Sermon for All Saints
Readings: Revelation 7:9–17, 1 John 3:1–3 & Matthew 5:1–12
When we hear the term ‘Saint’ used to describe someone, we probably tend to think of someone who is very gentle and placid, incredibly kind, caring and generous; someone who is selfless, always putting the needs of others ahead of their own. We probably also think of them as being clean living people without any vices.
Several years ago I saw a movie titled Saint Vincent, that starred Bill Murray as Vincent MacKenna; a retired, grumpy, alcoholic Vietnam War veteran living in Brooklyn, New York, who smokes and gambles regularly. His wife suffers from Alzheimer’s and can no longer recognise him, but he poses as a doctor to visit her and does her laundry. Vincent’s only close friends are his cat Felix and a pregnant Russian sex worker named Daka. Despite his aggressive attitude toward strangers, Vincent has acquaintances who admire and care about him.
Vincent’s 30-year-old car gets damaged by a tree branch felled by his new neighbour’s moving van. Maggie, a divorcee, and her son Oliver meet Vincent, who demands payment for the damage. Oliver is ostracised and bullied at his Catholic school, and on his first day at school, his phone, wallet and house keys are stolen by a classmate. Oliver asks Vincent if he can stay at his home until his mother comes home from work. Vincent offers to continue babysitting for a fee. Vincent picks up Oliver daily after school because Maggie often has late shifts. Vincent’s ideas of after-school activities include visits to racetracks and bars. The mismatched pair slowly start to bond and begin to help each other mature. Vincent experiences personal tragedy, firstly in the form of a stroke, which leaves his speech affected, and then with the death of his wife while he himself is hospitalised and unable to be with her.
Towards the end of the film, Oliver is required to complete a school project on the topic of “Saints Among Us”, and he asks around the neighbourhood about Vincent’s past. Later, he nominates Vincent at the school’s assembly, publicly declaring him his saint and presenting him with a medal. Oliver’s rationale comes from his teacher’s definition of sainthood as a person showing ‘commitment and dedication’ and some sacrifice. Oliver believes that Vincent fits this definition because of his care for his wife, and the fact that he also saved two soldiers during the Vietnam war.
The character of Vincent hardly fits the description of a ‘saint’ that I mentioned when I began this sermon. But history would show us that a number of saints, St Augustine of Hippo and Ignatius of Loyola famously among them, had very questionable pasts.
The one trait that all saints have in common, despite each one of them being unique and different, is that they all found favour with God. It is not their qualities or achievements that unite them together, but rather it is God’s grace, and grace alone.
As we celebrate the feast of All Saints today, we note there is no distinction between the saints. No one individual is named; there is no one lesser or greater here. The fact is that the focus of today’s feast day is on those who were never named. The emphasis is not on the canonised saints of the Church, but on all of the baptised and saved people of God. We are reminded that God accepts us just as we are, complete with all of our faults and mistakes. Today we celebrate God’s achievement; an achievement that is all about the notion of reversal, as seen in the Beatitudes.
Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes that it is the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who cry out for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers who find favour with God. In the eyes of many in our secular society, this might be interpreted as meaning the ‘losers’ are the ones who find favour with God. The message of the Beatitudes is no doubt just as countercultural in our own world today as it was in the world of Jesus’ day.
The Beatitudes deal first and foremost with the character of God and only secondly with the character of Christians. The essence of the Beatitudes is that because God behaves in the way God does, a person would be foolish not to act in the way recommended by the Beatitudes. The fact that the behaviour of many Christians may not to conform to the Beatitudes is not necessarily a sign of moral weakness, but perhaps rather that of a lack of faith. It could be that we do not really believe that God will bless the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. In other words, we might think it doesn’t make sense to behave in the way Jesus did, because we might not believe that God is really the way he describes.
If we look closely at the Beatitudes we see they follow a pattern that includes both the present and the future tense: “Blessed are … for they will be …” The future tense confesses that the world is not currently as the Beatitudes describe it. However, someday it will be! The Beatitudes provide a vision of the way the world will be when God’s rule is reestablished, at the coming of the kingdom of heaven. The use of the present tense implies that not only is the future reign of God guaranteed, but that it is also already real. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s kingdom can already be felt and seen in the world.
This ‘already–and–not-yet’ nature of the kingdom of God is an appropriate message on All Saints’ Day. This is a day that lends itself to reflection on the distinction and connection between the church here on earth and the church of those who have died and are in eternal union with God. We have communion not only with our contemporaries, as we struggle together in the midst of a broken world; we also commune with the saints who have gone before us and received their eternal rest. The saints bear witness both to the faith that God is the true ruler of the universe, and to a way of living that suits such a ruler. The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already in the midst of our not-yet. Through our communion with them, we live in a moment, where God’s kingdom is breaking into the world.
We might continue to wrestle with faith, but we are connected to a faith that is secure; we continue to face a world that is not yet conformed to God’s will, yet we are related to those who have experienced God’s victory; we continue to struggle to live the Christian life, but we are in community with those whose lives have been made perfect.