The Rev. Peter Faass
Have you ever heard someone’s name mentioned and you exclaimed, “Oh, they’re a saint!” You say this because you know the positive character of that person, a character that seems saint-like to you.
Maybe you’re having a conversation with someone and they offer to do something for you, and you say to them “What a saint you are!” In this context, the person offers something that eases your burden. Grace Taylor, Nancy Morrow and Sarah Gage almost always put the bagged sandwich lunches together for me the week that I am scheduled for St. Herman’s. All I have to do is deliver the lunches. These women ease my burden, and I often tell them they are saints!
Our understanding of saintliness and of who is (and who isn’t) a saint has changed significantly over the years. Dare I say, it has evolved. At one time, sainthood was reserved for the iconic great past figures of the church: Peter, Paul, Mary, and Francis. These were the ones we lifted up on All Saints Day as we remembered their extraordinary lives: Lives of fealty to God and Christ-like behavior. They were also lives that we believed were beyond our own capacity to live - or at least their perceived extraordinary lives.
Many of these saints had done less than saintly things at one time or another. Some were even downright scoundrels! Paul was a murderer. Peter denied Jesus. Francis was a spoiled, indulgent little rich boy who liked to party. Mary, well, she was pretty close to perfect. But remember she could be a bit of a maternal nudge (remember the wedding at Cana). On the other hand, she was a Jewish mother, so she was just living her role. All these folks got redeemed one way or another, which is good news!
All the faithful departed – those ordinary people like you and me – were relegated and remembered on All Souls Day November 2. We had a day for commemorating the Christian superheroes on All Saints Day, and All Souls day for everyone else. It was a two-tier form of honoring people; the greater and the lesser.
This two-tier system is kind of a hard sell when you have another theology that says we have all been made equal by a loving God. All equal but two tiered, evokes the flawed policy called separate-but-equal. In God’s reign, separate-but-equal, like all two-tiered systems that divide people, is an oxymoron. I think this contradiction is what moved the church to reconsider who was and was not a saint.
Today, the understanding is that we are all saints – or at least we all have the potential to be. This theology of universal sainthood is writ large in that perennial favorite All Saints Day hymn, I Sing A Song of the Saints of God. with its litany of everyday folks who are saints: a doctor, a queen, a shepherdess, a soldier, a priest. The universality of the ordinary people who are saints is captured in the closing lyrics, “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
That’s a paradigm shift in the theology of saints and sainthood. These days, we honor specific folks for exemplary Christian lives, by commemorating them with special days on our liturgical calendar. But this is not an elevation of status above the rest of us, but rather highlighting lives of Christ-like behavior, which we are called to emulate.
The psalmist this evening expresses this universality. He asks,
"Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? " *
and who can stand in his holy place?"
4 "Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
5 They shall receive a blessing from the Lord *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
(Ps. 24: 3-5)
The psalmist is describing an entry festive procession into the Jerusalem Temple. According to the Law, one was required to be fastidiously and ritually pure to do so. The psalmist asks who really is pure enough that they can face God in God’s Temple and be a part of this procession?
The reply is those with clean hands, pure hearts, who do not engage in falsehood and do not commit fraud, are the acceptable ones.
In that reply, the psalmist deconstructs what was formerly required for entry into the Temple, which was an elaborate, involved, and often cumbersome set of rituals and behaviors to be acceptable to do so. You had to be super-pure; be a super-saint. It was a two-tiered system.
Now, there is a paradigm shift: Those who try to live good lives are allowed to process and enter the Temple. What was a two-tiered system (those who were ritually super pure and those who were ritually less-than-pure) has been eradicated. As long as you worked to lead a decent life, all are welcome. All are the same before God.
The Book of the Revelation to John further eradicates tiers; the tier between God, who is up in heaven, and we mortals, below on earth. The scene described is of the end of time when all things that God intends for Creation, come to fruition. We call this the reign of God. This is not some far off, distant time. Jesus told his disciples when they asked about God’s reign that, “the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17:21) In eschatological terms, we live in an already, not yet, state of being. The reign of God is coming, but it also already exists.
John indicates this truth as he tells of seeing God descend from heaven to earth:
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
What had been a two-tiered separation between us and God is now gone. God desires to be with us, not far off. God’s strongest desire is to walk life’s journey with us. To comfort and console us. To take away all the pain, loneliness and grief that we experience.
This eradication of tiers is one of filling every valley, making low the mountains, of making the crooked paths straight and the rough places plain. It is God’s desire for us and Creation. We humans created the tiers, the differences, and the things that keep us apart, not God.
So, dear saints of God, on this All Saints Day, know that you are saints and that eradicating the tiers and the differences is holy, saintly work. We may be imperfect at it, but that’s okay, because God is with us. On this day, remember that God dwells with you as you do this saintly work. On this All Saints Day and every day, God is well-pleased when you mean to be one too.
All Saints Sunday
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Luke 6:20-31
Rev. Peter Faass
In your experience, how many of you believe that the forces between good and evil, love and hatred, and justice and injustice, have never been so clearly and intransigently lined up as in the past few years?
Yeah, me too!
I will tell you, some of the events we have experienced in our society recently have set my teeth on edge, raised the short hairs on the back of neck and caused me to have some thoughts that, as Robert Louis Stevenson once allegedly stated “would shame hell.”
I fear that this state of affairs isn’t about to change any time soon.
In the Book of Daniel, we hear of a vision Daniel has of “four great beasts [that] came up out of the sea” and turn into kings. These creatures represent the four great empires – Babylon, Assyria, Persia and finally, the Seleucids, who occupied and degraded the Hebrew people; the worst being the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, who hated the Jews so much that he sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar, set a statue of himself upon it and tortured and murdered Jews who would not convert to his religion, his way of life.
As I said in my Evensong sermon this past Thursday, an ugly, ferocious monster – a beast, if you will – that incarnates this kind of abject hatred for those who are different has been uncovered and unleashed in our nation. We have every reason to be alarmed. The existence of so much evil and hatred in such a large percentage of our population threatens our bodies and souls no less than those four empires did to Israel.
And then comes Jesus preaching today’s Sermon on the Plain.
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Oy Vey! Seriously Jesus? You want me to love my enemies? To do good to those who hate me? Like those White Supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK folks? Or those racists, who firebomb churches or attend a Bible Study, pull out a gun and murder all those in attendance? How about those folks who mock and bully the weak and vulnerable? Or those avaricious money grabbers who rip the sick, the elderly, orphans and widows. You want me to love those people? And as if that’s not enough to ask, you throw in the command to do to others as I would want done to me. I know on this celebration of All Saints we are reminded of our own saintliness, but under the circumstances I’m not sure I can polish my halo to that degree.
Truth be told, I don’t want to do those things. I’d rather see things done to them as they have done to others. You know, that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth law. Now that’s the ticket. That’s what feels good.
But no Jesus, you need to lob these Kingdom of God rhetorical bombshells into our lives. You have to go and challenge us to examine the values of the world, versus the values of God. I guess you must have read my mind and seen those thoughts that would shame hell.
There is no commandment of Jesus, which has caused so much discussion and debate, nor evoked so much adverse resistance than the call to love our enemies and to be good to those who hate us.
What does it entail to love like that?
Well, for certain Jesus does not mean eros, or erotic, passionate love between two people. And he also doesn’t mean philo, or brotherly/sisterly love that we have for our nearest and dearest friends. What Jesus is speaking of here is agape love. Agape love is a love that sees every person as being created in the image of a loving God, despite how much evil has infected their lives and made them behave in a hateful manner. It is a love that is benevolent: a love that is intentional and causes us to be deliberate in going out of our way to be kind to those who hate us. It is not a love that comes from the heart, but rather a love that is of the will. It is a love that we can only do by the grace of Christ, which empowers us to offer it. But why do it? Why will it in our selves?
In my senior year of seminary I was required to take Canonical Exams so that my Bishop and the Council of Examining Chaplains in the Diocese of Connecticut could determine if I had been adequately prepared in the six major disciplines of theological education. Passing grades were required before I could be approved for ordination. Canonicals were ten straight days of writing and research from 6:00 in the morning until late at night. Section III, Theology Question B. 3. asked this: “If ‘rain falls on the just and unjust alike,’ what necessity is there for being obedient to God?” This scriptural quote finds it origins in Jesus saying that “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I responded by referring to the Genesis story of creation where on the sixth day, “God declares everything that [God] had made . . . to very good.” So from the very beginning all things God made were declared good. Therefore goodness is the natural state of the creation and it is God’s desire to restore all creation to that original state. Our tradition tells us that evil came into being through human disobedience toward God. But regardless of its origins, evil exists and can be best understood as a disorder and imbalance of human existence (and thereby creation) causing alienation from God.
In order for us to restore the balance and right order of human existence we must respond to God’s deepest desire to renew the original goodness of Creation. And we do this by being obedient and faithful to God’s desires for us, which is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to do to others, as we desire to have done to us. These are part and parcel of restoring the good creation.
My sisters and brothers, these commands are the hard work of obedience and being faithful. No one ever said being a follower of Jesus was easy. But we do it because these commands are compelling reasons to turn all creation away from evil and sinful behaviors. We do it because they are the only way to break the bonds of evil that desires to shackle us and keep the world from God’s intended state. That is why we offer agape love to the most vile of people. The good and the just see that the rain falls upon them and know from whence it comes, and they are nourished by it to continue forward on the road to restoration of God’s good creation. And they pray that in so doing the evil and the unjust will turn toward the good as well.
Ultimately we cannot move toward the fulfillment of justice and righteousness without being obedient to God’s commands.
After Daniel’s horrific visions of the brutality wrought by those four kings upon his people, God reveals to him that the evil times will not endure. “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever,” he is told. (Dan. 7:18) In other words God encourages Daniel and the Jewish people to persevere, assuring them that all will – in God’s time - be well. God does the same for us today. God in Jesus assures us that even in the darkest times, light and love will prevail. Evil can never, ever trump God’s desire for the righteous and all of creation.
In a few moments we will baptize Cecelia Jo, our newest saint in the church. In the Baptismal Covenant her parents and godparents will be asked if they will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” And they will reply – hopefully! – “I will, with God’s help.” We should hear that question being asked of all of us.
What is critical to remember as we respond in the affirmative is that we renounce those evil powers by loving them, loving them as we want to be loved, loving them as Jesus loves us. In so doing evil is diminished and transformed; and as that happens we draw closer to that time when the rain and the sun fall only on the good and the righteous, because the Creation has been restored to its original goodness. And love wins.
Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9 or Isaiah 25; 6 - 9; Psalm 24; Revelations 21: 1 – 6a; John 11:32-44
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
Given the lessons appointed for this day on which we celebrate the lives of the saints all I can say is WOW!! First up was Revelations and the image of a new heaven and a new earth and of all things made new and of God, God himself coming to dwell among us. The Gospel of John then reminds us that if we believe, we will see the glory of God. That vision of a New Jerusalem and of God among us speaks to the heart of me – a heart too frequently broken recently by the realities of our world:
Who among us in this world does not cry out for the hope and promise that death is not the end? You know that oft-repeated phrase, “…for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that all that believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
There’s that thing called love again which has been the focus of my latest homilies. Love and life center on hope and God’s promise. God loves us:
Our lessons affirm that because He loves us, God and good will triumph over evil and bring to fruition a world transformed. In this world, and earth are knit together in one communion and fellowship.
When I think of the kingdom of heaven and that vision of a New Jerusalem, I know that it cannot be described in terms of geography or even anthropology. Instead, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is based on the transformation of human hearts.
The image of Jesus, of God made flesh weeping for us, speaks to the heart, turning our traditional ways of thinking upside down. It is a sign that God is concerned about the things that break our hearts and is moved by the tears of his children. Such a concept breaks all the rules for us in this very materialistic world. The imagery of our lessons today calls for us to embrace new attitudes that conflict with the usual ways we tend to approach life. (The lessons) call for a new discipline which believes that God is not through with us or this world through regeneration and renewal, transformation and change, and a world remade by God’s love.
But it’s not just the world that changes. If God is not through with us, it means each of us must go through the process of renewal as well. And there is the rub: If we are honest, none of us really like change because it takes work on ourselves and in our relationship with others.
When we add the element of the spiritual to the mix, what does such change or transformation mean for each of our lives? In the book Spiritual Transformation and Healing, psychologist Kenneth Pargament states "at its heart, spiritual transformation refers to a fundamental change in the . . . character of the sacred in the life of the individual. …." (p. 18).
When I think of transformation, I remember a period of great change in my life when the only thing that kept me from losing it was my firm belief that God was not through with me yet. He had more for me to do.
God had a plan for me which I couldn’t fathom at the time. Though I did not know it at the time, I was experiencing the work of the sacred, of God’s love in my life. I stepped out in faith and relied on God’s amazing grace to see me through. In my heart, I knew then and joyously affirm now that God was making good on his promise to me and each of us to make all things new.
When we often think of saints, we think of perfection. But saintliness is really about transformation, how we grow into the gift God has given us and become what God has called us to be.
We are clay in God’s hands and in faith we must allow him to shape our lives, our faith and our service. That is the life in Christ we are called to. Yes, we are works in progress, but it is through God’s amazing and loving grace that we can grow beyond what we think is possible in our lives and this place.
As we end the Feast of All Saints, let us pause and give thinks for God’s bounty. As individuals and a faith community, may we be open to God as he seeks to transform the world and ourselves, and our witness to His love and saving grace. May we always celebrate God’s gift of life and the communal spirit that pervades this place.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.