November 3, 2019

2019 Nov3_FrIan

All Saints Day - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. What is All Saints’ Day? It’s the day we remember the saints, right? Sure. But sometimes we do things year after year and the true meaning gets diminished, muddled with other things, or forgotten all together. So, this is the definition straight from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church”

 

[All Saints’ Day] Commemorates all saints, known and unknown, on Nov. 1. All Saints’ Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. All Saints’ Day may also be celebrated on the Sunday following Nov. 1.

 

That last bit is what we’re doing: celebrating on the Sunday following November 1.

 

There’s a small book called “For All The Saints”, a reference to today’s final hymn. It was written by Tom Wright while he was Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, just before he began his ministry as Bishop of Durham. This small book with a wonderful title that evokes the happiest moments of living as a Christian in an otherwise complex world should be a delight to read. However, from its very first page, it is clear that it is far from being a blithe and pithy tract by an academic in order to appeal to the masses. Instead, it is written in the style of a national newspaper OpEd, with biting sarcasm, direct attacks and a gloves-off assault on the vain inventions of not just All Saints’ Day, but All Souls’ Day and the Feast of Christ the King at the end of the month.

 

One of Tom Wright’s objections to All Saints’ Day is that it differentiates those whom we call saints from everyday human beings.

 

What makes ‘the great ones’ great is precisely that they, too, knew human grief and frailty. The double day [of All Saints’ then All Souls’] splits off so-called ordinary Christians from these so-called ‘great ones’ in a way that the latter would have been the first to repudiate…By two days like this back to back, we…change the wonderful, biblical and glorious All Saints’ Day into a distant admiration of people who are not like us, not like the friend who died of cancer last week, not like those who were martyred yesterday in the Sudan.

 

What he fails to recognize is that “a distant admiration of people who are not like us” is sometimes precisely what we need to keep us going forward along our spiritual journey. We need to be reminded that, though we have unmediated access to God through Jesus Christ, living a Christian life sometimes feels like we will never be “good enough” to receive the grace that Jesus has already given us. It is through these “great ones”, the men and women of history whom we catch glimpses of, humans who have been able to do devote their lives to Jesus despite their knowledge and experience of human grief and frailty, that we might think that we can be worthy to be called Christians. They are like us, yet they have accomplished that which we sometimes feel we are unable to even attempt, and that is to love and serve Christ unwaveringly.

 

“The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought” gives a good and brief history of the development of the concept of Christian saints, and it references its roots to our reading in Ephesians and another reference in Romans. From then to now, us common folk helped shape the place of the saints in the Church until, of course, the practice needed to be institutionalized:

 

A recognizable cult of the saints began to develop only with the 2nd-century martyrs, and burgeoned from the 4th century, with the emergence of the first great monastic leaders. In the early Middle Ages, devotion to the saints took a popular, local, and unregulated form in which the influence of the local bishop was prominent. The first historically attested canonization was that of Ulrich of Augsburg by John XV in 993…At the time of the Reformation, the Protestant churches took a sceptical view of the place of devotion to the saints in Christian life, not finding sufficient scriptural warrant.

 

I take the traditional Anglican view as stated in my favorite of the 39 Articles, #22 (BCP p872):

...the Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

 

Tom Wright of course references this in his tract. The “Invocation of Saints” refers to praying to the saints rather than directly to the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is our only Mediator and Advocate; there is no other. So, with the exception of very high Anglo-Catholic traditions, Episcopalians by-and-large do not pray the rosary, say or sing the Angelus or have formal instruction on which saints to pray to for which occasions. This is not to say that I don’t, and we shouldn’t, give special attention to those who have accomplished in their pursuit of Christ-like lives what we feel we cannot.


The Companion to Christian Thought highlights “the desired qualities of the exemplary Christian life” which are found in those who have been honored as saints throughout Western Christianity:

  • The philanthropic activity of high-profile Christians in the 17C
  • The holiness of the founding fathers of the 12C monastic orders
  • Early Church saints who suffered martyrdom and social exclusion
  • The heroic asceticism and voluntary withdrawal to desert places of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
  • The evangelical activity of the church among new strata of the population
  • The role of the new learning in the formation of Christian civilization

These are all noble activities which help us to be more like Jesus is calling us to be with His Blessings and Woes in His Sermon on the Plain. While Jesus is granting the Kingdom to those who are currently downtrodden, He is also calling up on His followers to exhibit the humility before God of those who are poor, hungry, weeping, excluded and reviled. Jesus is calling us to reject our wealth, happiness and social stability in order to follow His new way of living a life worthy of the love which God so freely bestows. And those whom we have come to call saints have illustrated in no-so-perfect-yet-human ways that it is possible for a human being to live a life that more closely resembles the Blessings and Woes than we are currently living now.

 

We can remember these role models without making them into superheroes and without ignoring the primacy of Jesus Christ. Ephesians makes it clear that it’s all about Jesus: that the whole of God's purpose from the beginning focuses in and through Christ; that the life and death of every Christian is bound up with His. These saints, who are very human just like we are, were chosen by God and marked out by the Spirit as belonging to God, and we are, too. Sometimes it takes remembering the accomplishments of a saint, alongside their oft-questionable activities and personalities, to be reminded that we, too, are chosen by God and marked out by the Spirit as belonging to God because of what Jesus Christ accomplished by His Death and Resurrection.

 

Tom Wright lamented that we have changed

 

“the wonderful, biblical and glorious All Saints’ Day into a distant admiration of people who are not like us, not like the friend who died of cancer last week, not like those who were martyred yesterday in the Sudan.”

 

I disagree.

 

By commemorating the Saints on
All Saints’ Day, we are
reminding ourselves that those
people who were just like us, jus
like the friend who died, were
able to exhibit a depth of faith
which we often feel we do not
possess and may never possess.


St Stephen was an ordinary man, “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3) who was in the right place at the wrong time. He wanted to serve Jesus along with this disorganized band of followers. He wanted to serve, so he was made the first Deacon of the Church. He was on fire with Jesus’ message, so he went out and preached among those who did not want to hear the message of Jesus Christ. So, Stephen was stoned:

 

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. [Acts 7:59-60]

 

As ordinary men and women, would we have the strength and courage to make that same plea to God? As Anglicans, we don’t pray to the Saints, but we look toward those who have shown themselves to be exemplary Christians in this complex and difficult world. So, we pray to God Almighty to “give us grace so to follow [His] blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living”, these ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary faith.

 

May we know, love and serve
Jesus to the same depth.

© 2020 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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