You may have noticed, I have strong opinions about preaching. (In much the same way that Cookie Monster had a slight affinity for sweets.).
However, this particular Sunday, I found myself throwing about 85% of my decided opinions out the window, in favor of a “I have several topics to cover today: sit back and here we go” sort of sermon.
I have noticed that for whatever reason, All Saints’ is a big deal in most Episcopal churches, in sort of an unexpected way. Even for people who have never experienced it, there is something about just breaking the rhythm of all-green, all-the-time, and singing about a chorus of saints guiding all of us to the kingdom of Heaven that really feels nice, right around the start of November. We’re approaching Advent and Christmas! We’ve almost made it through another year! WE CAN DO THIS!***
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 4, 2018
All Saints, transferred Year B
When I worked at the college in Flagstaff, I was asked to consult on a Theater Department production of a Stephen Adly Gurguis’ play called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The conceit of the play is that St. Monica has pity on Judas, who is frozen with remorse in hell, and demands a new afterlife trial to get him out. The play is the substance of the trial, with various saints and figures from Jesus’ last week testifying either for or against. To my non-surprise, the local community met our production with no small amount of consternation. The language Gurguis puts in the mouths of the saints is …very adult. He sees them as modern, lower-class, uneducated people, with the colorful language to match. Monica was presented as a Latina woman from the streets of the Bronx—Matthew was an uptight tax accountant, Simon the Zealot was an aggressive teenager, Peter was kinda slow, but cheerful. This range of character traits didn’t go over so well in some of the more traditional sectors of the town.
In one panel discussion with myself, the director, and the Catholic chaplain, the Catholic priest said he personally was offended because he believed characters like Peter, Matthew, Monica etc were saints, “and saints would never curse. They lived good and righteous lives and would never sink to that level.”
Me, of course, I loved the play (still love the play—although, again—not a play for kids.) To me, sainthood is all about how the human intersects with the divine, and that’s what the play explored.
Today, we are celebrating the feast of All Saints’—the day when the church remembers all the faithful who have gone before us to light the way. The notion of saints is sort of well-known—it makes the news when the Pope declares someone a saint—when they’ve racked up enough miracles to be so recognized. But the Anglican notion of sainthood—like the Anglican notion of pretty much everything—is a tad more inclusive. All the baptized, who lived lives of faith in the world, are saints, according to our theology. Some are just better known, and so we proclaim them publicly as worthy of being imitated. People like the biblical saints, Matthew, Mark, Peter, Mary Magdalene. And then, there are the more modern saints—St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Thomas Acquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dorothy Day, St. Martin Luther King, St. Oscar Romero, who provide a glimpse of what it looks like to live a gospel life in different moments in history.
The famous saints provide a sort of case law for us to study. A guide of what it looks like when normal people live out their Christianity in public, in the world. What happens when people like us have to put into practice all the stuff in the gospel? How do humans—and not God Incarnate—do this stuff?
And then, of course, there are the hidden saints—those whose faith was perhaps known to God alone, or whose fame never spread, but who still showed us the light of Christ in their own time. People who, though by no means perfect, showed the light of Christ through their actions and way of being in the world. People like our Loaves and Fishes volunteers, like the teacher who believed in your potential, like Sarah Richtmeyer, who welcomed all to the parish office.
We remember the saints not because they were perfect all the time, and not so we can feel guilty about failing to follow their example. We remember the saints for encouragement. When we struggle, and when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness around us, it can help to know that people of faith have faced this before, and have gotten through it with God’s help. We can recall the witness of Bonhoeffer and Romero when we need guides on how to speak with courage. We can recall the witness of Maria Stoboskova when we need to recall how to protect our Jewish brothers and sisters. We can recall the witness of the early Christian martyrs under Rome when we need to recall God’s faithfulness through all difficulties.
And it also helps focus our vision in day to day life. When we remember the communion of saints, of which we are a part, we recall that those around us are also a part of that great cloud of witnesses. Old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight, white, brown and black, immigrant and native-born—everyone. And we do not have the luxury of casting aside those whom Christ has called beloved. All of these people we encounter may show us the face of Christ, who can say? So in our interactions with everyone we meet, it is therefore our duty as baptized Christians, to always be searching for the image of God in every human bein, underneath, inside and through the usual veils of humanity.
Today, we have the thrilling task of welcoming a new member into Christ’s body on earth—a new saint in this great cloud. Baptisms are always wonderful, but this one is especially great. We have been lucky enough to have had Kang Meng worshipping with us for several years now, and whenever he is here, he is dedicated in his participation. He has attended Sunday School, and sent cards to people in the parish for their birthdays or when they need prayers. In some ways, Kang has been living out his baptism before he has even received it. And now, Kang, when people see you, when they are around you, they will see not only a quiet man who helps whenever he can, they will also see the light of Christ shining through you.
Because today is the day when we stand around you, and officially tell the world that, besides being a generally great person, you are also a beloved Child of God, that God loves you so much, and that for the rest of your life, you belong with the whole communion of saints.
Baptism means a lot of things—we wash away sins, we become new in Christ, we take on a new way of being, we join the community, and it’s also the moment when the community claims us. When the communion of saints—the famous, and the forgotten—the living and the dead—those who we get along with and those we never would—look at us and say “from now on, you’re one of us.” From now on, you can belong here. From now on, we will figure out together how to be better at letting our Christlight shine. But from now on? You—in all your humanity, imperfection, uniqueness, oddities—you are our beloved child too.
We are, each of us, a beloved child of God, claimed by Christ, and by this community. No matter what happens in the world around us, no matter what we do! that identity does not change. No quirk of history, no decision of humanity can shift that fundamental identity of who we are. We are saints. And we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. We cannot help but be encouraged.
***(Protip: Are you fed up with the news right now? Cover your ears and sing “For All The Saints” at the top of your lungs. Works like a charm!)