Sermon for All Saints
November 06, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
All Saints’ Day used to be my favorite holiday, besides Easter and Christmas, back when I thought it was about other people. It’s uplifting to think about the heroic and enduring accomplishments of other people, the sacrifices other people made, the inner transformation and public rededication of other people’s lives. Uplifting, and easy, because doing so required no commitment on my part. I thought of saints like superheroes, exciting figures who did great things because of exceptional abilities, and who asked nothing of the rest of us.
But of course that overlooks history, theology, and the first word in the phrase “All Saints’ Day.” And conveniently overlooks the fact that the writers of the New Testament used the word “saint,” or rather the Greek word “hagios,” to refer to all the people who had chosen to accept the free gift of Christ’s love and become his followers. The word means “set apart.” In those days, most saints were very much alive and walking the Earth. Saints were also a small minority, setting themselves apart from the rest of the world by their acts of compassion and their proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. But they were also ordinary people, set apart by God’s extraordinary grace, not their own fame.
For the writers of the New Testament, saints really were just folk like them, who had set their hope on Christ and lived for the praise of his glory. They were not put on pedestals or into stained glass and their personal faults and shortcomings were very much in evidence. They struggled to keep Christ at the center of their lives and to follow his difficult teachings. They weren’t saints because they always did the right thing, or because they had all the answers, or because they were always sweet and pleasant. They were saints because their relationships with Jesus Christ were so open and intimate as to let his love transform them.
Would the saints of the early Church recognize us as saints? Do we even want to be saints? Sainthood has its downsides. It is known to lead to martyrdom. But even apart from those extreme cases, sainthood still entails separation, intentional and obvious separation from much of society. Jesus explained that his way was directly opposed to the way of the world, for while the world loves the haves, Jesus loves the have-nots. The world acclaims the rich and happy, while Jesus blesses the poor and suffering. That we can choose which side we’re on is a blessing itself. Even if we’re doing well, we can still be on Jesus’s side. He tells us how, with a “Blessed” just for us: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”
Being on Jesus’s side means joining his mission, accepting his mission as our own. That is the answer to the skeptics of the world who might fairly ask, just how is it that the poor, the hungry, and the weeping are blessed? How does Jesus bless them? The answer, I hope, is that Jesus blesses them… through us. Jesus asks us to identify with those who suffer, to see ourselves in their place and consider how we would want others to treat us. Would we want to be ignored, ridiculed, or lectured, or would we want to be welcomed, fed, and consoled? Would we see the face of Christ reflected by the saints?
I think we would, if we were blessed to come to Saint John’s. This church has chosen to keep Christ’s mission at the core of our identity. The only way to do that, of course, is to actually serve those in need, and so we do, giving generously of our time, effort, and money to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society. Our multiple feeding and pastoral ministries, the Grace Center, Recovery Safe Spaces, the thrift shop, the emergency and discretionary funds, and the work done on our behalf at the diocesan, national, and international levels all reveal the truth of Christ’s love, his gracious compassion, and the immeasurable greatness of his power. We are, above all, a church of the mission of Jesus Christ, and the saints of the early Church would recognize us as their siblings as well as their successors.
We are such a church because devote so much of what we have to Christ’s mission. It’s a choice with real consequences to our own household finances and to our parish budget. We could quite easily close our budget deficit if we cut back support of our mission and other churches facing similar pressures have chosen to do just that. But that’s not who we are. Nothing is more important than sharing Christ’s love with the world in every way we can, and if anything, we should be spending more on mission. But the courage of the vestry must reflect the courage of every family. The principles that shape the parish budget can only be the same principles that shape our personal and household spending. The saints are not some far-off faction, they are you and me.
That’s why the first financial act of my week is dropping off my pledge envelope. That’s why I structure my own budget by pledging ten percent of my salary to Saint John’s first and working out what I can spend on everything else later, from what’s left over. This is for real, and to everyone who joins me in pledging to Saint John’s, I thank you. And I rejoice that I am not alone, and our parish is not alone, but a part of the universal church, and that the church does more good works for more people than I ever could. I rejoice that the work of Christ goes on in this world thanks to what we have chosen to do. I rejoice in the full depth and breadth of sainthood that we share as Christ’s family, a family that exists because of our decision to accept Christ’s love and become his followers.
So rejoice in this day and leap for joy, for surely our reward is great in heaven. And rejoice every day that we don’t have to wait for heaven or a superhero, for through saints like us the blessings of God flow richly and freely through the world, and we are both blessed and a blessing, magnifying the glory of God.