Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All Saints Day

The Lesson is written in the 7th Chapter of The Revelation of John the Divine, beginning at the 2nd Verse.

And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

The Holy Gospel is written in the 5th Chapter of The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, beginning at the 1st Verse.

Jesus, seeing the multitudes, went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their's is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for their's is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is the feast of All Saints. Today, we celebrate the saints of God who dwell in the glory of God the Father.

We celebrate the lives of the Saints all the time in our church. If you look at our calendar, our calendar is just chock full of days when we call to mind those great people who have lived in times past.

In March, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest thinker the Church has ever known and a man whose grasp of theology and philosophy still stands as the hallmark of much Christian theology.

In June we celebrate the feasts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Saint Peter, of course, is the rock of the Church. He is the rock on whom the Church is built. Saint Paul was the first theologian of the faith. He was the first Apostle who, because of his training, his ability to articulate the faith, and his selection to be an apostle by the Lord, gave a theology that defined Christianity at its very beginning.

In October, we celebrate the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis of Assisi, as we all know, used to preach to the birds and he liked animals. Along the way, he founded a major religious order that had a lot to do with the renewal of the Church in the early part of the 13th Century. We’ll talk about him more in a few minutes.

We celebrate those great Saints on the days of their death. When we celebrate a Saint’s day, we celebrate it on the day of their death, because that is the day they entered into heavenly glory.

But on this day, we do something different. Today we remember all those men and women who have lived in the service of God and now dwell in His presence. In other words, we celebrate the entire choir of Saints whose task now is the praise and glory of almighty God.

To fully understand that, we have to understand something about what we mean by the term “Saint.” “Saint” has a lot of different usages. On the one hand, we use the term “saint” colloquially, ranging from complimenting people for their good deeds by saying, “What a saint.” Another example of this colloquial use of the term is the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League. We have songs that we sing about Saints. Colloquialism aside, in Christianity we use the term in, essentially, two ways.

There are two types of saints. There are Saints with a big “S” and there are Saints with a little “s.” By definition, all Saints are people who have died and are in heaven with Christ. That’s what a Saint is.

The first type of Saint is the capital “S” Saint. These are the big Saints, the ones that are proclaimed by the Church definitively to be in heaven. These are folks like Saint Peter, the Saint Paul, Saint James, Saint Thomas, and Saint Benedict. These are the kind of folks whose live shine across the centuries as beacons of the faith.

But then there are other kinds of Saints, the kind who are small “s” Saints. These number in the ten thousand times ten thousand. These stand before the throne of God and none of us have ever heard of them or will hear of them, and the world never even noticed that they were there. They were the men and women who quietly went about their daily life, going to work, raising their families, trying to live as Christ would have them live. And when they died, they were buried with hardly any notice by any one outsideof their family or their little circle of friends. But God noticed, and now they dwell with him for ever.

And then there are thousands and thousands, ten thousands of ten thousands who we never have heard of, who, because of their faith, were called upon to shed their blood for Christ. After their deaths, their bodies were cast away into pits, thrown out for wild animals to eat, or just left out on the ground to rot. No one has ever heard of them, no one ever will hear of them, and no one on earth will notice that they were there. But God noticed and they dwell with him now for ever.

And so, on this day, we remember all the Saints, great and small, known and unknown, who by their witness have provided us with a guide toward holiness, with a guide toward sanctity.

Earlier I mentioned Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis of Assisi is an interesting story and provides an interesting example to us of sanctity.

But before we can tell his story, we have to think about a problem that we have with the story of the great saints. That is our tendency to view the lives of the great saints from halo backwards. In other words, we see their pictures with the haloes around their head, standing in great holiness, much like St. Stephen in the portrait to my left here. We looking at their lives backward through the halo to their birth. But I think when we look at the story of a great saint it’s belpful to look at how they went from their birth to become great Saints.

So, looking from birth to halo, let’s look at the life of Saint Francis.

Saint Francis was born in the city of Assisi. He was the son of a nobleman, he was a member of an extremely powerful family. He was raised to be a warrior, a knight, and there was nothing, believe me, nothing that Francis liked better then to go out to war, to battle, and to fight. We know that he was brilliant with a sword. We know also that he was brilliant with the ladies and brilliant with a bottle. He was, in short, what you would expect from a knight. By the way, he’d been baptized, received his first communion and all of the normal events that you would expect from a Catholic Christian in his day. But he did these things because they were socially acceptable, not out of any religious conviction.

And then one day he went out to fight. In that battle, an opponent’s sword cut him severely in the chest, barely missing his heart, and damaging his lung. As he was carried back to Assisi, it was presumed that he would die because, if the wound itself didn’t kill him, the infection probably would. Day in and day out, week in and week out, Francis lay in a delirium, in that state of consciousness that lingers somewhere between life and death.

Miraculously, Francis recovered. One day, he was wandering through the little town and he came upon an old church. It was a church that had fallen down in absolute rubble. It was the Church of San Damiano. The only thing that was left standing in the little church was an iconic crucifix, a Greek-styled crucifix that hung above the old altar of the church. As Francis walked into the dilapidated building, he heard a voice calling him. “Francis,” it said, “rebuild my church.”

Francis was stunned. But he did as the voice commanded and single-handedly took brick after brick, stone after stone, and he rebuilt the little church of San Damiano.

Then he realized that that voice was calling him to more than just rebuilding the little church. It was calling him to rebuild the entire Church of God, which had stagnated into a rigid system of clerical power and privilege. So Francis shed all of the trappings of his wealth, put on a ratty old brown robe, tied a belt around his waist, and took off his shoes. And he walked shoeless through town after town proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in poverty.

I would love to say that the people who saw him said, “Francis, that’s wonderful. You’re just fantastic. Isn’t it great that you’re doing all of this.”

But that’s not what they said. They said, “You’re crazy. Who do you think you are going against the tide? What is it that you think you are doing?”

And they would say things behind his back like, “Poor Francis. You know, he’s never been the same since he came back from the war. He’s just gone crazy.”

During all that time, Francis would preach to the birds, but not because he had any deep abiding love of them. When he was asked about this odd practice, Francis’ temper would flare and he would respond, “I would rather preach the Gospel to the ravens who pick the eyeballs out of the dead than preach to people who will not hear it.”

I don’t think I’d try that kind of preaching style, but Francis did.

Later he started a religious order that in its time and too this day has transformed Christianity.

So what does the life of Francis teach us about how to become a Saint? The first thing is this: we become saints by doing the things that God puts in front of us to do. Not necessarily what we want to do, but what God puts in front of us to do.

Then, the Gospel tells us something else about how to become a Saint. If you want to become blessed, this is how you do it. The Gospel says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure of heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against falsely for my sake.” That’s the nine-step biblical plan for how to be a saint.

Do what is put before you and then know that you are blessed when you are poor in spirit. Know that you are blessed when you are all alone because the world goes in one direction and you go another. That’s how you become a saint.

And the reward of sanctity is glorious. The Book of Revelation tells us clearly, “Therefore are they before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple. They shall hunger no more. Neither thirst anymore. Neither shall the sun light on them nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them and shall lead them unto living fountains of water and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

That’s how we become saints and what the saints have for a reward. Sanctity is an incredible thing and it is that reward for which we hope. It is that reward for which we long, to stand in that choir of saints. And we have a God that makes that possible for us.

Saint Paul tells us, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who has made us worthy to share in the lot of the saints in light.” That same light which Saint John says, comes from no lamp, nor does it come from the sun. The light which comes from the Lord Jesus Christ, the light which shines in all of our hearts.

God has made us worthy to share in the lot of the saints in light. God has made us worthy to be blessed in proportion of our sufferings for him.

Our feast of All Saints today gives us a model that tells us that what these great people have achieved and what these people of anonymity have achieved, we can achieve, too. This holiness is something that can be in our lives and in which we may dwell for ever. That God, who has created the heaven and earth, has made a special place for us, and has made us worthy to share in the lot of the saints in light. That God has given us the path that, if we follow it in faith, will make us one with him for ever.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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