Sermon for All Saints' Day, Sunday, November 01 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
I have for a long time had a particular fascination with Ophelia’s mad speeches in Hamlet—and now you are thinking once again that your rector is a gigantic weirdo, and you are not wrong. But in any case, one of the lines which haunted me for years was “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” Of course, we do not really know what we are, not in any full sense, though we may think we do, so it is already a teasing phrase—as for what we may be, this may speak of dream or promise or warning, but it opens up onto an expanse of unknowing, an unknowing filled with both hope and danger.
I didn’t realize for years that Shakespeare was probably playing with the line we just heard from the first letter of John—“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” And while this might seem more specific than Ophelia’s lyrical rambling, it is really even stranger and more mysterious. We are God’s children; and God only knows what that might mean. But whatever it might mean, we are, somehow, destined for something even more, something which is still to be revealed, is unknowable to us now.
And we read this on All Saints Day because that unknowable space, that being which is to be revealed, is, in some sense, sainthood. For in the early church, there was no special category of saints, separate from the general mass of the baptized. The hagioi, the sancti, those set apart, those consecrated to God’s purpose were, and indeed are, every one of us. We are marked, we are distinct, we are other, for that is the root meaning of the term. In a world in which the different, the “other”, is feared and hated, cast out and maligned, we are to be other by vocation. We are those who are called to fail to fit in, those who are called to stand aside. And we can barely begin to imagine what this means. What it means we may be, may become.
The beatitudes, maybe especially Matthew’s version, are often read as some kind of well-meaning instruction to be nice. This is an understanding which can only be achieved by ignoring almost all of the text, focussing heavily on the single word “meek”, and misinterpreting what Jesus actually meant by it. In fact, the beatitudes are not so much advice of any kind, as the proclamation of God’s blessing upon the outsiders, the misfits, the others—the poor and the desperate, the persecuted and the grieving and the struggling, those who have rejected power and honour for the sake of justice, and those who have had their social place stripped away from them, those who are hated or laughed at or ignored. These are not suggestions for how to live a good life. They are assurances that, when this world cannot or will not give you happiness in the world’s terms, when everything else falls away, the love of God will be there.
And when you read the lives of those we call saints, those who, we may believe, have come closer to what we may all be, you find, for the most part, an extraordinary collection of misfits, people who ran against their times, who were somewhere at the edge of society, whose accomplishments were seldom those which the world values. People who made bad choices sometimes, who were sometimes destructive, often impossible to like, and who at other times—these same people—for one moment or for a life’s work, acted with a grace and courage and beauty of which the world seems hardly worthy. One way or another, by choice or by circumstance, people for whom there was nothing to rely on but the love of God, people who handed themselves over to be made new by that love. Who accepted willingly their status as the ones set aside, the always other, the dwellers in the borderlands. What we will be has not yet been revealed, but in the beatitudes, in Jesus’s difficult words from the mountain, in the strange vivid lives of the saints, we may start to see its shape.
There is the risk that this can all sound very grim, and certainly the beatitudes, even if they are a chain of pronouncements of God’s blessing, are not extremely cheerful to contemplate. And some of the lives through which God’s light has shone have been lives of considerable suffering, public or hidden. To make ourselves vulnerable to the pain of creation will include mourning, will include failure and the wavering of hope in the face of the world’s violence and injustice. But we mustn’t forget that the lives of the saints also contain a good bit of extraordinary joy, and that Saint Brendan is best known for riding around in a boat with his fellow monks for years, apparently mostly for the fun of it, and visiting a fantastic island of birds, and celebrating Easter on the back of a whale. We know not what we might be, and even in these hard times God’s creation is full of marvels, and we are also called to be part of those marvels. If we are set apart from the ordinary values of society, we are sometimes set apart for wild creative explorations, of the world or one city street or one trail in the woods, of the worlds of language and art, of the depths of prayer.
And beyond that, there is that greater mystery, that hope. When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Now we see through a glass darkly; then we shall know as we are known. And all those who mourn will know the extent of God’s blessing, as their tears are wiped from their eyes; and the thirsty will thirst no more, and those cast out from the world’s protection will be sheltered forever by God. The metaphors stumble, as we try to talk about things we can only barely begin to apprehend, how we may know and be known by the mind which shapes all of creation, how we may be recreated into our selves, the full, recognized, beloved selves which we barely understand. The mystery of the reconciliation of all things, the reconciliation of all the scattered hurting parts of each of us within ourselves, brought together by love.
And in the meanwhile, on the horizon of this great mystery, when what we may be has not been revealed, we try to live as what we are, the children of the creating, self-offering, reconciling God. And so we strive to be agents of that reconciliation and that justice in the world, standing against hatred and exclusion and attempts to divide, learning to make amends for all the ways in which we and our communities have failed and caused damage, working for peace in a world of violence, in small ways and large. We offer ourselves, as much as we are able, in service to those who are suffering, who have been thrust aside, who are hungry or cold or alone. And we create, in whatever way our particular gifts may lead us—we create music and art and stories, cakes and soup, we plant gardens, we build communities even when we’re physically isolated, we teach and we dance, we wander our corners of the world and love their beauty. For this too is the work of the saints.
And in this we become, little by little, more of what we may be—the ones called to difference, to strangeness, to the margins of the successful world; the children of mystery and hope. The company of all the saints. Not perfect, not even, mostly, very good, but knowing that all things may fall away, but we are held in love, and offer ourselves to love, and to a process of being endlessly transformed, always growing into our fullness as a part of the body of Christ, the life of God.