All Saints’ Sunday
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
At the CREDO clergy conference I recently led, we began, as we always do, with little activities that help us get to know each other a bit. In one of them, we ask them to line up on one side of the room if they prefer doing weddings. If they prefer doing funerals, they go to the other side of the room.
Raise your hand if you think there are more clergy on the wedding side. Now raise your hand if you think there are more on the funeral side…you’re right; far more clergy prefer funerals over weddings.
Why is this? Are we morbid? Or is it because at funerals we can be little heroes to the bereaved, while at weddings, we’re always upstaged by the bride?
I’ve never asked, but I suspect part of the reason is that getting close to death can make us feel more alive. I find that even when I’m doing a funeral of someone I didn’t know, I’m brought back to the most basic, most important things, because these are the things people remember about those who have died. “She treasured the beauty of nature,” they say. “He was like a magnet for kids and animals.” “She poured herself into work that she cared deeply about.” “He was kind and curious.” “She was beloved.”
Seeing the departed this way can become a mirror in which we see the things that really matter in our own life. Our mundane world opens up and reveals its true wonder and depth. It is like a curtain being drawn back in some homely motel room, and suddenly, through the window, we see a full moon rising over a majestic mountain range, reflected in a shimmering lake.
So this day, the Feast of All Saints, is a holy day, a day to remember the departed, and to recall our own potential. In the Baptismal Covenant today, we will re-set our aim towards the things that really matter, or to put it in more religious terms, towards holiness of life, towards becoming a saint.
This is what Jesus aims us towards in the gospel today, in the passage known as the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
How blessed, he says, are the saints who are humble and pure of heart, hungry for God, merciful and kind, creating peace and reconciliation in this broken world. They are the saints of God, and Jesus says that they will be satisfied. He is even so bold as to say that they shall see God.
Is it possible for you to consider that Jesus is telling you that you can really know the kingdom of heaven in your lifetime? That you can be fulfilled, that you can, in fact, see God? Can you hear this as an invitation into a blessedness that is possible in your life?
If so, know that it will not happen by wishing it so. Nor does will it happen by having right beliefs or being perfect and never doing anything wrong. It happens by actively placing ourselves in the hands of God, day in and day out.
A word of caution, however. Commitment and zeal in the spiritual life are a tricky thing. We can become harsh with ourselves, pushing ourselves willfully towards something that, in the end, is a gift. I’ve done that. We can regularly lurch between zeal and disappointment, and eventually give up, resigning ourselves to lackluster mediocrity.
But somehow or another, the saints, the ones who have inspired us, the blessed ones who have lived the Beatitudes and have seen God, have applied themselves with dedication towards this hope. They understood that they have a part to play in becoming saints, that it would not happen unless they desired and pursued holiness of life.
I don’t know about you, but I seem to go in and out of this kind of commitment. Like a slow-moving tide, it ebbs and it flows. I first felt this desire rise in me many years ago, when I was 25 years old. It was during a series of crises that left me quite disoriented. In a moment of grace one night while lying in bed, I imagined myself as an old man on my deathbed. At the end of my life, I found myself being asked “Brian, what did you live for?” And as I came out of this reverie, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to live for God.
Now recently, for whatever reason, the tide of my desire for God has flowed in again. I am once again aware that I can experience what Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, that they are not just empty words.
And I also know that this happens when I diligently practice with meditation, prayer, and self-awareness throughout the day. It happens when I orient my life around the things that matter, by reading things that encourage me, by doing what I can to remain mentally and physically fresh and alert, by practicing trust and faith when stress and worry threaten to overwhelm me.
Now you may express how you stay centered in God differently. You may have very different kinds of spiritual practice. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that if you want holiness of life, you apply yourself towards it, day in and day out.
Three weeks ago, I participated in a funeral for someone whom I only knew a few weeks. I had been called in because he wanted to talk about how to make his final journey towards death. Doug was not a member; he wasn’t even a Christian, and barely even a person of faith. None of that mattered. Because in the course of the conversation it became abundantly clear to me that I was talking with a saint.
He lived the Beatitudes. He lived the Baptismal Covenant. He was humble and pure of heart. He cared when things needed to be set right, and did something about it. He looked for the good in others and respected their dignity, even when they were very difficult people. He was a reconciler, and shed light wherever he went.
And because he did, he experienced what Jesus promises. He knew mercy and purity of heart; his hunger was filled with abundant life. Everyone who attended his funeral said this about him. You could see his light in their faces.
Doug is one of those on our ofrenda today. I put him there to honor his life, to show my appreciation for who he was. But I also put him there in order to remember that it is possible for me to be a saint, too, like him.
It’s not easy to become a saint. It’s not easy to live into the Beatitudes, or to fulfill the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. But it is possible. Those saints that shine with God’s light are not a special breed apart. They are as human, as flawed, as you and me. The only difference is that they kept aiming towards the life that Jesus said was possible. And in doing so, they proved him right.