Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sermon for All Saints' Day

St Matthew's, Bloomington--Matthew 5:1-12

Today is the feast of All Saints. It is a time when we remember, and give thanks for, and join in worship with, our fellow Christians of times past who have distinguished themselves in the corporate memory of the church for their heroic sanctity—devotion, courage, perseverance, holiness of    life. We honor them, we praise God for their example to us, and we bid their prayers on our behalf. 

The lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer directs that, at the Mass for All Saints' Day, we read from St Matthew's account of Our Lord's "sermon on the mount;” more specifically, that portion of the sermon on the mount that is known as the "Beatitudes".  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn ... blessed are the meek ... the merciful ... the pure in heart ... the peacemakers ... those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.” These are the qualities by which we recognize saints. 
So, this morning, I want to hold up, for our prayerful attention, a small sampling—one for each of the eight Beatitudes—of the names that appear in the official liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church, some of those, in other words, whom we honor today on this feast of All Saints. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit. In other words, blessed are those who have learned to ignore material wealth, or the lack thereof, as any indication of the worth of a human being, particularly themselves. I think here of St Antony of Egypt. In the second decade of the fourth century, Christianity was transformed almost overnight from an illegal, intensely persecuted religion into the only officially approved religion of the Roman Empire. For the first time, being a Christian could improve your social standing and advance your career. So, pretty soon, there was a movement within the church that wanted to stay connected with the notion that following Christ costs something. These people said, "We want to take Jesus seriously when he  says, 'Sell all you have and give the money to the poor'. So we're going to pull away from mainstream society, form communities, and live the Christian life the way it was    meant to be lived." St Antony was one of the early leaders of this movement. Antony of Egypt was raised in a devout, and rather wealthy, Christian home. His parents died when he was a young adult, but instead of settling down to enjoy the estate he had inherited, Antony sold it all and distributed the proceeds among the needy. He voluntarily impoverished himself, he made himself poor for the sake of the gospel. Then he went and lived alone in a cave for twenty years, after which he founded and presided over a community of men who lived together following the rule of life that he had devised. Antony wrote that his desert monastery was "filled with singing, fasting, praying, and working that they might give alms, and have love and peace with one another." Blessed Antony, poor in spirit, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. We mourn when we say "goodbye" to someone or something that has been closely linked with us. The life of Samuel Isaac Joseph Scherechewsky was one that contained a great many goodbyes, plenty of opportunity for mourning.  Samuel Isaac Joseph Scherechewsky—now that is a name!—was born to devout Jewish parents in Lithuania in 1831. He was raised with the idea that he would become a rabbi, and, at the proper time, he went to live in Germany to study for that vocation. But, while in Germany, he came in contact with missionaries from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, and he decided to become a Christian. So here he was, in an alien land, and having adopted an alien religion. One would think that would be enough of a "goodbye,” a sufficient occasion for mourning, to last most of a lifetime. But not so. Samuel then emigrated to the United States, and enrolled in a seminary in Pittsburgh with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. But once again, just as he was trying to settle down and prepare for his life's work, Samuel was surprised, this time by the Episcopal Church. So he transferred to our own General Theological Seminary in New York. After he graduated and was ordained, Samuel just kept heading west (maybe he figured he'd make it all the way back to Lithuania someday!). He boarded the proverbial slow boat to China, and learned to read and write Chinese while en route to mission work in Shanghai. Over the next fifteen years, this Lithuanian Jewish German-educated briefly-Presbyterian naturalized-American Episcopal priest lived in Shanghai and Beijing while he worked on translating the Bible and parts of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin Chinese. Then he was elected and consecrated bishop of Shanghai. After six years, Bishop Scherecshewsky had to say good-bye once again—this time he mourned the passing of his health, as he became slowly paralyzed while yet in his early fifties. He typed the last 2,000 pages of his translation using only the middle finger of his right hand. Blessed Samuel Isaac joseph Scherecshewsky, who knew what it means to say good-bye, to mourn, pray for us. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. During the seventh century, the Christian church in the British Isles moved out of the isolation in which it had lived for about a century and a half, and re-entered the mainstream of European Christianity, which, at that time, meant Roman Catholicism. The newly-arrived church authorities from across the water looked suspiciously on some of the practices of the old British church, pointing out in particular that the ordinations of some of their bishops and priests were of questionable validity. One of these was a gentleman named Chad, who was the Bishop of York. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, called Chad into his office one day and said, "We've got a problem. Your ordination isn't valid.  You can't serve as a bishop anymore."  Now, with words like that, one might well expect, as they would say in Britain, that a "row" would ensue. But St Chad just calmly replied, "That's fine. I never thought I was worthy to be a bishop anyway." Theodore was so impressed with Chad's humility, his holy    meekness, that he re-ordained him and appointed him Bishop of Northumbria. Chad's ministry as a bishop was distinguished by the fact that he preferred to travel around his diocese on foot to visit his parishes, rather than on horseback. And instead of living in the official bishop's residence, St Chad stayed in a much smaller, simpler house nearby (rather like the current Bishop of Rome decided to do when he assumed his office!). Blessed Chad, example of meekness, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. The life of William Wilberforce is an exception to the popular notion that it's impossible to be both a politician and a saintly Christian. Wilberforce was already a member of the British parliament when he experienced a profound spiritual awakening in 1784. His first instinct was to quit politics, but he decided instead to stay where he was and, as the Cursillo movement today would put it, to "Christianize his environment.” And the Lord called him to do so in a very specific way:  William Wilberforce spent the next 49 years, the rest of his life, working tirelessly to abolish slavery and the slave trade from the British Empire. He was the most important single influence in this great accomplishment, which was finally complete one month after his death. Blessed William Wilberforce, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pray for us. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. In the middle of the fourth century, a young man named Martin was wandering around the Roman province of Gaul looking for a place to settle down. He'd been born in Hungary, raised in Italy, and had just been discharged from the army after serving a tour of duty in what is now France. (Isn’t it ironically appropriate that his feast day falls on the same date as Veteran’s Day?) Martin had recently become interested in Christianity, and    had been enrolled as a catechumen, someone who was undergoing rigorous preparation for the sacrament of baptism. As he walked along the road one cold and damp day, St Martin was approached by a poor man who asked for "alms in the name of Christ.” Martin didn't have any money to give him, but he took off his military cloak, drew his sword, cut the cloak in half, and gave one half to the poor man. The next night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, clothed in—you guessed it—half a cloak, and said to him, "Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with this garment."  Martin went on to become an exemplary monk and bishop, but his act of mercy toward Jesus, present to him in the form of a poor beggar, was the defining moment of his sainthood. Blessed Martin, merciful Martin, pray for us. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Purity of heart is to know and feel so clearly who you are, that being and doing are indistinguishable from one another. In any roll call of saints that demonstrate purity of heart, Elizabeth of Hungary is going to be on the list. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals there are that are named for St Elizabeth?  Well, there's a good reason. Elizabeth was born in the year 1207. She was a princess, daughter of the king of Hungary. She later married a German nobleman, who, fortunately for her, was quite tolerant of her seeming obsession with almsgiving.  He allowed her to deplete her dowry—the part of her family's estate that she brought with her into the marriage—for her benevolent purposes. During a famine and epidemic in 1226—and while her husband was in Italy!—she sold her jewels and established a hospital where she helped care for the sick. A little later, she started giving away the palace's own grain reserves. Elizabeth's husband died the next year, and the executors of his estate were not amused by her "extravagances,” and they sent her packing. She lived on a subsistence income from her own family after that, but continued her life of self-denial, caring for the sick and poor.  St Elizabeth died of exhaustion in 1231, at the ripe old age of 24. Blessed Elizabeth, pure in heart, pray for us. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  Remember St Chad, the bishop who humbly accepted the decision of the English church to conform to the ways of Rome? Well, that decision didn't come without a fight, and one of the key players in bringing an end to that fight and reconciling the opposing sides was St Hilda of Whitby. Hilda was the abbess—the one in charge—of a monastic community that was remarkable even in its own day for the fact that it included both men and women, who lived together, under one rule, in one community, all under one human authority, namely, Hilda. Hilda was known for her wisdom and good judgment, and was often sought out by kings and other public figures for her advice. So when the conflict between the ways of the native English church and those of the mainstream Roman church came to a head, Hilda became a mediator, and offered her monastery at Whitby as the site for negotiations to end the dispute. Through St Hilda's leadership as a peacemaker, the church in England was able to move beyond its quarrels and get on with its mission. Blessed Hilda, peacemaker, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. For almost three hundred years before Emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, the church endured wave after wave of persecution. Tens of thousands of Christians chose to suffer torture and death rather than renounce their loyalty to Jesus     Christ. (Something rather like this seems to be going on in parts of southwest Asia in our own time.) Vibia Perpetua was a young widow of a wealthy Carthaginian family.  She was the mother of an infant, and herself a catechumen, preparing for baptism.  In the year 202, Emperor Septimus Severus issued a decree that all persons should offer a sacrifice acknowledging the divinity of the emperor. This, of course, a Christian could not do, so Perpetua was arrested and imprisoned.  At her public hearing, her aged father begged her to relent and offer the sacrifice, but Perpetua steadfastly refused. So, on March 7, 202, Perpetua and several of her companions in the catechumenate were sent into the arena, where they were attacked by a leopard, a boar, a bear, and a bull. Eventually all were put to death by a blow of a sword blade to the throat. To the last moment, St Perpetua shouted encouragement to  her companions: "Stand fast in the faith and love one another" were her last words. Blessed Perpetua, persecuted for righteousness' sake, pray for us. 

There's a hymn, very dear to my heart, which, to my great dismay, was not included in the most recent revision of our hymnal. "Art thou weary, art thou laden, art thou sore distrest?" The language and imagery is rather Victorian so perhaps its omission is understandable. But what this hymn is trying to say is sublime. Each verse consists of four lines. The first two ask a question about Jesus and what it means to follow him. The next two provide an answer.  "If I still hold closely to him, what hath he at last?" And the answer: "Sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed."  And again the question: "If I ask him to receive me, will he say me nay? … Not till earth and not till heaven pass away." And finally: "Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless?" In other words, is it all worth it? Is everything that goes along with following Jesus—the discipline, the prayer, the faithfulness, the self-denial—is it all going to be worth it in the end?  Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless?  Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs answer Yes.” Antony, Samuel, Chad, William, Martin, Elizabeth, Hilda, Perpetua, and all the saints ... answer Yes. All holy people of God, pray for us. Amen.

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