Sermon for All Saints in St. Mary’s, Flandreau, SD

November 1, 2009

Who and what did you see last night? Goblins and ghouls, super heroes and devils, cowpokes and shepherds? All those strange apparitions are actually good reminders of the saints we’re celebrating today. Hallowe’en is the night of preparation for all hallows or all saints day. I was amazed to see a debate in the Argus Leader yesterday about whether or not Christians could and should observe All Hallows Eve. Even if you don’t like the excesses of our cultural observances, they can be a reminder of the holy that is all around us, often unseen and unnoticed.

The saints at first were the great heroes of the faith – the superheroes of the first couple of centuries of Christianity. In the early church, on the anniversary of the death of one of those heroes, the congregation went to the grave and celebrated eucharist right there on the person’s tomb. They did it for each of those saints, all through the year.

At some point, the community began to realize that every single one of the baptized was a saint, a holy one, each in his or her own way. And by about the 4th century there got to be too many of those superhero folk to go to the grave of each one. That’s really where this feast comes from – giving thanks, and praying for, each and every Christian witness, living and dead.

So, who are the saints? People who show us what God looks like in human flesh. There’s an echo of the superhero here – the ordinary person who shows us something extraordinary, like Mother Teresa, or St. Patrick, or Mary, the mother of God. I think for most of us it’s a lot easier to see examples of selfless care for others, or self-denial – like the witness of somebody like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed for his faith by the Nazis. But when we install our saints in niches or put them up on pedestals, far away and too holy to have truck with common folk like us, they aren’t really much good to anybody. It can feel pretty impossible to be like somebody like that!

I’m fond of the saints who are very demonstrably human – like St. Jerome. He was a 4th century monk who translated the Bible into Latin, but he was also a famously grumpy curmudgeon, not very nice at all to be around. Maybe his famously nasty personality gave him more time to make the word of God so much more available to all Christians. And if he made it on to the list of saints, well, maybe there’s hope for me.

Saints show us what holiness looks like, what it means to be whole and healed – words that come from the same root as holy – though not necessarily in every part of their lives: somebody who goes out of his way to care for somebody else, or shows us what generosity looks like, like the widow and her mite, someone who gives evidence of using a gift God has given. Those saints are all around us, but maybe we have to look a little harder to see them.

Who are the saints? At one level, all baptized people, all the sisters and brothers in Christ. All of us here this morning. That’s why we often baptize people on this feast. Consider some of the saints: people who foster or adopt children, wanting to see them grow up using all the gifts they’ve been given. The 92 year old woman I met yesterday who said her ministry was pouring lemonade – actually a major example of hospitality. The young Lakota deacon who serves on Executive Council, and is teaching others about how to make decisions: consider the seven generations who have come before, and the seven generations who will follow us.

That generational focus is a wonderful reminder of the reality that the saints before us are still very much part of us – the communion of saints we speak about every time we say the creed. Who comes to mind as part of that communion of saints? For me, it includes the awareness I’ve had at the altar on occasion, of a saint who has just died. The mother of a good friend, after years of illness, died on a Friday, and was palpably present when I joined another congregation for eucharist that Sunday. She and her family had taught me something important about communion in other forms, like crackers and soda while we sat in the emergency room. Another was an elderly man who had nurtured a small congregation for years, as warden and vestry member, and general encourager, and the last three years of his life, as priest. His presence at the altar was inescapable at his own funeral mass. It undoubtedly took a long time before his spirit was fully and quietly at rest in that place.

Saints are those who make us aware of God’s abundance, and God’s urgency. That Wisdom reading talks about them as sparks running through the stubble – change agents in God’s field. Isaiah speaks of them as participants and suppliers of the heavenly banquet, the feast spread for all God’s people, a feast eaten in peace and rejoicing, when grief and mourning have passed away. Revelation reminds us that this vision of a new Jerusalem, literally, a new city of peace and rejoicing and the end of mourning, is God’s dream for us all.

Why do we hear about Lazarus on a day of saints? Once Lazarus is returned to the living, we don’t hear anything else about him. He doesn’t join the band of named disciples, and the gospel report of his story effectively ends. He had the ability to respond to Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb, and that may be all that’s necessary. How many people do you know who are effectively dead – without hope or reason for living? Lazarus is a witness to how far gone you can be and still rejoin the living. The gospel is pretty graphic – he was stinking! Yet even he, corpse a-rottin’, like an alcoholic at the bottom, or a kid considering suicide – even there, more abundant life is possible. Who is going to help call those Lazaruses out of the grave? You and I just might, as saints, as witnesses to the hope that is in us.

Sometimes the saints around us aren’t so evidently saints. I heard a painful story about a recent encounter between Native Episcopalians and Anglo ones, as part of the preparation for your bishop’s consecration. A couple of Anglos were remarkably rude and dismissive to a group of Lakota people. Offended, the Native people left the preparation session – and who would blame them? Others who heard about it, worked hard at reconciling and reminding all that every gift was needed. Who were the Lazaruses? Probably all involved spent some time in that tomb, in pain and despair, not sure that any sign of life would ever be possible in the many deaths of that racist encounter. All were called out of that tomb by other saints, and some have responded, and are beginning to be set free.

The tombs around here are just as dark and filled with death and pain. Where have you met Lazarus? Who will call Lazarus out, and unbind him or her?

The goblins and superheroes and holy fools and very ordinary saints around us just might be part of that unbinding and letting go, that release of prisoners and delivery from death. Will you go to the tomb?