for all the saints

a personal and biblical reflection for All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2017, based on Isaiah 25.6-9 and Revelation 21.1-6a.

All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,

In my heart, in my heart.

Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.[1]

But Lord, it’s hard to be a Christian!

And why wouldn’t that be so? For it’s hard to be a person. Everyone, no matter our family of origin and upbringing, our nature and nurture, believes something. And every one of us, living in a world of every other one of us, from time to time, rubs shoulders, at times, exchanges sharp elbows with those who believe differently.

So, yes, it’s hard, speaking for myself, to be a Christian in my heart; loving unconditionally all people. Yet, this I know for the Bible tells me so.

Isaiah paints a lofty vision. A mountaintop banquet prepared for the hungry. Tears dried forevermore from cheerless eyes. This is a vision for the disenchanted, the disenfranchised. For what is another table of food and wine for the overfed or the hand of solace to those who have never wept? Yet, who among us, even with bellies full, cannot admit to spaces of the emptiness within us? Who among us, even in the most balled-fist courage in difficulty’s face, does not cry out for comfort and release? This, then, is a vision for all! A vision of salvation. From the Latin, salvus. Wholeness. The healing that comes only in the acknowledgement of brokenness. Brokenness that each of us shares with all people, for all people are broken.

Isaiah issues a clarion call and Revelation resoundingly replies with another portrayal of salvation so all-encompassing (heaven, earth, sea) that all is gathered up (mourning, crying, dying) and life is made new in a city, the gates of which are open to all people.

Isaiah and Revelation together help me see what All Saints’ Day is.

Since the 10th century, Western Christendom has set aside November 1 to honor all those through the ages who claim Christ as Lord. Yet, throughout Christianity’s history and surely in this era, there has been and is fighting and dying, crying and mourning all in the name of partisan ideologies, divisive and exclusive theologies.

So, today, I, with an inclusive eye, behold All Saints’ Day as a celebration for all who follow the Way[2] of Jesus. All who claim love as their chiefest value. All who confess their brokenness, their inability always to love all. All who, in their brokenness, cry for salvation – not freedom from self, but freedom to be self fully, faithfully. Freedom to live, not in the absence of death, but in its very midst. For only those who can, who will claim their own wholeness – the feasting and the hungering, the laughing and the crying, the living and the dying that we each do every day – can know salvation and, thus, can dare share it with others, even those with whom we, from time to time, rub shoulders and, at times, exchange sharp elbows.

 

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] From the traditional Negro spiritual, Lord, I want to be a Christian.

[2] A reference to Acts 9.2, “the way” being the designation for the earliest followers of Jesus before they became known as Christians (see Acts 11.26); a designation that inferred more a way of life, a way of being than an intellectual assent or adherence to an ideology or theology.

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here, by the grace of God, are we

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 6.20-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 6, 2016

According to legend, John Bradford,[1] a 16th century English reformer, destined to be imprisoned in the Tower of London and burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, watching a group of prisoners being led to their executions, observed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Thereby, he gave to succeeding generations a succinct statement of righteous recognition that another’s misfortune could be one’s own if not for divine blessing, more particularly, that one’s providence is in God’s hands, and, more generally, that one’s fate is not, is never entirely in one’s control, but alway subject to circumstance and chance.

Growing up, I often heard my father, when speaking of those amidst life’s travails, quietly comment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Later, as a student of scripture, I realized that John Bradford, my father, and countless others had paraphrased Paul’s gratitude for having been called to be an apostle after having persecuted the followers of Jesus: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”[2]

This spirit of righteous recognition is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

all-saints-albrecht-durer-1511

Today, we observe All Saints’ Day;[4] “saint” being a New Testament title for a Christian.[5] Today is our annual reminder that we, throughout the year, are to “sing a song of the saints of God,”[6] commemorating those of bygone days “who from their labors rest…who…by faith before the world confessed th(e) Name (of) Jesus[7] and those who “lived not only in ages past,”[8] including us in our time who follow Jesus and those not yet born who, known only in the mind of God, will proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord in generations to come.

In Christian tradition, our heroines and heroes are those like the first apostles[9] who were martyred, though threatened with death, refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus or like Mother, now St. Teresa of Kolkata who demonstrated an especial degree of holiness of life and kindness for the living and the dying or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died for the cause of justice. Yes, they and more are worthy of honor as saints of God.

Yet we dare stand, do stand with them in saintly light because they, as we, were human. All, as we, flawed. All, as we, falling short of the glory of God.[10] All, as we, poor, impoverished in every way, except being perfect in imperfection. All, as we, Jesus calls blessed!

Let us, included among the saints, pay close attention to Jesus, who speaks to us, saying, “you that listen.” Listening to his declaration of discipleship, let us, on this All Saints’ Day, reenlist as saints, committing ourselves to do as Jesus commands: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…”

This is radical! As in the Latin radix, “root”, in a spiritual sense, meaning a return to the origin of things, going back to the way God intended from the dawn of creation. And, let’s be honest, in an existential sense, radical as in extreme, even crazy; beyond the reach of reason, surpassing any sane expectation!

Yet Jesus’ declaration is a description of who a saint is and what a saint does. Jesus’ declaration is a description of saints who pray and saints who work, here and now, in this life, in this world to fulfill the prayer, “Our Father…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even more, Jesus’ declaration is a description of God’s nature, who God is and, still more, the way God treats us! God loves us, does good to us, blesses us – with the miracle of life, health, and strength; minds to think and dream, hearts to feel and love; the majesty of creation, the earth, our island home set in the ever-expanding sea of infinite galaxies; the marvel of families and friends to share life’s joys and sorrows – even when we are enemies of God, whether in ignorance failing or knowing, yet refusing to do God’s will.

Against a world continually rife with violence, against our American political scene sullied with the vilification of parties and the demonization of persons, Jesus’ declaration of saintly living stands in razor-sharp contrast. On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember those in ages past, we, for here, by the grace of God, are we as God’s saints in our day, are called to do God’s will and thus bequeath a legacy of righteousness for those to come.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] John Bradford (1510–1555)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.10

[3] In the parallel text of Matthew (5.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (my emphasis); being those who know their inherent lack of power to secure their futures, much less save themselves from eternal death and thus who know their daily, constant need for God. Luke refuses to spiritualize our human deficiency, viewing poverty as the scarcity of resources in every dimension of human existence; spiritual, yes, but also physical, intellectual, and material.

[4] Since the 10th century of the Common Era, observed in the western Christian Church on November 1.

[5] For example, see Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2, 2 Corinthians 1.1, Ephesians 1.1, Philippians 1.1, Colossians 1.2.

[6] From the hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), The Hymnal 1982, #293.

[7] Paraphrasing words of William Walsham How (1823-1897), from the hymn, For all the saints, The Hymnal 1982, #287.

[8] Scott, verse 3

[9] See Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7. See also Acts 12.2: King Herod killed the Apostle James with a sword. According to legend, all of the apostles, save John who was exiled, died violently.

[10] Romans 3.23