All Saints Sunday - Nov 3 2019
Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar! The morning Muslim call to prayer during our visit to Morocco reminded me of God's presence wherever I go--even in a foreign culture with a religion which is foreign to me. It struck me when the call to prayer would come at sunrise that I was happy to acknowledge that God was great and I was delighted to remember the many blessings that God has granted me.
Some of the blessings with which God has blessed me re people, people I know, people I don't know but have been touched by, people you and I both know, even some of you. Because I thank God for the people in my life many times every day. They are my saints.
On this all Saints Sunday we remember the people we consider Saints. In our readings we are reminded that we hold up especially on this day those who have given us a vision of faith fulfilled, faith lived large. In our collect we acknowledge that God has knit together God's faithful people. We ask God to give us grace to follow in their ways. We call that virtuous and godly living. We ask that we may come to those in affable joys which God has prepared for those who love God. And all that is in the context of the saintly. The saintly people, the saintly deeds, the memories and experiences of the saints.
We opened the service, after our collect, with our first reading, from Ecclesiasticus, who reminds us that we can be assured that we can wait for God's mercy. There are two parts to that: we can wait, despite our impatience. That suggests we may need to wait. The other part is that we are assured that God's mercy will materialize. Ecclesiasticus also reminds us that we can consider generations of old to see for ourselves: "has anyone trusted in the Lord and being disappointed?" No, I don't know of anyone who has been disappointed, either.
The summation of our Gospel is the golden rule. We read it as "do to others as you would have them do to you." Yet we know many - - many of us even - - who achieve this mark of saintliness only now and again. But our prospects improve if we are mindful of our God and of our faith and we are ready to pray whenever the inspiration strikes. We may be joyful, we may be frustrated, we may be ready to give up or to take on some serious matter.
Since we know prayer is the appropriate preparation for any challenge, even a joyful one, we don't hold back. The reason we don't is also spelled out in the reading from Ecclesiasticus, which stresses steadfastness in prayer. And it is this the steadfastness which develops in us the faith that will support us in our hour of need.
When we consider our saints, yours and mine, we really have no great confidence in the depths of their piety, the frequency or sincerity of their prayer. But because they came to mean to us the essence of saintliness, we see them in that light. In hopefulness and generosity we visit our private list of saints as though we ourselves could canonize them and make it official.
They may be our parents and grandparents, or siblings or other family members. They may be friends or coworkers or fellow parishioners. But assuredly they are people who we have seen in a heavenly light, whose manner of living touched us, gave us hope, not just for ourselves or our saints, but for all humanity. Because when we see kindness and goodness and virtue and generosity we see again the acts of Jesus, who taught us how to live.
And when we observe or even remember such deeds or dispositions, if we are in a fitting spiritual state ourselves, we note, or comment, lifting up for others to see and consider, the acts of goodness we witness.
In our acting and responding to goodness in this way we reinforce it for ourselves and for others, shining a light on it, if you will. This improves both our spiritual vision and the awareness of those for whom we make our observations.
This was one of my discoveries in the process leading up to my ordination 15 years ago this week. None of the church leaders or committees who interviewed me during the two-year discernment process or the three years of seminary was interested very much in what I had to say about my sense of calling. I guess they had heard it all over the years. What they wanted to know was what I had heard others say indicated my calling to serve God as a priest.
I remembered friends encouraging me to consider seminary, particularly a close friend who was in seminary himself. I remembered a priest friend who said I should pay attention to what God wanted me to do. This person went on to say they thought I should go to seminary and become a priest. I remembered my daughter, on being told I was going to check out a seminary, saying, "Dad, you'd make a great priest."
So keep this in mind please. Let others know when you observe random acts of kindness or saintliness, or other good signs. If it helps at all, once again, remember that every good act matters if only because it draws us nearer to the knowledge of God.
Today, on all Saints Sunday, we tend to think of others, don't we? We commemorate the departed, both the anonymous and the famous, the familiar and the foreign. And while we do that we reflect at least a little on faith itself, that motivation that animates the Saints and our own awareness of them.
My sense is that that is the real purpose of all saints celebrations: to focus on faith and all the faithful do to make the world a better place. There's plenty of sad and discouraging news to utterly depress us if we let it. But instead we focus on faith and our belief that it offers us a better life.
You know Molly and I just returned from a most wonderful vacation visiting friends in Morocco and on our own in Spain. You'll be hearing more about this in the future, I assure you. But I found great signs of faith in those two places, signs of hope and reminders of what I believe in, even though we were in a Muslim country for 2/3 of the vacation and in a foreign country for the rest.
Perhaps I should actually say because we were in a Muslim country. Everywhere we went in Morocco, as I said in my opening, the call to prayer came at dawn. And though I did not know the words they saying, I knew they were saying God is great, greet God today, and so on, and this helped me think of how grateful I was to be in this exotic land and to say my own prayers of thanks and praise as I knew the communities that surrounded me were doing the same thing at the same time. I became accustomed to greeting people with As Salaam Alaikum, or God's peace be with you, and responding to invitations with Inshallah, meaning if God wills it. It became clear that the Moroccan people have God on their minds a lot of the time and include God and God's will in much of their conversations. It colored my experience and it enriched it.
Where I'm going with this is probably pretty obvious: A couple of those new friends in Marrakesh revealed saintly behavior to me in most meaningful ways.
But through Morocco and Spain Molly and I found instance after instance of cities with walls and towers and battlements, bespeaking violence and the horrors of history and endless heartaches. I certainly didn't leave North Africa and Spain thinking humanity had lost its way since they were major powers. Rather I found myself with a rather bleak if trite thought: T'was ever this.
One day, maybe after visiting and actually staying in the Parador, the hotel inside a castle and fort in Cordona Spain, I got a vision of what it all meant. The castle was built to protect the community during the scores of battles and sieges that beset prosperous regions on the Iberian Peninsula. As if the religious wars and wars of conquest that beset Spain weren't enough, we learned that the tower atop the fort was formerly twice as tall and it was used by the local Duke of Cardona in the 13th century to imprison his daughter who had fallen in love with a Muslim cleric. She was allowed to starve to death. Fortunately for me I had read the daily meditation of Henri Nouwen, a man I have venerated as a saint for a couple of decades. Henri could find a spark of hope to save any situation. Here's what he said that day:
"The world lies in the power of the evil one. The world does not recognize the light that shines in the darkness. It never did; it never will. But there are people who, in the midst of the world, live with the knowledge that he is alive and dwells within us, that he has overcome the power of death and opens the way to glory. Are there people who come together, for who come around the table and do what he did in memory of him? Are there people who keep telling each other the stories of hope and together go out to care for their fellow human beings, not to solve all problems, but to bring a smile to a dying man and a little hope for a lonely child? It is so little, so unspectacular, yes, so hidden, this Eucharistic life, but it is like yeast, like a mustard seed, like a smile on a baby's face. It is what keeps faith, hope and love alive in a world that is constantly on the brink of self-destruction."
We cannot solve all the world's problems, nor should that be our aim. Instead we should shine our light where we can, to show others saintly hope and love and faith. That is our calling as Christians. These are our saintly duties and joys. Bless you, bless you all, for being saints in my life. Amen
A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector