All Saints Sunday
Wis 3:1-9; Ps 24 Rev 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
YouTube recording of the service. The sermon begins around 29:00
One hundred three years ago, a child was born into conditions of great injustice. Although he was living in his own land, his people knew no freedom. The boy grew, learned, and began to work for change. But when that change did not come, his heart became embittered. He turned to violence, using bombs and guns to break apart the chains which held his people.
His violence led him to chains of his own. Caught, tried, and condemned, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Sent to a barren island, he was given a daily task of breaking large rocks into smaller ones. It was pointless: that was the point. To make him squander his life and his strength on things that did not matter. But during that time of hard labor, the man’s own heart softened. Through the stony waste of rage, tender sprigs of peace began to grow. And when he finally emerged from prison, twenty-seven years later, Nelson Mandela was a changed man. When he emerged smiling into the light, he spoke, not of vengeance, but of redemption. He spoke of a world in which the blind would see, the lame walk, the deaf hear and understand, and the poor have good news brought to them, news of freedom and peace.
We do not know how the softening came, as we often do not see the work of grace in our own hearts. We know only its footsteps, the peace and forgiveness that spring up where it has passed and been invited to stay. And we know where grace is most likely to appear: in the broken places and in the despised people and in the darkened and shame-haunted corners of our hearts, for they are what most needs to be redeemed.
Jesus told a parable about the kingdom of heaven. He said, “It is like a mustard-seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs…and the birds come and take shelter in its branches.” (Matt 13:31-32, paraphrase) That mustard seed is grace, God’s mercy given to us, not because of our deserving, but because of our need. And it is the only force that can transform the human heart and make it grow.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those who best responded to that seed of grace. The saints are the heroes of our faith, men and women whose light shines down the years, the people in whose lives we can catch a glimpse of what it must have been to see Christ walk this earth. Our calendar actually has two days on which to remember, All Saints and All Souls. All Saints is the older; it was meant for the remembrance of all those who had died in the faith. In the 11th century, however, the Church added the Feast of All Souls, a day dedicated to prayer for all those whose souls languished in Purgatory. The idea was that the great saints went straight to heaven, but the rest of us needed some help.
This makes it a bit of an anomaly in the Anglican Church, which does not teach that there is a Purgatory. It is good to have a day to remember with gratitude those we have loved, but we get into some difficulties when we try to wrap theology around it. Dividing the company of the redeemed into the great saints and the rest of us has some essential humility, but it’s easy to slide into the belief that certain people — Augustine and Francis and Mary Magdalene and Theresa of Avila — deserved their salvation, while the rest of us get by on forgiveness. But that, of course, is heresy. The truth is that we ordinary folks are saved only by grace, and that those great saints were saved only by grace, too. We are all saved only by the mercy of God, who alone can break the chains of death. The question is how deeply we respond to the mustard-seed of faith that is planted in our lives; how throughly we allow it to break up our stony hearts and make them tender and receptive to the love of God.
Sometimes, looking at the world around us, it can be hard to believe in that hope. So much tells a story of brutal indifference to human welfare. When I first moved to Washington, DC, the Metro stations nearest the Pentagon and the White House were lined with placards advertising weapons systems: billion-dollar machines which could fire astonishing numbers of bullets so quickly you could barely blink. I would stand there, waiting for my train, and gape, asking, Is this the use we have made of our ingenuity? And this pandemic has been no exception: we have all read or heard of how the leaders of certain nations or industries have allowed the deaths to mount, choosing to politicize the pandemic for their own advantage or to profiteer from the desperation of people trying to live. We have all seen the pictures of the endless rows of graves — five million at last count. It would be easy to believe they did not matter at all. And yet, against all that, we have seen the everyday heroism of doctors, nurses, paramedics, janitors, grocery delivery workers, and so many others who woke up each morning and placed themselves in harm’s way and tried to make this situation less awful for others — for other whom they did not even know. And they did not ask the people they helped how they had lived their lives, or what party they supported, or anything else: they helped everyone.
Even so does Christ help us. The author of Wisdom writes, “But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment can ever touch them.” In that “but” is summed the entire mercy of God. Against all the forces of death and decay, God placed himself in the balance. Against the massive weight of human indifference, God placed God’s own love in the balance. Not by waving a divine hand from on high, like an almighty sorcerer, but by stepping down into the dust and struggle of this earth, this earth which God created and named as good. The poet Henry Vaughan writes, “And here in dust and dirt, O here / The lilies of His love appear!” (“The Revival”)
C.S. Lewis describes one of those lilies in his book, The Great Divorce, which tells of an imaginary journey through heaven. At one point, he sees a great procession, bright spirits casting flowers and singing music of indescribable beauty, then young men and women, and after them, a lady in whose honor this was being done. Lewis gasps and asks, “Is it?…Is it…” But his guide replies, “No. It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green…She is one of the great ones. …Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter….Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves.”
In her they became themselves. Lewis is describing a particular kind of love, love which looks quite ordinary, but which partakes of the love of God. When God created all this world, God made it and infused it with goodness, and then he set it free. God made us in his image, and set us free. The fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “The seed of God is in us. Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is, and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.” He did not mean that we would become gods, but that we would grow into God — that our human nature would be enfolded in God, until we, like Christ, could shine God’s light into this world. The goal is not that we become Christ, but that we become ourselves, and that we help others become themselves.
That is the Christian hope, my friends: not only a hope for life after death, but for a life which is true, here, in this world. Joan Chittister writes, “The great question in the spiritual life is not whether there is life after death; it’s whether there is life before it.” Whether we will live freely, now. Whether we can love generously, now. Whether we can live, here, now, as if the people around us were holy (they are), as if redemption were true (it is), as if death does not have the final word (it does not).
Imagine, for a moment, what that might look life in your own life. What decision might you make, if you had no reason to fear? Whom might you forgive? Whom might you love? There is a powerful freedom in faith. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, wrapped in his linen shroud, Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Unbind him, and let him go.
It is never too late for us to walk in the way of Christ. It is never too late for us to walk in the way of love. Even if you have wasted your youth in bitterness, God is not done with you yet. Even if you have spent years on what now seems futile, God is not done with you yet. Whatever we are now, the end of our story lies not with us, but with God, and it’s not about our own puny faithfulness, which falters and grows and dims; it’s about God’s mighty and eternal faithfulness, which does not falter or fade, and which the darkness shall not overcome.
And so we do not lose heart. Whatever burdens you are carrying today, whatever failure weighs you down, remember this: God is not done with you yet. Whatever mess is around you, whatever fear is in the very air we breathe, remember this: God is not done with us yet. Whatever the challenges you think you cannot meet; no matter the forgiveness that you cannot give; whatever work of love you are afraid to try, remember: God is not done with you yet. That spark of grace that was planted in your heart is nothing less than the very spirit of God, and it yearns to flame out from our simple lives and make all our ruins glory.