All Saints Sunday
One of the great gifts of celebrating All Saints Sunday is the opportunity to reflect intentionally upon the mystery and the majesty of human existence. For deep within us are two strands that this liturgical celebration brings together for us. One is the recognition that through some miracle still not entirely understood by even our best scientists, we exist. Against all odds, and with a stunning combination of perilous fragility and tenacious survivability, life as we know it not only is in general, but even more amazingly, has evolved throughout the course of 15 billion years into the human forms we now inhabit. And while at our worst, we humans can be callously dismissive and even destructive of the awesome wonder that each human life represents, nevertheless at our best we understand that each of our lives is a unique, one-of-a-kind gift to our world, and something within us yearns to believe that somehow this gift of life continues even beyond the death of our human bodies. Thus it is that we remind ourselves on occasions like this that those who live in our hearts, or in more traditional words of faith, those who live within the heart of God, are never really gone from among us, but rather live on in ways now less visible, but no less real and poignant.
So let us take a few moments now as we begin our reflections together on this All Saints Sunday to envision just how full this church is this morning, with all the “saints” who have ever worshipped here, as well as all those who dwell still in our hearts. This year, perhaps more than so many previously, has been marked by the loss of many dearly beloved members our church and individual families. Our hearts ache with the grief of their no longer being physically present here among us, but even this ache itself speaks to the power of their lives and the love we continue to bear in gratitude and joy for the ways in which their lives have touched and shaped our own. It is good to re-member those without whom we would not be who we are today, for such remembering grants us on this occasion described by our ancient Celtic ancestors as a “thin time” between this world and the next, a foretaste of what folk singer Carrie Newcomber calls a “Gathering of Spirits, a Festival of Friends, where we’ll take up where we left off, when we all meet again.”
Yet just as All Saints Sunday is an affirmation of the mystery of human existence, both in this life and in the life to come, so is it also a celebration of the majesty of human life, during which we especially think of those who have been mentors and sources of inspiration and spiritual guidance for us, whether now dwelling in God’s eternal realm, or living still among us. Indeed, one powerful spiritual exercise we might wish to practice as part of our personal All Saints observance this year could be to share with one of the living “saints” of our lives our gratitude and appreciation for how deeply our lives have been blessed by theirs. From whom have we learned much of what we know about God and grace, about faith and forgiveness, about life and love? Even as we give thanks in our hearts for those “saints” no longer with us whose lives have shaped our own, let us likewise seek to share with our still living “saints” why and how their lives have reminded us of who and whose we are as God’s dearly beloved “saints” ourselves.
Throughout much of the more than 2000 year history of the Christian church, the lives of particularly noteworthy individuals have been heralded as being “saintly.” And at least one reason for this has to do with recognizing that we are shaped by that which we admire, so that by affirming the “sainthood” of folk who embody in exceptional ways the grace and glory of God we might be inspired to do likewise. And although to be beatified as a “saint” within the Catholic Church still entails a long and involved process, one of the gifts of the Protestant Reformation has been to recover the Biblical notion of the “sainthood” of us all. But what might this actually mean for most of us so keenly aware of how un-saintly we feel? To be sure, at one level it means “sainthood” is not simply a quality of someone else’s exceptional life, but rather a vocation into which we are all invited to live in partnership with the One whose image we bear. Indeed, it was precisely to negate our tendency to distance ourselves from those we perceive to be most Godly or holy that no less a “saintly” person than Catholic Worker founder, Dorothy Day, once quipped, “Don’t call me a Saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily!” Similarly, and in keeping with this morning’s Gospel reading, “saint” Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve….You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
But what does “a heart full of grace” and “a soul generated by love” look like? “Saints” have a way of making this both so simple and so challenging for us, but not necessarily because it comes any easier to them than to the rest of us. James Howell in his book, Servants, Misfits and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories, shares a wonderful story about Clarence Jordan, the founder of an intentional Christian community in Americus, Georgia. Inspired by the Book of Acts, wherein the earliest Christians are depicted as sharing everything in common, Jordan decided back in the 1950’s to invite other Christians, both black and white, to join him in living in community, growing crops and mutually sharing whatever they had. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Jordan’s “experiment” in Christian living was plagued by relentless harassment, from the Ku Klux Klan and others who derided his “communist” way of life. Especially hard about this for Jordan was seeing how it affected his children. One day when his daughter came home from school complaining about the abuse she was receiving each day from one of her classmates, Jordan’s fatherly rage got the better of him when he asked why, with her long fingernails, she did not simply scratch his eyes out. Out of the mouth of babes came his daughter’s reply that, tempting though such a response had been for her, she had restrained herself due to having heard her daddy preach that Jesus told us to love our enemies. Still understandably fuming, Jordan declared that he himself would go to school the next day, ask Jesus to excuse him from being a Christian for about 15 minutes, and beat up her daughter’s tormentor. And then it was that the elder Jordan who was restrained by his daughter’s embodiment of her faith when she said, “But Daddy, you can’t be excused from being a Christian for 15 minutes!”
Hm—perhaps one measure of how fully we are living into our calling as the “saints of God” might well be the extent to which we seek to embody our faith as often and as fully as possible. Indeed, as James C. Howell points out in his book, The Life We Claim, whereas many of us basically good people often find ourselves so overextended that our response to God is to offer whatever might be left over in terms either of our resources and/or the commitment of our lives, “saints” give not only what they have left to God, but rather the entirely of their lives, saying in effect, “whatever you want me to do with all of my time…energy…possessions, my wealth, whatever is that I have, God, is yours. I hold nothing back for myself. “ If so, most of us are somewhere along this spectrum of deepening our faith to allow God to have God’s wild and wonderful way with us. At the beginning of this morning’s service we sang about “all the saints” that whereas “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” But maybe another way to think about the “sainthood” continuum would be to agree with Lady Gaga that to be human is truly to be on “the edge of Glory!” J After all, it was the great second century theologian, Saint Irenaeus, who proclaimed that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.”
Admittedly, I’m not really sure what Lady Gaga has in mind when she sings so passionately about being on “the edge of glory,” but when I heard this song recently I found myself thinking, yes, we’re all on “the edge of glory,” that glory which is our birthright as people created in the image of God’s glory. And if the glory of our sainthood consists in growing most fully into the persons we were uniquely created to be, then are we not ever and always travelling along the growing edge of life? Indeed, is there not something particularly edgy about those whom we perceive as “saints?’’ For when “sainthood” is understood as being about embodying God’s extravagantly unconditional and all-embracing love which is incapable of perceiving anyone as being worth less, or ultimately unlovable, then to be a “saint” is not simply to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable, not simply to make everyone feel good, but also at times to discomfort us through prophetically challenging whatever ways in which we may have lost sight of the inherent worth, and glory, of all God’s creation. But lest the notion of living on the “edge” of Glory might frighten us with the very real peril of falling over the edge, let us likewise remember the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson who suggested that “our greatest glory is in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
Therefore, on this All Saints Sunday, as we prepare soon to share once again in the Communion of Saints which is at the heart of what it means to be God’s people, may each of us bring to this Table those who have been “saints” for us, thereby affirming our faith in the mystery of God’s love from which all life comes and to which all life returns. And may we also come to this Table as people who know ourselves ever and always to be dancing on the edge of God’s Glory, as we continue seeking to embody the majesty of lives most fully in love with God and all God’s people. Through sharing together in this Sacred meal, may we re-member who and whose we are as the Saints of God called into the glory of mutual service with and for each other, in ways that transform all the barriers keeping us divided from each other into bridges connecting us to each other, and to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. For “the Saints of God are just folk like [us]…and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be one too!” Amen.