Here is the sermon I preached today, All Saints Day.
Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12
+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.
When I was a child, growing up in the Episcopal Church in the States, on All Saints Day, we would celebrate, as we do here, with a procession, singing the hymn ‘I Sing a Song of the Saints of God’:
I sing a song of the saints of God
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
All of us children would dress up as saints and lead the procession. In addition to the doctor, queen and shepherdess, we had a few others not mentioned by the hymn – or by any hagiography that I’m aware of: an astronaut, perhaps, or a ballerina, an Olympic equestrian athlete, or a scientist – basically, whatever we wanted to be when we grew up.
We were a right motley crew, a ragtag band of pilgrims following the cross, the congregation behind us, parents no doubt looking on in equal horror and amusement. It was hardly a sedate, well-ordered procession. We’d shout the words to the hymns, especially when our character was mentioned. It was noisy and chaotic as girls with crooked crowns tottered in their mothers’ high heels and boys tripped themselves up on the hem of their fathers’ suit jackets as they dragged the floor. Armed with stethoscopes and shepherd’s crooks and sceptres, wearing clothes that were much too big, playing at roles that were beyond our years, we bumped into one another as we stumbled our way along the aisles.
It was not only God’s children leading the company of the saints; God’s children were the company of saints, acting anything but saint-like.
But there was joy. It was the joy of imagination, of dreaming about who we might be, what we might become.
Here at OSP today, we may look considerably more respectable as we process – though some of us are still wearing clothes that are too big and are always at risk of tripping up the aisle or pulpit steps! – but every time All Saints comes round I can’t help but think of that group of children and feel that they actually do a pretty good job of symbolising the reality of the Christian life and the company of saints.
‘We are God’s children now’, John says in his epistle. ‘And what we will be has not yet been revealed.’
Thomas Merton writes in ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’:
‘For us, holiness is more than humanity. If we are never anything but people, we will not be saints and we will not be able to offer to God the worship of our imitation, which is sanctity. It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself, and for you sanctity consists in being yourself….’
He continues: ‘For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.’
Today we celebrate the lives of the saints who have gone before us and those saints who walk in our midst. We celebrate them not because they are heroes and heroines and are set apart as more perfect than us. But because they are so like us. They weren’t all – as the hymn said – patient and brave and true. They were flawed. They wrestled with demons. They connived. They sinned. Over and over they sinned, and some of them rather enjoyed it. Their lives illustrate all the struggles we as human beings face as we try to figure out who we are by putting on different roles, some as ill-fitting as the children’s costumes, and subsequently we bump and trip and stumble our way through life and faith.
And yet, through all of that, the saints possessed – and possess – a love for God and the gospel which was infectious and inspiring to those around them and to us today. And we rejoice with them and for them because by the mercy and grace of God, as they followed the way of the cross, their true selves were revealed and they became the people God created them to be. And in doing so they reflect that image and likeness in which each and every one of us is made.
When I was a child, processing after the cross with my friends, little could we realise then what a life following the cross would really bring: the growing pains of getting older, the costs of following our dreams, the losses we would encounter along the way, the ridicule we would face as we took paths less chosen, as we tried to be who God intended us to be.
In Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus concludes the beatitudes, he looks out at the faces of his disciples, those first saints, who were not entirely unlike us children – disciples who often misunderstood and misbehaved, who were peasants and fishermen and ordinary folk, a little bit on the shabby side, his own ragtag motley crew. Jesus looks at them with love in his eyes, knowing the journey he would make, the cross they would follow. And he blesses them.
This is what gives us great hope for ourselves, that if Jesus chooses the odd and the shabby as his companions, and if God can use the weak as well as the powerful, the poor as well as the wealthy for the building of the Kingdom, then perhaps by that same grace and mercy, we too will be sanctified and used for God’s glory. And we wait with longing for the joyful day when we will grow into the fullness of our true selves, the day when we will exchange the clothes which never really fit for robes of white and we too will join with the multitude singing praises before the throne of God.