Monday, October 27, 2014

Citizens of an Upside-Down Kingdom

This Sunday we will observe the Feast of All Saints instead of the usual Sunday propers. That All Saints' can be transferred to a Sunday makes it unique among liturgical observances. Usually, days are transferred from a Sunday to later in the week because Sunday takes precedence over most observances. And those big festivals that overrule a Sunday-observance are usually observed on the appointed day (Christmas, Epiphany, etc.). But All Saints' is different.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a world where people stop what they are doing to go to church on November 1 regardless of what day of the week it is, but, rather than lament the secularization of our culture, I'll choose to celebrate the fact that the church makes it possible for us to bring that celebration back to a day when people are more likely to come to church. All Saints' Sunday. It gives us a chance to remember all the saints. But what does that mean?

In many Episcopal Churches, including ours, the list of the faithful departed will be read as part of the All Saints' liturgy. Of course, some will quickly point out that the proper day for that practice is November 2, a day which, in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, is entitled "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed." The good news is that this year's All Saints' Sunday falls on November 2, so maybe one could make an argument that both belong together. (I'm not really interested in the argument. We're just doing what we're doing regardless.)

Saints are those whose reward lies in God's heavenly kingdom rather than here on earth. Saints are those who through their lives or writings or deaths point us toward our place in God's kingdom. In their various and saintly ways, they invite us to focus not on our earthly affliction but on our heavenly reward. You can't be a saint and be stuck forever here in this life. If you're a saint, you belong somewhere else.

The really issue, of course, is our church's poorly developed theology of sainthood. Who are all the saints? Yes, they are people like apostles, prophets, and martyrs from long ago. Yes, they are people who have shown the light of the gospel through their lives in more recent times. But they are also, as the hymn goes, just folk like me. I'm a saint, and you're a saint. Your grandmother was a saint, and my great uncle was, too. But how do you celebrate a theology of sainthood that includes all of us while still remembering people like Julian, John, James, and Jerome?

The gospel lesson for All Saints' Day in Year A is Matthew 5:1-12: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." The Beatitudes are those short, counter-intuitive statements of blessedness that Jesus prescribes in the Sermon on the Mount (or Sermon on the Plain, in Luke's version). And I think this is a great place to start when thinking of saints. Saints are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. God's message to them turns their condition on its head: "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

All Saints' Sunday is a good occasion for stories. Maybe they will be the stories of famous saints like Mark or Martin or Mary or Michael. Or maybe they will be the stories of lesser-known saints like Uncle John or Cousin Louise or my sweet elderly neighbor or that kid from down the street. Whatever the story--whoever the saint--let us focus our gaze toward heaven and to that upside-down kingdom to which we truly belong.

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