Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs California
All Saints & All Souls Sunday
November 05, 2017 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 45:1-10;14-15 Revelation 7:2-4;9-14 Matthew 5:1-12A
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
I look forward to All Saints Day every year because I get to sing “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God.” The words are by Lesbia Scott, and the tune was composed by John Henry Hopkins. I heard it for the first time when I was about eight or nine years of age. Lesbia Scott was the wife of an English priest and the mother of three children. She wrote the lyrics we sang this morning in 1920. It was one of many poems she wrote to teach her children about God. John Henry Hopkins was eighty-one years of age and a retired priest when he composed the tune, named “Grand Isle”, after his home town in Vermont. The truth of the words, and the liveliness of the tune, will dwell in my heart and will be upon my lips throughout the week, I assure you.
The point of the song is that saints are ordinary people, just like you and me. In case you’re curious about the names of the saints described in the song, here’s what I learned: the doctor was St. Luke, the evangelist; the queen was St. Margaret of Scotland; the shepherdess was St. Joan of Arc; the soldier was St. Martin of Tours; the priest was St. John Donne, spelled D-o-n-n-e, but pronounced “Dun”, a parish priest in 16th Century England, and the one killed by the fierce wild beast was St. Ignatius of Antioch. Today’s first reading is similar by enumerating a comprehensive list of people worthy of posthumous praise.
No one is born a saint, but we all have the potential to become saints. Like Adam and Eve, we are all created in God’s image as God’s beloved children. But you don’t have to be perfect to be a saint. Saints are human, just like us. They sinned, just as you and I do all the time. By sin, I mean they missed the mark set by God as to what is expected of all of us.
At the end of October, our protestant sisters and brothers celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of their Reformation. Saints were a hot topic in the Protestant Reformation. A fundamental question raised by some of the reformers was whether the Bible gives the church the authority to designate certain individuals as saints. That notion plays into a major debate in the Sixteenth Century: works versus faith. Do we become worthy in God’s eyes by what we do, or does our worthiness depend on our loyalty to God and our trusting in God? Put another way, can we expect God to love us despite our unworthiness, our sinfulness, and all our inherent imperfections? Do we score points with God by being a good person? Ultimately, catholics and protestants found agreement, that yes, Luther was basically correct: we are saved by grace, not works. The Roman and Lutheran churches issued a joint Declaration which read in part as follows: “Together we confess: by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
What this says is that we don’t look better to God based on our deeds. Rather, God accepts us unconditionally as a loving parent. To be accepted by God based solely on God’s love is a very difficult concept for a merit-based society like the United States, where people work for awards and prizes in school, and for bonuses and promotions at work. This mentality even invades the arts world, where for example, singers and pianists enter competitions for prize money, scholarships, and professional opportunities. The same is true in the graphic arts: have you ever heard of a so-called “juried art show,” where a panel of judges decide which painting or sculpture is “the best?”
What is unmistakable, is that most of the standards people strive to meet are of human, not divine, origin. Where the church goes astray is when it conflates our standards with God’s standards. Put another way, the church arrogates itself to an unjustified triumphalism when thinks that what it regards as good is what God also regards as good. That is way too simplistic. The two may not always coincide.
Why? The standards by which God measures things are one big mystery, like everything else about God. In last Sunday’s Gospel, we got a very small glimpse of what those standards might be. Jesus told us to love God with all of our hearts, minds and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The common verb in both of those commandments is love. God made us to be lovers. God made us to love God. God made us to love our neighbor. Christianity is, or should be, based on love. If I had to define sainthood, it would be based on love. However, love defies objective standards by which to measure human achievement because it is inherently subjective and cannot be quantified into numbers. Why is that? Objective standards don’t take into account that life is a movement, a journey, that often takes unexpected roads. How we love God and love our neighbor changes over time and varies by situation. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to love.
All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, remind us that our lives are a journey that began with God and will end with God. We were once part of God, and ultimately, we will be joined with God and again become part of God. Our ultimate goal is to be among the thousands clothed in white robes in the divine presence as detailed in today’s second reading. As we journey back to God, we listen to, and are open to, God’s call to us. God constantly reminds us that God loves us and to make love the center of our lives.
The love we have for others is why we mourn when someone close to us dies and we are indifferent to those who are not. The more we love someone while they are alive, the sadder we are when they die. And this is true not only for our human family members, but our canine and feline children as well. Those of us who’ve had a dog or cat in our lives know how that feels.
Over the past several decades, the church has refocused funerals into a resurrection-oriented liturgy. The Mass of Christian Burial has become more an Easter liturgy and less of one that responds to grief. While the hope of resurrection is a laudable aspiration, we truly don’t know what happens to us to those who have passed on to whatever life there is beyond earth. Like God, it is a mystery, and is acknowledged as such in First Corinthians, chapter 15 where it says, “Behold I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we all will be changed.” Scripture speaks of physical bodies and spiritual bodies, of terrestrial and celestial beings. While it explains that resurrection means that physical bodies become spiritual bodies, there is no explanation in First Corinthians about how that happens. Like the change of the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus, it is a mystery.
My experience has been that grieving people do not always find resurrection mysteries a source of comfort, and many, in my experience, find the church’s talk about the world beyond to be unresponsive to their present realities. And then some churches compound the problem by imposing their tastes on people about what music is or is not appropriate for a funeral and discouragement of eulogies as part of a funeral service in church. And even worse, I’ve heard of at least one church make an announcement about who can or cannot receive Holy Communion at a funeral Mass. Churches who do nonsense like that obviously don’t take at least one verse of today’s Gospel seriously, the one that says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
When a death occurs in a family, people look to the church for comfort in their present situation. They don’t look for the church’s approval or disapproval of themselves or the decedent. Can you imagine the distress that occurs when a church tells a family it can’t hold the funeral service it wants because of the departed loved one’s lifestyle or sexual orientation? It happens, and it’s sad when it does. A better plan is for the church to use a funeral service as an opportunity to show that best side of Christianity. That is, we should show a family what the love of Jesus truly looks like in a real-world situation. We’re here to enfold people in love at a time of grief, not enforce silly rules. Jesus us tells in today’s gospel if we expect mercy, we must show mercy. Jesus tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We are here to comfort to do precisely that: comfort those who mourn.
This morning, we will get a glimpse of that when read our necrology and place in a dish of sand lighted candles representing our loved ones. As you light your candle and look at it, feel for yourselves all the good memories you have of your loved ones, which of course, includes your canine and feline family members. In doing that, you will be experiencing a dimension of what everlasting life means, that although someone is gone physically from us, their spirit, that is, their soul, is still with us. You may be still sad that they are gone. That’s OK. Mourning is part of being human. Even Jesus mourned when Lazarus died. Just allow the arms of our merciful God to embrace you in love. Allow your soul to feel its connection with God and with those who were once part of your life and have completed their journey back to God. And finally, let the lessons your departed loved ones taught you, and the examples they set for you while they were living, continue to instruct and enhance your own journey to God so that you can become a saint. A true saint fulfills his or her penultimate mission by helping make more saints. The saints are praying for you to become a saint your saint yourself. There’s not any reason, no not the least, why you shouldn’t be one, too. AMEN.