November 2, 2014 – All Saints Sunday
Introduction: The two readings this morning are two of the readings assigned for All Saints’ Day—which was yesterday. Psalm 34 affirms that God hears and responds to the cries of God’s people. Matthew 5 is the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Each statement in this portion of Jesus’ sermon has both a present and future and a blessing God grants to all the saints. Because I usually preach pretty directly from a scripture passage, I want to say the sermon comes from the theme of All Saints’ Day rather than either scripture passage.
READ Matthew 5.1-12
Who is a saint? A guy who plays football for New Orleans? Mother Teresa of Calcutta? St. Francis of Asissi? Someone who helped you move your belongings from one end of the country to another? The person who taught you how to pray? Your confirmation class mentor? Your colleague who picked up an extra assignment at work so you could leave early to go away for the weekend? The unknown person who put an extra quarter in your parking meter?
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day. It’s always November 1 and it always comes right after Halloween. Halloween is assumed to be the more ancient of the two observances but the two are linked. Halloween’s roots are in festivals that commemorate the spirits of people who have died returning to mingle with those who are living. In some cultures this is called the Day of the Dead. An extra place might be set at the table for the dead who would return for a meal with their family. Masks might be worn and bonfires lit in order to scare away the evil spirits who are returning. And before there were pumpkins hollowed out, there were turnips carved to hold a candle inside—also to keep the evil spirits away. Some scholars see Halloween or the Day of the Dead as ways that people confront the power of death with humor and ridicule.1
One day you have Halloween and the next day you have All Saints’. It’s sort of a “on the one hand…and on the other hand” kind of pairing. On Halloween we confront and make fun of what scares us about death. On All Saints’ Day we remember and give thanks for those who lives are a witness to the power of God at work in them.
All Saints’ Day, established by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century, was originally a day to commemorate martyrs—those who were killed for their faith. Later the celebration was expanded to become a day of remembrance of all the saints—not just those who were martyrs.
Saints were understood to be Christians who through their good works had achieved merits over and above what they needed for salvation—like getting extra credit in a class—and the Catholic church, having recognized those good works canonized them as saints.2 In the late middle ages people began to believe that the saints, with their extra merits, could transfer some of their good works to those who were in need of them—those who didn’t do so well in class—for salvation.3
In the 11th century, the Abbot of Cluny in France, reflecting upon All Saints Day and its focus on those who were already in heaven decided there should also be a day to remember those who had died but who were still lingering in purgatory. This day would be a day of requiem masses to assist the souls of the dead in moving from purgatory to heaven. This day became All Souls’ Day and in the Catholic church it is observed on November 2. So we end up with a trio of days: Halloween, All Saints and All Souls.
Of course at the time of the Reformation, the reformers rejected All Souls’ Day because the notion of purgatory was one the reformers claimed was an error of the Catholic church at that time. (Which helps us understand why in Protestant churches we typically give thanks to God for the life and witness of people who have died but we don’t pray for those who have died.)
While we don’t observe All Souls’ Day, we Reformed Protestants do celebrate All Saints’ Day right along with Roman Catholics—although our understandings of being a saint are different.
So for All Saints’ day, who are we going to call a saint?
I want to go back to Pope Gregory III who started with the designation of a day to commemorate the martyrs. In the Christian tradition, we think of a martyr as someone who is killed because of their faith. (Or colloquially, as someone who puts a lot of drama into their suffering.) But the English word martyr comes from a Latin word which come from a Greek word that means “witness.”4
In the Reformed understanding, a saint is someone who bears witness to the presence of God. Another way to say it is a saint is someone in whose life you see the light of God. A saint is someone who has been a mentor, an example, an inspiration, a teacher in your life and life of faith.
Presbyterian pastor Don Stake reminds us that the word “saint” as it’s used in “the New Testament refers to any or all of God’s people.”5 It’s not used to describe exceptional people but to describe the characteristic of being part of God’s family. “A saint is someone claimed by God to belong to God forever.”6 Which I hope makes you think about baptism. In our baptism we are claimed by God and made members of the body of Christ. In our baptism we are joined together with all the other saints who belong to God—people “in every land and of every language” and every culture. We are also joined with “the saints of the past, those faithful ones who have gone before us…[They were as we are] claimed by God to be God’s own people forever. So we find ourselves in their company too, all part of the great ‘communion of saints.’”7
In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in the communion liturgy, we pray with “all the saints of every time and place, in heaven and on earth, joining our voices to forever sing God’s praise” (you’ll hear me say that today at the table) and we sing “Holy, holy, holy.”
“The faithful in this life and those in the life of the resurrection are joined together by God, whose love, presence and action are not limited by time and place”8 says Presbyterian pastor Barbara Hedges-Goettl.
Now I can’t explain that to you precisely. How we are in the company of the saints of God who have lived and died and now live eternally with God. I can only bear witness to it. And hear you bear witness to it as well.
We “find support and encouragement in remembering those who have gone before us in faith, from biblical figures to heroes…of history on down to our biological ancestors and current friends, [mentors, teachers] and relatives. We turn to these ‘saints’ to perceive the God of history working in and through frail human beings like ourselves. [And] we give honor to the presence of God in them, and we learn from them.”9
“When we celebrate God’s involvement in the lives of the saints, we reconnect to the work of God not only in their lives, but in our lives as well. We proclaim God’s involvement in the particulars of human life through the bodies and actions of particular people in particular times and places.”10
So who are the saints in your life? Who has guided you on your journey of faith? In whom have you seen the light of God shine? Who has shown you that the light of God shines through you? These saints may be alive and very present in your life or they may have died and their spirit lives on through you.11
And here’s what’s often harder to imagine: For whom are you a saint? As you have been inspired and taught and blessed by others, for whom are you an inspiration, a teacher, a blessing?
As we come to this table, and as we dedicate our financial pledges for the coming year and as we talk and pray together in the New Beginnings small groups about what God is calling us to do and be in this time and place, we do so accompanied and surrounded by all those saints—including those who have been fed at this table and made their financial pledges and talked and prayed together about what God was calling them to do and be in their time and place. So let us give thanks for one another, for those who have been mentors and guides to us and for all the saints, in all times and places, with whom we join in blessing God.
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1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween, accessed 1 November 2014. (Portaro, Sam (25 January 1998). A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Cowley Publications, p 199.)2. Task Force on Daily Prayer, “A Calendar of Commemorations,” Call to Worship, 47.4, 3.
3. Craig Douglas Erickson, “Reformed Theology and the Sanctoral Cycle,” Hungryhearts, Winter 2003.
4. Oxford English Dictionary, “martyr.”
5. Donald W. Stake, “Being with the Saints,” Call to Worship, 47.4, 77.
7. Stake, 78.
8. Barbara J. Hedges-Goettl, “The Communion of Saints: The Communion of the Body of Christ and the Resurrected Body,” Call to Worship, 47.4, 83.
9. Task Force, 4.
10. Hedges-Goettl, 84.
11. Megan Cochran, “Work of Our Hands: Carrying the Saints with Us,” Call to Worship, 47.4, 69.