St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, November 4, 2018
All Saints’ Sunday
First Lesson: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Second Lesson: Revelation 21:1-6a
Gospel: John 11:32-44
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are several hymns in our hymnal that are especially appropriate for us to sing on All Saints’ Day, beautiful hymns such as the one that we sang at the beginning of our service this morning, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest,” or the one that we sang just a few moments ago before the Gospel, “By all your saints still striving.” But, there’s one hymn that, for me, really gets to the heart of what this feast day is all about.
It begins like this:
“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.”
In the parish where I served before coming to St. Catherine’s, we sang this hymn every time there was a baptism. We would process to the back of the Nave for the baptismal liturgy, and after the baptism, we would return to the front of the Nave. As we did this, the congregation would sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God.”
There’s a reason why we did this. The words of this particular hymn convey the simple truth that each one of us, by virtue of our baptism in Christ, is called to live a life worthy of the Gospel. St. Paul wrote about this frequently in his letters to the earliest Christian communities. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “saint” is hagios, which literally means “holy” or “set apart.” All of us, whether we realize or not, are counted among the saints and set apart to live our lives as Christ has taught us to live.
All Saints’ Day is a time to celebrate and give thanks for all those who have come before us in the faith, guiding us with their wisdom and providing us with examples of holy living. Some people refer to All Saints’ Day as the Church’s “memorial day,” but it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s also a time for us to consider how we might pattern our lives on Jesus and live more fully into our own sainthood.
In the last week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a saint. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about what God calls us to do in those moments when it seems like all hope is lost.
As most of you are aware, last Saturday, a terrible tragedy took place in Pittsburgh when a man, armed with three handguns and an assault rifle, walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in the middle of a Shabbat service and shot and killed eleven people. Several others were injured in the attack as well, including police officers who were there to help. The shooting is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of our country. During the incident, it’s alleged that the man who was responsible shouted hate-filled, anti-Semitic comments, such as “All Jews must die.” Later, it was discovered that this same man had a history of violence and hatred toward Jewish people.
I can’t imagine what would cause someone to do something so horrific.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be right now, not only for that community and for the city of Pittsburgh but also for all of our Jewish brothers and sisters. I can’t imagine the level of pain and grief they must be feeling right now. I can’t imagine how terrified they must be by the possibility that their own places of worship might be the next target.
My heart breaks for all of them.
As followers of Jesus, set apart for the work of the Gospel, I think it’s important for us to consider how we’re called to respond in times such as these. How are we called to respond when acts of violence and oppression seem to be occurring more and more frequently in our society? How are we called to respond when fear and hatred of the “other” seem to be tearing us further and further apart?
Well, it’s simple. We respond with love. We respond with selfless, sacrificial love.
We respond by showing up to mourn with those who mourn and to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.
We respond by showing the world that fear and hatred have no control over our lives and that nothing can stop the power of God’s redeeming love.
In the aftermath of the attack in Pittsburgh, vigils were held all across the country, including one here in Birmingham on Tuesday night. People from all walks of life with different ethnicities, languages, and faith traditions gathered to express their support and concern for their Jewish brothers and sisters. That’s what love looks like, my friends, the kind of self-giving, sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to share with the world. As our Presiding Bishop often says, “Love is the only way.” Love is the only thing that will save us.
What does it mean to be a saint in times such as these? It means showing up for Jesus and not settling for the way things are. It means being open to the transforming power of God’s love.
On the day before the shooting in Pittsburg, the nation watched as Matthew Shepard was finally laid to rest in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, which, by the way, is also the Episcopal cathedral for the Diocese of Washington. If the name Matthew Shepard is unfamiliar to you, Matt was a college student and the victim of a brutal hate crime twenty years ago in Laramie, Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, he was taken to a location outside of town where he was beaten, tortured, and left to die. When he was discovered eighteen hours later, he was in a coma and still tied to the fence where his attackers had left him. He died in the hospital six days later. The reason why Matt’s murder is described as a hate crime is because he was gay.
Even in death, Matthew was the victim of hate. His funeral was the target of the Westboro Baptist Church, who decided to picket the funeral with signs bearing hate-filled, homophobic messages. If you know anything about the Westboro Baptist Church, you can imagine the kind of terrible things that the signs had on them. Matt’s parents decided to wait to have his physical remains buried in a place where they could never be defiled.
So, last Friday morning, the nation watched as Matthew was finally laid to rest in peace, twenty years after his murder. The service was a beautiful tribute to Matthew and the legacy that he left behind. Bishop Gene Robinson preached a heartfelt and moving sermon. Toward the end of his sermon, he said something that will no doubt stay with me for a very long time. He said to the congregation, “If you’re just here to pay your respects to Matthew, then it’s not enough. If you aren’t here to be transformed, you’re here for the wrong reason.”
I want you to know, dear friends, that I could preach that line every Sunday and never grow tired of it. It’s something that we need to hear every Sunday morning, every time we gather to worship. “If you aren’t here to be transformed, you’re here for the wrong reason.” It’s important to show up, yes, but it’s equally important for us to allow the words of the liturgy and the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood to wash over us and transform us. Otherwise, what are we here for? What are we here for if we aren’t here to be transformed more and more each day?
The life of a saint isn’t perfect. Being set apart and called by God doesn’t mean that we have to have all the answers figured out or that we aren’t allowed to make any mistakes. Actually, I think it means quite the opposite. Sainthood is about having the humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers and that we desperately need a savior to lead us and guide us to the truth. It’s about being willing to show up for Jesus and to be transformed by the power of God’s love so that we may transform the world.
In a few moments, we’ll once again recommit ourselves to the work of Jesus as we renew our baptismal vows. As we do, let us keep in mind those who are grieving this day and those who suffer from any form of violence or oppression. Let us join with all the saints, in heaven and on earth, and continue to work for justice and peace for all people. Amen.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.