The Feast of All Saints is one of my favorite feasts of the church’s year. But it also challenges me, every year, to know how to honor and preach the day. Because there’s just a lot going on. In the idiom of writing assignments, a Sunday morning is basically a three-page double-spaced reflection paper, and all the themes and meanings that are packed into this feast day seem like they demand at least an 80-page master’s thesis!… But I promise this will be fewer than 80 pages.
What does this feast ask of us? Well: It asks us to remember. To call to mind, and name together, those holy ones who have gone before us into God’s presence. People who shined the light of God in their time and place; who did justice, and loved mercy, and walked humbly with God; who followed the right, for Jesus’ sake, the whole of their good lives long. As our Old Testament reading, from Ecclesiasticus, points out, some of those are people whose names are known to the church, to the world – people whose witness and impact were such that they’re honored with feasts and icons and shrines. People like our patron saint Dunstan, who’s a pretty obscure saint, yet here we are, still bearing his name and telling his story, ten centuries after his death.
But then, Ecclesiasticus goes on to say, there are those too who are forgotten, or all but forgotten. They may have lived humble lives, but they lived them well. They may have touched few lives, but they touched them for good. We all have some of those names that we hold in our hearts. And a lot of our practices around this feast invite us to honor those people. We light candles for them, and speak their names with love. We bring in photos and mementos for our Remembrance Table – where you can see some of the saints we’ve commended to God from this household of faith in the past year or so: Sybil, Frances, Jerry, Bill, Art. We remember those whose ashes have become part of the soil of our grounds, here, or who have a tree or bush planted in their memory, with the new Memory Tree Plaque in our Gathering Area, and by sending the kids out after church to take flowers to those grandmothers and grandfathers of our church family. In all these ways we practice abiding: honoring the past, telling our family stories, recalling where we came from.
And it’s important to remind ourselves that this is something more mysterious and joyful than remembering the dead. Our beloved dead are alive with God, alive in God. The Communion of Saints, our church teaches us, is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. When we remember the dead we re-member, we put back together something that has been separated: we remind ourselves that we are still and always one body, one family, with those who have gone before.
So, the Feast of All Saints calls us to re-member. And it also calls us to re-commit – to our own call to sainthood. Our text from the letter to the church in Ephesus uses the word “saints” as it’s generally used in the New Testament: to mean all those who strive to follow Jesus, the whole fellowship of believers. Those who have been baptized, and those on the road towards baptism, all of us who have been promised redemption as God’s own people, and called to live as ambassadors of reconciliation.
The beloved hymn “I Sing of the Saints of God” actually captures this really well – with its charming catalog of saints and martyrs: one was a doctor, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast – and its recurring refrain: And I mean to be one too! We know that our sainthood is given by God’s grace, not ours to achieve through our merit – thanks be to God! And at the same time, the gift of grace and the call of the Gospel pull on us, an invisible magnetic field that draws our hearts and lives to point towards mercy and justice.
I mean to be one too! “I mean,” as in, It’s my intention, my desire, my aspiration, to live like the saints we remember and honor: to be patient and brave and true, to love my God so dear, so dear, and let God’s love make me strong. We renew our baptismal vows on All Saints Day – and, some years, we baptize new believers – to hold before ourselves the call of faithful living: praying and worshipping, resisting and repenting, proclaiming, seeking, serving, loving, striving.
On the Feast of All Saints, then, we remember the saints who have gone before us, acknowledge our kinship with them, and affirm our intention to be one too. That is a lot to pack into one Sunday. And yet I don’t feel like any of it can be left out, or even that we could alternate which note we play, each year. Because it runs together – recalling the saints who’ve gone before, and claiming our sainthood. When we get real about what sainthood is, what it’s looked like in the lives of the uncounted millions who’ve walked that road before us, it comforts and encourages, challenges and inspires us.
It’s too easy to think of the saints, the capital-S famous ones or even our family saints, as if they were stained-glass figures, one-dimensional, frozen, idealized, captured in their best, most significant moment. But the saints aren’t, weren’t, otherworldly or perfect. They didn’t live in simpler times. They were a lot like us, which is why we can aspire to be a lot like them. Tobit, an example of faithfulness from before the time of Jesus, shared meals with the poor even when his own family was on the brink of starvation, buried those murdered in the streets, at great personal risk; and his difficulties wore him down so much that on one particularly bad day, he accused his wife of stealing a goat. Saint Theresa of Avila, the famous 16th century nun and theologian, could say lovely inspiring things like, “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you; all things are passing; God never changes.” And she is also remembered, one day when her horse threw her into a river, to have said to God, “Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few!” One of the saints we remember here at St. Dunstan’s is Jonathan Daniels, a martyr of the Civil Rights movement. I love reading his diaries, in which he second-guesses his own motives and struggles with whether what he’s doing really matters.
For me there is very real comfort in looking at these lives, and so many others. I read an article a couple of weeks ago about the role of family stories in building resilience. There’s this body of research that suggests that the children of homes who tell and re-tell their family stories are more emotionally resilient, better able to cope with struggle and change. And in particular, stories that recall that the family, over its generations, has come through both hard times and good times – those stories correlate with the greatest resilience for the current generation. The stories of the saints – alongside the stories of Scripture – are those family stories for the church. They assure us that God’s people have dealt with crankiness and weariness and self-doubt, while managing somehow to stay faithful in times of need and struggle, and grateful in times of plenty and peace, for thousands of years. Their witness can help us have the resilience to do the same, in our time and place.
The resilience or the balance – that’s what the songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen called it, when he wrote about what makes a saint, back in the ‘60s. He wrote, “Contact with [the energy of love] results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence… I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a [person] setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is [a saint’s] glory… Far from flying with the angels, [a saint] traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. [She] can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such [people], such balancing monsters of love.” – Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (1966)
I think that kind of resilience or balance is what Jesus is talking about in the first part of today’s Gospel. I’ve read this passage many times, but this year it jumped out at me that Jesus is talking *to his disciples.* In pictures of the Sermon on the Mount, of which this is part, there’s usually a huge crowd. But right here, the text says, He looked up at his disciples. He’s talking to his followers, his friends – people whose stories and struggles he knows. Maybe he’s looking at their faces as he speaks, thinking about how his words might land in each of their hearts. To those in bad times, in poverty, in grief, he speaks assurance and hope. Know that you are in God’s hands, blessed, beloved, and that better is coming, one way or another. And to those in good times, blessed by wealth and ease, he says, Hey, remember that’s just what it is; it doesn’t mean you’re God’s favorite or better than anyone else. Keep yourself grounded in what’s true and real and lasting, because hard times come around for everyone.
To all of his friends gathered around, he says, Our circumstances don’t define us. They influence us, of course. But they don’t get the last word. With God’s help, through the energy of love, you can keep your balance. With God’s help, by the immeasurable greatness of divine power working in and for us, you are resilient enough to withstand the risks of both easy and difficult seasons.
I woke up Wednesday morning this past week feeling like my own resilience and balance were stretched thin. The news just kept being awful, and I was running low on my inner resources. I came to church and lit candles and incense on the little altar. I sat there in the candlelight and prayed through a couple dozen of our Prayer Book collects. I chanted a few psalms. Then I just sat there in the dark for a few moments. And in the dark I heard the voice of Sybil in my memory – Sybil, our beloved deacon, who passed away this spring. I heard Sybil saying, Hopeful.
And then I started thinking about all the saints of this church who have gone on before us in the past year and more, and the witness of their lives for those of us left behind. I need Sybil’s weary and courageous hopefulness. I need Frances’ instant, genuine courtesy to every person I meet. I need Jerry’s determination to find the good in any misfortune. I need Bill’s strategic eye and capacity to see the big picture. I need Art’s gentle and total conviction that turning towards the needs of others is always the best escape from our own anxious preoccupations.
And there’s the witness of the capital-S Saints too – the witness of blessed Dunstan who knew that kings may come and go, but the work of God’s Kingdom always continues. the witness of blessed Francis who believed peace was always possible, even in the depths of division. the witness of blessed Mary, the Mother of God, who disbelieved in her own smallness, youth, powerlessness; who had the audacity to say Yes and become an agent of God’s purposes on earth. These are the saints of years past, whose light still shines to light our way forward. These are the family stories that shape us for resilience. These are the balanced monsters of love who teach us to look for grace even in chaos. And I mean to be one too.