Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Observance of the Feast of All Saints’ – November 3, 2013
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
She answered the doorbell that windy Halloween night to find a little boy about four years old wearing a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand and said, “Trick or treat.” She couldn’t resist teasing him a bit.
“Where’s your bag?” she said. “My Mom’s got it, he replied, “It’s too heavy for me.” “But you’re Superman!” the woman said. He looked down at the “S” on his chest and whispered, “Not really, these are just pajamas.”
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. Episcopalians use the word saint in a biblical way. When we talk about the saints we are not just talking about the famous and not-so-famous who have earned a day for commemoration on the church calendar. Scripture use the word saint to refer to all the faithful, even all of us here today. That mean we are also saints, yet most of us don’t believe that. We look down at the “S” on our chest and think “A saint? Not me, I’m only human.”
Yes, human, and still our family tree is not limited to or defined by our biological associations. We are all joined into one big holy family tree and adopted as God’s children, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Beginning with Daniel’s vision in the Hebrew Scripture, the readings today recall the promises of God’s Kingdom for all of us saints. Daniel is troubled by a vision because images of the sea and sea monsters were associated with the destructive powers of chaos in ancient mythology. He is told that the “holy ones of the Most High” –perhaps the angels—will possess the kingdom for all eternity. Not to worry. All will be well.
In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear that the promises of the Kingdom are manifested in the salvation that comes through Christ and that believers are marked with “the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (as Brooklyn, Jack, Alice, and Morgan will be marked shortly as they enter the communion of saints.
Then the Gospel presents a picture of what life is like in the Kingdom of God where earthly values will be reversed. We call these promises that give us a glimpse of God’s Kingdom the “Beatitudes.” I like author Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of them:“You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule. You are blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You are blessed when you are content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You are blessed when you get your inside world—your heart and mind—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You are blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.” The important lesson the Beatitudes teach us is that Jesus does not promise us happiness all the time, but promises us God’s blessing when our need is most acute. That’s a totally different message from what a secular world offers us. In fact, it’s kind of upside down.
Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor says it really well: “I guess you can do anything you want with the Beatitudes. Some have ignored them, some have admired them and walked away, some have used them as a yardstick to measure their own blessedness, and some have used them to declare revolution.
The simplest thing to do with them, perhaps, is to let them stand you on your head so that you cannot see the world again in the same way but rather the way God sees it—turned upside down by the only one who really knows which way is up.”
All Saints should not be for just one day. It’s a reminder, just in case we’ve forgotten, that all of us are saints of God, joined together with and held by those saints who have gone before us. We are right here and now in the company of the saints. We’re also quite the seasoned sinners who hold hope in their hearts, who can be amazed by giving more than they ever thought they could, and who are willing to dream of being wrapped up in the goodness and love of God.
I’ve told this story before but it’s a great one and one you may want to repeat. When the Reverend Phil Kitchin steps into the pulpit of the Clarkston International Bible Church in Clarkston, Georgia on Sunday mornings, he stands eye to eye with the changing face of America.
In the pews before him, alongside white-haired Southern women in their Sunday best, sit immigrants from the Philippines and Togo, refugees from war-scarred Liberia, Ethiopia and Sudan, even a convert from Afghanistan. “Jesus said heaven is a place for all nations,” Mr. Kitchin likes to say. “So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.” An influx of immigrants and refugees transformed this town in a little over a decade, and in the process sparked a battle within the church over its identity and its faithfulness to the Bible, one that led to change not just in its name but its mission.
The heaven we know here on earth is one filled with those people who have allowed God into their space and have opened their minds and hearts to seek the kind of life that God really wants for them. That makes for a marvelous, diverse and divergent lot—the frail, the strong, the broken, the fumbling, the fervent, the disbelieving, the confident and the finicky —who share one common denominator: their love for one another and for all God’s people. We are who we are because of this communion of saints, ordinary folks through whom you and I experience God’s mercy and care and through whom we are able to garner even a tiny, tiny vision of heaven on earth—the kingdom of God right here in our midst.
None of us are superman—or superwoman—and yet, whether we can see it or not, we all have an “S” planted firmly somewhere on us that reminds us that in our wonderful humanity and with all our flaws and warts, we are, indeed, the saints of God on earth. And what else might we say about this community of such diverse and sundry and disparate sainted folk? Well, if you don’t like St. Paul’s, you probably won’t like heaven.