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…All Saints’ Day is the anniversary of my coming to you, 14 years ago now, and the reflections appropriate to this day are so crucial for our life as a parish, that I want to focus just on that for now and say a few words about the state of the parish later on. My text for this homily is found in the song we sang a few weeks ago and will sing again this morning as our anthem at the breaking of the bread in the eucharist. Joe Wise’s words say: Yours as we stand at the table you set – notice that it’s not Lisa or Anne or David or I who set the table for God’s feast – it’s God himself, the host and the servant. Then we say, Yours as we eat the bread our hearts can’t forget. How many of us are here today in this church because our hearts couldn’t forget this meal God sets before us? And then it says something that might have gone right past you: We are the sign of your life with us yet – we are yours.

‘We are the sign of your life with us yet’…. What better definition of the church? What better concept for All Saints’ Day? We – this motley crew that calls itself Holy Cross Church, this collection of faithful and not-so-faithful worshippers, of devoted and not-so-devoted Christians (no, I don’t mean that you can divide yourselves into those 2 categories person by person – I mean that every one of us is both at the same time) – we are the sign of God’s life in this world. It’s kind of scary thought, isn’t it? How would your life as a church member change if you thought of yourself not as this or that functionary in this parish, not as someone obligated to get up on Sunday mornings and do chores here and there around this place; but as the sign of God’s presence in your world? How would our life as a parish change if we saw this church not as an organization to which we and others might or might not belong, but as the sign of God’s life with us yet in North East, PA?

All Saints’ Day began to commemorate people like us who were killed in the great persecutions for the amusement of a corrupt society, and made the scapegoats for its sins. Many of them weren’t known by name, but the church wanted to remember them. Then later there were those whose gifts of intellect or compassion or heroism of other kinds had to be remembered, and the ‘calendar’ of saints came about – you can see it in the first pages of your Book of Common Prayer. The day we’re supposed to remember the non-heroes of the faith, the regular people who have been signs of the life of God in the world – your Aunt Jennie, or that man who was so kind to you when you were a kid – is November 2, All Souls’ Day. I’m not happy with that distinction. It smacks of elitism; it invites us to rank people in ways that Jesus never did; it certainly isn’t the New Testament’s way. Paul has no qualms at all about addressing his young, feisty, argumentative, sometimes completely clueless congregations as ‘saints’; nor does the writer to the Ephesians. ‘I’ve heard of your love towards the saints’ he (or she) says, meaning this congregation’s fellow-Christians, right next to a reference to ‘the glorious inheritance of the saints in light’, meaning, presumably, those who have died and gone before the others into God’s presence. Here it’s always ‘both/and’ – the great ones and the small, the living and the dead, the whole company of Christians past and present – who are ‘saints’, the sign of God’s life in the world. In the Swedish Lutheran church in which I grew up, the altar was inside a semi-circular chancel with the graveyard just behind it; the rail was the other half of the circle, so that ‘communion’ was always communion with all the saints here and now, and the ones gone before.

The extreme of this is probably the wonderfully Anglican children’s hymn, which we always sing on this day. The great saints are there: the queen, the doctor, the priest, the soldier – you can supply their names with a little research – but the sentiment is definite and confident: I mean to be one too. Isn’t that what we should be telling ourselves? To say the saints of God are just folk like me might be stretching the point; but if that means that they are and were fallible human beings, made of flesh and blood and not plaster and paint, prone to failure as well as heroic virtue, not always the shining lights they seem to us – well, that’s just true. Like us, they were impatient, cross, vindictive, proud, stubborn, self-righteous, narrow-minded, biased, foolish, the whole list – and like us they often tried hard not to be. What we remember them for is not their faults but their commitment to making the love of God known in a harsh world; and whether they did that now and then or almost full-time, vividly and publicly or just in a quiet way to those who knew them, that love covers a multitude of sins and makes their example useful and healthful for us to follow. Their virtues inspire us to be better than we are; their failings encourage us to keep trying when we fail.

Luke’s Gospel offers us some rather scary and shocking criteria for blessedness in the sight of God. It seems there as if those whom Je-sus calls ‘blessed’ don’t necessarily have any good ‘qualities’ at all – they’re blessed just by being in the place society puts them – poor, hungry, sorrowful, persecuted. It’s all part of a program begun long before this speech of Jesus with his mother, the prophet Mary. That’s a bit of a shocker too, isn’t it? But what else can we call her, as she sings her song about what God is going to do for the world in the son she is going to bear? She sings about radical reversals – the lowly lifted up and the mighty cast down, the proud scattered in their own arrogance, the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, all the evils of this world’s power-structures set right, all the injustice over-come, all the expected outcomes of this injustice overthrown. And here it is again: all the things that make you feel secure and others think of you as well-off are liabilities; God’s blessing rests on those on the bottom, not the top, of the world’s pecking-order

This is awfully hard for especially us Americans to get our heads around, we who have been raised on a diet of con-fidence in ourselves and the riches of this land. We sing ‘God bless America’, and we remember the Pilgrims’ as-surance that this was the land in which they could build the perfect Christian commonwealth, and we get confused about the riches as gracious gifts and the riches as signs of God’s favor. It seems to be an easy glide from ‘I owe God thanks for all I’ve been given’ into ‘I have been given all this stuff because God loves me best’….. Easy and blasphemous. So Jesus undertakes to set us straight: those whom God blesses are those with whom his presence dwells, those who can make the life of God in the world manifest, not those who have the most of the best of the world’s stuff. How can the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the persecuted be seen to be blessed? Because they are the people who can recognize their own need of God. Those who have more than they need – in this society, so obscenely much more than they need – why should they ever bother with God at all? They need to ask God for nothing, and the surfeit of stuff in their lives cuts them right off from the need to reflect on their situation compared with others’ – and they are insulated right out of any occasions for self-awareness, self-judgement, self-analysis. Insulated, that is, from repentance, from faith, from consciousness of their own need for God.

Bred up, as we all have been, on the gospel of success, these are hard words for us to swallow. But they are so very characteristic of our Lord, so strongly echoed in all his ways and words, that we can’t ignore them if we would pursue the path of blessedness, of holiness, ourselves. Obviously we can’t get there by getting and having more stuff, or power and prestige; obviously we are going to owe our sanctity, just like everything else, to God and not ourselves. But these words give us a place to stand, a place to make a first step toward life as one of the saints of God. They show us the need for repentance, for rejecting the standards of the world that have such a grip over us; they show us the futility of such standards for judging anything that matters. Once we have absorbed the foolishness of trusting in the ups and downs of circumstances, then maybe we could be softened up enough to take in the terrifying commands that follow – to love our enemies, to do good to those who would do harm to us, to take no vengeance, to lend without expecting a return. How much more counter-cultural can you get in a world that idolises the rich and famous, and where looking out for #1 is the tried-and-true way to get ahead?

So if you were hoping to add sainthood to a list of other successes you might have had in life so far, you should probably think again. To be a saint of God probably requires us more to turn our backs on our previous successes than to use them as building-blocks. For one thing, it requires so much humility that it probably prevents us from thinking about things like success at all. Then it asks us to re-value the people and circumstances we really hate, so that they don’t hobble us as we try to go forward. Then it asks us to forget all of that and concentrate only on one thing: God’s love for us and the world, and the ways in which that love can be expressed in justice, compassion, order, beauty, community. Focused on that, we won’t have much time for the things that pull us down: jealousy, pride, anxiety, one-upsmanship, resentments, greed – all of which are just variations on fear. In a year in which fear has become the basis for political rhetoric that has now gone beyond obscenity, as far as blasphemy – as in the sign I saw the other day saying that its candidate is ‘our only hope’ – the chance to be delivered from the fear behind that kind of nonsense is one that God’s saints can especially rejoice in. Focused on God’s love, fear can be allowed to slip away, and we can find our new home, our new identity as God’s holy ones, and the sign of God’s life with us yet. Now that’s a life worth living……

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