30th Oct, 2005

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

All Saints’ Sunday
Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

I realize how many of you have animal companions from the
attendance at our St. Francis’ blessing of the animals earlier this month. Unless your particular companion is purely an “inside” cat or dog, you understand the daily cycle of allowing them some freedom to venture out. Cats are particularly worrisome about this routine, because they are forever curious about being somewhere else, or about being where they are not meant to be and when it involves a human guardian; it is ever so much an amusing game!

Prior to being blessed in our current home with a “cat door” that
allows them egress and access at-will, we were subjected to the typical inscrutable feline behavior that is provoked by a closed door. When ours were inside they wanted to go outside and would sit by the door for a while and if they did not get an immediate response to their wish, they would stare intently at the doorknob; if that did not produce the intended result they would then reach up and attempt to open it themselves, which would prove to be unsuccessful. Then, finally as the last straw they would proclaim their displeasure at being ignored by vocally expressing their strong wishes, which is a feline trademark for important proclamations and was not a traditional polite “meow” but more like this: “aaouuwww.” Most of the time that was that; one of us would finally open the door, having been pestered to death (another trait at which felines are especially adept!)

But then there were times when it was too hot or it was too cold, or it was raining and they would stand there looking at us with great disdain; after all, we were like virtual gods or superheroes in their eyes… We held the sacred and mystical power of the ‘door openers’ and if we were so almighty as to be able to open the impenetrable door, then we must also be able to control the weather outside once it was opened; or so the feline logic assumed. Other times when they got their way and the door was opened, even on the most gorgeous day, they might stand there and just gaze outside sniffing the air, or turn their heads to look back into the room seemingly searching for something interesting enough to hold their attention inside, trying to decide if they really wanted to go out after all. And sometimes they would look up at us as if to be persuaded one way or the other.

We had to be patient and give them some time to make up their minds, because cats operate on their own timetables; but we couldn’t stand there forever much of the year with the door open: in the summer the bugs came in and the air conditioning all escaped; in the winter it was too chilly and ice cold air blew on our bare feet and the heat went out the open door. In these indecisive feline moments, depending on the kind of mood we were in, and if we were unsuccessful in verbal coaxing, we had to make the decision for them: they were either nudged out the door or pulled back in to stay inside.

Other times when they proudly returned from the hunt with a special trophy of a half-dead bird or rodent to triumphantly present to us as a special gift, which had to be given inside the house; we made sure the door remained securely closed until they gave it up outside before entering; much to their bewilderment and disappointment (“I caught it just for You, Daddy!”) Thus, we were not only primary care-givers: providers of meals and treats, and attention, affection, and love; but we were doorkeepers. We ultimately determined when our feline companions would go out and when they would come in.

In a similar way, most of us are regularly going to the door and pushing some people out and inviting others in. We determine that certain people belong inside with us and others don’t. We do it as individuals; we do it as churches; we do it as communities and societies. We divide people into friends or foes, saints or sinners, attractive or unappealing. We are doorkeepers, not only for our animal companions, but for people as well.

Yet in order to follow Jesus and hearken to His words specifically conveyed in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel lesson, we must be willing to give up our self-appointed role as doorkeepers. What He is basically saying is that everyone who is in will be out and everyone who is out will be in. Jesus has taken the door off its hinges. The two distinct groups, the “haves” and the have-nots,” will be constantly changing places with each other until they become indistinguishable.

If the question is asked, “What is it exactly that you want out of life?” most people in our society would probably respond that they want to be rich, they want to have plenty to eat, they want to be happy, and they want others to admire them (usually because they are better looking, have a better body, or are more charming, talented, or intelligent.) If those are the things you also want out of life, then today’s Gospel should come as a terrible shock to you! Jesus says in no uncertain terms that it is the poor, the hungry, the sad, the rejected who are the blessed ones. So, what you want out of life makes a difference when it comes to whether you are blessed or not.

In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for “blessed” is “makarios.” It had a variety of connotations, but in all its meanings, the blessed ones clearly existed on a higher plane the rest of the people: they were either gods, or they were humans who had gone to that other world of the gods; or they were the “upper crust” of society; or they were those whose supposed righteousness brought them many possessions.But Jesus uses “makarios” in a totally different way. It is not the elite, the rich and powerful, the high and mighty, the beautiful and buff, the possessors of many things who are blessed, though it may appear so by the world’s standards… Rather, it is the lowly, the poor, the hungry, the sobbing, the unattractive ones looked down on… who are the truly blessed!

Sadly, many really don’t want to hear this, because they’ve created a set of values which command their energies and desires, like insatiable addictions. Admittedly, it’s hard to contradict the values of the society and culture in which we live; where our role models are those celebrities and pro-athletes who seem to have attained all the “blessedness” one would ever hope to have in life; no matter how transitory or how many of the famous, mighty, and wealthy constantly fall off their pedestals. It happens all the time: whether it be the doping scandals in professional sports, criminal misbehaviors among entertainment celebrities and film stars, or the antics of the royal family.But the fact is, Jesus so strongly declares, that when you let the world call the shots for you, offering you the final word about the meaning and significance in life; you will not be blessed and will instead be relegated to hopelessness, frustration, and despair.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, when we as Christians celebrate a different set of celebrities and role-models, who lived by a different set of standards than those promoted by common notions of popularity and success. In the New Testament the word “saint” (small “s”) is a term used for all faithful believers. In many languages the word for “saint” and for “holy” are the same, or very similar; clearly indicating that all Christians are holy by virtue of their baptism. The marvel is that we imperfect, deeply flawed human beings can be called by God, who alone is holy.

And given the fact that in Jesus the world’s values are turned topsy-turvy; the role models we are given as His followers don’t drive the fastest most expensive cars, live in lavish homes, have the biggest bust or biceps, and command the most prestige. Confronting this “all about me” lifestyle are those new role models, the “makarios,” the blessed Jesus refers to; they are our new role models, the Saints. They exemplify the perfect stewardship God calls all of us to. The late noted Episcopal theologian, William Stringfellow, described the Saints as “those men and women who relish the event of life as a gift and who realize that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away.”

The Church Catholic has declared these wonderful folk as bright examples for us in something that is really quite simple: namely, a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that issues forth in actions; often leading to their deaths, frequently under painful circumstances… (and you may think it is an excessive request to tithe!) These are not remote inapproachable people; these are people like you and me who chose to do the right thing at the right time in a multitude of situations and cultures across the globe spanning the ages… they did not choose the easy way, they chose the right way… They are the ones recognized through their example by the Church on the day of their death, their Feast Day, a commemoration of their entrance into the greater life. On All Saint’s, we remember all of them collectively as that great company of Saints which surrounds us like a cloud of witnesses, so beautifully portrayed in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on the tapestries which line the nave, with Saints from the ages facing in procession toward the high altar. On the feast of All Souls we remember all the faithful departed, many of whom may be “saint-like” in our eyes; All Saints’ celebrates the lives of those formally recognized by the whole Church.

Because we Christians believe in the eternal life offered us by our Lord’s Resurrection, we know that the Saints’ continue to live and exercise even more compassion and care in their new heavenly existence. Just as we freely ask for prayers from our close friends, parish, and loved ones, so too we ask the prayers of the Saints…the intercessions of the Holy Ones is nothing different than asking someone you love and who loves you, to pray for you.

And so we celebrate the Blessed Ones today… all the Saints on earth and all the Saints in heaven, with all the Saints who have gone before us and all the Saints who will come after us. We rejoice this day in the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. We rejoice that the “doorkeeper” of souls is Jesus Christ our Lord, who pronounces true “blessedness” We rejoice in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for having called us into His blessing and for having given us a totally new way of looking at life… a way which turns out, to be the only way there truly is.
Amen.

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