All Saints Day
I John 3:1-3; Ps 34
On November 1st, 1997, I spent the evening at a choir rehearsal, practicing the pieces of music which we would sing for All Saints Sunday. We sang There is a Balm in Gilead (my stepfather’s favorite spiritual) and Stanford’s setting of the classic All Saints’ text: “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment can ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,… but they are at peace. ” (Wisdom 3:1-3) When I went home, the phone rang, and I learned that while we had been singing about crossing over Jordan, my stepfather had been doing it. That evening, I caught a red-eye back to D.C., and descended into the city the next morning on a perfect autumn day. A crystal-blue sky shone against the blazing leaves of autumn, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of the unfairness of it all: that there should be a day this beautiful, and that my stepfather would not be part of it. It was my first real experience of the ambiguity of death.
The poet Henry Vaughan captures that feeling when he writes,
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear….
I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.
To me, those lines catch the bittersweet nature of All Saints Day, when we remember those we love but see no more, and try to hold fast the hope of seeing them again. This year, there are so many: we are holding this feast in the midst of pandemic, and even if some of you do not know people who have died, we know that people have died, and that knowledge is a wound in itself. And layered onto all that, Vaughan’s lines also speak to the plight of those who are keeping a tight confinement, waiting alone in their homes while others in their community are able to live less-circumscribed lives. And yet, like the living and dead who form the Communion of saints, we are linked to one another by bonds of love which are always around us, even when we cannot feel or see them.
In these months of isolation, I have been sustained by seeing your faces in our online worship each week. It has made me more aware of who you are, and of who is missing, and makes me wonder who I do and do not allow into my circle of love. That’s where saints come in: they help us imagine what holiness looks like, and that impacts how we receive others and what they offer. If we think that saints must be meek and mild, we reject those who are not. If we include prophets in our canon, we might welcome someone who challenges our world. If we realize that Augustine was not in Africa, but from it, that might change our understanding of the roots of our faith and of how later cultures fit into it.
What is a saint, anyway? A saint is a person who has been transformed by God’s grace so that they can live in holiness of life. We often speak of them as people of great love, and that is true. But today I’d like to add to that: a saint is a person with a fundamental commitment to the truth. And not just any truth: God’s truth. Since the late 19th century, it has been fashionable in liberal Christian circles like ours to speak of different registers of truth: scientific truth, economic truth, psychological truth, the truth which comes from our own experiences. Personally, I do not think we should have ceded that ground. All truth comes from God, and, ultimately, it holds together, just as all people come from God, and we must hold together. Where truths appear to conflict, the issue is not in the facts, but in our understanding.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing, like a fundamentalist, that the words of the Bible, understood literally, must be The Test of Everything Else. I mean that the law of God is justice and love and peace and mutuality, and whenever we interpret our lives or our world in ways which do not foster those aims, we have erred. It is possible (even simple) to reconcile subatomic physics with our faith; reconciling the existence of an atomic bomb is much more problematic. The issue is not the structure of the world, but the use we make of it.
When we say “God is love,” we are making a claim which is true, but squishy. When Jesus says, ““I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), he invites us to enter a path of discipleship (the Way) and discipline (the Truth), which impart Life. These two understandings need one another, and we need both. The writer Luis de Bernières wrote, “Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away.”
That choice to love is crucial: it makes us in its own image. St. Clare of Assisi said, “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.”
Over the course of a lifetime lived in openness to God, the truth of God strips away from us all that is not consonant with love. Perhaps that is one reason so many of us (and I include myself) will do just about anything to keep God at arm’s length. We love our evasions! Our comfortable lives, our freedom to give a little, our peace with our own powerlessness. At a deep level, many of us fear that if we let God draw too close, God might take those things away. The difficulty in becoming a saint is not that we are not good enough; God’s grace is sufficient to heal our weakness. The difficulty is that most of us don’t want to be transformed that thoroughly! Jesus may declare, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but personally, I’d prefer to be spiritually rich! And the rest of his blessings aren’t all that appealing, either: we don’t want to mourn, to hunger or thirst for righteousness, to be reviled or persecuted— even if many of us have tasted those things in this last, hard year. Each of these is a painful condition, not an obvious form of blessing. The path of Jesus is not all that inviting to our worldly selves.
The love of God is dangerous; it breaks us to all that is not love. It pinned Jesus to the Cross, which no mere iron could have done, but only his desire to end our suffering. And that love for God’s people is the Cross we are asked to carry. The saints are the people who allow their hearts to break, again and again and again.
St. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3: 1-3) We who love Jesus will become like Jesus. We might end like Jesus.
But of course, Jesus was not the Cross. He chose to carry it, but he himself was love and joy and light and community and laughter and wisdom and tenderness and patience and constancy. He was the light which cannot be quenched, the life which cannot die. We see that astonishing resilience in the lives of each of the saints we will hear about in today’s liturgy, men and women who faced straight into the brokenness of their time, yet who responded with creativity and strength because they were rooted in the goodness and love of God.
My friends, the hope that rose in them is there for each of us, also. We may be living in a dark time, a disorienting time, but we have been given the grace of God. We can choose not to take the path of indifference. We can choose to put ourselves and our hearts on the line. We can live in justice and peace and love and mutuality, until those things become real in our relationships and spread beyond us into the fabric of this world. We can make that choice, because those things are already in this world, and when we walk in those paths, we find that they have already been cut deep in the earth by the footprints of those who have gone before. And the love of God has gone before us and before them, creating us, sustaining us, guiding us, and holding us in life. In the words of St. Peter, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (II Peter 1:19)