November 4, 2018
The Feast of All Saints
Since we are celebrating the feast of All Saints, I have to admit that, despite having been surrounded by the mention of saints all my life in the Episcopal liturgy, I have a somewhat checkered past around the subject.
For most of my life, the universe of sainthood felt pretty small and the idea a little dubious. I thought of saints as long-dead, super-duper, church approved people. People that I imagined always behaving perfectly – too perfectly. People that seemed more angelic than human. The kinds of people that churches are named after. Not people I could relate to, much less be. I didn’t see them as having much of anything to do with me and my faith, and I wasn’t ever comfortable with the idea of praying to or through them.
After a few people that I loved died, the idea of saints began to feel a little more relatable, although still something far off. Now, I could imagine “saints” including my mom, and my grandparents, and dead people I’d heard about or known. Real people with foibles and flaws that had in some way exemplified Jesus’ teachings by the way they lived and loved. Saints were a special group of people that, if I lived well, I too might get to be part of after I died.
And then my family visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I’d taken a class in seminary with the leaders of the church and loved some of their creative ways of doing liturgy. But what ended up being most striking to me was the 3000 square foot icon on their huge ceiling that portrayed almost 100 saints dancing in a circle, with Jesus looming large among them as the Lord of the Dance. The saints included are children and adults, men and women. They range in historical age from Isaiah from the Old Testament to Desmond Tutu. And they range in orthodoxy too, from the expected (like Francis of Assisi) to the unexpected (like Ella Fitzgerald). There were plenty of Christians but also folks representing other religions – like Rumi the Sufi poet, and Anne Frank and Gandhi.
But the icon was more than a festive and theologically-surprising decoration. At several points in the service we gathered inside that portion of the church, surrounded by the circle of diverse saints, and we danced in a circle, arms linked together, part and parcel of the collection of dancing saints. Like them, we were young and old, male and female, black and brown and white, in various stages and ranges of saintliness.
I realize that some people might find the vast range of people included in that icon to be a tad heretical. And yet I think that might have been the moment when I really started to believe that I am, we are, RIGHT NOW – at this moment and forever, part of the communion of saints. That was when I started to understand how Saints (whether with a big and small “S”) could be relevant to my faith and life.
Every week we talk about this idea of the “communion of saints.” It’s part of the Creed, and the Prayers of the People, and the eucharistic prayers. But mostly it had just floated by me, sounding distant and holy and other-worldly But suddenly I could hear it as a way of expressing not only our union with those who have gone before but also a way of living right now. The catechism in the back of our prayer book defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.”
So the communion of saints isn’t limited to just the famous, church-recognized saints, or even the super well-behaved people. The communion of saints doesn’t just include all the folks that we’ve loved and lost – like our relatives and the parishioners that have died over the year that we’ll name in a few minutes. It includes those of us that are still kicking, whether our saintly qualities are obvious – like Desmond Tutu – or less obvious, like me. We are all part of the communion of saints! It isn’t something we look at from the outside but something we are living in the midst of.
My youngest daughter is named after one of my favorite writers -- and saints (though not listed in any official list just yet) -- Maya Angelou -- helps me to think about what that might look like.
I had the great joy of taking a class with Dr. Angelou, who was a professor at Wake Forest where I went to college. It was one of those classes that only seniors could get into, and only if we lucked out and drew a good number when it came time for class registration. Dr. Angelou only offered the class pass/fail, and all that was required was showing up. A couple dozen of us would sit and adore her as she told stories about her life, read from her books, recited poetry and broke out periodically in song. The last class was dinner at her home. We got to see photos of her with everyone wonderful you could imagine. We got to see her gorgeous collection of artwork. We got to see her mementos from life in exotic countries. I don’t remember much of what we ate or who else was there; I just remember how special it felt.
She was larger than life, full of joy and beauty and wisdom. And she was really helpful at a formative time in my coming to a grown-up faith. She talked openly about her own faith and sang spiritual songs and referred to Bible stories. But she was also painfully honest about how hard she found it all. She said she never felt comfortable calling herself a Christian because it seemed like something she failed at every day.
And maybe that’s why Maya Angelou came to mind for me when I thought about how this communion of saints business might look for those of us still working on it “down here”. She confessed in an interview that she was always amazed when people say, “‘I’m a Christian.’ I always think, ‘Already? You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.’” “I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, “Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day -- hot diggity.’ The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmmm. I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.’ I’m trying to be a Christian.”
Maybe it’s like I’m a mom and a wife and a daughter because I have kids and a spouse and parents even though my patience and love, my mothering and spousing and daughter-ing, is often imperfect…. And like I am a priest because I’m ordained even though I haven’t fully figured out my pastoral identity…. We are saints not because of our good deeds or because we can claim any kind of perfection, but because we belong to God.
And because we are saints, we are called to participate -- to do God’s work in the piece of the world in which we find ourselves. God uses us flawed saints to do divine things.
And that’s where the miracle story from our Gospel comes in. This is the big daddy of Jesus’ miracles – raising Lazarus, who had been dead four days, to life again. This is the one that created tons of believers and the one that sets some people on their course to try to destroy Jesus.
But Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus alone. He called the crowd to participate. “Take away the stone,” Jesus commanded them, inviting them to begin the miracle by creating space for it. And then, Jesus said, “Unbind him,” instructing them to complete the miracle and make it visible to everyone.
That’s how it works. God is all around us doing incredible things - renewing and restoring, healing and forgiving. But God doesn’t do it alone. We are invited to become God’s partners in the Kingdom of God. To become part of making God’s vision, God’s promise, a reality.
Because God is in our midst, we are able to do the work of rolling away stones unbinding that is so clearly needed in the world around us. Because God’s light shines through us, we are able to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God. Because Jesus Christ is the Lord of the dance, we are able to hook arms and join in the divine circle.