Almost every Thursday I preside at the noon Eucharist in our chapel, and almost every time we celebrate the life of a saint, someone whose life and perhaps death reflected their love of God in Christ through devotion, faith, and courage. In the Episcopal Church we don’t require evidence of miracles, only that someone demonstrated one or more of the qualities of faith, heroism, love, goodness of life, or service to others for the sake of Christ. A saint is not a perfect person, and should always be regarded in the light of their own historical and cultural context.
If you attend a weekday service here you have at least a 75% chance of hearing about someone the church regards as a saint: men, women, clergy, lay persons, teachers, evangelists, martyrs, peacemakers, activists, soldiers, missionaries, and even politicians ( we remember Frances Perkins, US labor Secretary, founder of Social Security and gay Episcopal lay woman, on May 13).
On Thursdays in October we remembered: John Raleigh Mott, an American lay person who led the YMCA; Vida Dutton Scudder, an educator and social welfare activist; Ignatius of Antioch, a first century bishop and martyr; Hiram Hisanori Kano, a Japanese American priest who was interned during world war 2 as an enemy alien but ministered in the camp to both his fellow Japanese and to US soldiers imprisoned for going AWOL; and Bishop Philip Lindel Tsen, an Anglican bishop in China who was persecuted for stressing the ties between Japanese and Chinese Christians during a time when two nations were at war.
And today we give thanks for them all, that great and glorious cloud of witnesses who came before us and who continue to illuminate, challenge, and inspire our lives.
The idea of a saint has evolved over the ages. In the Hebrew Scriptures we hear about prophets, judges, and kings who obeyed the law of Moses and ruled with justice and mercy. In the books written shortly before the Christian era we see descriptions of “holy ones”, which sometimes means angels and other times means virtuous Jews who resisted or overcame persecution. In the early Christian church the apostles were venerated along with martyrs, while St. Paul refers to all church members as saints. It was the Irish who started the tradition of a general celebration in early November, as a counter to a pagan festival of the dead, and in the 8th century Rome made it official throughout the western church.
The book of Daniel belongs to that category of books written just before the Christian era. We classify Daniel as one of the prophets, but it’s not a prophetic book. It really belongs in the same category as the Revelation to John, as an apocalypse, a type of literature designed to comfort and encourage the faithful in a time of persecution, an elaborate description of a hoped-for future when God will prevail over the wicked and God’s Kingdom will replace the kingdoms of earthly tyrants. I think that today is our one Sunday during the year when we hear from Daniel, so it’s worth spending a minute with this book before we move on.
Daniel was written around 167 BCE, when Israel was a small, westernmost outpost of a Eurasian empire ruled by a series of kings called Antiochus. Unrest in Jerusalem resulted in Antiochus IV persecuting and massacring the Jews. A pious Jew living under this persecution wrote a collection of stories to encourage his fellow Jews to hold fast to the hope that God’s kingdom would ultimately prevail over the corrupt and brutal kingdoms of the world. This writer took the name of Daniel to remind his readers of a legendary hero of Jewish history, and he set his inspirational stories in the time of an earlier conquest, when faithful Jews did indeed overcome their enemies and survive to carry on the story of salvation.
Do you ever have dreams that trouble you? Whenever I had a nightmare as a child it was about our house catching on fire. Maybe you’ve had similar nightmares lately, with all the wildfires that are igniting to our north and our south. These days, my most vivid and disturbing dreams are about liturgical disasters – getting lost in a huge church, forgetting what I’m supposed to do in the service, finding myself inappropriately attired. I sometimes wake myself up laughing at the absurdity of the dream.
I’ve never had a dream as detailed as Daniel’s dream, with his descriptions of the four beasts, each one representing a corrupt human kingdom destined to pass away before the triumph of the kingdom of God. You’ll have to open your Bible and read the omitted verses to appreciate the vivid imagery of Daniel’s vision: the purpose of the verses we read today is to focus our attention on the holy ones, those faithful servants of God who endure through the persecution and receive their reward in God’s kingdom.
That focus provides our link to the Gospel. We are blessed, Jesus says to his disciples, if we remain faithful when times are hard, because God will ultimately bring us out into a place of abundance. I think that’s a hard thing for us to hear, because on the whole our lives are pretty comfortable, compared to those who first heard Jesus’s words. For most of human history and still today across the world, life is a struggle. The promise of a heavenly reward is treasured when there’s precious little in this life to look forward to. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel doesn’t speak to us as powerfully as it did to the people of a defeated, occupied, and persecuted minority.
But we still pay attention to Jesus, because there are those among us who are poor, there are those who hunger both physically and spiritually, there are those who are grieving, and there are those who are the targets of bigotry and malicious gossip. And Jesus is very clear about how we are to behave towards one another, no matter how different our circumstances or how deep our disagreements: love, bless, pray, give. We do these things because of who we are, the holy people of God, set apart and consecrated to do the work of bringing God’s kingdom to fruition, in partnership with all the saints who have gone before us.
We sit in this beautiful place today because of, and only because of, those members of the communion of saints who sat here before us. We are blessed by the generosity of previous generations of faithful people. People like Stew Dadmun, who helped to found SPSS, and Norm Crispen, who brought donuts to share every week and whom we will celebrate at a special reception following this/the 10:30 service. They and many others were members of our legacy society, planning for the future of this community of faith for long after they were gone, and we give thanks for them and their vision.
Imagine that 100 years from now people will celebrate All Saints Sunday in this cathedral. Will they give thanks for you and me in the same way and for the same reasons? I hope so. This vibrant parish is our inheritance, and we are blessed to be its stewards for a short time and hopefully to leave it even better than we found it.
And so we pray today for the grace to follow the blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we too may learn to trust in the riches of God’s love and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
All Saints Sunday Nov 3, 2019