sermon for the twenty-fourth sunday after pentecost, year c, november 3, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. The second lesson at Morning Prayer on All Saints, from the letter to the Hebrews, speaks about the saints, about who they are, and what constitutes them as saints. It is worth hearing in its entirety:

…what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 11.32-12.2)

This passage speaks of the saints of the Old Testament – Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – and of what made them saints, what made them HOLY, what made their lives acceptable to God. And what made their lives acceptable, what made them holy, what made them saints, was their fidelity to God’s call, their refusal to accept anything in exchange for God’s promise.

And since the time that the letter to the Hebrews was written, innumerable men and women have been added, in virtue of a similar fidelity, “to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven,” (Hebrews 12.23). The list is immense and beyond knowing, as Pope Benedict put it, “starting with… righteous Abel and the faithful Patriarch, Abraham, those [saints] of the New Testament, the numerous early Christian Martyrs and the Blesseds and Saints of later centuries, [down] to the witnesses of Christ in this epoch of ours…” (Homily, Nov. 1, 2006).

Many Christians have personal lists of favorite saints. At the top of any list must come Mary, the Mother of the Savior, and the Queen of All Saints. After Mary, my own list of favorites includes George, whose name I share, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who was burned to death as an old man, in the early 2nd century, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, who was fed to lions, Augustine of Hippo, the great theological mind of the third and fourth centuries, whose spiritual autobiography is a great inspiration to me. I love Saint Edmund, the English king of the 9th century who was captured by pagan Vikings, mocked, and scourged, and finally tied to a stake and used for archery practice. All the while he never ceased to call on the Name of Jesus. I love the Spanish Carmelite saints of the 16th century, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, whose teachings on prayer, along with those of Francis de Sales, constantly urge me onward in my pilgrimage. And there’s Margaret Mary Alacoque, who encouraged Christians in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Nor can I forget the saints of the modern era: the model for parish priests, John Vianney, who said that the secret of his success was easy: give everything away and keep nothing for yourself. Then there are the (Catholic and Anglican) Martyrs of Uganda, Blessed John Henry Newman, the founder of the Oxford Movement to whom churches like Holy Cross owe their existence, and just beatified by Pope Benedict in 2010. And of course there is the “Little Flower,” Therese of Lisieux, the great expositor of holiness in small things; the great witness for Christ, Maximilian Kolbe, murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. And especially dear to me, Brother Alfred Hill and his companions, my friends from the Melanesian Brotherhood, tortured and killed in 2003 for bearing witness to the peace that only Jesus can give. They were interred at the Brotherhood’s headquarters at Tabalia, on the island of Guadalcanal, where I lived briefly among them in 2002. Their graves were subsequently blessed by Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and some of their relics deposited in the church of Sant’Egidio in Rome.

These are some of my favorites, to whom I am specially devoted, and they are just a few of the countless throngs from every age, many of whom lived and died in humble circumstances, their faces and names lost to history. Today we remember all of them, and we thank God for all of them, for their faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus. We thank God for showing us how to be Jesus’ disciples in any and every circumstance, by giving us their example. It is to this end that I provide some of their stories in the leaflet each week, hoping that their stories will inspire us to be like them. And today, of all days, we ask them to pray for us. They have finished their journey to God, and we ask God humbly to help us, “who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith,” through the intercession of these exemplary servants of his.

What unites all of the saints together into one assembly, what constitutes them as “saints” is their fidelity to the call of God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God calls to each of us. That is to say, when we look at Jesus, when we listen to his voice, pay attention to his teaching, when we meditate on the events of his life and death, we can begin to see what God wants us to do and to be. I return to the words of Pope Benedict:

…it is necessary first of all to listen to Jesus and then to follow him without losing heart when faced by difficulties. “If anyone serves me”, he warns us, “he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honour him” (Jn 12: 26).

Like the grain of wheat buried in the earth, those who trust him and love him sincerely accept dying to themselves. Indeed, he knows that whoever seeks to keep his life for himself loses it, and whoever gives himself, loses himself… in this very way finds life (cf. Jn 12: 24-25).

The Church’s experience shows that every form of holiness, even if it follows different paths, always passes through the Way of the Cross, the way of self-denial. The Saints’ biographies describe men and women who, docile to the divine plan, sometimes faced unspeakable trials and suffering, persecution and martyrdom. They persevered in their commitment: “they… have come out of the great tribulation”, one reads in Revelation, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rv 7: 14). Their names are written in the book of life (cf. Rv 20: 12) and Heaven is their eternal dwelling-place.

The example of the Saints encourages us to follow in their same footsteps and to experience the joy of those who trust in God, for the one true cause of sorrow and unhappiness for men and women is to live far from him.

Holiness demands a constant effort, but it is possible for everyone because, rather than a human effort, it is first and foremost a gift of God, thrice Holy (cf. Is 6: 3)…. the Apostle John remarks: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (I Jn 3: 1).

It is God, therefore, who loved us first and made us his adoptive sons in Jesus. Everything in our lives is a gift of his love: how can we be indifferent before such a great mystery? How can we not respond to the Heavenly Father’s love by living as grateful children? In Christ, he gave us the gift of his entire self and calls us to a personal and profound relationship with him.

Consequently, the more we imitate Jesus and remain united to him the more we enter into the mystery of his divine holiness. We discover that he loves us infinitely, and this prompts us in turn to love our brethren. Loving always entails an act of self-denial, “losing ourselves”, and it is precisely this that makes us happy.

Thus, we have come to the Gospel of this feast, the proclamation of the Beatitudes which we have just heard…

Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed [are] those who mourn, [blessed are] the meek; blessed [are] those who hunger and thirst for justice, [blessed are]the merciful; blessed the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for the sake of justice (cf. Mt 5: 3-10).

In truth, the blessed par excellence is only Jesus. He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice.

The Beatitudes show us the spiritual features of Jesus and thus express his mystery, the mystery of his death and Resurrection, of his passion and of the joy of his Resurrection. This mystery, which is the mystery of true blessedness, invites us to follow Jesus and thus to walk toward it.

To the extent that we accept his proposal and set out to follow him – each one in his own circumstances – we too can participate in his blessedness. With him, the impossible becomes possible and even a camel can pass through the eye of a needle (cf. Mk 10: 25); with his help, only with his help, can we become perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5: 48).

Dear brothers and sisters, we are now entering the heart of the Eucharistic celebration that encourages and nourishes holiness. In a little while, Christ will make himself present in the most exalted way, Christ the true Vine to whom the faithful on earth and the Saints in Heaven are united like branches.

Thus, the communion of the pilgrim Church in the world with the Church triumphant in glory will increase.

In the Preface we will proclaim that the Saints are friends and models of life for us. Let us invoke them so that they may help us to imitate them and strive to respond generously, as they did, to the divine call.

In particular, let us invoke Mary, Mother of the Lord and mirror of all holiness. May she, the All Holy, make us faithful disciples of her Son Jesus Christ!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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