In the Name…
A fellow opened a new restaurant and ordered a floral wreath for the occasion. When he got it, though, he saw the ribbon read, “Rest in Peace.” Furious, he called the florist who cried out, “Oh, no! That means “Grand Opening” was delivered to the graveside!”
Most Episcopalians are familiar with the church year, that great cycle of prayer and liturgy that takes us from Advent through Christmas, Lent, Easter, and into the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost until the Feast of Christ-the-King. But, fewer among us may be as familiar with the weekday celebrations which comprise the calendar of the saints, the Christians who have gone before us and left their mark on the world in special ways.
And, that’s a pity, for we can learn much from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. Some old; some young. But, what is particularly striking about the order in which we commemorate them is that there is no particular order. A twentieth century theologian may be observed on the same day as a fourth century martyr. Even the apostles are scattered seemingly at random across the months.
Of course, a saint’s day is usually chosen because it is the day on which that person died, and, there’s no neat order to that. But, that simply reflects life as we know it. People come into and out of our lives in no particular order. Friends, co-workers, even future family members appear seemingly out of nowhere and leave us with memories, just as we come into other people’s lives and leave our mark on them, in turn.
Every saint’s day, then, is an occasion to remember, and, when you think about it, memory is one of the things that make us uniquely human. Like other creatures, we have bodies, but, we also have souls and with our bodies we create memorials to remember the souls of the departed. Memory is also a mark of civilization and as philosophers, politicians, and professors constantly warn us, a civilization that forgets its memories, which forgets its history, is a civilization in danger of collapse.
That is why it is a good thing to have an All Saints’ Day to remind us that the calendar, and life, are both filled with history written by God. God is in history. God was in Christ. History is in Christ. A perfect syllogism, but, in this case perfectly true, for, on the Cross, Christ finished the books we might call the Acts of God and set the stage for a book which would be entitled the Acts of the Apostles, the actions of those sent out by God to use his power.
It has been noted that the Book of Acts is unique in the Bible in having no concluding words, no final paragraph. This is because the acts of those who use God's power have infinite possibilities and there can be no end to that. We are living today in the newly written chapters of Acts, chapters written by the saints.
Now, as we look at the stories of those we remember, we see that they are a pretty mixed lot. Many were not particularly popular or prosperous. Often, quite the opposite. Francis of Assisi was scorned by many church leaders and even the “good King Wenceslaus” we sing about at Christmas time was murdered by jealous nobles. Actually, if the saints have anything in common, it is perhaps that they often, regardless of position, suffered because they were quite vulnerable.
Of course, that’s not what they wanted to be. Nobody wants to be victimized, used, or ill-treated. And certainly God does not require that of us. But, if we open ourselves to others it is quite possible, some might say likely, that we will be hurt. Unless we take that risk, though, we may find ourselves living lives devoid of warmth, caring and love. Lives which may leave the wrong sort of memories behind.
There's a story told about the Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black when he attended the funeral of a politician who had a somewhat questionable reputation. As the minister was beginning the eulogy, another judge arrived and whispered to Justice Black, "Have I missed anything?” "Naw", the crusty jurist replied, "They've just opened for the defence."
So, saints do have something in common. They are people who have learned to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or their own self-interest. And, like it or not, each of us is also given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives, at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well.
Today, our Gospel reading from Matthew was part of what we call, The Sermon on the Mount, the basic moral teaching of Jesus. Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; forgive and you will be forgiven. None of these are natural behaviours. They all require us to do, say, and think in ways that bring us to lower our defences and open ourselves up to others.
Indeed, perhaps, we can determine our state of saintliness and blessing by our willingness to be open to the needs of others. Sainthood, then, becomes not so much some unattainable goal of moral excellence as it becomes a way of life marked by commitment to others and their needs. For the saints have always been the people who preached by their lives and words what the world did not wish to hear.
Of course, we will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. But, then, we will be in good company. After all, what word other than “vulnerable” can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us, even unto death?
So, is it easy to be a saint? To be someone who leaves good memories? Well, it requires a radically different way of seeing the world. Not as things are, but, as they could be, or rather, as God sees they should be. It comes when we recognize ourselves in the very least of those we know, and without reservation reach out to those in need of God’s blessings.
How we do that is what determines, at the end of the day, if our eulogy is a tribute or a defence.
In the Name…