Monday, November 2, 2015

Were They All of Them, Saints of God? A homily for All Saints Day 2015

This homily was delivered at the Sunday 5:00pm Mass on the Feast of All Saints at St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh, PA, 2015. 

One day in or about 1929 in Great Britain, a woman named Lesbia Scott set pen to paper and wrote out a poem for children.  Im sure all of you are, whether you know it or not, quite familiar with her creation, which has over time become quite popular on this side of the pond, though it has never quite reached the same heights in her own native country.  If I start the first line, yall would probably be able to finish it: I sing a song of the saints of God. I'm willing to venture a guess that this hymn is sung in the majority of Episcopal Parishes on the day we celebrate the feast of All Hallows, also known as All Saints.

Ive heard a couple of takes on the origin of this particular hymn; one is that the words were written with the intent that the refer to particular saints, (And one was a doctor and one was a queen, for example, were to refer to St. Luke the Physician and St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland), and the other is that the lyrics were intended to help remind us that were all called to sainthood, and that saints have come from all walks of life. 

Alas, I think it is to our detriment that we have over time come to deeply misconstrue the notion of sainthood, in part due to our deep national love of Mrs. Scotts well intended hymn. 

Saints are people who are particularly holy, people who show a remarkable likeness to God.  In our church today, we very much like things that make us feel good, and as a result, over the last few years weve gotten very fond of the idea that we are all saints: me, you, Great-Grandma Jacobs, Uncle Bill, etc. etc. etc.

This is a very sweet idea.  Id love to think that every single one of my family members that went ahead of me were saints, really I would. But yesterday Lara and I went to Gettysburg to watch Laras sister play in a flag football tournament at Luther Seminary.  She goes to VTS, where Lara and I went, and plays on the football team Lara and I played on.  Its becoming something of a family tradition, apparently. 

But my trip to Gettysburg a few years ago to play cornerback for the Fighting Friars was not the first time someone from my family made the trip to the fields in front of Seminary Ridge.  150 years ago, another one of my family members made that charge wearing not the maroon and black of Virginia Seminary, but wearing the grey wool of the Confederacy.  For his troubles, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for the rest of that unpleasantness.

Now, obviously I never met him and never met anyone who knew him, so I can
t tell you first hand what kind of guy he was.  I dont know if he was funny, or hardworking.  I dont know if he was amiable or stoic.  I have no clue.  Im sure he loved his family and his children, Im sure he wanted what was best for his family, but while North Carolina was the last state to secede, when he answered his states call and took up arms, it wasnt for some sort of noble idealism.  It wasnt to support an amorphous idealism about freedom or states rights for North Carolina. 

No, when he donned that grey uniform and put his musket on his shoulder and lined up across the field from another line of young men in blue wool, it was so that people in North Carolina and Virginia, and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana could continue to own, beat, and enslave other human beings.  He and hundreds of thousands of others fought for the right to perpetuate a system of incredible and unconscionable violence against human beings so that they could reap greater profit. 

Whatever other admirable qualities the man may have had, whatever courage may have been shown under fire, whatever valor there may have been in answering Carolina when she called, the cause was not just, the sacrifice was not noble, and our country is still suffering painful and open wounds from that bitter and bloody war a century and a half ago, and from the continued romanticizing of the Lost Cause that has gripped the south ever since.That idea that the sacrifice is to be deeply honored has been a major factor in legitimizing Confederate sympathizers and has contributed significantly to our whole nations problem with race, and make no mistake, its not a southern problem, but a national one. 

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest

Along with being a soldier, Im sure he was many things, but one thing he was not is a saint.  Nor were the folks in my family from a generation or two earlier than him who actually owned other human beings.  They werent all of them saints of God. 

On a lighter note, after my own experiences at Gettysburg, as both player and fan, I can tell you definitively that I
m not a saint either, and from what I can tell, neither are any of those other seminarians that were out on the gridiron. 

And this is what drives me a bit nuts about this song.  It makes it seem so easy to be a saint.  It takes away the striving, it takes away the challenge.  It takes the nails off of the cross, it takes the lions out of the Colosseum, it takes the poverty out of the serving, it takes the preaching out of our witness. 

Being a saint is a major challenge.  Its not easy.  Its about more than loving Jesus.  Its even more than loving Jesus and telling other folks about him.  Being a saint is about being willing to provide a witness to the life of Christ on our worst days. Being a saint is about being unwilling to renounce Christ when the torch is to the kindling at the foot of the stake, when one is lined up by ISIS on a beach in Libya, when one is put against the wall in Roseburg, Oregon with a gun in your face. 

Being a saint is about taking risks, and ministering to those with contagious diseases for which there is no cure, about living a life of poverty and simplicity in order to better serve others, about saying yes to God when we really, really don
t want to.  There are as many ways to be a saint as there are people, but the life of a saint is always difficult, always challenging, always a struggle. 

Well.  What a cheery and uplifting sermon for the feast of All Saints, one of the most significant Major Feasts of the Church!
So wheres the hope? 

As much as I like to poke some tongue-in-cheek fun at
I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, Mrs. Scott got something right. They were all of them Saints of God and I mean, God willing to be one too. 

Im not a saint.  In all likelihood you arent either.  But that doesnt mean we arent called to be saints.  Today is such a holy day because its a time for us to give thanks for the witness of the saints, and to be reminded that we should aspire to that kind of witness.  We need the example of the saints to help to guide us.  We need their prayers and intercessions.  We need them whether or not were able to live up to their example. 

And we need them because their vocation is our vocation.  They may have responded more perfectly, they may have listened and lived in a way that we find difficult, but we should not discount, minimize and water-down their achievements to make us feel better about our own failings, to help us to escape our own conviction.

Instead we should take great joy in the success of our sisters and brothers in faith who went where we hope not to trod and took up that which we hope not to take on.  We should take joy in their witness and example, and in the radiant love with which they conducted themselves. 

And lest we feel to down on ourselves for our own shortcomings, we are blessed doubly that tomorrow is the feast of All Souls, or All the Faithful Departed, a feast which we will commemorate next Sunday.  Rather than dwelling in our own shortcomings or struggling with unfavorable comparisons our giants of the faith, we celebrate the fact that even when we may find ourselves unable to take on all that a saint takes on, the abundant mercy and grace of God is waiting with open arms to welcome all the faithful departed: not only those who have tried and succeeded, but also those who have been tried and found wanting.  For even when we fall short in our witness to the glory of God, through the victory of Christ the gate of glory stands open and waiting to greet us at our journey
s end.

So let us dare greatly, let us work diligently, let us strive unceasingly, and let us love unfailingly, to the end that, whether in this life or the next, we too may be perfected in our faith and in the love of God. 

Let us strive, regardless of the likelihood of success, to our vocation as saints in the kingdom of God. 

And then, God willing, maybe I can be one too. 

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