The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost - All Saints Sunday
They were all gathered in the parish hall on Halloween night—what the church traditionally refers to as “All Hallows’ Eve”—in all, about fifty children dressed as their favorite saints. There was St. Francis and St. Cecilia, St. Nicholas and St. Anne, St. Joseph and St. Lucy. One was dressed as Mother Teresa and another as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There were games and candy, and a contest with prizes for the best and most creative costumes. Then each one of them was given a glittery gold halo to wear to the church where the evening would conclude with the Holy Eucharist.
They marched into the dimly lit chancel, their halos swaying and sparking in the flames of the candles. They were a cluster of characters from out of the past who now had come to life through these saintly costumes. They were each of them different, not only in their outfits but in the stories their lives told, yet they had one thing in common: those sparkling, bobbing gold halos, linking them with each other and with saints of all the ages.
According to Roman Catholic teaching, to be proclaimed a saint one had to have lived a good and pious life and after one’s death, undisputed evidence of at least three miracles attributed to the person’s intercession, would be documented. But our perspective about this feast we observe today is rather different. Episcopalians use the word saint in a biblical way.
When we talk about the saints we are not just talking about the famous and not-so-famous departed persons that have earned a special day on the church calendar nor are we only talking about our beloved deceased friends and family who have gone to their reward. Scripture uses the word saint to refer to all the faithful, all of us here today.
The first reading this morning from Revelation, is that strange book so often misunderstood by Christians, many who use it as a doomsday litmus test to determine how near we are to the end of the world. The visions of its author were originally meant to provide hope to the persecuted church that lived near the end of the first century. It depicts a scene in heaven as people from every nation, tribe, and language gather before God. They carry palm branches and are robed in white—symbolic of the victory in Jesus of life over death and the forgiveness from sin that he won for all of us.
The vision of John is one in which “a new heaven and a new earth” become visible. It tells us that salvation is not simply about the afterlife or the end of time as we know it, but rather that heaven begins here, now, whenever we get caught up in life as God intended it to be lived.
And the Gospel today preaches those kingdom values that are at the core of the life God wants for us. They are called the Beatitudes—blessed attitudes toward living. They confront us with another vision—the ideal vision God has for us and who we can be. They tell us: “You are loved; live like it. You are redeemed; live like it. You are a saint; live like it. Become what you already are.”
The word “Blessed” in Greek is “Makarios” and in Hebrew, “ashre.” In its original usage, it meant “you’re on the right road when…” It’s a journey text. We saints are on the right road when we are poor in spirit, mourn, meek, are thirsty for God, merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers.
The heaven we know here on earth is one filled with those people who have allowed God into their space and have opened their minds and hearts to seek the kind of life that God really wants for them. That makes for a marvelous and diverse lot—frail, broken, fumbling, fervent, confident and persnickety —who share one common denominator: their love for one another and for all God’s people.
We are who we are because of this communion of saints, ordinary folks through whom you and I experienced God’s love and care, and through whom we are able to garner even the smallest vision of heaven on earth.
I think this story might support Jesus’ criteria for sainthood. In 1953, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache arrived at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. One member of the reception committee told a reporter, "That's the first time I ever saw a sermon walking."
Preaching on All Saints Day some years back, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor ended her sermon in this way: “What we are up to today is recognizing our sainthood, remembering the saints who have gone before us. On this day especially we are all gathered together in one place, the old saints with their sickles and the baby saints in their diapers, passing one another on the way in and out of this world.
All sainted by God through the waters of baptism, all related by the blood of Christ, all of us with halos, whether we can see them or not, whether we are living up to them or not, bobbing and swaying and sparkling above our heads.”
Living and loving as a sermon walking.