Sermon notes for All Saints’ Sunday: The family album

Sermon notes, All Saints’ Day, 2010 (Year C). Preached at 8 a.m.  November 7, 2010, at St. Peter’s/Ladue.

Like most of us, I have a lot of old photographs at home. Few of mine are particularly organized. Most of them are in boxes, not albums, and there are altogether too many of them: We’ve been a camera-crazy family for a long, long time.

This situation has been amplified in the last couple of years, as I inherited boxes of photos from both my father’s and mother’s families. Clearly, my duty is to sort through them, get the more significant or appealing ones scanned and digitized, share them with my brother and our children, and then get some of those boxes out of my basement.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with the images of my relatives and their friends, their cats and dogs and horses, dating back to the late 19th century. Some of them are of people I know and remember: the elderly great-aunts of my childhood revealed as adorable children, the grandfather I recall as portly and bald shown as a slender, dapper youth with a full head of hair in his days as a medical student at St. Louis University. There are photos of my parents as young marrieds, and photos of my brother and me as we grew from infancy to adulthood.

Some of the photographs are of people who died long before I was born. Some of them are of relatives by marriage, or of close friends. Some of them were saintly; a few of them were scoundrels. (Those would all be relatives by marriage, of course.) All of them claim a place in the family archives and in the family memory.

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes of another kind of family, the family of God. We are all children in that family, chosen, adopted through faith and marked through baptism. Like any family, we’re prone to squabbles, but we usually at least acknowledge one another as relatives.

Different denominations define sainthood differently in terms of official recognition. Most agree that everyone in heaven qualifies as a saint, a vast “cloud of witnesses” that C.S. Lewis compared to an army, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity.” The saints are those who died for the faith or who worked conscientiously for God’s kingdom, the great teachers and the great examples, the leaders and the faithful followers.

The New Testament uses the word “saints” to include all baptized Christians. That would make just about everybody in this room a saint, by the standards of the early Church.

But are we saints by our faith and actions, as well as by baptism? We are God’s own children by adoption, but are we bringing credit to the family name?

Jesus makes pretty clear what’s expected of us: “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.”

This is a difficult task. When someone has injured us, it’s a lot easier to seek revenge, in ways overt or subtle, than to do them kindnesses. When someone curses us, our immediate impulse is usually to curse them back (rude hand gesture optional). If we pray for someone who has abused us, it’s too often phrased in terms of making them see and correct the error of their ways. And it’s too easy to translate the Golden Rule into a mandate to do what would suit us personally, rather than actually looking at things from the point of view of someone else.

Jesus was known for giving tough assignments – “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out” – but I suspect that he grades on a curve. If everyone were held to the standard that he sets forth in the gospels, Heaven would be full of wide open spaces, with very few occupants.

Fortunately, we know that even the greatest saints had great faults. Start with the apostles: Peter was forever shooting off his mouth and saying the wrong thing, and he denied Christ at the most crucial moment possible. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, angled for position, wanting to sit next to Jesus in his kingdom, trying to beat out their colleagues for the best spots at the table. Matthew worked as a tax collector, which was like being a bandit with a desk job, especially in that time and place. All of the disciples questioned and doubted Jesus, even though they’d witnessed his miracles; none of them stuck around when he was arrested.

Yet those flaws did not prevent them from spending the rest of their lives in witnessing to the fact of Jesus as Savior, from spreading the good news of the Resurrection, or from dying as martyrs for Christ’s faith. No one would ever question their right to be numbered in the company of the saints. That should give us hope.

Today’s bulletin contains a list of our family and friends who have gone on before us, our personal saints. Some of them were really saintly; a few of them were probably scoundrels.

But God is like a parent who loves us and forgives us in spite of our shortcomings and our failures, who assures of us of forgiveness and acceptance when we follow in faith. We are all children of God by adoption, secure in the knowledge that we have a place at the table, and a page in the family album.

O God, we thank you for the saints who went before us and those who surround us now, all those who faithfully strive, however imperfectly, to live your word. Grant us grace to continue in your truth, and bring us to your heavenly kingdom. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

All saints

“For there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one, too.”

People who didn’t grow up in the Anglican tradition often roll their eyes at the children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” It’s so quaint; it’s so British; it’s so… cheery.

I loved it as a child; I love it now. Part of the reason is that it’s so quaint and British and cheery, and that I grew up with it; part of the reason is that its message is an important one. The saints of God are among us now; they’re not just sanctified ancients with halos attached. They truly are “just folk like me.” We do meet them in our daily lives – and we really can aspire to be saints, too.

Saints, of course, are human, and that means that they are imperfect. Like us, they dwell in the context of their times, and with the fashions and prejudices of those times. Like us, they are susceptible to the vicissitudes of day-to-day existence; some of the finest saints I have had the privilege to know could be cranky before they’d had their morning coffee, or prone to a little pottymouth when provoked.

But the saints of God live their faith in the best way they can, bringing God’s light into a murky world, witnessing God’s love to those they meet. And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

“I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”

I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
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.

– Lesbia Scott (1898-1986)

The connections of the saints

allsaintsThe editor of our church magazine has assigned me the job of writing about the saints of the calendar each month, and researching them is fun.

One thing I’ve noticed is that to be recognised publicly as a saint it’s a big help to have the right connections. Look at this week’s saints: Queen Margaret of Scotland; Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (son of an aristocratic French family), Hilda, Abbess of Whitby (great-niece of a King of Northumbria); Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary; and Edmund, King of East Anglia. Not a carpenter or a fisherman among them.

Is sanctity easier to attain if you’re rich and comfortable? St Francis famously chose Lady Poverty as his bride, but it was a real choice; he came from a prosperous home and deliberately chose to be poor and unencumbered, trusting in God to care for him.

For many people, in fact the majority of the world’s population, there isn’t a choice. Poor harvests, natural disasters, war – anything can tip you from precarious self-sufficiency into desperate need. Even in the rich West there are plenty of people who dread the coming of the holidays, with all the expenses they bring with them.

Perhaps in the end the circumstances of one’s life don’t make such an enormous difference; the real choice is whether to go with love of self or love of others. It’s certainly easier to be a public benefactor if you have plenty of money to give away; and yet some of the most astonishingly generous acts we know of are those committed in concentration camps, by people left with nothing at all to give except their own lives so that others might survive.

This Sunday we celebrate Christ the King, the King who emptied himself and took on the form of a servant so that we, who deserved nothing, might become rich. If we make the choice to live for him and for others it really doesn’t matter whether the world recognises us or not; God knows his saints, and we shall be with him for ever.

— mzw

(Editor’s note: We’re happy to note the return of author Margaret Z. Wilkins to the Grace Prayer Network. In keeping with her meditation on the Sunday lectionary, we’d like to remind you of the important work of Episcopal Relief & Development. Please click on the link to learn how you can help.)