A friend of mine from seminary is fond of saying that it is through our hymns the we best articulate our heresies. His particular point of interest was in the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The herald angels sing” and the line, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see,” which bears the weight of the 2nd century gnostic heresy. Gnosticism was built on the idea that creation is evil and God is good, and so Jesus couldn’t have actually been both God and human. Rather, either the Christ was a lesser god that had been sent to earth, or that he was God, veiled in flesh, but not actually incarnated. Anyway, it fits the meter and is a classic hymn by Charles Wesley, so we sing it every Christmas, without fear.
Another example comes around on All Saints’ Sunday when we sing “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” in the midst of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.” While not quite rising to the level of heresy, this line tends to add to our misunderstandings about sainthood. It probably actually means that while we continue to struggle on earth while those who have gone before rest in God’s eternal glory in heaven, but the popular understanding of sainthood has been so muddied by Roman Catholicism that it tends to feed this idea that saints are some sort of other worldly Christians, the likes of which we will never attain. It is not uncommon for me to be talking with someone about sainthood, be they a regular church-goer or totally de-churched, and they will bring up the need for verifiable miracles, beatifications, and canonization. These are the things of news stories, as we hear about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa making their way through the process of sainthood after their deaths.
The reaction to this often goes one of two ways. Some are in awe of the faith and good works that have been done by people like Mother Teresa. “We feebly struggle, but they in glory shine” indeed. They are enamored with their religious celebrity and wonder if they could even be half the Christian these saints were in their lives. More often, the response is confusion. They’ve read the stories of Teresa’s struggle with doubt or know about John Paul’s role in covering up the child abuse scandals, and wonder how anyone could think of them as better than any of the rest of us. The most critical response to the concept of sainthood is often tied in with a very popular reason for not going to church these days, “They’re all just hypocrites anyway, preaching one thing and living another.”
My response to this criticism is to admit, readily and fully, that we all feebly struggle. Whether we are talking about Saint Francis, Mary Magdalene, Howard Surface, or Mary Jo Cook, the life of faith is for all of us, a daily struggle. As Mother Becca said last week, every morning, as foot hits the floor, we must make the choice to follow Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect, far from it, but it means that as we feebly struggle, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to redeem us, and the Father’s love to sustain us. The church is full of hypocrites, and the communion of saints is full of them too, which is why we set aside this Feast of All Saints, to give thanks to God for the grace that carries all of us sinners.
We are living in an era in which the news is full of famous men who claim to follow Jesus but seem to have become famous mostly because they are doing terrible things. Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression. Violent misogynists and anti-Semites have become the famous men of our time, and it is the work of the Church this All Saints’ Sunday that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on the righteous and godly women and men who have lived the struggle and “have perished as though they never existed.”
See, what makes you a saint isn’t the amazing things you do, but rather what God is doing through you. In the New Testament, when Paul writes about the saints, he uses it as a synonym for disciples. There, he doesn’t even mean those who have already died in the faith, but rather all who have ever sought the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. While it is the custom here at Christ Church to list, by name, the saints of this parish who have died in the past year, the list of saints properly includes all of us as well. In a deeply counter-cultural move, we name as saints not only those whose names are written on monuments or carried in the news, but also regular folk who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.
The reality of All Saints’ Day that the Ecclesiasticus lesson names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have lived in the faith of Christ. It is especially our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, and those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven. In a world that prefers to name the infamous, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy examples those who might have become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.
For we who remain on earth, sometimes feebly struggling to follow the Way of Love, All Saints’ Day is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Gospel. As Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, so All Saints’ Day challenges us to choose this day whom we will serve. Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world? Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity? Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear? With God’s help, these choices must be made daily, if not hour by hour or minute by minute. As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” puts it, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” Dear saints of God, as we walk through the struggle of this great ordeal together, what will you choose? Will you choose sainthood? Will you choose blessedness? Will you, with God’s help, choose the Way of Love in Kingdom of God? Amen.