Sermon: Sunday, November 7, 2010: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 and Psalm 149  •   Ephesians 1:11-23  •   Luke 6:20-31


Dancing_SaintsIn the church’s calendar the month of November occupies a sort of middle ground between the long season that we simply call “Time after Pentecost” or “ordinary time” and the festival seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Time after Pentecost is the church’s longest season, the one that began after the festival of Pentecost, which is celebrated fifty days after Easter. This long season spans the Sundays of late spring, all of summer and most of the fall. The altar, and the pastor, are draped in green, the color of living, growing things and the lessons for each Sunday follow the teaching ministry of Jesus. We spend the season of Time after Pentecost learning how to do what the church did after Pentecost – grow, learn, teach, share.

As Lutherans, we end the month of October with a celebration of the Reformation, as we did last week, that reminds us that the church continues to grow, learn, teach and share in ways that must continually adapt to the changes in the world around us. We often use Reformation Sunday to sing the old songs of the faith, but the lesson of that day is that God is doing something new and that the church is called to walk bravely into God’s future, not to dwell safely in God’s past.

That theme of continuous change and Reformation sets us up well for the remaining Sundays in November that close out the church year before the season of Advent begins. Today, All Saints Sunday, reminds us of the connections we share with all the baptized of every time and place; those who have died, and those who are yet to come. The following Sunday we will hear apocalyptic words from the prophet Malachi that evoke images of the end times “when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble,” and words from Jesus about the destruction of the Temple. Then, on the final Sunday of the church’s year, what has been called “Christ the King” (but which many are now beginning to call “Reign of Christ”) Sunday we hear Christ’s words of reassurance to the thief who hangs beside him on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

So, you see, the Sundays of November – while still falling inside the season of Ordinary Time – move us beyond growing, learning, teaching and sharing. This middle time, this liminal time, this end time speaks to the church about dying.

All Saints Sunday began as a sort of clean up Sunday. In the early centuries of the Christian church there were people whose lives were so extraordinary, so exemplary, that the church would mark the dates of their death with annual festivals. These commemorations were intended to be a part of the church’s teaching ministry. By learning about the lives of these individual saints, all the saints of God – all of us – could be strengthened and inspired for our own lives of discipleship.

You know how it goes though. Once you make a list, people want to get on the list. So these annual commemorations became the focus of people’s attention, and people of means looked for ways to get on the list. The early commemoration days were almost all reserved for the apostles and the martyrs, people who paid the ultimate price for their faith. But, as time went on, people began to pay a different kind of price to get on the list. The church in Rome was sometimes swayed by sizable gifts, as churches of all sizes are often tempted to be, and over the next few centuries the church’s calendar became cluttered with so many annual commemorations that it was virtually impossible to come to worship on a Sunday morning and focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead, life in the church became a parade of minor festivals.

So All Saints Day was invented, a festival like a cardboard box stuffed in a closet, designed to hold all the minor saints in place and celebrate them at once. It cleaned up the calendar, but in practice people continued to venerate the saints of the past with festivals and celebrations. By the time of the Reformation, Luther and the other reformers were ready to be done with the whole thing. The emphasis on justification by grace through faith meant a radical separation from the notion of saints. We were reminded that our salvation comes through faith in the power of God, shown in the life of Jesus, not the power of our ancestors, who were always a mixed lot. Celebration of the saints in an individual sense was replaced by Reformation theology that spoke to the priesthood of all believers. So the words “all” and “saints” remained in Protestant life, but separated by theology and practice.

The Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a great way of getting back to the best vision for the festival of All Saints. When Lutherans speak of the priesthood of all believers, we’re not saying that every baptized Christian is a priest, or that every baptized Christian is called to live a priestly life. What we mean when we talk about the priesthood of all believers is that vocation, which used to be a word the church used to talk about the ministry of those ordained to Word and Sacrament ministry, is actually something that we all share. Each of us has a Christian vocation. Some of us are called to teach children, others to grow food. Some are called to parenthood, others to civil service. Some are called to lives of quiet service, others to prophetic speech. Our vocations are not the same as our occupations, or our jobs, they are the way that God is calling out the gifts and talents God placed in us before our birth for the mending of the world.

That idea, that we all share the responsibility and the calling to care for God’s creation, and that we are all gifted by God to do our part in that work, helps us understand what today’s celebration is all about. The gospel reading for this morning comes from Jesus’ sermon on the plain, it is the Lukan version of the Beatitudes. In the reading for this morning, Jesus looks up at the disciples and says,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

This is the opposite of the wealthy buying their way onto the church’s list of elite saints. This is everyday people receiving the good news that they are the ones who are blessed, holy and set apart.

Similarly, when Paul uses the word “saints” in the letter to the Ephesians, he is not talking about spiritual superstars of the community, or a select few who serve as role models for the community. Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”

Paul reflects the meaning of the word “saint” that we celebrate today as he speaks of “all the saints.”
Saint,” coming from the Latin word “sanctus,” means “holy” or “set apart.” The sainthood that Paul refers to harkens back to the prophet Daniel who we hear this morning speaking of “the holy ones of the Most High.” The saints are those who have been made holy by God, not by their virtue or action. The saints of God are the chosen people, which we once thought meant the people of Israel, and we later thought meant the Church of Christ, but we are hopefully coming to realize means all who are claimed by God. And who would a description like that leave out?

At the Justice Team’s committee meeting last Saturday, everyone was asked to share something about why they’d chosen to give up some time on a Saturday morning for a committee meeting on social justice. One person said, “when you strip away all the biblical literalism and rigid doctrine, the heart of faith is the search for meaning and the call to social justice.” That sort of thinking has ruffled some feathers in the public square of late, but how else would you explain the calling that comes from following someone who spoke openly in a society sharply divided between the rich and the poor about God’s priority for the poor, the hungry, the distraught and the reviled. Someone who taught,

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

All Saints Sunday begins to move us out of the long season of Time after Pentecost, with its emphasis on growing, learning, teaching and sharing – but it belongs in ordinary time, because it is a festival about ordinary people. Ordinary people who have been ordained for lives of loving service in the world.

All Saints Sunday rightly reminds us of those who have gone before us – the famous and the forgotten – who carried the faith of the church through centuries of change and reformation, death and rebirth. We are a part of that community, we are charged with caring for what we have received and sharing it with those will follow after us. We are blessed to be a blessing. We are all saints.


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