Homily for the Feast of All Saints, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
November 3, 2019
Enlighten the eyes of our hearts, Lord, that we may know the hope to which we are called and may share in your glorious inheritance among the saints.
Blessings on this All Saints Sunday!
If you visit my office, either here at St. Mark’s or at VCU, it will be readily apparent that I appreciate being in the presence of saints. I even brought some with me to share the pulpit today. This icon of St. Phoebe, the first named female deacon of the early church, resides on my desk upstairs and inspires me to attend to 21st century formation of those called to this vocation of service and prophetic witness through the St. Phoebe School for Deacons.
I also have a matching set of St. Frances Perkins icons displayed in my offices here and at VCU. Frances Perkins was recognized as one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses in 2015, recognizing her contributions through social service and prophetic witness. As Secretary of Labor under FDR and author of groundbreaking legislation such as the Social Security Act, she changed the lives of thousands of Americans. This all took place through a foundation of her faith; Frances Perkins’ spiritual life as a devout Episcopalian grounded her social service through both public worship and private prayer.
But it has been an even more contemporary icon which has kept coming into my mind this week, one titled: “Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence.” The image written on the icon by iconographer Mark Dukes depicts Mary with hands uplifted in prayer, bearing near her heart and womb the silhouette of a young black man also with arms raised…hands up…encircled in the crosshairs of a gun.
Shortly after I first encountered this deeply moving icon, which makes its home at Trinity Episcopal Church Wall Street, I heard some angry back-lash about it. One critic self-proclaiming as a devout Episcopalian even remarked, “Michael Brown was a thief, not a saint.” When I heard that, I thought: you have entirely missed the point.
You see, I believe the reason that icon that keeps coming into my mind as I pray and prepare to preach on this particular All Saints Sunday is because it conveys a vital lesson for this ideologically charged time. It is beginning to feel like we have a saint problem. We are quick to focus on individual short-comings; we become disillusioned by seemingly good people who do bad things; we numb ourselves to injustice when we hear that a victim of violence has a less-than-pristine past; we blame human beings for bearing the flaws of human nature. Our sense of sainthood gradually begins to erode, making us doubt the worthiness of others and ourselves. Our understanding of saints becomes relegated to a series of artistic images of historically venerated examples of Godly perfection, utterly unattainable and therefore entirely dismissible.
But, once a year we celebrate this Feast of All Saints. And I submit for your consideration that this holy day isn’t here for us to venerate the saints of the past, or solely to remember the beloved of our own lives who have died in Christ. This Feast of All Saints is for us, together, to commemorate…literally speaking, to bring into memory together…all the saints with whom we walk this journey. But first things first. Maybe we need a little refresher about what being a ‘saint’ means to us here in The Episcopal Church.
So, amid all the festal white beauty, I’m also going to ask you to do something else rare and beautiful. Reach into your pew and find the Book of Common Prayer…yes, the actual book…and turn with me to page 862. We’re in the section of the prayer book that contains the historic documents of the church, and this particular historic document I’m drawing our attention to is our Catechism, a series of questions and answers about the way that we live out our faith in common prayer and practice in the Episcopal Church. This isn’t just for confirmation class! It offers us a grounding and shared understanding of what exactly it is we, The Episcopal Church, mean by the “Communion of Saints.” So, are you ready? I’m going to ask the question, and all of you are going to read the answer back, loud and clear:
What is the communion of saints?
The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.
The whole family of God.
The living and the dead.
Those whom we love and those whom we hurt.
It’s interesting, isn’t it. Nothing about perfection, unwavering faith, or unblemished virtue. Nothing at all, really, about personal worthiness. In fact, it seems that our Catechism suggests that recognizing the communion of saints relies not on the merit of individuals, but on our common lives bound together in Christ: in sacrament, prayer and praise. Walking the walk, talking the talk, and most importantly, embracing our shared journey. As we commemorate and remember together, we learn to recognize Christ in our midst.
When we use this lens of commemoration to hear the beatitudes as recounted in Luke’s Gospel, it becomes clear that in Christ, there isn’t a separation of the blessed from the woeful. Jesus assures the crowd…and us…that God’s blessing rests with all of God’s people…the poor, the oppressed and the hungry, those weeping, mourning, and excluded. In these humbling states of our life, we cry out to God and are found by the ever-present Holy One who holds us and embraces us in love. But woe to us when we are caught up in our own self-interests. In our over-confidence and self-assurance we not only fail to see others, but we risk not even seeing God-with-us. Jesus points out to all those who will listen how to create beloved community: love, do good, bless, pray, give. These are the actions of community…of communion. Jesus instructs us and urges us to see with the eyes of our heart how to walk together through the highs and lows, the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows of life. We are bound together in Christ. We walk together in Christ. Even the death of our mortal bodies is no end to that divine communion as we are remembered together…commemorated…in Christ.
During this past year I have had the opportunity to engage very practically in this kind of saintly commemoration with another one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses, Dorothy Day. Through a series of serendipitous events beginning with a search for a sermon quote, I became part of an international group of people working to prepare the diaries and letters of this social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement for canonization as a Saint, as recognized in the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, as an aside, Dorothy Day is also commemorated in the Episcopal Church as one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses; that resolution was passed at our most recent general convention in 2018. My desire to be involved in this project isn’t focused on an outcome, but about walking with and learning deeply from this holy woman and her holy work. I found myself wrapped into my own holy work of transcribing as I was preparing for ordination, and this project has truly opened the eyes of my heart. What walking with and commemorating this saint and Servant of God has done, and continues to do, is help me practically understand how God is at work among all of us, all the time. I have typed up her shopping lists, her reflections on war and liberation, the fiscal accounting of her farm, her worries, her persistence, her travels to India where she met Mother Theresa, her holy reflections, her snarky remarks, and her prayers for mercy, peace and gratitude. I see her blessed in poverty and comforted through tears. I see her pride torn down and her faith rebuilt. I see God’s providence, and unexpected grace, and the beautiful depth of a faith that I can see deepening over generations of time. The words I type as I pour over her scrawling hand-written diaries and letters increasingly show the signs of human age, but also of divine presence and eternal changelessness.
This is what saints do: they offer us glimpses of God unshakably in our midst. Commemorating the lives of all the saints, isn’t just to remind us of who they were, but of whose we all are.
The eyes of our hearts are opened when we pray, when we bring with us to Christ’s table those whom we commemorate, when we praise God who binds us together in our common life and remakes us in sacrament, prayer and praise as the Body of Christ to serve the world. The eyes of our hearts give us a vision that we live into here at St. Mark’s and in the world outside our doors. It is lived out in faithful stewardship, hospitality in-reach and outreach in gifts of time, talent and treasure. So, it is no coincidence that we celebrate our generosity and our faith today, in the communion of all the saints. We see in each other…those whose lives have built the ministries of this parish, those whose gifts support us now, and those whose faithful and prophetic vision help us look ahead to the future…we see in each other the face of God who holds us, protects us, and nurtures us in our vulnerability every bit as much as in our strengths. All of us, saints of God.
And so, we are bound together with those we commemorate today. And, we are bound together with those who are suffering, those who are oppressed, those who are victimized by hate, and all those targeted in the crosshairs of this world. We are bound together in Christ, with those whom we love, and those whom we hurt: the whole family of God. You’re invited to the table, filled to overflowing with saints. This table is always bigger and the guests more plentiful than we can ask or imagine. With open eyes and open hearts, allow yourself to truly commemorate all the saints, and to share the hope to which we are called, all of us, beloved children and saints of God.