Sermon for All Saints Day November 01, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Doesn’t it strike you as bizarre that our secular culture celebrates the eve of All Saints so lavishly, with parties, costumes, and candy galore, yet ignores the day itself so completely? Halloween has become a commercial blockbuster, but All Saints? There are no sales, no parties, no decorations, no articles on how to prepare special meals. You can turn on the radio without hearing endless versions of “For All the Saints,” “Ye Watchers and ye Holy Ones,” and “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Isn’t it a little strange that no one, but no one, is trying to commercialize a major holy day, celebrated by both Catholics and Protestants, strategically extending the holiday shopping season? But no, not a thing to buy, not that I’m complaining. When you think of our society’s endless quest to commercialize every event, corporate America’s complete ignorance of All Saints Day starts to seem suspicious. It’s almost as if there’s something about this day powerful enough to halt society’s strongest tendencies but subtle enough to remain at the outer edges of our perception.
Well, there is: the communion of saints. The idea and the reality of the communion of saints is much bigger than most people realize, since most people have an incomplete understanding of what a saint is. Most of the time, when we talk about saints, we mean the handful of people whom the Church recognizes on her calendar, or the longer list of people officially deemed worthy of recognition but not having a designated day. And it’s true that All Saints Day was originally established to solve the problem of having more people worthy of the honor than there are days in the calendar; not a bad problem to have. But there is another older and broader meaning of the word saint, one that gives much greater size and power to the communion of saints. To be a saint is to choose to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord.
How sad that our tendency is usually to narrow this idea, rather than to broaden it. Make no mistake: the communion of saints is radically inclusive. Yes, there are the great heroes of the faith who have gone ahead of us into the glory of heaven. But there are also with them all Christians of every age, even the most humble and the most flawed. Even famous saints have famous shortcomings: Peter denied, Paul persecuted, James and John coveted positions, and they all quarreled with each other. When we call someone a saint, we usually mean it as an expression of esteem, but it could almost be an insult. But sainthood is not defined by human goodness, but by the goodness of God that transforms individuals, in order to transform the world. And the more flawed the individual, the greater the glory to God when they choose to serve God. And so we begin to see the breadth and the depth, the overwhelming size and power of the communion of saints. Just as Jesus went to the tomb of his friend and raised a man lying helpless in the bonds of death, so too does Jesus draw unto himself all those who can do nothing more than accept the grace and love and life that he so freely gives.
Much of the power of the communion of saints lies in the fact that it is not, strictly speaking, a voluntary organization. It is more like a black hole, an object so massive that objects near and far are drawn to it, and once they are drawn within a certain distance, there can be no possibility of escape. The communion of saints is greater, though, as it unites time and eternity, space and heaven, mortals and angels, creation and creator. Therefore a faithful Christian may hope and believe that no human being created by God has possessed the strength to break free of its attraction. Some people just resist more than others.
How strange then that being a member of the communion of saints puts one into conflict. As we contemplate its vastness, we tend to forget that there are elements and forces outside even its expansive boundaries. But Jesus did not forget. Today’s gospel tells us that as he was contemplating raising Lazarus, Jesus was “again greatly disturbed.” He had already wept for his friend. This time, Jesus realized that raising Lazarus would set in motion a chain of events that would inevitably lead to his own death. Not because there was some sort of supernatural balance between life and death that had to be satisfied – God is the maker, giver, and protector of life. Death is an insult and a corruption, and cannot negotiate with God. But Jesus knew that the act of raising Lazarus would stoke the jealousy and fear of the civil and religious authorities. And indeed, the very next passage in John’s gospel tells of how some of the witnesses of the raising of Lazarus were moved not to faith but to fear. These people went to the authorities, who began the conspiracy to kill Jesus.
Don’t let that detail pass you by. Why would anyone respond to the joyful miracle of the raising of Lazarus the way the authorities did? In a word, values. They placed more value on inanimate, abstract institutions than on a man’s life. They resisted the love of God. There can be no miracles for those who love things and use people. God set things up the other way around. So don’t be troubled. God first loved us, that we might respond with love. God established a communion of saints, not a communion of stuff. That’s why the forces of materialism can’t touch All Saints and why I have loved this feast day so much since I was a child. For we celebrate today not our selves nor our accomplishments but what God has accomplished in us, and through us, and despite us. We celebrate our relationship with God and with one another. We celebrate the wisdom and grace and results of our God, who is life and love, who makes the impossible real and the common holy, who draws us ever closer and counts us among the saints.