us to do: they did the deeds of holiness in secret where only the Father sees them.)
I invite you to enter into one final exercise of Christian imagination tinight. You know, the walls of our church are lined with stained glass pictures of some great saints. We pass by them every week, perhaps without ever thinking of them. It’s as if they were frozen in those windows forever. I’d like you to imagine that Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas worked on our windows and brought them back to life. In a sort of “Matrix” transformation they suddenly became three-dimensional. They descended into our community. And then as they left their window, some other saint moved into the same space and was transformed in the same way. Followed by thousands and thousands of others, filling our whole worship space – the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ pictured in the Letter to the Hebrews. And all these holy ones have their hands extended out over us in blessing. Just the way we extend our hands over our children each Sunday as we send them off to hear the word of the Lord. We are the children of all those holy ones, enjoying their protection. And among that vast throng you can see some members of your family or a friend or someone from your place of work. Men and women who ‘taught’ you or me what the Gospel was really all about, not by preaching but by simply living Matthew 25 out of love for a sister or brother.
And then out from that vast throng someone steps forth. Someone very ordinary, one we might easily miss. Someone from a little village called Nazareth. Jesus says, “I have prepared a feast for all of you, my friends. Come to the table! We’re going to have a banquet. And come singing:
This is the day that the Lord has made; be glad about it everybody,
This is the day that he made. Be glad!”