Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Sunday

The Baptism of Leah Elliott

November 4, 2012

Revelation 7.9-17

+ As some of you know—and some of you might be shocked to hear—but I am “off the hooch.” Due to some intestinal issues I’ve been experiencing, I am not drinking alcohol (except for the wine at Holy Communion). And haven’t for about two weeks. It’s been a very good thing, of course. It’s good to take a break and sort of purify one’s system.

I have a fairly active social life, so I of course still go out on a regular basis to some of the finer drinking establishments around town. I have an active social life and, let’s face it, I do a lot of ministry at those places. And I have been exploring the wonderful world of “mocktails.” Lord!

But I realized that one thing I have an issue with now is some of the behavior in those drinking establishments. I’m not saying that from a judgmental perspective. I’m simply saying it from the perspective of a kind of tired frustration. Or maybe it’s envy.

This past week, I went out with a good friend of mine and at the next table there were a group of young men who were being a bit loud, shall we say. Nothing obnoxious or ridiculous. Just loud. But for some reason, it just of grated on me and I kind of grumbled about it.

My friend, who is not a regular church-goer, said to me: “I hope now that you’re sober, you don’t start getting all judgmental.”

It was a good wake-up call for me. As we sat there, and I realized we were a nearing the Feast of All Saints, I looked at these young men and saw, in our midst, saints. These are what the saints are, in our midst sometimes. And I quickly got over my grumpiness.

Today, of course, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday. This is Sunday in which we celebrate the saints. By saints, I don’t mean only our loved ones and others who have passed on to the “nearer presence of God.” I am talking about all the saints—past, present and future.

First of all, lets’ talk a bit about the saints. As most of you know, we do a very good job of commemorating the saints here at St. Stephen’s. Every Wednesday night, at our Mass, we celebrate and commemorate a different saint. And I have found that, oftentimes at the supper afterward, or the days after the mass, the discussion about these saints continues.

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. But we Episcopalians do have our saints too, which we often commemorate on Wednesday nights. 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 Holy Women, Holy Men. I have issues with some of the people who are included in this particular book (I don’t understand why we commemorate some of these people—but that’s my issue) For the most part thought, it’s helpful book and one I always encourage Episcopalians to purchase a copy for themselves and read through it daily. Here we find a wide variety of saints, reflecting in many ways the wide variety of people in the Episcopal Church.

Now, 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 St. Stephen of the German Abbess and newly minted Doctor of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen or the newly canonized Kateri Takakwitha or the Episcopal priest and missionary James Lloyd Breck, or the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion, Florence Li-Tim Oi help us to see that even ordinary Christians can sometimes do extraordinary things.

We do, though, have to ask ourselves: Why? Why commemorate saints? And are there still saints? 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. Certainly, I think is many of my paternal grandmother or even my own father as down-to-earth examples of regular people who just quietly lived their faith.

But I have to ask: do any of us think of ourselves as saints? Can any of us look in the mirror and, with all honesty, see a saint looking back at us? The fact is this: you should. Because, we too are the saints of God. We don’t necessarily have to do extraordinary things. We don’t need to perform miracles, or die for our faith, or be nice and sweet all the time.

To be a saint, we simply need to live out our faith as followers of Jesus 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 the 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, to serve God and one another, and to bring about goodness. It is an opportunity to work toward holiness in our lives and to participate in the mystery of God. 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 this 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 that so-called “nearer presence of God.” I think we very rarely ever give heaven a real serious consideration.

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 followers of Jesus. We have no clear picture of where we are going as we follow him. 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 to which Jesus I leading us who follow him. 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 followers of Jesus, 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 as saints. We are fully aware of the joys and the hardships we have experienced up to this point in our lives. 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 toward that place. The mystery of our lives is in the right here and now.

It is in that foggy, gray area between this moment and that moment we arrive in our True Home. 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, God is here with us, taking care of us. This journey we are on is a journey, following Jesus, toward that place. And Jesus, as we follow him, lifts the “veil” to give us a glimpse of that place. This is our heritage. This is where our stories will find their completion. We know this because we have been promised this in our baptism. By our baptism, we have been told that this heritage of saints is our heritage as well.

Today, Leah is going to be reminded to reminded of that heritage as she is washed in those waters of life. This is what it means to be a saint—to be washed in those waters of a life that will not end.

So, who are the saints in our lives? They are the ones who know that they are “taken care of.” Or to use the language we hear today in the book of 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 both the beginning and the end of the story are already finished. They know how their story is going to end. And that the 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 in that place will continue. 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, let us celebrate our loved ones who are no longer with us. Let 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, let us celebrate ourselves today, because those ineffable joys—those unspeakable joys—await each and every one of us as well.

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