All Saints Day.A.20
Matthew 5:1-12; Revelation 7:9-17
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
In her book A Stone for a Pillow Madeleine L’Engle writes: “There’s a story of a good man who dies and goes to heaven, and who is welcomed at the pearly gates, which are thrown open for him to enter. He goes through them in a daze of bliss, because it is everything he has been taught; golden streets, milk, honey and alabaster and golden harps. He wanders the streets lost in happiness, until after a while he realizes that he is all alone; he hasn’t seen anybody at all. He walks and walks. Still, he sees nobody. So he goes back to the gates and he asks, “Peter?” “Yes, my son.” “This really is heaven?” “Oh, yes, my son. Don’t you like it?” “Oh, it’s just wonderful! But where is everybody? Where are the prophets? Where is the Holy Family? Where are the saints?” Peter looks at him kindly. “Oh, them? They’re all down in hell, ministering to the damned. If you’d like to join them, I’ll show you the way.”
Here’s a bit of interesting trivia with which to begin the day. Did you know that in the New Testament, the word “saint” is never used in the singular? That’s right, there is not “a” saint in the New Testament. There are only saints in the plural.
Think of it this way. On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that ; which we celebrate today, we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness to which we have been called. We are saints, not singularly, but together in Christ.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the Gospel lesson for today. The Beatitudes. Personally, I have always considered them rather confusing. Really, it’s no simple thing to wrap one’s mind around “Blessed are those who mourn” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” This doesn’t appear to make any sense at all. Dare I say that the state of being “blessed” looks a far sight less appetizing when you consider it from the vantage point of the Beatitudes. In fact, some translations use the word “Happy” in lieu of “blessed”. Well, if this is the case, then those of us living through 2020 are indeed Happy, if not ecstatic with our current predicatment…..NOT! From where I stand, the words themselves are less than helpful. And yet, they are true.
It helps for us to understand that the word “blessed”, doesn’t mean that we have been visited with something wonderful—along the lines of a Superbowl victory or a winning lottery ticket. Blessed means “to be made holy, consecrated and sanctified.” Viewed from this perspective, the Beatitudes start making a bit more sense. My advice: stop thinking of the Beatitudes as reasons to be happy and begin thinking of them as means of becoming holy.
With this understanding, we can see that when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” we know that he’s not advocating chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, (as Dale Bruner phrases it) we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time”. In other words, God is present in our sorrow. God sanctifies our grief.
If you think about it, the Beatitudes contain something of a litany of what makes for sainthood: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, cleanliness of Heart, peacemaking, being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. These, then, are states of being. They are conditions of life and qualities of character that Jesus tells us are blessed by God. When we live into these qualities, we are becoming holy.
Now, look at the beginning of the Bible. In the book of Genesis we learn that we were created for friendship with one another and with God. And, at the very end of the Bible, the book of Revelation (and in the lesson for today) we see a beautiful picture, painted with words of the saints gathered together as “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Sainthood isn’t achieved in isolation—it is formed in and through community. Not even hermits are truly isolated—they pray through the communion of saints. If they don’t—from my perspective, they’re not particularly good practitioners of their vocation.
Now, you might think that living into the plurality of sainthood is impossible to achieve during this strange era of social distancing. But think of it this way. We are to remain socially distant for the benefit of ourselves and those around us; but this is a far cry from being socially isolated. Here at St. Paul’s, there are people in this building who are praying, true enough, but there are still more of you in different places, all of us joining together in prayer.
If we take Madeline L’Engle’s story to heart, we begin to get the impression that if we really want to see a saint, we ought not be looking for a solitary figure on their knees, but one who is out there in the world getting their hands dirty on behalf of the poor, the persecuted, the sick and the sorrowful. Saints aren’t so much above the messiness of life—they are hip-deep and wading through it. Don’t get me wrong, saints have moments of personal introspection—but reflection and contemplation with the goal of action in return.
So, what are saints of St. Paul’s doing now? We are donating money to the Dedham Food Pantry to address a food shortage crisis that only grows deeper as our pandemic is prolonged. We are joining with our brothers and sisters on the lawn of Allin Congregational Church on November second, third and fourth, to pray for peace and reconciliation during this time of what promises to be a deeply contested election. Your vestry is calling on members of our parish to remind them that we are here and we care about your well being. Your diocesan convention delegates, John Day and Barbara Hunt are attending a virtual convention on your behalf this coming Saturday to help ensure that ministries of our diocese continue unabated during the pandemic. We are reaching out with Sunday school class on video as well as confirmation class on zoom—all in an effort to keep kids connected with their faith community and continue to deepen their relationship with Christ. These are just some of the things happening here—and none of it is done in isolation.
A further look at Madeline L’Engle’s story, and the reading from Revelation, tell us that what we are doing in this present moment, is something that is being mirrored in heaven as well. The people of God, on this shore and others of us in the realm of heaven, we are all in this together; those who have gone before and those living now; we are all part of the great communion of saints. Our work is not yet done. We are blessed, this much is true, but we are blessed together, one communion and one fellowship both on earth and in heaven. Praise be to God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.