Nov. 5, 2017 – All Saints’ Sunday (sermon)

Posted by on Sun, Nov 5, 2017 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

All Saints’ Sunday

November 5, 2017

The last two churches I served, as well as the one in Bellingham, where Michael and I were married, all had those grand stained-glass windows with scenes from Jesus’ life and striking images of those we call saints. They’re usually depicted with symbols of their holiness or martyrdom, they seem to glow from within, each is spotlessly attired, with faces that are solemn if they’re men, and sweetly thoughtful if women, and they are all adorned with halos. It’s common practice for priests to be asked about them, and so right away you learn about the saints depicted in your church windows. (Dorcas and Damaris were never mentioned in seminary, but I learned their story!) Coming to Saint Michael and All Angels meant learning about only one “saint”—and none of the usual ones are depicted in our windows. But in a way, many of the other lesser known ones are in here. For those of you newer to the congregation, the ‘rose window’ above us is made from small pieces of glass taken from the smaller color block windows which once darkened the room and impeded the view into the woods around us. During a brilliant remodel they were removed and a round window was soon envisioned to use pieces from each, and after cutting the glass into small strips a table and pattern under glass was set up to allow every member to symbolize their participation in the church and the project by choosing and placing a piece of glass into the new window, with each season of the church year brought to life by sun shining through the colors. They were sealed in place and the window installed, and so in a sense it’s our version of a stained-glass window of our very own saints, some of whom are still in the pews today. Honestly, I like this window better for all the people whose hearts and hands it represents, because they and others we have known personally are the “All Saints” whom we honor today. Even more so than those handful in the official church cannon of saints, whose flesh and blood lives we’ve made almost too grand to imagine sitting next to. It’s important to remember that neither those saints familiar to us nor the historic ones were perfect, and their ‘sainthood’ has less to do with what we think they did than with what God did through them.

These saying of Jesus called, ‘the beatitudes’ are about the life Jesus calls us to be part of. The beatitudes are found in the gospel of Luke where Jesus preaches them from “the plains” and as today in the gospel according to Matthew, where Jesus speaks from a mountain. Remember that the mountain is where God speaks to God’s people throughout the Hebrew Scriptures; think of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. The difference in hearing from Jesus this way is that rather than God speaking to someone else who carries the message back to the people, it is Jesus who is speaking directly to them. The power behind this image is instructive itself; he isn’t relaying a message or explaining someone else’s words, this is God’s anointed one himself speaking truth to them. His words are formed in a familiar poetic sounding pattern we’ve heard before from the Wisdom books and the psalms, and yet their meaning turns things upside down. All of these ‘blessed’ people he names are not who anyone wants to be, and yet he holds them up as an example of those who will receive God’s blessing; the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those needing justice, mercy, and those who are persecuted. Aren’t these the conditions we try to avoid? And yet they are who Jesus says will inherit the kingdom of God. This turning around of the world’s order of power and worth are a vision of the kingdom to come. This is more than a lesson in moral teaching or behavior modification, it is teaching a different perspective altogether. It is about finding strength in what appears weak, power in what looks meek, grace in suffering, and greatness born of mercy instead of short-lived grandeur.

In the reading from the Revelation to John we have this pause in the book’s action of unsealing the scroll of his divine vision. The first six seals open relentlessly revealing unsettling images, and this is an interlude of two consoling visions which assure God’s people that they are safe from the plagues and judgements. This consolation is set before the final seal is broken open, and so this is a time of mercy when the angels hold back the four winds of the earth from the destruction they wreak. (Remember this is John’s vision from a dream, and so it is all symbolic, drawing from old testament images and history as he anticipates the second coming of Christ — it is not meant to make ‘real world sense’ here!) What we have here is a consoling piece speaking of the promise of salvation and all of the joyful thanksgiving to God that goes with it. We have the strange image of those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s another reversal of what one expects with the kingdom of God, much like the beatitudes. The blood of the lamb is symbolic of Christ’s resurrection, washed clean or white as a new birth, a time beyond this world when “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them … and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

All Saints’ Day is like that interlude, a pause between all that’s around us, a time for remembering and consolation, to be reassured of the promise of eternal life, and for God to wipe away tears for us who know that hope. In a time when everything else vies for our Sunday morning attention and cell phone sounds shatter any possible quiet prayer time we might try to carve out of a weekday morning, we get to stop and remember people who have in some way embodied one or more of these ways of ‘blessedness.’ We wrote their names on the ribbons that form our altar cloth this morning, and which will, at the end of our service, come to surround us, symbolizing their presence here. We get to stop and ask, ‘what did God give me in that person?’ Those generations of people who have died are not lost to us; we grieve their loss and we also honor the certainty of their presence in the world to come. They broke bread together before we came, and there will be children among us doing it long after we are gone. “Saints” who went before us sang and praised God, were baptized and married and sought to follow Jesus the Christ, just as those infants and toddlers among us will teach their children these things, when one day our names are remembered by someone on All Saints’ Day. This day gives us a vision of the world to come, gives us hope in Christ’s resurrection and the communion of saints, instead of a fear of failure to achieve empty goals or notoriety. It reminds us that the fabric of our lives is woven with Christ before we were born and after we are born into that next life, and in the meantime, we are the living presence of Christ in the world, because that’s what a saint is.

The saints depicted in statues and windows were real people with flaws and failings before they were the saints of miracles and halos. They lived in the real world and faced challenges just as we do, and yet still, God chose them—and I think they also chose God. No matter how unlikely or unfit we might think someone is, those saints show us time and time again that there’s no one God can’t use as a means of grace, ourselves included. In this past year we’ve buried some of our own members from this sacred space, starting with the Rev. Canon John Schaeffer. I’ll bet he thought of himself as an ordinary person, one who tried to be a good priest—I know he was also a saint who performed more than 800 baptisms and served the church tirelessly and loved his own endlessly. We buried Colonel Bruce Meyers, whose pioneering work in the military is still relied upon and talked about these decades afterwards—often by reassuring those jumping out of moving jets! Yet I’ll remember his loving faithfulness to this congregation, to his dog Amy, and the stories he shared. We buried Don Wilbert, a psychiatrist, husband, father, friend and grandfather, and when his name was written today I know the younger ones here remember him most of all as their Sunday School teacher and Godly Play leader who truly listened to them. Jack Boyd was our most recent funeral. Baptized only a few days before he died, Jack was never a church goer, but he was here faithfully every week quietly retrieving the soiled altar linens to take home for Sharon to wash and iron, so she could continue to serve God as an active member of Saint Michael’s Altar Guild. These are the saints depicted in this window, even if they never put a piece of glass in it—you are there too, and so are those yet to come. So perhaps we need to create our own canon of saints, made up of those people who have made Christ known to us somehow, who have shown the love of God to be real, and who call “blessed” because we have seen the beauty of resurrection hope reflected in their faith. Who would be in your canon of saints? What are the signs of holiness and grace that you have been blessed by one of them? They are right there among all of the crabby and complaining ones, the quiet and the shy ones, those geographically distant and yet never far from our hearts, they are unfettered creatives and long harnessed plodders—and they might even appear some days in your mirror. Amen.

© 2017 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

View lectionary readings:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12