NovemBer 1, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
"For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
I will bless the Lord at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.
I will glory in the Lord; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.
Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; *
let us exalt his Name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.
Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.
I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.
The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.
Taste and see that the Lord is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!
Fear the Lord, you that are his saints, *
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The young lions lack and suffer hunger, *
but those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good.
The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.
1 John 3:1-3
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Sermon: George Porter
'Behold what you are. Become what you receive.'
At first it struck me as a bit odd to have the Beatitudes as the Gospel reading for All Saints’ Day, but perhaps it’s not. The early Christian writers referred to every follower of The Way – of Christ – as a ‘saint’. The Beatitudes are traditional held to be a description of sorts of the normal way of life for followers of Jesus.
Right in the middle of this reading, we find the line about ‘the meek’ – the meek who will inherit the earth. It struck me that there seemed to be a sort of theme running through the weeks of Creationtide and then last week with the confrontation of Jesus and the Sadducees – a confrontation about death and resurrection. So it raises again today with the Feast of All Saints the issues around those who have gone before us – those who have ‘died in the peace of Christ’, as some of our prayers say – and, in doing so, make us aware once again of the questions about death and the hope of resurrection life.
This whole weekend is actually ‘Allhallowsmas’ – a triduum, a period of 3 days of special observance – that began yesterday with All Hallow’s Eve (better known as Halloween). It will continue tomorrow with All Souls’ Day – sometimes called El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Right in the centre of these 3 days is All Saints’ Day (‘All Hallows’ Day’). In Anglican tradition – of which the Episcopal Church is a part, the focus has traditionally been on this central day.
Referring to saints causes some issues for us, even though we have a long history of parishes and churches names after various ‘saints’, and even called ‘All Saints’. In our tradition, however, we have no formal process of canonization – no recognized process of determining who will bear the label ‘saint’ or be recognized as such. Our church calendars vary quite a bit among the various groups that make up the Anglican Communion.. Many of the people remembered and commemorated do not, in fact, bear the official title of ‘saint’.
This also appears somewhat inconsistent with the traditional Anglican value of the equality of all believers. We don’t tend to recognise various strata, (or layers, or classes) of persons based on some standard or level of spirituality. As I indicated, the Christian scriptures and the early Christian writers used ‘saints’ to refer to all believers. (‘Saint’ being a translation of a word which means holy one’ or ‘set apart one’ or even ‘consecrated one’.)
Really the focus has historically been on what the creeds term ‘the communion of the saints’. Although there is no universal understanding of exactly what that is or who belongs to it, in general it suggests that there is a sense of continuity between those who have gone before us, those of us alive now, and those who will come after us in the future.
Likewise, there is no single, clear teaching in our scriptures, Hebrew or Christian, about exactly what happens when a person dies. There is the Hebrew expression ‘go down to the grave’ (or ‘pit’), referring not so much to death as to burial customs. There is the recognition that physically ‘the breath has gone out’. In the Christian scriptures we find the metaphor of ‘falling asleep in the Lord’, and elsewhere the cryptic note that ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord’ – a difficult concept when we consider that biblical writers consistently note that we are never really not in the presence of the Lord.
Really, the only seemingly clear teaching is the promised hope of the resurrection, though Anglicans, like those in other parts of the church, hold differing ideas about what ‘resurrection’ means. Whatever it means, in some way it signifies that death is not the end. It doesn’t have the last word, so to speak.
Anyway, this Feast (or ‘Solemnity’) of All Saints has a long history within Christianity. On the 13th of May in 609, Pope Boniface IV proclaim==med the observance of a Feast of All Martyrs, and sometime in the mid-700s, Pope Gregory III proclaimed October 27th as a Feast of All Souls’ and Martyrs’.
The roots of the tradition are actually much older. Early in the history of the church, Christians developed the practice of gathering around the tomb of a departed believer – especially of a martyr – to celebrate the Eucharist, using the tomb itself as the altar. This tradition carried on somewhat even when church buildings began to be built and used. Not so much in North America, but in other parts of the church, a relic – a memento – of a saint or significant event would be built into the altar.
I mentioned earlier that we have a long tradition of naming churches after saints. The biblical writings do not, of course, do this. They referred to the church in a city or area – e.g. the church in Corinth, the church in Rome or the church which meets in someone’s house. The first church named after a saint was in Ephesus in the 5th Century – named for the Virgin Mary.
More to the point, this 3 day period calls us once again to reflect on the hope that we have, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that life, not death, is the ultimate reality, the final destiny. Life, not death, is the last word in the good news of God’s love in Christ.
Of course, in some ways we are constantly surrounded by death and by signs of death. This is true even though there has been a gradual cultural movement away from openly acknowledging death, even in the church. Churchyards as places of burial are no longer common. It was once the norm to bury the dead in the grounds around the church – again in an effort to stress the continuity of the communion of the saints. I remember visiting a friend at her rectory in Manitoba and having to walk among the graces to get to her door. Our places of burial are now generally separated from the physical church, often tucked away in the countryside.
Our language has changed as well. We often don’t say that someone died. We say that she/he has ‘passed’ or ‘is gone’. We have adopted the traditions of some Indigenous people and speak of the dead as having ‘walked on’ or even ‘crossed the rainbow bridge’. We don’t even speak of funerals anymore, but attend ‘celebrations of life’.
There is, of course, something good in all this, focusing our thoughts on the enduring life rather than on the seeming finality of death. Nevertheless, death is still a very present reality. We face it in disease, ‘old age’ (the wearing our of our bodies), accidents, war famine, murder, suicide and overdose – just within the past couple of weeks 2 people within a block of the rectory have died of overdoses, and a family in the church has lost 2 young men – one to an overdose and one to suicide. We have ongoing debates about capitol punishment, assisted dying and abortion.
I don’t know whether you can remember your first encounter with the reality of death. I had to have been very, very young, but obviously it had a profound impact on me because I still recall the experience vividly of finding a bird that had gotten caught in a piece of machinery where some water had collected and drowned. I can also recall discussions during the Vietnam Conflict when soldiers who killed an enemy were shocked when they didn’t just get up again, like they do on television or in movies. The reality and finality of death were shocking and traumatizing.
Yet, in the middle of all this, we are again confronted with the bold face gospel claim that death is a defeated enemy, robbed of its ‘sting’. Another biblical passage says that Christ’s Easter victory over the grave frees ‘those who all their lives had been enslaved by the fear of death’.
There’s another way, as well, that keeping these three days is significant. We recognise ‘heroes of the faith’, yes, but how often do these heroes – I spoke a few weeks ago about how it is for heroes these days – how often our heroes turn out to be ‘damaged heroes’ or ‘wounded saints’! When I was a young teen just beginning my new life in Christ, a pastor took an afternoon every week to meet with a small group of us boys, teaching us how to pray, how to memorize and read scripture – really how to become disciples – and he is for me a hero – a saint. It was quite a shock when much later I learned that he ended up in prison over some shady financial stuff, but imperfect and broken as he was as a ‘saint’, I still owe him much gratitude.
Sometimes we realise that it’s not always despite their damage that we regard some as heroes – as saints – but because of this reality. In their woundedness they bear not only testimonies of healing but, more importantly, of the grace of God who embraces us in our imperfection.
Nadia Boltz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who is quite well known in the United States – and really across the world – for her rather ‘raw’ approach to Christianity and the church, named her parish ‘Church of All Saints and Sinners’. It reminds us that being a ‘saint’ is an unfinished process – a becoming. Paul himself said that he hadn’t arrived but that he ‘pressed on toward the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’.
Likewise the writer of I John says: ‘Look at the remarkable love the father has given us – that we should be called God’s children! That indeed is what we are .... Beloved ones, we are now, already, God’s children; it hasn’t yet been revealed what we are going to be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.’
When my honorary associate presides at the celebration of the Eucharist, she ends the prayer and begins the invitation to receive with some words from Saint – yes Saint – Augustine: ‘Behold what you are. Become what you receive.’ Behold that you are the beloved of God; become the body of Christ.
This beholding and becoming are only possible when we – as we – learn to be living out of the realization of our belovedness. Without those roots in the awareness of our belovedness, we don’t have the courage to look with eyes wide open at our brokenness – our woundedness – our ‘sinnerness’ – and to do so without shame or fear which leads only to drivenness, legalism and pretention.
Nor can we look at our ‘saintliness’, which for most people is even harder than recognizing our sin. We more easily see how we fall short in our imperfection.
With roots in our belovedness – our belovedness established in Christ and nurtured by the Holy Spirit – we can grow into the maturity of the people of God, the body of Christ. We can become those ambassadors of reconciliation through whom God makes the gospel appeal.
With roots in our belovedness established in Christ and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, we are set free to behold and to become. To behold what great love the Father has shown us; to become the body of Christ, the people of God, one in communion with all the saints.