We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

A sermon for All Saints’ Day, November 5, 2017 on Matthew 5:1-12

 

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

I have a drawing on my wall at home, done by my artist friend, the late Gerald Folkerts. It is a pencil drawing of two identical faces, side by side. They are male faces, half in the shadows, with set jaws and stern eyes. The pencil work is dark, the lines anything but subtle. It is hard to know if the faces are meant to be threatening or tough or just plain hard. There is just one difference between the two faces; the one on the right has a gleaming yellow/gold halo around his head. The title of the piece is “Portrait of a Saint”, and it hung in Gerald’s studio in his home. When he died his wife gave it to me, saying, “You knew what a complicated saint Gerald was.”  And he was. And we all are, each in our own way.

 

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Because it hangs right at my entryway, I look at that drawing every day. More than that, I notice it every day—I take note of the statement Gerald was making, primarily to himself. Of our own volition, we can’t become saints, and all of God’s “holy ones” still walk with wounds and bear scar tissue. “Holy one”; in Greek hagios—that’s the New Testament word that is translated as “saint”. Paul addresses his letters to the “saints”—the hagios—in places like Corinth, Philippi, and Rome, knowing fully that they aren’t saintly in a sense of having achieved some state of purity, righteousness, and goodness. Quite the contrary, in fact, as Paul is quite aware of how complicated and contentious some of those church communities had become, and sometimes his letters are sent to try to tune them up and set them back on track. Yet he still calls them saints—metaphorically he places a yellow/gold halo around their dark shadowy heads; or better, he tells them that God through Christ has done that. They are declared justified in spite of the unjustifiable character of their lives, and beloved in spite of their sometimes unlovely ways. They are addressed as “holy ones”, not because they’ve done so well but as sheer, raw gift. That’s what Paul’s talk of being “justified by grace through faith” is all about; gift.

 

There remains the question of what you do with the gift, of course, and were you to ask Paul about this I’m sure he’d say something like “maybe try living with a bit of gratitude for the gift.” Or as John writes in tonight’s epistle reading, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Maybe try extending that same love, one to another, in humility and servanthood.

 

For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

Tonight as we mark the feast of All Saints’ the lectionary has us reading the Beatitudes from the Gospel according to Matthew, which I think is a really interesting and good choice. These words of blessing on the mourners and merciful and peacemakers and so on come at the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which runs for three full chapters on this Gospel. It is a challenging sermon that, among other things, calls for a profound honesty about the state of one’s own heart, and for love of enemies, reconciliation in fractured relationships, and the famous “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Stanley Hauerwas suggests that ultimately the Sermon on the Mount, “requires learning to trust in others to help me so to live.”

 

Of the Beatitudes, Hauerwas suggests that, “The temptation is to read the them as a list of virtues that good people ought to have or as deeds they ought to do,” which is actually to misconstrue them. No, he continues,

 

the Beatitudes assume that there are already people in the community who find themselves in these postures. To be blessed does not mean ‘if you are this way you will be rewarded,’ but that ‘happy are they who find they are so constituted within the community.’ Moreover, the Beatitudes assume that we are part of a community with a diversity of gifts—a diversity that creates not envy but cooperation and love.

 

They are, in short, a powerful introduction to the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, the object of which—to cite Hauerwas one final time—“is to create dependence: it is to force us to need one another.”

 

For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

Or maybe it is better to say that those words of blessing with which the Sermon on the Mount opens are meant to remind us that we can’t do it alone, nor were we ever intended to do so. We are, as human creatures, contingent beings. That’s so obvious at the beginning of a life, as babies are so fragile, so completely dependent; as any new parent will tell you, sometimes agonizingly and exhaustingly dependent! It is also very obvious late in our lives, whether we face an illness or the simple fact of aging; we do need others to be with us as face our decline and our death. In the in-between we can sometimes imagine that we are self-determining, self-sufficient individuals, but that’s actually an impossibility. We do need one another, both in life generally and in the life of faith specifically, which is part of what Gerald Folkerts was saying with his “Portrait of a Saint”. He needed people to hold him accountable, grow him up, challenge his assumptions, and keep company with him in ways that would break the hardness of the eyes and the set jaw of his drawing.

 

But even more than that, we are contingent on those who have gone before us, which is a big part of what this feast day is meant to remind us of. Not a one of us is born as a blank slate, because from the beginning we inherit not only the genetics of our parents but the circumstances of the world—family, location, culture—into which we are born. “The past is what we are made of,” as Terry Eagleton once put it, and surely that is true.

 

For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

Sit for just a moment, and ask yourself the question, “Who shaped me?” Very particularly, who shaped me in my faith and spiritual life? And who of those have now died?  I think first of my father, and then of the priest who mentored me through my movement into the Anglican tradition. I think of a professor from the University of Winnipeg, and two from my theological studies at Trinity College. I think of a Sunday School teacher who died just this past year, having lived well into her 90s. These are numbered among the saints who we celebrate this night.

 

But then I think of my great-grandfather, who died 14 years before I was even born. He was among other things, a preacher and the co-founder of Elim Chapel, and several years ago I wrote a little book about his life and work. I read through a shoebox full of his sermons, dug through all sorts of archival material, listened to stories my mum and others had to tell, and in the end I had a pretty solid picture of him. I liked him, a lot. We would differed on quite a number of counts, but I think the common ground would have more than compensated for that. And there these strands in common around being at the ground floor of starting a new church congregation, and the vision that had informed that. It was actually a little startling.

 

The past is what we are made of, and my great-grandfather had been part of shaping my grandfather and my mother, who in turn were an enormous part of shaping me. And who knows all the people—the saints, complicated as they may have been—who helped to shape my great-grandfather’s life, faith, and imagination?

 

For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

So tonight is a night of grateful acknowledgement of our forebears in God, and it is also a night when a little humility isn’t a bad thing. To know that each of us has been named already as part of God’s holy people as I say every Sunday in the Eucharistic prayer—not because we’ve been so good at being holy, but rather as sheer gift—and to know that we are, all of us, contingent? Not self-made, self-determining, independent individuals boot-strapping our way through life, but part of a vast interconnected web with those who have gone before us. Well, that is a bit humbling, isn’t it? Humbling and awe-inspiring, both.

 

For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

 

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