Feast of All Saints
November 1, 2007
A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Storm K. Swain
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus 2:(1-6) 7-11
Ephesians 1:(11-14) 15-23
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and redeemer. Amen
I wonder how you spent your evening last night? whether you took a trip down to the village (in person or via television) or around your neighborhood, dressed just a little differently? Last night, I took part in a cultural ritual, as many parents seem to have done and dressed my nearly ten month old son just a little differently and went out for candy for the “trick or treaters” that may have knocked on our door. With Theo in his stroller, with his little Firefighters’ bunker coat on, his “Future Firefighter” socks and his little wooly FDNY hat, I passed dinosaurs, ghouls, princesses, bumble-bees, ninjas, a rather older female fire-fighter who seemed to think fishnet stockings were part of the uniform, and various shaving cream covered recipients of the trick portion of the evening’s entertainment. I ended up eating more chocolate than Theo and meeting some neighbors.
Halloween is a cultural ritual that has grown on me but I recall the first year that I moved to New York and attended the Halloween extravaganza at the Cathedral, being somewhat shocked.
After they showed the original silent movie of Phantom of the Opera on a big screen, with the organist providing chilling accompaniment in the darkness of the Cathedral, at what then was quite a cold time of the year, they had a procession of ghouls and ghosts, stilt-walking, paper-machéd faces, enormous bugs repelling down the pillars, with kids giving delighted screams, as these figures made their way through the haze, which for once wasn’t the incense. The Cathedral was packed, and some of you may well have been there. I have to confess, even though Christ is at the heart of my faith, I have some pretty broad edges, yet I remember, as the ghouls and goblins, and even the devil crept past with the Great Organ music filling the space with chilling notes, “I can’t believe it, this is pretty sacrilegious to be doing in a Church.” And then the music changed, and I got it. I GOT IT. Slowly the chilling music was interwoven by other notes and another melody which I began to recognize: “O when the saints, come marching in.”
I got it. All of sudden what I realized was being communicated amidst the ghouls, and ghosts, the darkness and signs of the demonic, was that God is bigger than all this. God’s love and light is bigger than all this and we needn’t be afraid, and in fact may enjoy the symbolic exploration of it in a faith that will not let any of us go and doesn’t need to shut us out, with a God that will not let us go even in the midst of darkness. For me now, All Saints is often captured in that moment of transformation from shadow to light as we move from All Hallows Eve, to All Saints Day. I think there is something in, acknowledging the shadow side, even as we celebrate that of the saintly.
When the ambiguity of life becomes too difficult to cope with, we tend to split off the good from the bad, the sacred from the secular, the saint from the sinner, the sheep from the goats. One side gets idealized, the other demonized. I think having in the background the thought of Halloween, makes All Saints Day, a fuller recognition of the power of the holy in our lives. It is something that we may yearn for, run towards, and discover in ourselves and others. But it is seen most purely in contrast: the light from the darkness. Otherwise we tend to see sainthood as sanitization. The Saints as Clorox Bleach people rather than those who had struggled with both darkness and light.
If we reject the other side of life and only look toward the idealized, we lose the ability to symbolize, to objectify evil as well as good. Kids need to symbolize the bad so they can grapple with it inside themselves. I have a little stack of books on my bedside table at the moment, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Holiday Stories, which include ‘The Three Co-dependent Goats Gruff’ and ‘Rudolph, the Nasally Empowered Reindeer’ and Politically Correct Parables, which includes such gems as ‘The Cerebrally Challenged Bridepersons,’ ‘The Ethically Impaired Stewperson,’ and ‘The Geographically Dislocated Sheep.’ These may be fun, but if we sanitize fairy stories, legends and even the Gospel, then evil becomes that which is other and not us. Then it becomes reasonable to act violently towards the one whom carries all our projections, be it Iraqi or immigrant, suspected terrorist or transgendered.
I think the most compelling fairy stories of our day are the ones where the dialogue between shadow and light happens; we where feel the power of the force fully, not just in facing the evil other but ourselves, where the line between saints and sinners becomes instead a space where both are true. We find the best of who we are by looking at the worst of who we can be. Where Luke Skywalker goes into the cave to fight Darth Vader and finds his own face behind the mask, where the evil Vader, unmasked himself finds the good in showing his weakness. Where in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo finds himself unable to give up the ring in the bowels of Mount Doom, and it is the dehumanized, or de-hobbitized, Gollum whom he has been compassionate to, who serves the redemptive purpose, even in the midst of his own greed. Where Harry Potter finds the one whom he has prejudicially reviled for all these years, becomes the one who has sacrificed himself to save Harry, and becomes Harry’s greatest symbol of courage and commitment, of a love that transcends our differences, desires and even dislikes.
Those that we recognize as Saints, with a big “S”, in our liturgical calendar, knew these lessons well. They knew that they were not saintly perfect people, but what they name as “sinners” also, although seeking and at times finding God’s face.
However in most of the New Testament, all believers were considered to be saints. Paul writes again and again to those “called to be saints” and in our reading today, commends the Ephesians for their love towards “all the saints.” So sainthood was less about a rare individual’s holiness, but being in relation with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who was holy.
I am not sure what Paul, in his better moments, would have thought about being singled out as a saint. He knew well that he saw through a glass darkly, yet Paul’s transformation in the light of the Holy One, was something that turned this sinful saint, into one of the greatest evangelists of the love of God, that does not love by law but with the sheer sanctifying grace of a God who loves the whole world, not just the heroic and the holy in it.
Yet by the 4th century, those heroes of the faith, who had died martyrs deaths were acclaimed for their religious dying, and others later for their holy living, especially if they had been dead long enough for their personalities to be forgotten. The relation between the cult of Saints and the communion of Saints, was often unclear, but there are compelling examples of holy lives that inspired others to holiness.
In the eighteenth century The Lives of the Saints were read by many as a spiritual practice, both for inspiration and for consolation. If you have a stack of “on top of the toilet” books, then one on Saints would be a good choice. When we read the lives of the Saints, or hear of those like St. Ignatius who “offered himself up as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts,” we do indeed get caught up in their holiness, but our idealization does not survive. We begin to see that these Saints are men and women like you and I, even if blessed with a courage and commitment that seems beyond us. In their own writings we see that their shadow sides are not cut off, they are not perfect, and some of them are probably not even likable.
A number of years ago I went to a seminar run by a grief therapist who said that Victor Frankel, the Jewish theologian who spoke of a theology of suffering arising out of his own experiences in the concentration camps, was always his hero. That was until he met him. He didn’t turn out to be the idealized person this man had thought him. I too, would probably feel a similar response, with Bonhoeffer, whom some described as arrogant. Hildegard of Bingen from whom we get the stunning images of the Eucharistic feast surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, was no shy simple demur saint, but wrote trenchant letters to both popes and kings, telling them to clean up their acts. And Augustine, who can write with compelling spiritual beauty, can also read like a real misogynist.
However it is figures like Augustine that tell us that the way to holiness, is to accept ourselves in all our wholeness; the light and shadow of our lives. He writes:
true knowledge of ourselves is inward, where no one knows what is of man save the spirit of man who is in him: but when the Lord comes, and illumines the hidden places of shadows and manifests the thoughts of the heart, then nothing of our neighbor will be hidden from us, nor will anything that is open to him be kept hidden from strangers, where there will be no strangers. (Ep.92)
Augustine’s vision is of the church as the communion of saints in The City of God, but these meditations receive their real depth from his own Confessions of his struggles for relationship with the Holy within his own life.
It is this holistic understanding of Sainthood we are called to, not the idealized, purified blessedness, but a celebration of those who show us what it is to live in the world in relation with a God that does not save us from the shadows but finds us in them. Particularly today we cannot stay with the idealized version of the saints, because Jesus in Luke won’t let us. Luke seems to want us to stick with the gritty reality of the world, for it is there that blessedness is found. Luke tells us that the blessed are more likely to be found on the steps of the Church after the service is over, than inside here with us. Jesus in Luke’s Gospel gives us four simple beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are  the poor,  the hungry,  those who weep and  those who are “hated, excluded, reviled, whose names are cast as evil on account of the Son of Man.” Actually, given the ongoing debates in the Anglican Communion, perhaps these fourth blessed peoples are more likely to be us inside these walls. For Luke, it’s that real; poverty, hunger, sorrow, and the effects of exclusion and religious prejudice.
Matthew seems a little uncomfortable with this reality. Matthew, talking to a different audience seemingly would like it to be a little less real. Blessed, are not the poor, but the poor in spirit; not the hungry, but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not simply those who weep, but those who mourn, and as for the persecuted and reviled, he qualifies it, the evil spoken of against you, has to be uttered falsely, on account of Jesus. Matthew has a whole list of other blessedness: the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness sake. Perhaps, Matthew wants to be comprehensive so we all have a chance of being blessed. But Luke’s Gospel will have none of it; if we don’t get the hope of the Gospel in the midst of poverty, hunger, our sorrows and persecution, Luke will underline it for us in the woes. Woe to you that are “rich,” “full,” “laugh” and those who people speak well of you.
It is not that Jesus in Luke is seeming some karmic redress where we’ll get what is coming to us, but he seems to want to lift our eyes from an individual satisfaction and success to the disturbing call to love of others that takes into account a world of light and shadow, that is as close to us a poverty on the steps of the Church, as the bellies in the soup kitchen, as the threat of terrorism in this city, and of the look in the eyes of those who hate us. It is here we are called to be holy, to participate in the love of the Holy One, to be merciful as our Merciful God, who loves even the ungrateful and the selfish. It is here we see that sanctification is about the hard task of even loving and praying for our enemies, in the name of the God who loves even the enemy in us. From this point we can celebrate the lives of the Saints and tomorrow, All Souls, knowing that we are all sinners, and all are called to the sanctifying love of God offered on the altar of our churches and our hearts, in the name of the one who calls us to wholeness and holiness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.
© Storm Kirsten Swain 2007