Sermon for All Saints' Day (Year C): Saints of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
In 2003, “Anglicans Online,” asked readers worldwide to choose just one hymn they would take with them to a remote island. This Survivor-for-hymns yielded some interesting results. For instance, there are no Christmas hymns on the list – which makes perfect sense to me because, with “Christmas season” now beginning while the Halloween pumpkins are still fresh, I am pretty tired of them by Epiphany. There are no Easter hymns either. There are several of what I would consider “funeral hymns,” including one that I have chosen for my own memorial. If you are feeling competitive, it might comfort you to know that our collective favorite, “Amazing Grace,” comes in at number two, albeit with a text note reading, “Top-rated with American readers, it had no votes from elsewhere in the Communion.” Most relevant for us on this particular Sunday are the hymns that came in at numbers six and fourteen respectively: “For All the Saints”, which was our first hymn today, and, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” – the only “children’s hymn” on the list.
I was actually not surprised by this last result - because about three years ago we neglected to put it in for All Saint’s Day and, believe me, the emails flew into my box. The question is why it’s so popular. The write-up that accompanies its ranking doesn’t shed too much light on things, remarking only, “Whilst charmingly old-fashioned, the text succeeds at not being a period piece. There is a dreadful Americanization of the lyrics; tea and shops are banished for stores and houses next door.”
I think the reason it resonates with so many people has something to do with how the author – who wrote it to sing to her children- gently blends two of Christianity’s most head-scratching contradictory beliefs in a way that we can understand. First, that having faith in God who created us, and Jesus who saved us, makes us citizens of another, better, eternal world – and secondly, that our membership in the family of Christ does not make us superior, more powerful, or destined for easier lives than non-believers. In fact, the opposite is true – a reality expressed clearly in the lyrics. Listen to the second verse: “They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and God’s love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake, the whole of their good lives long. And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast – and there’s not any reason – no, not the least- why I shouldn’t be one too.”
That is not a comforting bedtime story - nor, for that matter, are most tales about saints. One of my son Nick’s favorite finds at the White Elephant Sale is a coloring book of saints which is filled with gruesome drawings of headless, breastless, and flesh-torn martyrs just asking for the introduction of red crayons. Being a saint does not involve white robes and halos. It involves commitment – and often a fair degree of suffering.
This is clear in our readings for today. From the apocalyptic visions of Daniel to the direct comparisons between blessings and woes that Jesus makes for his disciples, scripture reminds us that Christians are not only not excused from suffering, but it is our struggles that shape us into one everlasting and blessed community. This is a critical lesson of All Saint’s Day.
The basis for this understanding can be found in today’s reading from Daniel. Daniel is a strange book, filled with disturbing and fascinating visions. Among them is the one we heard today, in which Daniel has a really bad dream about God’s kin-dom being attacked by four beasts. Daniel’s vision frightens him - just as we frightened when we see the rise of modern-day “beasts” who speak with hate and act with cruelty, who mime empathy but objectify others, and who promise life but bring only death. Fortunately, like Daniel, our scriptures show us the truth: God will save God’s people – not just some, but all of them. We know this because the Hebrew word translated in this passage as “holy ones” is not the word that is commonly used to mean “pious” or “kind.” Rather, it is best translated as “set apart” - “made holy by God’s naming.” That means that All Saints isn’t just for those who do particularly valiant deeds or make magnificent sacrifices for the church. It is for all people who are set aside by their trust in God.
Baptism is the first step in our faith journey. It is a ritualized demonstration of our internal commitment to the way of Jesus – a group membership that lasts well beyond death. That is why we initiate new saints on the same day we honor the memory of those have gone before, because, by virtue of our faith in Jesus, we are, as the songwriter says, all of us saints of God.
This honor is both free and costly. As Christians, we do not live as individuals – and we cannot achieve salvation on our own. Scripture tells us that we live, die, and are judged as a community – a community committed to practicing peace and seeking justice for all God’s creation. We are to stand up for Jesus with praises in our throats and figurative swords in our hands. This balance has never been and should never be easy. That is why Jesus warns his disciples not to confuse earthly riches with heavenly blessings. In fact, Jesus specifically condemns the things that many modern Christians believe we are entitled to: wealth, fame, power, and the conviction of our own righteousness. The world may be referencing such things when we call one another blessed, but Jesus calls them just the opposite. He warns us that we will only find woe if we climb to the top of the worldly success ladder, for God sees only the faces of those we climbed over to get there.
Jesus’s demand that we love one another is unqualified. He doesn’t say, “Love those who you think deserve it.” He doesn’t say, “Give as much as you feel comfortable with.” He doesn’t say, “It’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid of people who are different from you.” What Jesus does say is that being successful is not the same as being blessed – that the people who are truly blessed are those who need God the most, because they know God best.
To know God is what we are asking on behalf of Auden and Weston today. We are praying for them to be patient, brave, and true; to toil and fight and live and die for the Lord they love and know. We are offering them the blessing of being saints of God – and perhaps reminding ourselves that we mean to be saints too. AMEN.
Anglicans Online, “The Top 20 Desert Hymns of Anglican Online Readers,” (2003), http://anglicansonline.org/special/hymns/index.html. Anglicans Online, “The Top 20 Desert Hymns of Anglican Online Readers,” (2003), http://anglicansonline.org/special/hymns/index.html. Pamela Cooper-White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 220.