SERMON FOR ALL SAINTS AND ALL SOULS
This past week, we celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, respectively. In thinking about today’s sermon, I thought a lot about the extensive crossover celebrated in these two days. We use language around “saints” all the time. She's a saint, he's a saint, they are saints! But what do we really mean by this? We’ll talk more about that in a few minutes. I've used this language plenty at various times in my life. Some years ago, I found myself as a single mother of two very young, very active little boys. It was a difficult circumstance; resources were scarce, and I struggled to figure out how to make things work. Some nights, I sat down on the edge of my bed and thought to myself, I can't do this another day. But I quickly learned that there are people who behave in saintly ways in this world. People who recognize the need in the world and respond. The saint who shoveled my driveway, the saint who sat with my kids so I could run to the grocery store without pushing the giant automobile-shaped shopping cart throughout the store, and the saint who slipped some money under my office door at Christmas after I had concluded that the only way those two little rascals were going to have anything for Christmas gifts, is if I signed up for the eight videos for 1 cent club so they'd have something to open on Christmas day. I’d figure out how to fulfill the subscription obligation later. Those people will always be saints to me. A look into Christian history tells us All Saints Day and All Souls Day are practices of the very early Christian church. In the western church, a celebration of communal saints first appears 609, to celebrate the handover of the Pantheon in Rome from the Roman emperor to the Roman church and its transference from a pagan temple “all gods” (pan + theos) to a church “of Mary and all the martyrs." The statues of the Roman gods in the high niches of the Pantheon were to be replaced with images of martyrs and, perhaps by this time, bishops, confessors, and other saints.
Over time, as the understanding of holiness narrowed from the sainthood of the baptized to heroic virtue, there emerged a desire to remember the number of ordinary Christians who departed from this life without recognized heights of holiness, and the Feast of All Souls was begun in 998 by the abbot of the Benedictine monastery in present-day France in a directive to his congregations to commemorate all the faithfully departed. Today, All Saints Day remains a celebration of holiness, the working of the Holy Spirit in human beings across the globe and over time. It is a remembrance of all the saints — the canonized and the "blessed nobodies," the living and the dead, who serve as exemplars on the journey of faith and in the body of Christ – the Christian community. Even more broadly, the working of the Spirit knows no boundaries, and we can recognize holiness found in all people – all Souls – we celebrate the Saints and Souls whom we have loved and who have loved us. Many recognized today at our altar of remembrance. Our commemorations are based on the hope and promise of the resurrection and a communal observance of those who have left us for a time. We have the opportunity for remembrance, sorrow, and hope during a time of year, at least in New England, where God’s creation is preparing for seasonal rest and renewal. Those souls we remember who have died are indeed among our saints, and we, erstwhile saints on earth, celebrate them. As such, these holy days are distinct celebrations, yet one in the fullness of holiness and the communal banquet of heaven and earth. All Saints Day is a day to celebrate the communion of saints, recognizing the ongoing spiritual connection between the living and the departed. All Souls' Day is a day of remembrance and prayer for the souls of those who have left us, a time to reflect on the Christian belief in the resurrection and the hope of salvation through Christ – again, significant crossover. It's important to remember that the Episcopal tradition describes a “saint” as a holy person, a faithful Christian, one who shares life in Christ. There is no reference to those who have perfect lives, have everything going for them, those who are public examples of dedicated service to church, and those, who when departed, leave us with a legacy we are certain we can never attain. Quite the opposite: saints are those who have suffered – and some who suffer still, even in our midst – and yet continue to praise God. These saints know the pain of loss and the sting of death and still manage to exclaim, "Thanks be to God!" These saints are those who are sometimes excluded and ignored by mainstream society and convention and yet still find ways to seek Christ in all and love their neighbors. Nathaniel Costa in his publication "For all the Saints” describes in a 4th-century commentary to the newly baptized on the Apostles' Creed—the statement of faith they professed at baptism—Nicetas, Bishop of what is now present-day Serbia, explains the "communion of the saints" as the fullness of Christ's body, past, present, and future, to which the newly baptized have joined: "What is the church but the congregation of all saints? From the beginning of the world, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and all other righteous people who have lived, or who are now alive, or who shall live in time to come, comprise the church since they have been sanctified by one faith and manner of life, and sealed by one Spirit, and so made of one body, of which Christ is declared to be the head, as the Scripture says. … So you believe that in this church you will attain the communion of saints.” Bishop Nicetas’ words resonate with me. I was raised in a tradition that adopted Paul's practice recorded in Ephesians and II Corinthians, where he refers to early Christians as "saints." This concept deepened my belief that saints are living among us in addition to our honored dead. In our Gospel today we learn the qualities that Jesus admired most. He made very clear his feelings about the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful and the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake. And so, when we celebrate all saints, we also remember those worshipping with us and silently suffering. If we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, we might be surprised by what we see when we look across the aisle of the church across the parking lot or in areas of town that have difficult reputations. We are likely to see saints there who find ways to lift their hearts in praise of God regardless of their circumstances. So, what are the qualifications to be a saint as we talk about our honored dead and those sitting next to us now or across the desk at work? We could talk all day about this, and the definitions across Christianity are myriad. But Bishop Nicetas highlights the body of people joined by the newly baptized. It can be no coincidence that we renew our baptismal covenants on All Saints Day. Is leaning into our baptismal covenant a step toward achieving saintly status? Historically, baptism was conducted at Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints Day, and Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Today, while baptisms are appropriately administered within a Eucharistic service, special attention is given to these four important days. In a perfect world, we would welcome many others today into the body of Christ through baptism here at St. Philips. Although we won’t have others here with us today, we are given the gift of renewing our own baptismal promises. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the bond which God establishes at baptism is “indissoluble" and today we have the opportunity to reaffirm our promise to live a life free of sin, or if we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord, recommit to our belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and proclaim the Word of God. In alignment with the Feast of All Saints, we will make significant vows in how we affect the lives of others – seeking and serving all Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. Maybe that is the definition of a Saint that resonates today.