Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. On every Sunday and at every Eucharist we join with the saints, “with angels and archangels and with all the company of Heaven” to forever sing praise to the glory of God’s Name. Today, as we celebrate this All Saints’ Day, we are joined by the faces and names of that great company of Heaven. These saints are here because we see in them what is good and holy and whose deeds are an example to which we strive.
In our Psalm today, the psalmist poses this question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? And who can stand in his holy place?” And the answer comes: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood, nor sworn by what is a fraud.”
Oh, dear, the bar is set high! How can we expect to be one who can stand in God’s holy place? When we reflect on an ancient saint, on St. Paul, for example, we remember his noblest deeds and his perfect love of God. Paul nourished and sustained the early Church through his presence and his letters, even from his prison cell. But Paul also had joined in the killing of others, the followers of Jesus, beloved children of God. Could Paul have stood in the holy place described by the psalmist? Did he always have clean hands and a pure heart? This saint would not have done well with the psalmist’s high expectations. When we reflect on a modern-day saint, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, we remember his noblest deeds and his perfect love of God. Bonhoeffer nourished and sustained the persecuted Church in Germany through his presence and his letters, even from his prison cell. But Bonhoeffer also had joined in an assassination attempt on another human being. And while we may want to find justification in the killing of this human being, let us remember, he was a beloved child of God.
What I am trying to convey is that saints were not perfect; we are not perfect. Fortunately, the prophet Isaiah prepares for us a more welcoming place with God: “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food … he will swallow up death forever … the Lord God will wipe away the tears of all faces.”
In many Episcopal churches, like our St. Mary’s, there are replications of saints, in stained glass windows, and in wooden or stone carvings. These are visual reminders of God’s love for us and for our love and praise for God. Today, our saintly replications are joined by those whom we number with all the saints. As we sit amongst them, we can ponder why they were chosen for today. I dare, say, none were perfect as none of us are, but there is something about each and every one of them that can inspire us towards perfection. Here are mothers and fathers who raised us and nourished us. Here are doctors and nurses who dedicated their lives to healing the body, and lay and clergy ministers who healed the soul. Here are teachers and farmers and activists. Here are those who gave their lives in service to their country and in service to their righteous cause. And here are our saints who loved us and showed us how to love God, how to love our neighbors, and how to love ourselves. These saints are still part of us, still walking with us. Their deeds are not done, for they continue to encourage us and teach us and pray for us as we strive to bring God’s kingdom to fruition here on earth. They have set for us the example of aiming for heaven while striving to leave a mark on earth.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next … they left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.”
brought in a picture taken at a family gathering in the 1940s of my great grandparents with three generations of their descendants. From this picture I know best my grandmother, a welcoming soul and a devout Christian. I remember as a little girl being allowed to go to church with her one evening, nuzzling next to her, and promptly falling asleep. My great aunt was a teacher, and she was so pleased when I told her: I mean to be one, too. And my great uncle, a bachelor, helped finance the college educations of his great nieces and nephews, and even his great-great nephews through his will. Many of the others I know just a little, their deeds known and unknown to me, but I always loved to be in their midst. They all belong here to remind me to strive for that perfection that may be known only to God. They were not perfect people, but they set a holy example for me, and that is good enough.
Imagine now the names and faces of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany on our walls today. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to hear his teachings, and wiped his feet with expensive perfumes and her hair. Martha fed Jesus and his friends, and said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.” What noble deeds, what expressions of faith and love. Yet the stories of Mary and Martha also tell of human foibles and human doubts. This is the Martha who was told by Jesus to stop fussing in the kitchen and join her sister Mary to hear his teachings. However, she is the Mary who many of us think could have helped in the kitchen to get the work done sooner. Then both women could have rested after their expected hospitality. These are the women who asked Jesus, why did you let our brother die? You gave sight to the blind and healed the sick. Why did you let our brother die?
These women come to life in Scripture and remind us that Jesus gathered around him friends who were less than perfect. Yet they yearned to learn from him, and they did, to the point of saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
And what of Lazarus? What example does he set for us?
Lazarus, the beloved friend of Jesus, is the replica of Jesus’ love for us. As Lazarus lay dying, Jesus said to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Just as Lazarus was raised from the dead and given new life, we can be raised from our imperfections, our failings and misdeeds and find new life in Christ. We can become all that we admire in the saints around us, planting ourselves in God’s kingdom, in heaven and on earth. Reflect on the names you wrote today. How did they express their faith through words and deeds? What is it you admire in them and what can you do to continue their goodness in you? As you leave church today, read the names and look at the faces. You will see in them yourselves, a not so perfect human being, but a most perfectly beloved child of God. May we all one day look from heaven and see our names and faces celebrated with the saints and all the company of heaven. Amen.