[I preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday, 11/3/19, at Community of the Savior, where we know how to celebrate this great holy-day. Texts: Ephesians 1:11-23 and Luke 6:20-31.]
Is this a Hallmark Company conspiracy? Now we have national days for just about everything. Today, November 3, is National Sandwich Day and National Housewife’s Day, and National turn the clocks back one hour for the resumption of Standard Time Day (just to make life difficult for dairy farmers and parents of babies). This first Sunday of November we join with thousands of churches globally in celebrating All Saints Sunday. The actual day is November 1, so I looked at the national days registry to see what November 1 holds for us. It is National Cinnamon Day, National Calzone Day, National Deep Fried Clams Day, and National Cook for your Pets Day. We might cook up some deep-fried clams, roll them in cinnamon, and wrap them in dough and see how our pets like that. If they don’t, we can eat deep dried clams rolled in cinnamon and wrapped in dough for some fabulous calzones. It said nothing about All Saints Day.
I went to my local Hallmark store and asked for the All Saints Day cards. The clerk said that they will have St. Valentine’s card in February and St. Patrick’s cards in March, but they didn’t have any all saints cards. She did say that on November 1 Halloween cards are marked down.
This is one of our days, a holy day that Hallmark has not co-opted. If we are going to send all saints cards, we will have to make them ourselves, which should be all the better. It seems to me that All Saints Sunday is a gift to us, an occasion to pause to remember, reflect, and renew.
We remember the biblical understanding of sainthood, which is not the popular view. I think the common view is that there some few people that are especially kind and virtuous. We might hear someone say of those special people, “Now that one is a saint,” the implication being that the rest of us probably are not saints. The biblical understanding is something more like this: all believers in the Lord are saints. The Old Testament doesn’t use the word saint much, though it talks a lot about holiness, but when it does it never speaks of an individual as a saint. It speaks of saints, as in these two verses from the Psalms.
Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful… (Psalm 31:23)
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15)
The word saint occurs over 60 times in the New Testament, but it is always in the plural, the saints. No individual in the New Testament is ever identified as a saint. There is no mention of St. Paul or St. Mary. There are only the saints, all the followers of Jesus. Every church is a collection of saints. In the reading from Ephesians 1 today, Paul uses the word saints twice:
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…”
“…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,” Both are inclusive, encompassing all believers.
The New Testament has no two-tier view of the church: the really holy ones (like pastors, missionaries, and church staff) and the rest of the people. It only knows one class of church membership, one level of church citizenship: all the saints. There is no sense of clergy and laity being two distinct groups. What book of the New Testament do you think has the most mentions of the word saints? It is the Revelation. Those 14 references usually are in two categories: in gathered worship, with prayers ascending, and in trouble, experiencing oppression and persecution. And the saints endure it all, for they are saints. Saints endure and keep on worshiping and keep on serving, no matter what is thrown at them. A trivia question: what is the last verse in the Bible? “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (Revelation 22:21) The New Testament’s only explicit description of what pastors are to do is this: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry…” (Ephesians 4:11-12)
Knowing who the saints are, we turn to some of Jesus’ teaching about the saints in Luke 6, sometimes called the sermon on the plain. Unlike the beatitudes that Matthew gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, Luke has Jesus giving us two sides of four coins. There are four blessings and four woes, in four couplets. Hear them in this way, in my rough paraphrase:
- Blessed are you who are poor, for you are in God’s Kingdom already, now, but woe to you who are rich now, because you are going to lose all your riches.
- Blessed are you who are famished now, because you have a feast coming, but woe to you who having been gorging yourselves on rich pastries, for you are going to experience famine.
- Blessed are you whose hearts are breaking now, for laughter will soon replace your tears, but woe to you who are laughing your heads off now, for bitter tears are coming your ways.
- Blessed are you when people mock and bully you for following me, because unbelievable joy is being prepared for you, but woe to you who live for the praise of others, who love to have people tell you how wonderful and powerful you are, for that is going to stop in a nanosecond.
Those words are not necessarily good news for people like me. I am fully middle-class and live a comfortable life. I am not hungry; my refrigerator is usually full and we have a freezer in the basement. I laugh a lot, though I do shed some tears, but not enough given the brokenness and need of our world. I receive a lot of affirmation, more than I deserve. But the majority of the world’s population has a different lot, dealing regularly with poverty, hunger, often tearless weeping, and bullying. These words of Jesus are good news to them.
Jesus is always turning things topsy-turvy. Last weekend, Rachel and I were at a wedding in eastern New York. We saw a friend that has a high-paying job in a company that makes investments for people with considerable financial resources, helping the rich to get richer. She is a person of faith and integrity. We asked how her work was going. She didn’t smile, but scrunched her face. It wasn’t so rewarding anymore, she told us. “It’s an upside-down world,” she said. That was all she needed to say. Jesus knows that this is a crazy world, and he loves to mess with the present order of things by pointing to a whole new way, where the poor, the hungry, the brokenhearted, and the bullied are blessed in new and glorious ways. Living in a saintly way has something to do with siding with Jesus in bringing a new order of things to this confused, troubled world.
There is one more zinger: “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” That sounds great, but it isn’t easy to pull off. When our nation is so divided politically, and when our world is so divided into first-world and third-world nations, think about what the Church would look like if it worked at humility instead of haughtiness, at grace instead of judgment, at generosity instead of self-preservation, at serving instead of severing, at uniting instead of dividing, at loving and welcoming the other instead of loathing and fearing the one that is different. The impression those outside the church have of the church today is that we are self-protective, quick and harsh to judge others, and as arrogant as the Pharisees that couldn’t fit Jesus into their neat religious categories. Instead, we are to “do to others as we would have them do to us.” That is the gold standard and that is saintly living. That is the Jesus way.
The Bible calls us saints, not because we are all that saintly, but because God loves us in spite of our unsaintliness. Let’s work at living up to what God calls us to be, at what we are by God’s grace. All Saints Day is a gift to us, a pause in our busy lives to remember saints that have gone before us, to reflect on how God still pours grace out on the unlikely, and to renew our commitment to live into our calling, the saints of God.
Now we pause. This day I think of my saintly mother. Born 104 years across an ocean, she died three years ago last week. She pointed me to Jesus from my first breaths. And she never stopped pointing me to Jesus. I am going to give us the gift of one full minute of silence to remember some saints that have gone before us, to reflect on God’s grace naming us as saints, and to renew our commitment to saintly living.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”