There’s a word that shows up sixteen times in today’s Scriptures. The word is “will” – the future tense of the word “be.” “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Will is a word that points towards a future. Towards a fulfillment yet to be achieved. It’s affirmative, assertive: The things proclaimed ARE GOING to happen. But it also acknowledges that it hasn’t happened yet. The word – and all those sentences that hang on it – the word “will” asks us to trust. It asks us to hope. I think that hope – trusting in that future – is one of the things that defines a saint.
Somebody asked me last week, So when you say “saint,” Do you mean somebody who’s dead? It’s a great question. The New Testament uses the word “saints” the way we might use “members.” Saints, hagioi in Greek, Sanctum in Latin, means, Holy and set apart. People or things dedicated to God. The people in the church are saints, because they, we, are trying to follow Jesus together and live in God’s ways.
Over the centuries, the Church got pickier about who to call a saint. It started to keep the title of “Saint” for the very best, the purest, the holiest, the ones with remarkable, even miraculous deeds. The calendar filled up with days to honor and remember assorted Saints-with-a-capital-S, who had preached or healed or suffered or died for Jesus Christ. Finally the Church had so many Saints-with-a-capital-S that the calendar was FULL; so All Saints Day was created, as the overflow day, the day to celebrate ALL the saints who maybe didn’t have a day of their own.
And then the Church created All Souls Day, the day after All Saints Day, a day set aside to remember and honor the faithful departed, their beloved dead, who were NOT Saints-with-a-capital-S. Because people kept insisting that Aunt Mildred’s long life of kindness, commitment, and generosity was worthy of remembrance and honor too, even if she didn’t happen to get thrown to the lions.
What’s happened over the past few decades in the Episcopal Church, at least, is that we’re trying to get back to the New Testament sense of the word “saint.” We are trying to put All Saints Day and All Souls Day back together again. We still name and hold up certain saints, holy people who shined the light of Christ in their time and place by the way they lived, the things they said and did.
But as we hold up those named saints, we affirm the capacity for holiness, for extraordinary faithfulness, in the life of every Christian. They lived not only in ages past, friends – there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.
So to return to the question, When you say “saint”, do you mean somebody who’s dead? – Well, yes and no. One important part of All Saints is remembrance – calling to mind and honoring those who have gone before us to be with God, and celebrating the way their lives have touched ours. But another part of All Saints is affirming our own call to holiness – that we mean to be one too. That’s why we affirm our baptismal vows today.
So when I say Saint, I mean people both living and dead; I mean people who lived extraordinary lives and ordinary lives. But there is a common thread: being called to holiness – and responding to that call, by living a life marked by love of God and love of neighbor. By being a person of justice. Of mercy. Of peace. Of hope.
I’ve been thinking about hope, lately – in fact I preached about hope just a couple of months ago. I said, Hope is different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. I said, Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet.
Well and good. But all these “will”s in today’s lessons – these big, bold, beautiful visions – they seem always to recede into the future. How can you draw line from present reality to those holy and redemptive possibilities? The future of God’s promises often seems impossible, or at the very least, exceedingly improbable. There is good reason for discouragement. It’s easy to talk about hope. It’s harder, sometimes, to feel it. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn has said, Hope is important because if we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But what happens to hope, then, when we don’t – can’t believe that tomorrow will be better? Or that the tomorrow that will be better is a long, long way off?
Christian hope, the hope at the heart of our faith, is different from ordinary everyday hope. Christian hope insists on the long view – clings to the conviction that one day, all things WILL BE restored and redeemed. And Christian hope takes comfort and courage from that promise, even though we know full well we won’t see it in this life. Christian hope insists that there’s always something we can do, however small – even if the only difference it makes is keeping our hearts and souls pointed in the right direction. Christian hope shines on even in the face of death and loss.
I’m not claiming a firsthand understanding of the fierce tenacity of Christian hope. For all the troubles of our times, my life has been pretty good. What I know about Christian hope, I know from the witness of the saints – those I’ve met firsthand, and those I’ve read about. Saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a young priest and theologian, 27 years old, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He became one of the organizers of a movement called the Confessing Church, which insisted that the charismatic Hitler was NOT the fulfillment of God’s intentions for Germany, as many German Christians believed. He was an early and vocal critic of the Nazi movement, including the persecution of the Jews, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer’s life and writings have been an inspiration to many; I’m sure there are a few people here who know his work well – I am not among them. But I read an essay recently that contrasted how Bonhoeffer wrote about Advent – and about hope – in 1933 and 1943.
In 1933 – roughly nine months after Hitler’s election – Bonhoeffer preached an Advent sermon at a church in London, where he was serving at the time. In that sermon he evokes the image of a prison: Imagine the humiliation and punishment, the heavy forced labor, the inmates weighed down with chains and tears. He continues, “Then suddenly a message penetrates into the prison: Very soon you will all be free, your chains will be taken away, and those who have enslaved you will be bound in chains while you are redeemed!”
Bonhoeffer is still young, still free, still placing hope in human history. His language of redemption here points towards the otherworldly and the ultimate.
That prison; the imminent approach of liberation and redemption – it’s all metaphorical, or at least spiritual rather than historical. There’s nothing wrong with all that. It’s the kind of thing I would say in a sermon. But it’s also the kind of preacherly language that quickly loses its power, its credibility, in the face of real evil, real suffering.
In Advent of 1943, ten years later, Bonhoeffer was in prison. He’d been arrested in April of that year, for his involvement with the German resistance movement. Back in 1933, he probably hoped it was still possible to turn the tide of fascism and violence in Germany, his home country. Back in 1933, he could still afford the luxury of metaphor.
By 1943, he has seen so much of the worst happen, in the violence and inhumanity of World War II. So many lives lost, military and civilian. Evil is ascendant in the world. No metaphors are needed to call to mind bondage, pain, and loss. But Bonhoeffer hasn’t lost his Christian faith, his Christian hope. The focus has shifted, though. Otherworldly and ultimate hopes still matter – how could they not, when this world seems so marred and mired? But those distant, someday hopes can look thin and brittle from a prison cell. He writes about the hope of faith in a different way.
Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to a friend: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other… the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” And looking ahead to Christmas, he wrote, “From a Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of human beings – that God will approach where humans turn away – that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for her they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives her a part in the community of the saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space.”
The author of this essay, Jennifer McBride, actually read this text with women in prison. One of them looked at her and said, “He’s talking about us!”
(All of this quoted in McBride, Lived Theology, 220-21)
God’s redemptive love isn’t out there somewhere. It’s right here beside us, among us, in darkness and pain, in humiliation and the helplessness. And that’s where hope lives, for Bonhoeffer in his final years: Not in the shining transcendent tomorrow but in God’s imminence, God’s presence in the ache of today.
The saints the Church names as our models for holy living were not pie-in-the-sky Christians. They lived in the tension between the big picture – all will be well in the end; if it isn’t well, it’s not the end yet – and the real, nitty-gritty, demanding present. The hope that sustained them – sustains them; they lived not only in ages past! – that hope, that profound senseless Christian hope, hangs in the paradoxical space between transcendence, the holy gleam of the that distant City undimmed by human tears, and immanence, incarnation, God-with-us in all the struggle and hurt we bring upon ourselves and each other.
The word “will” asks us to trust. To hope. This All Saints Day, as we honor the faithful departed, that Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space, may that profound senseless unshakeable Christian hope warm our hearts and strengthen our souls, and make us ready for the work of God’s kingdom that is always before us.