The Waters of Baptism, the Love of Jesus

The first Sunday of Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord
12 January 2020

The readings for today are:
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Click here to access these readings.

        The other day, I was talking to my Evangelical friend about Baptism. Which is kinda appropriate: today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as we read this morning in the gospel of Matthew. But when my friend and I started getting into our discussion, we realized that we both had some pretty different ways of thinking of Baptism. He thought, as many or most Evangelicals do, that baptism is a symbol of something that’s already happened. It doesn’t have any internal meaning, but it’s a way of seeing something that is already taking place, of God coming and dwelling within a person who has made a commitment to Jesus Christ.

        For me, and for most liturgical traditions, something really does go on in baptism. We’re changed in some way, we’re brought closer to God and given a new relationship to him through Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism. Baptism is, after all, one of the two great sacraments along with the Eucharist. And sacraments are gifts from God, special acts of grace that draw us closer to the life of the Trinity.

        And so we disagreed, pretty fundamentally. I dunno, what do you all think?

 

Here, Father Tim listened and responded to people in the congregation.

 

        There are, I think, three ways out of this sort of situation. First, we can say that “everybody’s different” and go our separate ways. And that’s just fine if you’re trying to decide whether you like apples or oranges, or if you are wondering what kind of cheese to put on your hamburger, but we’re not dealing with simple choices. We’re talking about our relationship with God, and that’s a bit more serious and important to end with a shrug and a “let’s just agree to be disagree.”

        Another way you could solve the disagreement is to force agreement. I could say to my friend, and to all Evangelicals: you’re wrong. You’ve got baptism all wrong, you’re schismatics, you’re heretics. But that sort of thing breaks the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

        So what should my friend and I do? Or, to put it more broadly, what do we do with any sort of disagreement in the Church? There are quite a lot of issues in the Church these days that risk to rupture the Body, and there are a number of issues right here in our Episcopal Church, and even our diocese, that push people apart.

Back last summer, the bishop search committee did a few surveys to see what people in the diocese wanted in their new bishop. Remember this? And we gave a bunch of options: spiritual leader, teacher, prophet, activist, liturgist, administrator – stuff like that. And we asked people: choose three of these that you want to see in your next bishop, and choose three that you most certainly DO NOT want to see in your next bishop. And you know what? Some of the things that were in the “definitely want” column were also in the “definitely don’t want” column. Some of us vehemently want something that others vehemently DON’T want. And you know what, we’re not all that different from the rest of the Episcopal church, or, really, the whole Church as a whole.

So what binds us together? How do we live with our differences but still live in deep relationships with one another? My friend, the Evangelical, answered these questions when he answered one of mine about baptism: if baptism is only a symbol for you, with no real inner meaning, why do you do it? And he said, simply: Jesus.

I’m not going to get into Evangelical theology, because I’d probably misrepresent it, but even though baptism for many of them is just a symbol, even though their theology sounds strange to me and doesn’t get it just right, even still, they encounter Jesus in baptism. And I get that, I get that. For Jesus is at the heart of the sacraments for those in the small-c catholic tradition. Jesus is present in the Eucharist – “This is my Body” “This is my Blood” he told us. Jesus is present in the sacrament of Healing, Jesus, who spent his ministry going to the sick and the suffering. Jesus is present in Reconciliation, for it is not to the priest who we confess, but to Jesus; and it is not the priest who absolves us, but the priest speaking the words of Jesus pronounces his mercy and love to the penitent. And in baptism, when we are submerged in water, we are brought into Jesus’ life and his death upon the cross. Jesus is the foundation and life of it all.

And that’s where we agree. We could argue over details – is it the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or whether we should baptize babies. And those are important details. They teach us how God is with us in this world and how to respect God’s gift to us in Creation and in the Holy Spirit. And I think there are real answers to those details, and I’ll continue to preach the Real Presence and I’ll continue to baptize babies, but at the end of the day, what all this is built on, what truly and wholly matters, is that we are standing on a sure foundation, and that foundation, Jesus Christ himself, the second person of the Trinity, is unshakable.

Today we celebrate baptism, and in baptism we celebrate the community that we were brought into when we were baptized. My mom just found my own baptismal record, and it seems I was baptized in a Lutheran church in New Jersey. Helene was baptized as a child in a Roman Catholic church. Gwendolyn was baptized at All Saints in Sewanee on the same day that our presiding bishop was blessed into his position. Fiona was baptized here, so was Cooper.

Where were you baptized? Whose hands poured water over your head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?” Were you a little child dressed in white? Or were you an adult, and do you remember being thrust into the dark waters? Whatever the case, at the center of all that was Jesus Christ, for the center of our lives as Christians, and the center of the universe itself, is Jesus Christ.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to have Jesus Christ as the center of your life and of the universe? Well, stay tuned for the next, oh, fifty years, and maybe I’ll be able to speak somewhat to that great and beautiful mystery. But I can say this if you don’t want to stick around that long: on the night in which he was betrayed, on the night that he instituted the blessed sacrament, the Eucharist itself, Jesus gave to his disciples a new commandment: that you should love one another. As he has loved us, so shall we love one another. Then he went to the cross for those he loved.

Be a Blessing

the Second Sunday after Christmas
5 January 2020

Today’s readings are:
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

Click here to access these readings.

        When you travel abroad, you learn how many things you take for granted (and seriously, no joke, when I was writing this sermon last week, I had just written this sentence when, boom, the power went out. Things like that make you start thinking, you know?). Anyway, when you’re abroad, you realize that things you usually count on to be there – you know, things like food that looks familiar, or signs that you can read, or beds. While in Japan, I realized that there were a lot of things that I did, and always had done, that the Japanese just didn’t do. And one of these was saying “God bless you” after someone sneezed.

        The Japanese, you see, don’t have a tradition of saying anything after a sneeze. And this felt really strange to me. I’d be sitting in the teacher’s office, and someone would sneeze. Then, nothing. I’d look up, worrying about whether someone would say anything, but people just, you know, kept on working. It just felt weird. And when I asked some of the Japanese teachers who could speak English, they scratched their heads and asked, “Why do you say anything at all?” And all I could say was, “I dunno. It’s just what you do”, which is pretty unhelpful.

        When I became an Episcopalian, I had some similar experiences. Episcopalians, as you know, have certain ways of doing things, and we like doing things these ways, and we get uncomfortable when someone tells us to do things differently. We kneel, as able, at certain parts of the liturgy, we cross ourselves during certain prayers or parts of prayers, and we’d rather read a prayer than make one up on the spot. And we like doing these things or praying in these ways. We get, I think, quite a bit out of kneeling and crossing ourselves and reading such beautifully written prayers. We find depth in these things, and learning about them, and loving them. And, while I hope that we can learn to pray in the spirit and such, loving our tradition is a good thing. Because we see God there, and, often, we feel God so personally in the things we do.

        One of the traditions we hold, and that some of us hold dear, is that around Epiphany, we bless our houses. It used to be that a priest would make his visit to people’s houses around this time, you know, to ring in the new year, to bring the love of Christmas into the home, and, often, to bless the house and the family together, where they live. I am happy to come and bless your house if you wish, but nowadays, usually what we do is take blessed chalk home and, together as a family, bless the house (I’ll talk about this in a little bit).

        But, like my Japanese co-workers might ask, why do you bless houses? Or, to ask a bit further, why do we bless things at all? What are we doing when we bless things?

        Now, I could answer these questions with the history of blessing homes on Epiphany. Or, I could answer it with a theological discussion on what it means to bless things, or how, why, and when Jesus blessed those people and things before him. But, instead, I want to tell you a few stories about blessing things. It’s my hope that, while you might not be able to write a nice essay about blessings, that I can instead deepen your sense of the gift that God has given us in being able to bless things.

        Our chapel at seminary was called The Chapel of the Apostles. It was a weird building, but I liked it. There were great, huge windows that lined the walls, and the back of the church, behind the altar, was one big window, and it looked out into the Tennessee forest. Everything had a strange, almost art deco design to it, and this included the baptismal font. This thing was huge, maybe four feet around and a foot deep, and they’d fill it up to the brim. It was right in the middle of the foyer, so that when you walked in, there it was, full of life-giving water. Seeing it each morning, and each noon at our daily Eucharist, and in the evening if I caught a chance between studying and the family to go to evening prayer, was like having God standing there, with his hand out, welcoming me into his home.

        And this font was so huge, they refilled it (literally) with a hose every few weeks. The sacristans would do this in the mornings, before anyone came in, and they’d snag the first priest who walked in the doors to bless it. This was beautiful. Some days, you’d walk into the chapel in the morning, all sleepy and tired from late nights in the library, and there, before you, would be a little ring of students and a priest, praying over the water. To either side of the door were other students, their heads bowed in prayer, and you’d step aside yourself and join them. There are few better ways to start your day than to pray when someone is blessing the waters of baptism.

        Here is another story. Back before I went to seminary, Helene and I worshiped at the Church of the Resurrection in south Eugene. It was (and is) a great community of really dedicated Christians, and they do amazing work there. Helene and I did not often attend the Sunday services; we went to Mass on Saturday night, what the priest Father Brent called “Saturday evening high Mass.” Brent chanted the whole service, we used lots of incense and the sanctus bells. It was really beautiful.

        But I think one of the best parts of the service was afterwards. Helene and I were on the altar guild, so we often cleaned up. Father Brent insisted on using loafs of bread, and that’s cool, though there was often a lot left over. And while Helene and I love bread, it’s hard to eat a whole half-loaf reverently. We often asked if anyone could help us, but when word got around to the kids that there was more Eucharist, they’d charge into the sacristy (which was tiny) and all call out for more bread. Nor was it just any bread: it was blessed bread, consecrated to be the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And here was this trampling rush of kids and a dozen or so outstretched hands, all saying, “Can I have some more! More! Please, let me have some more!”

        Now, I’m sure that those kids were thinking quite a bit about their stomachs and not their spirits. Saturday evening high Mass was just before dinner, so they were probably hungry. But I’ve seen hungry kids rushing to the dinner table, and while there is often joy, it was not the same sort of joy as those kids standing at the door of the sacristy. They knew that something was different about that bread. They couldn’t explain it (who could?), but there was something different about it. Perhaps it was the ritual of the Eucharistic prayer that gave them the hint. Perhaps it was the reverence that people brought to the altar rails and that they, themselves, also experienced. And perhaps it was the love they felt when they took those little bits of bread and ate them, together, with the rest of the church, the rest of their church family. Perhaps that joy came a bit from knowing God in that bread and knowing that the love of God filled them just like bread filled their tummies.

        I could tell you many more stories about blessings. I could tell you stories about being at the hospital, here in Coquille or down in Sewanee or during my chaplaincy in Florida. I could tell you about personal blessings, like spring mornings as a kid in New Jersey, or the first time I saw Saturn through a telescope and how much awe I felt at God’s world, or the Sacrament of Confession, and when Jesus took all my sins on his back to carry them for me. I could tell you many more stories, and, I think, so could you.

        During the liturgy, it is the priest’s responsibility and privilege (if the bishop isn’t here) to bless the people. We do this after the post-communion prayer, and it often is, “and the blessing of God Almighty, Father Son and Holy Spirit, be with you all and remain with you, always.” But just because I’m the priest and so I get to bless you all doesn’t mean that you yourselves, as Christians, can’t bless stuff. You can. And your blessing doesn’t count less because you aren’t wearing a collar. It counts just the same amount.

            I can’t remember who said this, it was one of the Church fathers, I believe, but: we should be blessing things all the time. We should be speaking the Name and Love and Hope of God over all things we encounter. For what is a blessing other than allowing the Life of God, the breath of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of Jesus Christ, to reach further into the world? Bless all things to the glory of the Lord, and be a blessing to others, so that the world may be brought ever more fully into the light of God in Jesus Christ.

Alive with the Light of God

Christmas Eve, 11:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

            So, this is something of a night owl sermon, but I’m assuming that if you’re here for the 11:00 Mass on Christmas Eve, you’re something of a night owl. If you’re a morning person, then cool, just wait a bit, I’m going to get to some morning stuff soon, but for a moment, I want to preach about how wonderful it is to go to church late at night.

            I’m a new priest, so I haven’t done many late-night Christmas services. As a child, my family went to the evening service at our local church just up the hill from where we lived. This was in New Jersey, and the church was in the New England style: white walls and tall, tall windows. Outside, everything was dark and sleepy, and this only made the light inside shine the brighter. There were greens and red banners and ribbons all over the place, people were sleepy but awake and strangely energized with that joy of Christmas. We’d sing Christmas carols, listen to the sermon, then leave into the frosty air and drive home to sleep and await Christmas morning.

            But there is something even more different about going to church in the dead of the night. Again, if you’re a night owl, this certainly isn’t the dead of the night (that’s like, what, 3:00?), but by this time, we’ve finished with the work of the day, put away the plates and left-overs from dinner, tucked in the kids, and finally settled down in a favorite chair, maybe cracked open a book. But to go out at this late hour, to put on a coat instead of pajamas, and to come to church to sing and to praise God with our fellow Christians – there’s a grace to this, a special grace and joy. On nights like this, I personally can really feel that God has made the whole Creation new in Jesus Christ. Late nights like this are like fresh snow on the ground, or a pristine starry sky, or that first breath of spring on the air, the golden light of dawn or the blue, twilit evening.

            Christmas Eve is about moving from Advent to Christmas, from the time of waiting, of expectation, of promised joy and light, to the fulfillment of that light, the answer to the promise, to the presence of Jesus Christ. And here, especially at this late service, is when we experience this turn, this turn from “how long, O Lord, how long” to “I am here.” And we know this turn, don’t we? We know those times when we have waited, patiently or impatiently, upon the Lord. We know the Lord’s call on us to wait and to expect, for God does not come at our beck and call as if, when we snapped our fingers, God comes running. But we also know the coming and the presence of God, when God swoops into our lives and fills us, fills us to the brim and then more, so that our cup runneth over and we know that God is good and holy and alive.

            And it is at this service, deep into the night, when we experience that turn, when we gather together and see Jesus coming and experience him here. It’s like driving before dawn (I wonder if you’ve experienced this, too). I’ve been going up to Eugene and Salem a lot recently for meetings, and each time I have to leave super early. And it’s usually pitch black, my eyes are droopy, and I’m alone on the roads heading east on 42. And the whole time I’m wondering, when will it be light so I can wake up? When will dawn come? And I look to the sky, through the trees or around the mountainsides, but it is still dark. Dawn never comes when I wanted it. But then – and usually it is when I least expect it – I turn a corner and my eyes suddenly see the smallest bit of blue peaking through the branches, blue almost at the edge of sight. And I know: it is morning, and light begins to bathe the river valley and everything is glistening and new and beautiful.

            We know this turn, I think, this turn from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from sin to life. We know it in our own hearts, for Christ has come to us like the dawn over the mountains, like birdsong on a cool spring morning. Some of us know the exact day and hour, for others, God has been a presence that we have only slowly come to understand and see and know; but whatever the case, we know that new light and we know its freshness.

            And Christmas is that specific day, that most blessed and holy day, right next to Easter itself, when we celebrate not only our own relationship with God in Jesus Christ but the birth of that light into the whole of Creation, made ready for all, for humanity and beyond. For when God came to us here in this world, he did not come just for a few or some folks here and others here, but for everything, in order to make the whole Creation new. Our Salvation is part of something, part of something great and mighty, a work of God that reaches to the end of time and back. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all might come within the reach of his heavenly grace.

            And we Christians, we Christians who celebrate here the birth of our Savior, and we Christians all around the world, we are part of that good work of God. For we Christians are called on not only to be saved but to be the light of God in the darkness. Our salvation is not ours alone, something that we can keep to and for ourselves. We can’t stick our salvation in a lock-box under our bed or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Our salvation is not some nice heirloom that we’ve received from our grandmother that we pout on the mantlepiece so that no one (and especially no one with dirty hands) can fiddle with it, and our salvation is not a piece of jewelry that we wear on our fingers.

            Our salvation is a flaming torch, and it is a great fire and a great light that is not to be kept secret but is to light the way in the darkness. Have you ever met anyone for whom this is true? I know I have. By the loving grace of God I have met many people in my life who are alive with the burning light of God. For some of them, it’s their eyes and their faces: I feel hope just in looking at them; for others, it’s their calm presence that speaks love without even parting the lips. I see that flame in our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, as he dances around the church when he preaches; I’ve seen it in the dedication of a teacher I knew in Japan, who I knew (and was helped by) for two whole years before, on my last day before returning home, he mousily told me that he was a Christian.

            But however it shines, that light is a healing light. It is a light of love and of hope and of Life, for it is the light of Jesus Christ, born this day two thousand years ago. It is the light of God Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth and who guides all things to fulfillness and completion. It is the light of Jesus, who is also God, born in a dingy old manger. It is the light of all that is good and all that is beautiful, because it is the light of God, and it will continue to burn until the end of this age and beyond.

Love is Born

Christmas Eve, 8:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

There is a book at our house that is read each and every day. We think about it in the wee hours of the morning and, often, its words are our last as we lay our head to sleep. No, it is not the Bible; it is not the Book of Common Prayers or our hymnal. It’s this: What’s that sound, baby Daisy?

Now, if you have children, or you had children, or you spent even a tiny little bit of time around children, you’ll know that they love doing things (and especially reading certain books) again and again and again. And I’m like, great, awesome, let’s read these great children’s books that have really beautiful pictures and deeply engrossing stories – but no, we read What’s that sound, baby Daisy again and again and again. And I’m like, really? This again? My kids love this book so much that once Fiona couldn’t even wait until she reached me on the chair but had to throw it across the room at me. And it might not look like it, but this book hurts!

But that’s kids, right? Kids like doing things over and over again. I’ve heard people say it’s because they love routine and things that are set; the world is so confusing for them; they go to sleep here in their car seat and when they wake up, they’re somewhere else! I’ve heard it’s soothing for them to do things each day the same way.

And I think that’s probably true, but I think it’s also something else, and that’s that kids kinda love differently than we adults do. We’ve all got things we’ve learned to like and to not like. For instance, I deeply dislike pickles, and if you ever want to hear the Great Saga of Pickle Day, let me know, but make sure Helene’s not in the room, because I think she’s done hearing about it (seriously, it’s a real thing). And kids have things they don’t like, too, but for them, their hearts are open in wonder, because everything is new for them. The other day, I was telling Gwendolyn what a “one horse open sleigh” was and she was mystified that there was a time where we didn’t have cars. We’re amazed when a new Star Wars movie comes out, or when we find a new planet out in the galaxy that might have life on it, or that it’s finally time for the stores to carry egg nog again. But kids are amazed and filled with the deepest of wonder when you turn down a different street on the way to town (“wow, I’ve never been here before!”) or you open up a rarely-used cupboard, even if it’s empty, and they’re all like, “Wow, the wall opens!” For kids, everything is new, and so much of it is wonderful and magical and unreal. And that’s because they’re new, and their love is open and free.

        And I say all this not to just say something nice about kids but also to say something very important about God. This evening, Christmas Eve, the good old night before Christmas, we gather together to celebrate the Incarnation, that time when God came to us as a human, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. And when we think about Jesus, and Jesus’ presence in the world, often we think of him as an adult; you know, with that nice beard, the robes, standing with people around him teaching or healing or giving hope where even the word itself was forgotten. Or else we think of him with the Cross, either carrying it step by brutal step, or hanging on it, breathing his last. These images of Jesus, they touch us, they touch us deep in the heart, or in the mind, or in the gut. We carry these images with us as we live the Christian life, for they call us to live as Christ lived, as God lived, and that is to heal those who are sick, to give comfort to the lonely and the sorrowful, to feed the hungry, whether their hunger is of the stomach or of the mind or of the heart, and to place our hope not in earthly things but in heavenly things. Jesus, as an adult, taught us how to live.

        But Jesus was not just an adult; Jesus was also a baby. Jesus didn’t beam down from heaven as a fully formed individual. Jesus wasn’t carved out of stone, like Michelangelo carved his statue of David, perfect in every proportion down to the tiny little pinky finger. Jesus was born. Jesus was an infant and a toddler, he was a little kid and a teenager and a young man. Jesus, who we believe was fully God, also was fully human, and day by day grew up, just like we have.

        And as a child, Jesus must have had that same wonder at the world as I just described. Or, to put it better, we have that wonder because God’s love of the world is child-like. Not ‘childish’, mind you, but ‘child-like.’ The difference is important. We all know the childishness of kids, and all of us, I’m sure, still have a few bits of childishness in us as adults, too. Childishness is taking things for granted. It’s living as if everyone’s job is to comfort and care for us. We act this way as children because we do need all that care and attention, and we haven’t lived long enough to gain a healthy respect for the world around us and not take things for granted. But as adults, this childishness makes us proud, or haughty, or careless. In such childness we forget about others around us, and we put ourselves on a pedestal as an idol. And much of the work of the Holy Spirit, it seems, is knocking that idol over and turning our eyes, again and again, to the loving light of God. Childishness is pretty dangerous.

        Being child-like, however, that’s different. I think our presiding bishop Michael Curry. If you’ve ever seen him preach, he’s always jumping around and waving his arms, and I wonder that he hasn’t knocked candles over and set fire to his alb yet. And his face: you can see the love of God written all over his face, as if his heart was a beacon, drawing everyone around him to the presence of God. But I’ve also seen that child-like-ness here at St. James, in the love of this church and all it has meant to you, even if you don’t know how to put it into words; I see it in your love of a hymn, in your readiness, seemingly without a thought, to welcome people in off the streets no matter how tired or wet or smelly or confused they are, and to work tirelessly to help them. And I’ve had the distinct joy to be with you at the altar as you meet Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament, and I’ve knelt with you as we’ve all confessed our sins with a ready heart. This openness to God, this openness to the hurt and the hope of the people around you, and this love of the beauty of the natural world, the liturgy, and the life of one another, this is a child-like openness. And we adults, who so often forget in our own times of grief and resentment, need to be reminded often, but especially on Christmas, that God was child-like as a baby in the manger and, so too, is God child-like in heaven, in his earnest and eternal love for us.

        And that is the Gospel. That’s that “good news”, which is really what the word “Gospel” means: that the foundation of the world, that the one who created everything that is in this world, from the tiniest little single-celled organism up to the planets, stars, and galaxies, all that is founded firmly on one thing: Love. And I don’t mean the love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, though that love is (or should be!) founded on that love. I mean this: those moments in your life, and hopefully there are many, those moments when we see that what really matters isn’t the darkness that is all around us, the hatred that people sling at one another like it’s their job, the anxiety and the sorrow, when we see that it’s not those things that are most important, but when we see, even just for a single moment, maybe just in the fleeting glance of a single person, that there is life in the world, and that that Life won’t let us fade away without a fight, that Life itself is not just a vague energy but a Person, and that that Person wants, more than anything in the world, for you and all of us and all this Creation to be whole and healthy and joyful and that, one day, we will be! That’s the love I mean.

        Tomorrow is Christmas Day. We all have different ways of celebrating. Mine involves egg nog, bacon, and my family. Yours might look different. The day after that is the 26th of December. The one after that is the 27th, then on into the new year. And I want to ask you this: we Christians believe that God loved us so deeply that he became a child and lived a human life, even to being nailed up on a cross and killed. Our God did that for us so that he could open up the real meaning of Love and Life to us wayward people. How will you live differently? For we have been given a light, a great torch to bear into the darkness of this world. How will you bear that light to those who do not know hope? How will you bring that light to those locked in the shackles of grief, of hatred, of despair? For on this night, and on each and every day, in each and every moment hereafter, the Christ child may be born inside your heart, so that you too may be a flame to dispel any darkness.

Jesus and the Saints

All Saints’ Sunday
3 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Click here to access these readings.

            Today is not All Saints’ Day. Yes, today’s liturgical color is white, and, this morning, during out prayers, we’ll be reading the names of those who have gone before us, but today isn’t All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day in on November 1st, so Friday, the day after Halloween. But there are certain, few days in our calendar that are so important that we can move them around. And on those years when All Saints’ Day doesn’t fall on a Sunday, then voop, we can move it. It’s called a “movable feast.”

            Now, this is all to say that this particular feast day is pretty important. The day has roots far back into Christian history. During the early church, Christians kept the anniversaries of martyrs who had died for their faith. And for a while, this was just fine: they remembered the apostles, those who had helped spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, and perhaps a few local saints who had seemed, even in this life, so close to God. But then came some hard times, and Christians were pretty harshly persecuted. Many were put to death. Some of their names were remembered, but many, many weren’t. And so there was a need in the early Church to remember these martyrs, to remember those whose names were known and those who were unknown. The date of this feast bounced around for a while, but eventually, here in the Western Church, it fell to November 1st. And we Anglicans keep this day, to remember.

            Now, when we talk about saints in the Anglican Communion, we talk about all of those who have died in Christ, be they those whose faith is well-known or those whose faith is known to God alone. Normally in our culture, the word “saint” refers to those big names: St. Paul and St. Mary, Jesus’ mother, to the apostles and the authors of the gospels, and then to those big, important figures throughout history who made Christ so very real and present to those around them, people like St. Francis or St. Benedict. Churches are named after these folks, as we see with our own St. James. Saints, in this use of the word, are larger than life. They’re people who we might aspire to or look up to. They’re guides on the Path to God.

            And that’s fine. It’s good to have guides, because the Christian life isn’t always a cake-walk. But the Biblical use of the word ‘saint’, and the way Anglicans generally use it, is to refer to just plain Christians. “All ya’ll”, as my friends in the south say. When St. Paul writes to the saints in Corinth or in Rome, he’s not writing to just John over there or Phoebe in the back, but no one else ‘cause you’re all not good enough to be called saints. No, he’s talking to all of them, to each and every one who is a follower of Christ, to those who have given themselves up to the God’s Love and Grace and Hope for us in Jesus Christ.

            And all this says something very important about Christianity. For it’s easy to look at the saints and think that they’re somehow better than use, or deeper into God’s love, than anyone else. Saints who have stared ravaging lions in the eye and not been shaken, who have been rich and given up everything they own, even their shirt of their own back, and walked away, people who have struggled through hatred and anger and resentment just to in the hope of God – these people can seem like they’re not just people, but giants, and we might ask in our weakness, “Who am I in the face of such dedication and faith in the Lord?”

            But that’s not where God begins. That’s not what God sees when he looks at us. God starts in love. God’s love isn’t an achievement that we can win, as if we were running a race, and the saints aren’t Olympic athletes who we have to beat in order to get into Heaven. The saints are more like a dinner bell, rung out on the front porch, calling everyone home to dinner, and it’s a feast! The saints are like the sound and smell of the ocean before you come in sight of it. The saints are the cold days of autumn that, no matter how grim or dark, remind us that soon it will be Christmas again, and that once again lights will shine out in the darkness.

            And on this day in the church calendar, we don’t remember just those saints who seem larger than life, but those saints who we have known in our own lives. We remember those on our prayer list that we’ll read in just a few minutes, those loved ones who have entered into the true and final glory of God. It’s often difficult to think of these people, no matter how much we loved them, as saints. We’ve lived with them, we’ve seen their joys and their graces, but also their failings. We’ve often fought with them, argued with them, or gone to sleep frustrated with them. But they are saints nevertheless, for it is not our failings but Jesus’ love that speaks to our salvation.

            And it is this, this love of Jesus Christ, that is more than any of us. It is a love that can move mountains, that can heal a heart broken and beset with sin, that can calm the storms of grief and despair just as he calmed the storms out on the sea. And those saints who are out there, ringing their bells as loudly as they can, calling us all home to dinner, they’re calling us to a feast that will never end, with dishes full of Joy and Love and Salvation. This Love of Jesus, this Love of God Almighty, is Life Eternal. It is more than any of us, and it is handed to us freely by Jesus himself.

            And so when we turn to these names in a few minutes, we turn to those who have entered into True Joy. And that doesn’t mean, of course, that there won’t be some grief. Losing someone is never easy, and gulf that separates us from the dead can seem so wide that nothing could hope to cross it. But that is why we come together as a Church to remember them – not just as they were here in this life but as they are now in the fullness and glory of God’s Life. And know that they are now praying for you, that the Love of God comes to rest fully in your heart, so that in all the life you live, from this day until the day you too pass into that same Glory, that you walk the way of Jesus, speak the way of love, and live the life that can cross any chasm and the light that can pierce any darkness.