All Saints is the freaking best. I had come down with a sinus infection, but no illness nor fever on earth was going to prevent me from singing “For All The Saints” as if I could raise Vaughn Williams from the grave myself.** All Saints is when we throw down our level Episcopal best and go nuts in a frenzy of liturgical finery.
Preaching on feasts I like is as difficult as preaching on texts I like. Because it is frowned upon to bounce up and down excitedly in the pulpit and repeat “BUT THIS IS THE BEST. I MEAN, ITS JUST THE BEST!!” and wave your hands around, I generally find myself scrounging pretty hard for actual words to explain the beauty of something.
Here’s what I ended up saying.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 3, 2019
All Saints, Year C
When I was very little, I remember when the Little Mermaid came out in theaters. If you were not around a small child at that moment in time, Little Mermaid—the animated Disney film, was roughly comparable in cultural scale to Frozen was a few years ago. It was HUGE. It was life changing to small children of all ages. All you had to do was look sideways at a child of a certain age, and they would burst into “Part of your World”.
And I….I took it as somewhat of a personal insult.
I liked the movie. The singing was fun. But I took it as somewhat of a personal insult that the villainous character became a black-haired woman when she wanted to be particularly sneaky and destroy the heroine. This was just one more in a long line of injustices that I felt Disney was responsible for: the parade of blonde heroines stretching back decades. (Snow White, I felt didn’t count since that movie was too terrifying for me to sit through.) Even as a child, I was the movies I watched, the dolls I played with, I wanted those characters to look like me, and I noticed when they didn’t. I wanted to see myself reflected around me, so I could have an idea of what my life could be. (Clearly, singing mermaid princess was not in the cards.)
Representation—who we see reflected and celebrated—matters. It matters to children who are trying to figure out what and who to be, and it matters to adults who sometimes need affirmation that their choices make sense. The more variety of people we see celebrated around us, the more readily we can embrace the variety of different ways God works in our lives.
And on All Saint’s Day, it is maybe most important to talk about this, because saints have been the way that the church holds up models of what a well-lived human life can be. The saints are those people who show us what a human life lived in dedicated faith looks like, and they are as widely diverse as humanity itself. Because sainthood was something conferred by the institutional church, but also a status that responded to popular demand, even during the earliest times, expressing devotion to a saint was one of the very few ways the average churchgoer in the Middle Ages had of expressing their own opinions—out of the control of either the secular or sacred authorities.
So, in some way, the saints and their popularity through the ages give us a glimpse of the Spirit working in people’s lives in a fairly unfiltered way.
For example: In Italy, a girl named Margaret was born to a noble family. She was born with a severely curved spine, blind, and with dwarfism. Her parents, thinking that they had suffered a curse, disowned her and consigned her to a walled-off room in the castle. When she was 13, they heard of a visiting Franciscan monk who could accomplish healings. So they wrapped Margaret up and took her to Castello, in the hopes of a cure. However, by the time they got there, the priest was gone—so they abandoned her there to wander the streets.
Margaret, however, found her way. She learned to beg from some local nuns. She started a small school for the street children and she became well known in the town as a holy person. And when she died, and the parish priest followed the custom of not burying a disabled person on consecrated ground—the town’s population became so indignant that they basically rioted at her funeral, until the priest relented.
Dedication to Margaret grew from that day, most ardently among people who were physically disabled themselves, who saw themselves in her. Margaret, and her life, were held up and honored as a clear example of how God works through all of us—every one of us, even when church doctrine itself argued against her—the devotion to St. Margaret of Castello still pushed the institution to reconsider, and provided a mirror for many of God’s children to see themselves as gifted and special.
In the diversity of the saints, we see the diversity of God’s work in the world. We see God’s call to people who were old, and who were young. People who were rich and people who were poor. People who were powerful and people who were not. People who loved crowds and people who walled themselves up in tiny rooms. People who were black and white and gay and straight and everyone everywhere. In all times and places. And so they present for us images of what God’s call can look like for us when it comes. Because when we look at the saints, we can see that everyone—absolutely everyone! gets tapped on the shoulder by God at some point.
We see the journey of faithfulness to God in this world is not just one we get to make if we are willing to do amazing, incredible things—it can mean all sorts of different things. We might be called to head for the stake for our faith like Polycarp. Or give away all our money like Francis. But we also might be called to be a rich and powerful queen so that the poor might have a protector, like Margaret of Scotland. Or we might be called to teach the poorest of the poor in Georgia, like Anna Alexander. Or become a politician and fight for the sick and the left behind, like Frances Perkins. Or we might be called to be an academic, and awaken the world to injustice, like Pauli Murray.
The point is—there’s no one way to live a faithful life. There’s no one way to follow the call of God. The saints are living proof that when God’s spirit shines through humanity, we diffract it like light through a prism. We, each of it, respond to God’s call to us in our own way, and building on those who have led the way before us.
And so, today we remember and celebrate the whole array of the communion of saints. Those who stand in God’s presence and cheer us on as we walk our own path in this life. Those who give us models to look to, those who provide us companionship along the way, and the comfort of knowing that others have walked this path before us. We are encouraged and surrounded by so great a cloud of varied, diverse, complicated, and wonderful witnesses as we do Christ’s work in the world. And no matter how we live that out, we have a saint to walk with us.
**We sing all the verses as the good Lord intended. And if you do not well up with emotion during the “But yet there glows a yet more glorious day…”, when the harmony moves back to unison– then I don’t even know what you’re doing. That right there is the Finale of Les Miz in hymn form. It’s glorious.