All Saints Day; 3 November, 2019
Dan 7:1-3, 15-18; Ps 149
Eph 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
For many years, my mother and I have traveled each summer to a small corner of Vermont, to attend a chamber music festival. The festival gives both of us a break from the pressures of our urban lives, immerses us in the beauty of the countryside, tiny, well-loved towns, good food, and beautiful music. A few years ago, we stepped out into one of those clear, dark nights when the stars go on forever: the great ones and the small dancing together underneath the great curve of the Milky Way. My mother stood in silence for a few moments, then said, “I had forgotten that there were stars.”
All Saints Day is our day to remember: to remember that, in addition to the great light of Christ the Son, we stand in the light of myriads of saints, men, women, and children who have lived the love of Christ in ways that still reflect his light into our darkened world. Some of them are household names: Paul, Augustine, Mary Magdalene, Theresa, Martin Luther King, Marguerite d’Youville. Others are lost to time, but never to the heart of God. All of them are our near kin: brothers and sisters who have gone before us and who intercede even now so that we may know the way. Their example shows us the beauty of the human spirit when it is kindled by God; when we stop clinging to what lacks eternal weight, and allow ourselves to become all fire.
We need to look up and see their beauty, because the concerns of the every day drag us down. We are awash in appointments, chores, tasks — the kind of petty things which make us small — unless they are done with great love. Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed, the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, but when you are poor or hungry, what you lack becomes your world: all your energy goes to finding food for your child, or some way to keep a roof over your head. Perhaps the blessing for each of these is the hidden blessing of mourning: that when our lives or our hearts are threadbare, we see clearly what we lack. We learn to place our trust in the hope for what we cannot yet see, because it is the only hope we have.
That strong hope — hope in a God we cannot see, hope for a world which is not yet transformed, hope that we will become something better than what we are — that hope is the heart of our faith. It is the territory we claim when we are baptized. We lay our lives into the hands of God and ask God to work in us what God wills, and then most of us resist that transformation for the rest of our lives. We resist it because, by grace, God is not just shining us up, but is actually transforming who we are. God is infusing our human natures with God’s divine one, and we emerge from that water changed.
While I was being prepared for baptism, as an adult, I had a dream which I still remember. I was approaching baptism with both eagerness and fear: eagerness because I wanted to be in that kind of relationship with Christ, and anxiety because I knew I would be changed in ways I could not predict, and might not like. And I dreamt I was walking through a tangled garden, which had once been lovely and now was overgrown. And I came upon a ruined chapel, built of honey-colored stone. When I pushed away the thick vines from its walls, I could see an inscription, carved in many languages which I did not know. And when I gazed on them in wonder, I began to see that in every language, the meaning was the same: Love. Love. Love.
That is the gift God gives us in baptism, the gift that God gave all the saints. The gift of learning what love looks like, in all kinds of languages we do not yet know. With this water, God breaks open the hard seed of our humanity, and allows all that is hard and unloving in us to be transformed. Slowly, gradually, not in one swift moment, but over a lifetime, we will be opened to God.
We need that transformation, because we were made for it. Human beings were created to be intimate with God; that’s what our story about Eden tells us when it shows us man and woman walking in the garden at dusk, and God coming to walk with them. We are like a jelly donut: take the jelly out, and we’re not sure what to call it anymore, but it’s fundamentally incomplete. It’s not what it was meant to be.
That world, stripped of divine love, is what caused the prophet Daniel to dream nightmares: beasts and kings rising from the sea. Now, of course, we no longer need to dream to see monsters. They are fully present in our waking world: the monster of climate change, the monster of Fascism, the Scylla and Charybdis of racism and anti-Semitism, the monstrous abuse of media which destroys the possibility of knowing or caring to know the truth. We have indeed grown skilled at projecting the monsters which haunt our souls into the world, and they are breathing all around us; that’s why we need to remember the saints.
And more than remember them: we need to become them.
Does that sound audacious to you? I hope it does. I think that we often honor the saints in ways that let ourselves off the hook. We read about their lives and we marvel, as we should, but then we add, “I could never be like that.” I could never have nursed as many soldiers as Florence Nightingale; I could never have shown the steely courage of Martin Luther King; I could never have the persistence of Paul or the joyful humility of Francis. And God’s word to us is, simply, “You can.” We can, because what was acting in their lives was not their own human nature, but the transcendent love of God — the same love that is given to each of us, without condition.
When you were baptized, you were not being given some small fragment of God’s love. You were being given the whole thing: the grace that moves the sun and the lesser stars. From that day on, the limitation on your life has been not your capacity, but your willingness to cooperate with what God is working in you. In the words of Elizabeth O’Connor, “We need to throw away the maps we have used in the past, to know that we have capacities that we have not exercised. What happens to people under the stimulation of the Holy Spirit is that they discover they have been living far beneath that of which they are capable.”
What the world needs is more saints. Saints know why they live, and for whom. The purpose of their lives is not a philosophical proposition and the acts of their lives are not determined by whims or by the roll of dice. Their purpose is to draw near to Jesus and the acts of their days lead them toward him. The world around us is being shaped by extremists: by men and women who have embraced a message of hatred, cruelty, and contempt. At such a time, we need to remember that Jesus is calling us to be extremists, too: extremists for love. We are called not to wish things were better, but to work for it: to put our flesh and blood on the side of the broken. To add our full weight to the world that God is bringing to birth, just as God has staked God’s full flesh and blood on us.
In the last days of the Kingdom of Judah, when the armies of Babylon were circling the city of Jerusalem, the Lord spoke to Jeremiah the prophet and told him to buy a piece of land and to bury the deed in a clay pot. The command was insane: the land in question was already conquered; there was no way that Jeremiah would ever be able to take possession of it. Nevertheless, he bought the land the wrote the deed, and the Lord spoke to him again and said, Nevertheless. Nevertheless, this time of pain shall not last forever. Nevertheless, my people shall not be faithless forever. Nevertheless: ruin and catastrophe will come, and yet, I will bring forth from it redemption and healing and life.
That nevertheless is our inheritance: the inheritance of the saints. It is the hope of our calling and the riches of God’s glory. Wherever you are in your journey of faith, however powerless you may feel today, God has purchased you; God has sealed you as God’s own; and God has planted the seed of grace in your heart.
And so we are not powerless to shape a more excellent world. We are not powerless, but the price of using our power is putting ourselves on the line. The freedom of Christ is not safe and it is not passive. It asks us to engage with one another, to stake our heart on what we believe, to order our days toward our final end. Do that, and the hours and minutes and days become rich with blessing. Do that, and your heart becomes rich in love. Do that, and when you die — because you will; we all do — when you die you will know why you have lived on this earth. You will see the face of the One who made you and you will be like him, for you will have been transformed into his image all along.
 Elizabeth O’Connor, “What We Need is More Saints.”