We are All Saints – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


The first time I think I really understood what was happening on All Saints’ Day was actually a few years after I had been ordained, and it came to me while standing in a Christ Episcopal Church, of all places.  It was the evening of all All Saints’ Sunday at Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida.  I had been invited by their Youth Minister to preach and celebrate at their evening service.  Before the service began, we were socializing in the Parish Hall where the walls were lined with pictures of dead, old, white guys.  I read the names, noticing that they appeared not only on the plaques below those pictures, but on buildings, parks, and hospitals around the city.  I took a moment to give thanks for their lives, their witnesses, and their generosity before we moved into the sanctuary for the service.  As I sat in one of the choir stalls, listening to the lessons being read, I was deeply moved by the lesson from Ecclesiasticus, a wisdom book from the Apocryphal, a set of texts written between the Old and New Testaments that are included in some Bibles.

I was initially taken aback by the lack of gender inclusive language, which is odd in the New Revised Standard Version.  “Let us now sing the praises of famous men” caught my ears, even as I had missed it in reading the passage all week, and I heard the whole text in a new way.  I listened as the author spoke of their majesty, valor, and intelligence, and I thought about those pictures in the Parish Hall.  I heard tell of musical talents, skilled writers, and great resources, and I pondered the names etched on plaques installed on pews, organs, windows, classrooms, and sacred vessels in the several congregations I had served.  I pondered the reality that we very often, if not constantly, are singing the praises of famous men, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, why we needed All Saints’ Day to add to that ongoing and generational honoring.  And then, as if for the first time, I heard these words, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

And suddenly, All Saints’ Day made sense to me.  Yes, today we take the time to honor and remember all those saints whose names live on forever, but even more so, we take the time to recall all the myriad saints who may not be remembered by name, but whose example lives on in the hearts and minds of faithful disciples from generation to generation.

Common usage of the word saint makes us automatically think of the beatification and canonization process in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Our minds tend to immediately go to the need for a couple of miracles as we contemplate why hardware stores need Saint Sabastian to be their patron or how Saint Isadore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet.[1] What we lose in all that is the reality that sainthood, both biblically and etymologically means nothing more than being a follower of Jesus.  At the beginning of several of his letters, Saint Paul addresses his audience as saints.  The Greek word he used is hagios, which means “to be set apart” or “holy,” and in every instance, Paul uses it to describe all the followers of Jesus in a place.  “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…”[2]  “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”[3]  “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus…”[4]  The examples go on.  What we learn from Paul’s use of the word hagios, is that in the early church, the concept of sainthood was not reserved for the especially religious, nor even for the dead, but in fact, all of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord are included among the saints.  Etymologically, our English word “saint” follows this pattern.  It comes, as most churchy words do, from a Latin word, sanctus, which is the translation of hagios.  We are the saints of God because we are set apart, and made holy, not of our own doing, but by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

This all comes together beautifully today as we 1) celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, 2) Baptize Merritt and Brody, and 3) give thanks for another successful stewardship campaign.  Both this morning and at Evensong tonight, we will name before God saints whom we have loved but see no longer.  Some of these saints truly are famous men and women, legends in their own time.  Others were the quiet sort, busy doing the work of building the Kingdom in ways that many of us will never know.  All of them had their flaws.  None would have accomplished sainthood on their own, and yet each of them held fast to their faith in Jesus.

As we look back on the saints who have built Christ Church in Bowling Green to be what it is today, we also look forward with hope for what we are to become, with God’s help.  [At 10 o’clock] this morning, we welcome two brand new saints into the body of Christ.  We will join with Brody and Merrit in taking the vows of sainthood as the Episcopal Church as interpreted them.  We will promise to remain a part of this community in worship, fellowship, and prayer.  We will commit to working toward the restoration of all relationships by resisting evil, sharing the Good News, loving our neighbors, and striving for justice and peace.  In our prayers, we will seal them with the Holy Spirit and mark them as forever set apart in Christ Jesus.  Today we make Brody and Merritt saints, not because of anything they have done or by anything we can do, but by the grace of God and in keeping with the commandment of Jesus to teach and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Finally, then, we celebrate the commitment of saints, both now and in ages past, who have made a financial contribution to the ongoing work of building the Kingdom as the Christ Episcopal Church Bowling Green branch of the Jesus Movement.  With the help of saints whose names we remember like Porter Sims and the Gaines, Cole, and Covington families, we are able to enjoy some flexibility when it comes to our finances here, but the vast majority of the work we do is because of saints whose names we may never know who give faithfully and sacrificially, some twenty dollars a week and others tens of thousands of dollars a year, to the building up of the kingdom of God right here in Bowling Green.  For the faithful stewardship of saints past, saints present, and saints to come, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we give thanks.

All Saints’ Day is a powerful reminder that we are not in this discipleship thing alone.  The path we walk has been walked by countless others who through faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, excitement and apathy, have called on Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby have been set apart as holy and blessed.  Today, as we welcome Merritt and Brody into the communion of saints, as we commit financially to another year of walking together, and as we remember both the “famous men [and women]” and “those who perished as though they had never existed,” I am grateful to be walking this journey with each of you, my fellow saints, in the path of God’s beloved children.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.aggiecatholicblog.org/2012/09/top-20-odd-patronages-of-saints/

[2] Romans 1:7

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:2

[4] Ephesians 1:1

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