Sunday after All Saints Day (A)
Rev. 7: 9-12; I John 3: 1-3; Mt 5: 1-12
Good morning indeed to all the Saints of God on this All Saints Sunday, which is always intended to be observed as a high festival day on the calendar of the Church Year—and especially of course for us here in this congregation, as we have for a number of years now brought together not just one day but a full week of amazing celebrations, with special services and recitals, and all coming together in such a magnificent way, and such a meaningful way, in this choral and orchestral service of the Holy Communion.
It is truly a blessing, and I know I speak for so many in expressing a word of thanks to all who have made this week and this morning possible. And I would especially say thank you to Pete Luley, who rides herd over all this week, to Tom Octave and his creative leadership both last Tuesday evening and this morning, to our Choir and Choristers, the recitalists, Ed Helgerman and the Liedertafel Thursday night, Nathan Carterette and Rowena Gutan on Friday evening, and of course to Joanne Luchsinger and our instrumentalists this morning of the Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra, Dr. George Knight and our Friends of Music, Jinny Fiske, Ken Williams, Becky Usner, everyone who assisted with the hospitality of our receptions, Joan Soulliere, Jen Palmer, Mary Pat Luley. Readers, ushers, acolytes, Altar Guild. The list just goes on and on and on, and I know even so I’m missing lots of people. Again, simply to express such gratitude for so many gifts shared so generously and abundantly.
I think it’s difficult to get much of a straight line on the theological context of our celebration and observance. A year ago or so a number of us read as our St. Andrew’s summer book a long study by Bishop N.T. Wright on what the scriptures and especially the New Testament have to tell us about the life of the world to come. Interesting, and challenging, pushing back against some of our own inherited imagery and personal reflections and opinions. Surprised sometimes to find that some of what we thought we knew from the scriptures weren't actually there at all. And surprised to find what was there instead. Which is important, though also somewhat disorienting I think.
On this day we seem to know what it’s about almost instinctively, even if it’s not all that easy to tease out the scholarly footnotes. All the Saints.
In a few places in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament this idea of a special category of individuals, sometimes referencing both the living and the dead, other times a way specifically of talking about those who have died. Particularly martyrs, those who have endured suffering and painful death in heroic witness to their faith.
Those are the ones St. John the Divine sees in the part of his vision we’ve read this morning. And then more generally those who have been exemplars of Christian life and obedience, faith and virtues. They are like role models, then. Reminders of the fullness of life we saints are called and invited to share in through our baptism, through the great work of Christ. To know what forgiveness, repentance, grace, new life can be all about, and glimpses of them here and now. The Church Year and the calendar year coming to an end, and then with a turn of the wheel to begin anew. And this all about what and who inspires us, about how the wind fills our sails.
I know I sometimes think about this season comes around. A famous quotation from the Rev. Billy Graham from a few years ago. He said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
In any event: we sing the song. They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.
We don’t need a long sermon this morning. The music and the hymns do most of the good work that needs to be done, and perhaps if the imagery doesn’t all flow together into one consistent pattern, we will simply contain some messiness. The nature of human beings, how we think and feel and understand. If we will just turn to the right and to the left and take a good long look at one another. I know you all are such inspirations for me. My friends the Saints in this place. In prayer and in worship, lifting up voices in song all the way to the choirs of heaven. In silence, in spiritual reflection, in thoughtful study. In robust discussion. Witnesses of our Lord here in the East End of Pittsburgh, in Lima, Peru, now in these weeks sharing in the opportunity to rebuild the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port au Prince, Haiti. In quiet and unnoticed acts of kindness and generosity, affection, friendship. The old year comes to an end, a new year about to dawn, and you inspire me. That we are privileged in these moments, imperfect as we are, to be vessels of God’s grace and goodness.
You know I love the line attributed to St. Francis: “Preach always; when necessary use words.” And that we would pause and thank each other for all the bright and beautiful sermons that get preached in and through this one small corner of the Christian family.
St. John the Divine sees the vision. “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
There it is, and there he is. At the center of that great choir of holy martyrs and sacred witnesses, the multitude that no one could number, from every nation, and it is all about Jesus. The fixed star, the beating heart of all there is in earth and heaven. Source of light and life. In his life and his death for us, there is forgiveness and healing, cleansing, comfort, and blessing, and a kind of triumphant victory that even John seems to find too great or too beautiful or too holy for words.
We catch a glimpse, in word and sacrament and in one another, all this communion of saints, past and present, and leaning forward with some anticipation for those we haven’t met yet, but who will be a part of our future. We sing, we pray. With open hands we receive and share the gift of his life, the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. This is an invitation that we might hear and receive this morning. With open minds, open hearts. We catch a glimpse into the heart of this mystery, that the one we would see is always and only Jesus.