Monday, November 7, 2011

Celebrating All Saints' at All Saints'

(A sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday 2011 at All Saints' Littleton, NH)

Welcome again to our All Saints’ Day celebration! All Saints’ at All Saints'!: gotta love that!

What better way to celebrate than with a baptism this morning at 10AM: where we’ll welcome Madilyn, the newest member to our community.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading to prepare for this All Saints’ morning. Perhaps too much... I came across a blog written by an Episcopal priest named Tim Schenck. He wrote:
"Lost amid the post-Halloween sugar crash and the euphoria of All Saints’ Day, is the ancient Feast of All Souls Day. All Souls is like the forgotten and ignored middle child of the All Hallows Eve — All Saints’ — All Souls triumvirate. And that’s a shame.
We have so broadened the definition of a saint to include not just the martyrs and theologians of the early church, not just those who have demonstrated heroic faith in more contemporary times, but Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry may have been a swell guy — despite his unbearable political commentary at Thanksgiving dinner every year — but was he truly a saint?"
Schenck then says that "The modern All Saints’ Sunday celebration holds the potential to dilute the impact of the great saintly heroes of the faith while subsequently elevating our own deceased loved ones to heights that would likely make them roll in their graves."

I quickly reposted his blog post to my Twitter feed, for it made me think a great deal about All Saints'/All Souls', but the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled. It’s not just that we’ve transferred everything to an "All Saints' Sunday". It’s that I’ve always had a big picture view of “saints”. Sure, there are some the church officially recognizes, and there are some the church should recognize. And there is of course those in particular communities who we just know are saints: no one here is going to argue differently with Bishop Robinson’s opinion that Carl Schaller is a saint of God (can I get an Amen to that???) But I personally have come to recognize the saintlike qualities of particular people in my life, especially in remembering those who have died. By seeing them as saints, am I diminishing the point of All Saints’?

A distinction between All Saints and All Souls is rather complicated. People have always celebrated the remembering of those who have died with everything from the sharing of stories to saying prayers to and for them.

Some individuals recognized universally by the early church became known as Saints. However, there were also individuals who, because of their relationship to particular communities, became known as saints as well. Individual communities came up with their own customs for remembrance.

Fair to say, there were LOTS of saints with celebrations in individual communities. To cover the remembrances of these many saints, the church instituted a feast day for all of the saints in about the year 609.

In 998, the abbey of Cluny set apart a special day for the remembrance of the dead: November 2nd. There is disputed memory as to the reason why. Most likely, the abbey wanted a day to remember everyone from their community, not just “the saints”. But what came about is this legend, written by Peter Damiani, about 100 years later.
A pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was cast by a storm on a desolate island. A hermit living there told him that amid the rocks was a chasm communicating with purgatory, from which perpetually rose the groans of tortured souls. The hermit also claimed he had heard the demons complaining of the efficacy of the prayers of the faithful, and especially the monks of Cluny, in rescuing their victims. Upon returning home, the pilgrim hastened to inform the abbot of Cluny, who then set 2 November as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in Purgatory. (Peter Damiani in his Life of St Odilo)

(The history of All Saints'/All Souls' comes from Wikipedia)

The practice of using November 2nd as a remembrance day spread, and was accepted by Rome in the 14th century as “All Souls Day”. Further more, all of November came to be associated with the prayers of the departed.

Unfortunately, the Western Church came to abuse this practice. In tradition with the legend of praying souls out of Purgatory, people were encouraged to offer money to help the process of getting loved ones to heaven, sometimes way more than they could afford.

This is, of course, one of the abuses that led to the Reformation.

While there have been reforms and revivals over the years, the general summary is that Catholics tend to celebrate “the saints” as those specially recognized by the church, and Protestants have infused All Souls Day into All Saints Day, and tend to see all Christians as saints, regardless of their life’s actions.

In the great tradition of the Episcopal Church, we try and find the middle ground. Currently, our calendar calls November 2nd both All Souls Day and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, although the vast majority of churches combine its celebration with All Saints.

Rightly, we celebrate the saints recognized by the church for leading extraordinary lives of example and service: an ever expanding list from the early days of Jesus to now.

But what about Uncle Harry? Do we need to differentiate between those who are remembered for accomplishing great things through the spirit of God, and the rest of us?

I’m not so sure we need to go about trying to measure one’s saintly qualities. After all, we’re likely to have some serious difference of opinion. One person’s saint is another person’s...well, not saint. Uncle Harry may not have left a saintly impression on us, but we are so unaware of how many intersections one’s life has had on others. We may have missed moments that profoundly touched or changed others lives for the better. After all, in our attempts to discern saintliness, we often look for the wrong things.

Retired priest Ken Kesselus tells the story of a boy who went to a scouting contest for homemade racing cars:

It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one such event, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer.
Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait a moment so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.
After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”
“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

Kesselus concludes that this is the real importance: “It is understanding that we can emulate the saints, that we can become saints too, that we can become faithful disciples of Christ, following the saints who show us the way....Isn’t this why we remember the saints, some of whom are publicly known and recognized in the light of history, and others, like the Boy Scout, whom we come across in the obscurity of ordinary struggles?”

And what can be more saintly than reflecting the love of Jesus: the loving of God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and our neighbors as our self?

So what should we tell little Madilyn, who we baptize here this morning, about the saints?

We’ll tell about the saints who have inspired the world with words and actions: bright stars of God’s vision.

We’ll also lift up those around her who so clearly illuminate the love of Jesus in word and deed.

But perhaps the most important thing that we can teach her is that everyone has the potential to love in this way: and that in her loving of God, neighbors and self, she may be the saintly inspiration of another.

Thanks be to God.

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