Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
All Saints’ Sunday – November 6, 2011
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, who rejoices in all the saints. Amen.
A man was reflecting on his college years with his children. “One day,” he told them, “our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a serious student and breezed through the questions until I read the last one: What is the name of the woman who cleans this classroom?”
I thought it must be some kind of joke. I had seen this woman several times in the hall. She was tall and in her late 50”s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before the class ended, another student raised her hand and asked if that last question would count toward the quiz grade. “Absolutely,” answered the professor, “In your careers and in life in general, you will meet many people. All of them are significant. All of them deserve your respect and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello.’” “I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned that her name was Dorothy.”
All Saints Sunday. That’s the cause for our celebration today. We Episcopalians use the word saint in a biblical way. When we talk about the “saints” we are not only speaking of the famous people who have earned a date on the liturgical calendar or who appear in stained glass windows. We are talking about all the faithful—living and deceased—who are the children of God. Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “What we are up to today is recognizing our sainthood, remembering the saints who have gone before us and welcoming some new saints in to the communion of all saints. … On this day especially we are all gathered together in one place, the old saints with their sickles and the baby saints in their diapers, passing one another on the way in and out of this world.”
Look around you. Here they are. The saints. The congregation of the faithful. The Body of Christ. The community of hope. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The unexceptional and simple. Ordinary people…just like Dorothy. Our uniqueness is that we are made in the image of an extraordinary God.
Among these saints are the very old and very young, women and men, people of various colors and shades, liberals and conservatives, gay and straight, believers and skeptics, single, partnered, married, divorced, Democrats and Republicans, white and blue collar work force, Christians and non-Christians, folks with doctorates and those who are high school grads. As our newspaper ad read yesterday, “Proudly welcoming diversity as the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst.” So if you don’t like St. Paul’s, you probably won’t like heaven.
The Gospel today gives us the core of all that Jesus taught in nine sentences. We know them as beatitudes—blessed attitudes toward living. They present for us saints the ideal vision that God has for us and who we can be as God’s beloved ones. The language of the Beatitudes does not say “do this” and you will get this in return. It is language that describes who these people are now—meek, mournful, poor, hungry and thirsty, working for peace—and what the future holds for them. It is the language of hope and promise—that the way things are now is not the way they will be forever. The beatitudes embody God’s unconditional love and generous compassion. They define the life of a saint: a life in which we are both blessed and are a blessing for others. This is a life that illustrates a reversal of the expectations of the world.
A word of the day is “commitment.” First, the commitment of parents and godparents on behalf of their infant daughters to the way of life described in the Beatitudes as well as our corporate and communal renewal of our commitment to that life in the recitation of promises we too made in baptism. To help us live that life and offer it to others, we will dedicate the pledges that you have made to continue God’s work through this church. What is that work? Basically, it is feeding the hungry—both those who literally need food and those who hunger for a church that welcomes them no matter who they are or what they believe; those who hunger for the gentle care of our clergy when they are sick or depressed or have lost a loved one or a relationship or their job.
Feeding those who hunger for a deeper knowledge of God and understanding of God’s Word; those who hunger for a safe place to come where they can be the person God created them to be and guaranteed that they will not be harmed or disrespected.
Feeding those who are here on a Sunday morning and those who are anonymous and quietly enter this sacred space on the other six days of the week when our doors are wide open; those who are hungry for the beauty of holiness expressed through our worship, its graceful ritual, its sacred music; those who hunger for a community to help abate their loneliness and sense of isolation.
I thank you who have made your commitment to ensure that we can keep feeding people in all kinds of ways. I appeal to any of you who for whatever reason have not yet made a commitment to the support of God’s work in this church to help us to build not only a strong community but one that is fiscally healthy and fully able to be true to its mission of feeding those who come through our doors. As I said last Sunday, this is not a perfect church nor is it a church without its defects but it is, I believe, a unique and rather amazing place and many of you have bore witness that there are few like it. By the grace of God, we have to the best of our ability, tried to do what Jesus asked us to do when he founded this thing we know as “the church.”
It is within these sacred walls that our sainthood is developed, nourished, challenged, raised up and offered to God. It is here that we learn that what is needed to be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation in the world is to believe that God can use us if we are willing to be used, no matter what our weaknesses and our failings.
Yes, the saints of God are right here—folk like you and me and Dorothy. Saints are not superhuman. When they stub their toe in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom, they do not exclaim, “Praise God” nor do they sing “Joy to the world” when they’re stuck in traffic on I-95. If we think that being a saint means we never get angry, or depressed, or have evil thoughts, we’re dead wrong.
There’s the vignette about the master who announced to the community that a young monk had reached an advanced state of enlightenment. The news caused a stir in the monastery. That was quite a feat. So some of the monks went out to see this young monk. “We heard that you are enlightened. Is that true?” “It is,” the young monk replied. “And how do you feel?” they asked. “As miserable as ever,” he replied.
At the end of the day, we are all of us just ordinary people—all Dorothy’s—vulnerable, fragile, even at times miserable and in need of one another, finding our way around in the darkness and guided only by the light of each other’s halos—breaking the bread, sharing the cup, telling the story, passing on the faith that those who have gone before have entrusted to us. It take this village, this communion of saints, to keep us real, keep us faithful, keep us understanding that, in the final analysis, it is not what we do for God that matters so much but what God does through us.