All Saints: A Sermon


In the church calendar All Saints is the last of the “Principal Feasts,” and in a way it’s the feast towards which the other feasts aim. If we ask what Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, et al accomplished, the primary answer is in today’s feast. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, et al: so that there may be saints.

OK, preacher, so what are saints and what are saints for?

It doesn’t help that the words in question typically show up in negative contexts: “Holier than thou.” “Sanctimonious.” ‘Holy’ sometimes means set apart for God. But God is described as holy, not because God’s “set apart” but because God is completely off whatever scale we’re using. When we encounter God we encounter someone wholly other than ourselves. Not Captain Kirk meeting the Klingons or Romulans, but meeting the Hollywood suits. God is holy.

But here’s where it gets interesting, because God’s holiness is not just about God, but about how God relates to us creatures. Recall the first time the word ‘holy’ appears in the NRSV: God to Moses from the burning bush: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). And this Holy God is about to send Moses back to Egypt to turn things upside down: “Let my people go!”

Holiness, in other words, regularly gets associated with mission. The Holy Spirit comes on Jesus, and next thing we know he’s in the synagogue in Nazareth reading Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18).

The Holy One calls Israel to participate in this holiness. The Lord to Israel on Mt Sinai before the giving of the Ten Commandments: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6b).

A good chunk of Leviticus develops this theme: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). And that turns out to involve pretty much every area of life, time (observing the Sabbath, the weekly reminder that everything we have is gift), space (how thoroughly the fields are harvested so that the poor can glean after the harvesters come through), to justice in the courts, to “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s holiness.

The Lord seeks to cultivate a holy people because that’s the Lord’s best idea for how to heal this world. That was the strategy with Israel; it’s the strategy with the renewed Israel onto which us Gentiles have been grafted that is the Church.

The collect for this feast celebrates the communion of saints and prays that we might have grace to participate in this communion and so come finally to joy. True enough, but I wish the collect had paid attention to why God seeks to cultivate saints in the first place—because there’s a world that needs healing.

So what’s a saint? Someone God’s drafted—typically through baptism—into the project of healing the world.

OK. All that’s by way of introduction. I’m going to try to do two things in the time remaining. First, look too briefly at the first reading and the Gospel. Second, look at how the theme of holiness plays out in the Eucharist.

In the reading from Daniel the saints of the Most High contrast with the four beasts who represent four kings or kingdoms. Such kingdoms whether then or now regularly represent themselves as the vehicles through whom the world’s healing will come. It was entirely characteristic that the Caesars liked to call themselves “Savior” and “Lord.” Daniel—and the rest of Scripture—is uniformly clear that we’re not to look to them for the world’s healing. Honor the king or the president, but don’t confuse either with the one Savior and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.

In the middle of the Daniel reading we heard “one like a human being [the older translation is “one like the Son of man”] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship…” That’s the text Jesus used of himself, most decisively at his trial before the high priest. Within the context of Daniel that figure could be taken as an individual or as the symbol for a group; within the context of the whole Bible it’s clear that the figure shows us Jesus as representative Israel, and ourselves as participants in Israel by virtue of our union with Jesus.

So where are we in Daniel’s vision? On the one hand, still among those great beasts, and it’s easy to fear that they get the last word. On the other hand, in union with that “one like the Son of Man” with Paul praying—our second reading—that we “may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” We run on hope.

The Gospel reading from Luke gives us a series of blessings and woes. In light of God’s coming kingdom, who’s in a good place, who’s in a bad place? (Within the context of our feast, what does a saint look like?) Each of the groups vying for the soul of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zealots, the Essenes, would have had their own very different answer to that question. Here Jesus lays out his. It all comes, we might say, from having a mother who went around singing the Magnificat. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:51-52).

It would be easy to hear Gospel text—or the Magnificat for that matter—as a call to arms. So Jesus’ turn midway through our text is important: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” The Zealots in the crowd really like those verses in today’s psalm: “Let the praises of God be in their throat / and a two-edged sword in their hand; / To wreak vengeance on the nations / and punishment on the peoples…”; Jesus understands that the interpretation of these verses is perilous. We run on hope.

Finally, and even more briefly, holiness in the Eucharist. Echoing what Isaiah heard in the temple, we acclaim “Holy, holy, holy Lord.” We say other things about God, but that’s front and center.

Somewhat later holiness is again front and center, but obscured somewhat in English, which uses both ‘holy, holiness’ etc from the Old English hālig and ‘saint, sanctify’ etc from the Latin sanctus. Using ‘holy’ throughout in prayer A we get “Make them holy by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Make us holy also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your holy ones into the joy of your eternal kingdom.” We’re asking the Holy Spirit to effect two transformations: one on the bread and wine, one on us. In every Eucharist we’re asking the Lord to move us a little closer to “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”—for the sake of this broken world.

I said early on that holiness gets regularly associated with mission. God is working at creating saints so a broken world can be healed, so that a broken world can again hope. So nothing more appropriate than that the Eucharist ends with the Holy One sending all of us out in mission: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.”

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