Sermon for All Saints Day
Tonight we’re marking the Feast of All Saints, which in the liturgical calendar ranks as one of our seven principal feast days of the church year. Now clearly it doesn’t have quite the cultural profile of Christmas or Easter, and it doesn’t fit into the biblical narrative in the way that Ascension Day or Pentecost do, so it might not strike you as being all that significant a day. While we did have one of our Living Room Liturgy house communion gatherings this past Thursday, November 1—which is the real date for All Saints—we’ve transferred our main observance to today. You would never transfer a Christmas Eve service to the closest Sunday; who would come to that? But we can do that with All Saints Day, because I suspect that on November 1 only a very, very few of us noticed the significance of the date.
To listen to the audio press play:
In spite of its insignificance in our culture—the eve of All Saints or “All Hallow’s Eve” is what our world really notices—it is a day that invites us to do something which is significant, namely to remember before God those who have walked this faith before us, and to acknowledge both our indebtedness to them and our unity with them. And as I’ve often said in my sermons for this day, I’m not speaking narrowly about the upper case “S” big league stained glass saints.
My biblical concordance gives sixty-six references to the word “saint,” with all but one coming from the New Testament. It is in the letters of Paul that the word most often appears, but there are also fifteen references in the book of Revelation. The word translated as “saint” is hagios, or quite literally “holy one.” And when Paul or any of the others use the term they’re not writing about extraordinary Christians who have lived particularly holy and exemplary lives; they’re writing about pretty average folks. Paul, for instance, addresses his letter to the Romans by writing, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints (1:7),” later challenging his readers to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers (12.13), and telling them that, “At present I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints.” (15.25) All through his letters, Paul conveys greetings back and forth between the saints in this place and the saints in that. You begin to realize he uses the term “saints” or “holy ones” in much the same way we might use the word “Christians” or even “church members.” So obviously they must have been much holier than us, right? Actually, no.
In Paul’s sense, we are the saints. To stretch the point a bit, sitting to my right is St. Larry Campbell… to which I’m sure his wife would want to respond “a saint… have you ever tried living with him?” But that, too, is part of Paul’s point; and I’m thinking Paul himself wouldn’t have been all that easy a guy to live with either. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” he writes in his letter to the Ephesians. “[A]nd this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Did you catch that? “Not your own doing; it is a gift of God.” Like the communities to which Paul wrote his epistles, we have been declared as justified before God, in spite of the unjustifiable shape of our lives, and named as God’s saints in spite of the sin and failings and messes we all make. Jesus of Nazareth aside, find me a biblical character in either the Old or New Testament who didn’t fail, who wasn’t a bit messy, and who wouldn’t have been a bit hard to live with. There isn’t one.
It is those sometimes messy, sometimes hard-to-live-with people who have gone before us—biblical characters certainly, but also all of the countless Christians, known and unknown, who have walked on this way—who are celebrated this night. Well known writers or artists whose insight and spiritual vision has shaped us, but also parents, grandparents, teachers, and mentors whose greatest contribution may have been that they loved us and passed on to us the faith in which they tried to walk. While the people who have left a mark on us were surely sometimes saintly, holy, godly, even heroic, like any of us they would also have experienced moments of deep doubt, misplaced dreams, and failed hopes. Yet by sheer grace they remain counted among the holy ones, and we are their heirs.
More than anything, the Feast of All Saints is a day to dismiss the illusion that says we are self-made, freestanding individuals. It is a day to acknowledge just how contingent our lives are: on those who have gone before us; on those who are around us; ultimately on the grace of God.
We are about to celebrate a baptism, and in doing that we are effectively numbering Thea among the saints. Now I know that many people here come from church contexts in which babies aren’t baptized, but rather “dedicated,” and that for some people baptizing an infant is a bit of a stretch. In our context here at saint benedict’s table, we’ve actually celebrated as many adult baptisms as we have infant baptisms, and I see that as being a really remarkable and wonderful thing. The baptismal liturgy we use actually sets adult baptism as the norm, and it is against that norm that infant baptism must be understood. These are very powerful words that we are about to say; words that will locate Thea in a context of faith that she cannot even begin to understand. What will be said on her behalf will only make sense if those who stand with her—her mom Lola, her godparents Barbara and Kerry, her grandparents and extended family, and the people from this church community who are connected to Lola—are prepared to be active in shaping her life and faith. There will come a day when Thea will have to make her own decisions about how she is going to lay hold of these words, but in the meantime her life and faith are contingent on those love her.
Of course it is always true that a child’s life and faith are dependent on those around him or her, regardless of whether that is marked through infant baptism or a baby dedication. Babies are so incredibly dependent, unable to meet even the most basic of their own needs. And in their openness and trust, children are so incredibly vulnerable. What we offer to our children in terms of the stories we tell them, the prayers we share with them, the life lessons we seek to teach to them, and the love we show to them, will shape and form them and become part of who they are.
That is always the case, but I think it is doubly significant for Thea, and for her brother Oren. Many of you will be aware of at least part of Lola’s story, and of her years spent living and working in Uganda. Many will also know that she is permanently back now, living with her two children in Rosenort, where she is close to family and to some remarkably important friends. What you may not know is that back in 2003 at the very first gathering of what was to become saint benedict’s table, Lola was with us. One of just nine of us, in fact. She is also the artist who created the majority of those seasonal liturgy cards for the menus we use most Sundays. In a real sense, what we have become as a church has been contingent on having Lola with us, offering her creativity, asking her questions, pressing us forward. So it really is significant that along with Thea’s family and the godparents, our community will be asked to come alongside of Lola as she raises Thea; that we will be asked if we, “who witness these vows will do all in our power to support this child in her life in Christ.” That’s a long haul kind of promise, and one that I hope we’ll be able to make with integrity, and maintain in relationship with you, Lola.
In the meantime, we will boldly mark Thea as Christ’s own forever, and number her among the saints.