Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints Sunday

November 2, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo, North Dakota

Revelation 7.9-17

Today, of course, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. I love this feast day, not only because today we commemorate all of our loved ones and others who have passed on to the “nearer presence of God,” but because today we also have an opportunity to ponder and reflect upon our own views of what awaits us as well.

First of all, lets’ talk a bit about the saints. For most of us we no doubt give little thought to saints in our regular lives. Most of us probably think veneration of saints is almost an exclusively Roman Catholic practice. Certainly, Romans Catholics seem, in some ways, to have the market cornered when it comes to saints. We maybe know Roman Catholic friends who invoke St. Jude for impossible causes or St. Christopher when traveling or St. Anthony when something is lost. I had a great-aunt who often talked about St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” as though she were a dear friend—somebody she knew well, talked to on a regular basis and who took care of her when she needed to be taken care of.

But we Episcopalians do have our saints too. We name many of our churches after saints—like our own, after St. Stephen the Martyr. We commemorate their feast days. And we recognize our contemporaries as saints. We find most of our saints in the supplemental book we called The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. This is a wonderful book and one I always encourage Episcopalians to purchase for themselves and read through daily. Here we find a wide variety of saints, reflecting in many ways the wide variety of people in the Episcopal Church.

As you know, I was in Wisconsin this last week, at Nashotah House Seminary and in the cemetery there, two people we commemorate in Lesser Feasts and Fasts are buried—namely Blessed Jackson Kemper and Blessed James Lloyd Breck. I also visited the Dekoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, on Monday and there is buried another person we commemorate in the Episcopal Church, Blessed James Dekoven.

But we also have newer additions in The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. For example, we now commemorate the ordination of Blessed Florence Li Tim-Oi, the Chinese woman who, on January 25, 1944, became the first woman in the Anglican communion ordained to the priesthood. She died in 1992.

Another recent addition to Lesser Feasts and Fasts is Enmegahbowh. Enmegahbowh lived and worked on the White Earth Reservation north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and was the first Native American to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Unlike the Roman Catholics, we don’t invoke our saints—we don’t pray to them. We do, however, look to them as examples of how to live out our Christian lives. Saints like Jackson Kemper, James Lloyd Breck, James Dekoven, Florence Li-Tim Oi and Enmegahbowh help us to see that even ordinary Christians can sometimes do extraordinary things.

We do, though, have to ask ourselves: are there saints among us still? If so, who are these saints who live and work beside us? More often than not, you’ll think of some exceptional person you knew who truly lived a “Christian life.” Some of us might think of our mothers, or our fathers or some priest or a missionary we knew at some time or some social worker. But do many of us think of ourselves as saints? Can any of us look in the mirror and, with all honesty, see a saint?

The fact is this: we too are the saints of God. We don’t necessarily have to do extraordinary things. We simply need to live out our faith in Christ to its fullest. And we need to hope in the fact that this life is not all there is. Yes, we need to live this life to fullest and make the most of it—that’s what the saints teach us again and again. This life is an opportunity to do good and to bring about goodness. It is an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of Christ.

But, in this life, we also hope for the life that comes after this—the life of absolute wholeness. The life that will never end. That’s the wonderful thing about All Saints Day. Today is a day we get to reflect on where we’re going as Christian saints. We are a part of a much larger Church than we can even imagine. The Church is so much more than the church on earth. It extends far beyond our imaginations and our conceptions. The larger Church exists in that place we, as Christians, strive toward. The larger Church is the one that dwells in the “nearer presence of God.”

We very rarely give heaven a lot of thought. I hear so many people tell me about how they will “worry about heaven when they get there.” I have also been with people as they neared the end of their earthly journey, and I have been able to see these people as they glimpsed something beautiful and spectacular ahead of them.

In today’s collect, we prayed to God to “give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…” In the original version of this collect the word “unspeakable" was used instead of "ineffable." “May we come to those unspeakable joys” Either way, that, I think, is the key to what we are longing for in our lives as Christians. We have no clear picture of where we are going. Scripture does not paint any crystal clear pictures for us of what heaven will be like. Yes, there’s a good amount of poetic language, written by people who imagined only the most beautiful place for heaven—with streets paved in gold and crystal buildings all about.

In today’s reading from Revelation, for example, we find some gorgeous images of heaven—of multitudes of saints standing before the throne of the Lamb of God with palm branches in their hands and their robes washed white by the blood of the Lamb. It’s a beautiful image and one we can cherish and hold close when we think about heaven.

But ultimately these are vague symbol-heavy images for most of us and ones that are hard to wrap our minds around.

But in our collect today, we hear words given to our hopes. That idea of ineffable joys—of joys that leave us speechless, joys that are beyond our understanding, awaiting us—that is what we are hoping in. And that is the place we believe our loved ones to be at this moment. That is where the larger Church is participating at this very moment in its unending worship of God.

We know that this goal—that place of heaven—is the place to which we are headed. To some extent—and I am not talking about predestination here—we, in a very real sense, as Christians, as people who profess, and in professing, believe, know the end of our story. We know that heaven awaits us, with its unspeakable joys, and we know that if we keep our eyes on that goal, then that goal will be our reward. Certainly, we also know the beginning of own individual stories. We know what we have done up to this point in our lives. We are fully aware of the joys and the hardships we have experienced up to this moment. It’s the middle part of the story—the part of our lives that we are living now, as we speak—that is for the most part unwritten. And this is where the mystery of our lives lie. The mystery doesn’t lie in our ultimate goal. We know it’s there. We know we are slowly—day by day, moment by moment—headed to that place. The mystery of our lives is in the here and now. It is in that foggy, gray area between this moment and that moment we arrive in our True Home. While we are living the middle part of that story right now, we know that sometimes it’s not a pleasant story. It’s sometimes a very difficult story. We have no idea what awaits us tomorrow. We have no idea of the hardships that lie ahead for us around the next corner. But we do know that beyond those unseen hardships, lie joys beyond words for us.

And with that goal in sight, we know one other thing: we know that we are taken care of. Through it all, Christ is there with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey with Christ toward that place Christ lifts the “veil” to give us a glimpse of. This is what it means to be a saint.

So, who are the saints in our lives—the ones who will be able to share in this glorious vision? They are the ones who know that they are “taken care of.” Or to use the language we hear today in Revelation:

“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
and he will guide them to
springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every
tear from their eyes.”

They are the ones who know that the beginning and the end of the story are already finished. They know how their story is going to end. And that ending will be glorious and beautiful. It’s what they do with the middle of the story that makes all the difference.

But there’s one more hitch to the story. The message of All Saints Day is that the end isn’t really the end of the story at all, but actually a whole new beginning. Our journey doesn’t end simply because we die. Our journey goes on, but now on a whole different level. We continue to grow.

In The Book of Common Prayer, there is a wonderful prayer from the Burial Service that describes death as growing from “strength to strength.” With it comes a sense that our growth into Christ will go on. This is our story and it really is a wonderful one, isn’t it?

Who are the saints among us? We are the saints among us. Today—All Saints Sunday—is a celebration of ourselves just as much as it is a celebration of those who have gone on before us. So, celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us. Celebrate those saints who have paved the way for us on our path toward that goal of heaven. They are celebrating today, in that place of joy and light and beauty, before the throne of the Lamb. But also, celebrate yourselves today, because those ineffable joys await you as well.

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