Stories, Heard and Told
Key Passage: Ephesians 1:15
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: community, listen, stories, saints, beloved
November 3, 2019 • All Saints (trans.)
The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity | Paris
We mark today the last of the seven great feasts of the church year. The new year of the church is just around the corner; it starts on the first Sunday of Advent, and then the first big feast of the church year comes with Christmas. The second is not long after—just twelve days after; and then we have to wait until Easter, and then, forty days later, the Feast of the Ascension. Ten days later, we get to the feast of the church, Pentecost; just a week after that, we get our own patronal feast, Trinity Sunday.
And then what seems like an eternity, weeks and weeks and weeks, before the last of them all: All Saints. We start with the baby in the manger, and we end with the hosts of heaven. There is a kind of beauty to that arc for me.
At the risk of self-revelation, All Saints is my favorite feast of the church year. That probably has something to do with the fact that I grew up in an All Saints Church, so I remember this day as a day of particular joy.
And it may have something to do with the fact of being ordained. The dean is much more pious than I am, so she probably doesn’t have the same struggles I do with the other feasts of the church year; but it is so hard to disentangle Christmas from the culture. By the time Epiphany comes, everyone is too burned out from the joys of Christmas to really pay much attention, and we miss out on one of the really great parties the church wants to give us.
Easter should be the favorite feast of the whole year for anyone who is ordained, because it is the feast built on the highest claim of the whole Christian faith. But for most of us who are ordained, Easter Day is a finish line after a marathon of planning and worrying and rehearsing and editing.
So for me, it’s All Saints. It’s almost as though it’s the one major feast we have that sneaks up on you unawares, when you just think you’re coming to church in early November. There aren’t All Saints displays in the Galeries Lafayette. The culture hasn’t taken it away from us, and the calendars of work and school make it so we’re likely to be here.
And here’s the best part of the whole deal, for me; All Saints is the day we remember the unbreakable link between the church militant and the church triumphant, to use some old language. Between ourselves, still trying to live by faith, and those we remember and pray for who set an example for us about what Christian community, Beloved Community, is supposed to be all about.
So it may be strange, on this happy feast day, to confront you with questions. But if the point of Christmas is the baby in the manger, and the point of Easter is the manifestation of that baby as the hoped-for Messiah, and the point of Easter is the victory of the cross over sin and death for all people across all time, and the point of Pentecost is the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ, the church—then the point of All Saints is to ask you two questions.
• • •
The first question is: Why are you here?
I don’t mean by asking you this to demand of you a statement of belief, or a testimony to your faith.
I mean by this question to take you back to the very beginning of your experience of faith in God. How did that happen? What is the beginning of the story that ends with you sitting here today?
My guess is that very near the beginning of that story there is a person, another person of faith. It might have been your parents; it might have been a family member. It might have been a person who shaped your early life in a positive way.
But somewhere, somehow, my guess is that your answer to this question—why are you here—comes down to, not an idea, not a doctrine, not a beautiful building, but a person.
Think about that for a moment. Who was that person?
My grandparents came to America from England about a hundred years ago, and in the living room of their house there was a place known as God’s Corner. It was a small place in the corner of the room with keepsakes and photographs of family members they kept in prayer.
During World War II, the four of my five uncles who were off serving in the war had their photographs there; the fifth, my Uncle Pete, had been disabled by polio. And when my Uncle John’s plane crashed in the Pacific and his blue start turned to gold, my grandmother simply put a small cutting from the evergreen in front of his picture.
My grandparents were people of quiet, steady faith. There was nothing even remotely evangelical about them. But they lived easily and moved gracefully in a kind of borderland between this material world and the world of God’s divine, intentional, loving possibility. It was as real to them as the wooden table in the dining room where we gathered every Sunday.
They had no illusions that God needed them to offer a reminder about their boys in the war, or their loved ones back in England. It was more that by engaging in simple acts of devotion, they were joining in the work God was already doing, and continuing to be connected, through the Spirit, to those they were apart from.
What I remember about them is not what they said about Christianity, or the Nicene Creed, or the doctrine of the incarnation. I remember that they listened to me, that they heard what I was wondering about and exploring, and made me feel by listening to me that I was beloved.
And because they listened to me, because they gave me that sense of having all my questions and all my wonderings welcomed and affirmed, I was able to connect up their treasuring what I shared with them with this life they shared easily and effortlessly with God.
If you look in the first few pages of the prayer book, you’ll find the calendar of the church year, with the seven great feasts in it on page 15 and then the listings of saint’s days month by month.
Saints have always had something of a vexed place in the Anglican Church; when we struck out on our own as a church, the veneration of saints was strongly oppressed as a remnant of Romanism.
But the faithful folks in the pews felt deeply bound to the possibility of holy people, and no less a figure than John Donne somewhat daringly wrote a poem longing for the chance to give thanks for angels and saints; and eventually an attenuated list of Anglican-approved saints made it back into the rotation.
Even so—for the most part, the folks in the front of the prayer book are stained-glass saints. They are the great heroes of the faith, the ones churches are named for and statues are made of.
But none of them have ever made any of us feel especially beloved. None of them have heard our stories as we told them, or given us a sense of feeling beheld and welcomed.
All Saints is narrowly a celebration only of the great and the good who make it into the calendar.
But it seems to me we do well to expand our vision, to include in the compass of today all of those people who are the reasons why we are here today—the examples of faith, the people who listened, the ones who showed us how our story was connected to the story of God’s loving presence and purpose, and gave us a sense of connection to a world that is not limited by the measures of the measurable.
The people who were the beginning of the story that has us today still seeking, and still sensing, the holiness of God.
• • •
So here is the second question: Have you been that beginning of the story for someone else?
Let me tell you a secret: You may never know the answer to that question. You may already be, and don’t know it.
One thing is certain: To be that sort of person doesn’t mean to be out on the street corners evangelizing passersby and getting them to come into the American Cathedral.
No, what it means is to be a person who invites other people simply to tell you their story—and then to listen, and hold gently, what they offer you in return. A person who gives others a sense of the possibility that they are beloved. Because when we do that, we introduce people to how God feels about them. And we invite one more person into the Community of the Beloved that the whole church is supposed to be.
If we really did that, you know, All Saints would end up being the most subversive, the most dangerous, of all the Christian holidays.
Because unlike all the founding stories and abstract ideas that form the basis of all the other feast days, All Saints basically argues that people just like you can be the means by which other people find access to the possibility that God is right in this with us—that the sacred is possible right in the midst of our lives.
Who knows what those Ephesians said to Paul? Who knows what stories they shared with him?
What we know is, Paul listened to them. “I have heard of your faith in Jesus and your love toward the saints....” And of course what Paul meant by that was, love toward all the people in the church, because of course there was no calendar of stained-glass saints in the front of the prayer book yet.
And then Paul repeats back to them what he has heard, and really what he does is hold up to them all the idea that he loves them—which makes it easier for them to connect to the idea that God might love them, too.
We proclaim the outrageous idea that the world is still the place where the holy work of God is done, and that we meet up with that work, we become part of it, because of people just like us. The saints among us are those agents of grace, helping us to believe that we, too, are beloved. Amen.