Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Nov. 6, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Nov 6, 2022 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

All Saints’ Sunday

Nov. 6, 2022

Whose name did you write on these ribbons? Whose name is foremost in your mind on this day of All Saints? If you are like me there may be quite a few; People we love and miss, those we grieve even as we give thanks for their presence in our life and impact on our world. Their names are woven to form our altar cloth, as they are woven through our lives. Of those names, were any of them perfect? Any without sin? They were like us, and like that crowd assembled in today’s gospel; all sorts of people and conditions, from different places and classes; imperfect souls gathered on the plain and looking for Jesus.

Matthew tells of a similar teaching delivered from a mountain. In Luke it is the ‘Sermon on the Plain.’ Jesus does indeed go up a mountain in Luke’s account, he goes there to pray first, and after a night of it Jesus appoints the apostles from among his disciples. Then “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” This is the scene for the reading we just heard. He comes to a level place, where no matter who or how lowly or well off, they are all on one plain by their in-common seeking, by their needs and distress. They come, because however small or unlikely, within such need hope is possible.

To some, acknowledging need shows weakness, failure, lack of achievement. To be called ‘needy’ is considered an insult, right? Yet nowhere does Jesus tell us not to need each other or not to help each other. He never condemns need, but he calls out those who willfully deny or ignore it. Would have gone to hear him and ask for healing? Publicly revealing our needs and our hopes? It is what we do here, and it is what we have in common with those saints whose lives we honor today. A saint isn’t perfect or sinless, a saint is someone who recognizes vulnerability, their own and others, and in knowing that need turns to God and answers right where they are.

Encountering Christ, healer, redeemer, savior, is where we find the grace to be as God calls us to be. Our gathering (online and in person) is to pray, to glorify, to hear God’s Word, to let our hearts be healed and to find our strength in him.

For me, this helps explain Jesus’ pronouncement of both blessings and woes. Having just healed and cast out spirits from those who came, he follows four blessings with ‘words of woe’ to those who consider themselves invulnerable, somehow above such need; those he describes as now rich, full, admired, living like the world is their own party. Those things were their own reward, even if spiritually unfulfilling. This isn’t about what we have, and it’s not that money or abundance is wrong, the problem is letting that define or control us, thinking it’s all our doing, earning, getting, and thereby denying our dependence on God. If our means insulate us from people in trouble or need, falsely buffering ourselves against vulnerability, we can pretend we have no responsibility to the poor and needful all around us. So Luke places us all in that crowd on the level plain before Jesus, where he shows us the way.

Richard Rohr writes about ‘moral conversion’ and it sounds much like living into our awareness of these beatitudes and woes. It is subtle — not grand — “a purification of your real motives for doing things (even good things) from the usual desires for personal satisfaction, a need for control personally or socially, or any craving to build up the ego… Instead, you shift to the honest perception of value outside of yourself… [such that] people can seek the true good and the common good, even when it is of no ego advantage to them”, and this Rohr calls a “morally converted person.” (The Naked Now, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014, Kindle Edition.) 

Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain reframed the reality of people’s lives that day and transforms it for us even now. Those who heard him were forerunners to the ones “who were the first to set their hope in Christ” as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians phrased it. That crowd of listeners included some who may have never considered others as worthy or as equally beloved children of God. Lives were changed by Jesus’ healing and “the power going out of him” as it says, by minds opened and lives unburdened. Jesus is not speaking of theoretical blessings and woes, he’s giving voice to the experience of their lives, and heralding hope. Paul says we discover through believing in him that we are “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”

Which brings us back to this feast of All Saints. It is the ultimate reminder of how we are all beloved children of God on that plain together. We are who Jesus speaks to saying “Blessed are you who…”, we are those of whom he says “Woe to you who…” And this is true for every name on this altar and in our hearts today. Now we “that listen” are all given the same instructions; Love, do good, bless, pray, offer, give, and “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

You are not people afraid of such work, we need not fear our vulnerability or needs, though we can be reticent to name the deepest ones, to tell those who love us, and ask for help. I get it, and I do it too. I said earlier that within such need as Jesus healed that day was hope. When things are very bleak you only go out to see Jesus if you think he might somehow be able to help, if you have hope that this is possible. Hope doesn’t mean we won’t die, nor can we say exactly what is on the other side of earthly death. We do have the resurrection promise of it being life in Christ. The names on these ribbons bear witness to that hope. In them, in Christ, that hope is writ large and fulfilled. 

For me writing the names of those who have died during these past two and a half years is healing, particularly those whose funerals had to be postponed, or limited to small family gatherings, and some not held at all because of travel restrictions and covid concerns. It leaves a hole in our community when we cannot both grieve their loss and celebrate their new and eternal life together. Shared lament is powerful, consoling, and guides us to new hope and faithfulness. Today we honor fulfillment of Christ’s promise, for them all. Today is a good day for tears of lament and love, knowing the Spirit moves through those tears and through the waters of Baptism which vows we soon renew. The Paschal mystery is alive and present; “we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.” 

Here’s how Anglican priest and poet John Donne put it. In 1623 he contracted spotted fever (typhus it came to be called), and fully expected he was dying, as so many already had. Hearing a funeral bell ringing —yet again— from the church nearby he wrote, “The Church is…universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.…All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one…dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language…God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.” Finally Donne prays for the one being buried, that if God must “with thy left hand lay his body in the grave” then “with thy right hand receive his soul into thy kingdom, and unite him and us in one communion of saints.” (Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, London, 1624.)

Christ has promised meet us at our places of deepest need and brokenness, — in all our saintly vulnerability. The hope stirred by courageously facing those needs (our own and those all around us) is fulfilled by our Lord, oftentimes through each other as moved to holy compassion.  Jesus, in his characteristically upended perspective, shows us our strength by charging us with that care for our sisters and brothers; and what is more powerful than than living his call to love, bless and pray for them? Even ones who wrong you, who fail us, who appear to have no needs? This is the path of those once very human saints who now surround us and whom we gloriously celebrate; with us, here, now, in the eternal life we share through the crucified and risen Christ. Amen.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.