I saw the holy city coming down from the sky from God

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today we are observing the Feast of All Saints. It’s one of the most important feasts on the Christian calendar.  Officially it happens on November 1, but since people don’t get that day off to come to church, we are celebrating it today.  Of course, Halloween is the Eve of All Saints, so the day before All Saints people prepare for the Feast by imaginatively envisioning all that is scary or evil or demonic, ridiculing those things—purging them through acts of ridicule or perhaps experiencing the terror of what evil could be. Mostly nowadays people just have fun, they don’t take the demonic seriously.

I’ve spoken before about the demonic forces that Jesus casts out—not the caricatures we play with on Halloween—but the ways in which human fears, selfishness and anger take on dangerous and independent forms because people avoid facing them and push them off onto others. People often project the danger and evil onto others, like, for instance immigrants or Jews, when the real demon comes from their own fearfulness and anger, which is then projected onto someone else or some generalized force.

Both Halloween and All Saints are exercises in holy imagination. In appreciating real things by imagining them in more vivid and concrete images. When we talk about saints, we usually think of famous people or great heroes—people with inspiring stories whose lives can be examples of how Christians can be. Many people think of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of poverty to show Christians the freedom that comes in living for others. Many think of him as being all about loving animals. He did love animals, but much of what he did with animals was to teach people to rejoice in their simplicity and to emulate the birds and creatures in their free response to God’s love and beauty.  A couple of weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Oscar Romero who was Archbishop of El Salvador. He lived his ministry as bishop in advocating for the well-being of the poor of his country who were oppressed by a ruthless and exploitative military regime. He was shot and killed at the end of his sermon at a eucharist in memory of a woman, the mother of a newspaper editor; a woman who had in her own ways reached out for the good of the poor,  and who had been killed a year before.

People like Francis and Oscar have big stories and dramatic lives that we think about. Sometimes these spark our imagination of how we can live, but often we develop caricatures of what saints are that are no more accurate or useful than our caricatures of demons on Halloween.

We might have heroes in our lives, but that is not what saints are. Saints are the Holy People of God. And when I say, the Holy People of God, I mean You. Being a saint is not about living a life of punctilious perfection or of winning the race of being the most generous, good and nice person who anybody ever saw. Being a saint is being truly yourself, truly the person that God created you to be. The most important characteristic of a saint is being someone who has received God’s mercy—that would be all of us. So if we are afraid, or angry, or selfish, we don’t have to deny that—we accept that we are these and other things that are much in need of God’s mercy and we offer them to God.  In God’s mercy, we are not crippled by our sins, nor do we project them into demons, but we know that we are loved and that we can love in return.

The reading from Revelation introduces the image of the heavenly city, the perfected Jerusalem descending from the sky.  It is the imagination of our future with God: “The home of God is among mortals…he will dwell with them and they will be his…”  Two years ago, I led a Bible study group on the entire book of Revelation. It’s quite a wild ride—from ecstatic throngs praising God in the courts of heaven to the horrors of war, famine and disease—reflecting a world as chaotic and dangerous as our own. Some of the images in the book of Revelation are far scarier than anyone could think up for Halloween. The image of the Heavenly Jerusalem emerges in that context of fearfulness and demonic oppression in the Roman Empire.

God knows the realities we experience, and also the fantasies and fears that arise as people respond to difficulty and uncertainty. The final truth is that the home of God is with us. And when I say final, I don’t mean, far away, after everything is done with, God will take care of us. What I mean is that the truth is, in the midst of confusion, fear, anger—the real truth is God’s presence, wiping away every tear, giving mercy to all his children, to all his Holy People, to all his Saints.

This is what is important about saints. The temptation is to be buffeted about and give in to all those things out there that confuse and frighten us, but we can renounce them. In a few minutes we will re-affirm our baptismal vows and renounce those things. The stories of saints allow us to imagine life when evil has been renounced. Our imagination of the heavenly city is one story, but there are thousands of stories, millions of them.

We have those saints among us—those who visit people who are lonely or ill; those who welcome strangers; those who faithfully adorn our worship spaces with little or no thanks; those who diligently work to improve our facilities and maintain our physical plant. In more than a year here at Calvary I have encountered many saints and their work. Works of mercy—of giving mercy and receiving mercy.  Take a moment to think of the past year… how has God dwelt among us? Who has done a small act of kindness or been generous in a way that you might not have noticed before? How has it been possible for you to be welcoming, generous, merciful?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked among God’s saints in this place and I anticipate that you will grow in your sainthood in the coming years.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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