7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
As we celebrate the dual feast days of All Saints and All Souls let’s try and capture the breadth and depth and width of that phrase. All saints, not just the well know saints and all souls not just the people we loved and respected. I suspect that 99.99 % of the saints of the Church never made it to a Stained glass window or a Red Letter Saints day. Many of us have been inspired and encouraged by the great Saints. For me, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Santa Claus is pretty special. A man, as legend has it who gave bags of gold to a destitute family whose three daughters would have starved or ended up in prostitution to survive. That empathy and compassion inspires me, much more than the jolly Coca Cola Santa Claus with presents for everyone.
St Francis is another saint who captures my imagination. His passion to embrace the poverty of the ordinary people and even to embrace the lepers who were expelled from villages and cities inspires me. His extraordinary capacity to see the whole of creation as a sister or brother leads me into a journey of deep contemplation. I am only beginning on the journey inspired by Francis.
But most of us have come to faith because our parents, or a Sunday School teacher, an RE teacher or a very ordinary person lived and spoke of the faith. These people never had any miracles that anyone was aware of. And people close to us like our parents may have brought us to faith but we also saw their dark side at times. But even know their dark side when it comes to All Saints and All Souls it is usually fairly easy to remember those humble saints and to give thanks for them.
Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet to celebrate these little saints that we often overlook.
And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.
So this week as we remember All Saints and All Souls let’s give thanks especially for the little saints, the once who go unnoticed. Many of you may easily be counted among the little saints, and for sure you know others who are quietly, inauspiciously holy. And if we deem ourselves unfit to be counted among the little saints let’s make our prayer this week that God’s Spirit of grace might continue the work of transforming us into saints, albeit, little saints.
In her commentary on Isaiah 25 Patricia Hull an American Prof of OT also celebrates the breadth and depth of the inclusiveness of this passage.
The word all is used five times not counting the words like every: “all peoples, all nations, all faces, all the earth. She says:
These words were invoked in 1848 by women’s rights advocates in Seneca Falls, New York, who paraphrased: “all men and women are created equal.” They were invoked at Gettysburg in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln shortly after he signed the proclamation emancipating slaves, and again a hundred years later by Martin Luther King, describing his dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all are created equal.”
Such words that soar above human reality can help fuel change. The picture of a banquet attended by all nations — like the earlier, and similar, “swords into plowshares” passage (Isaiah 2:1-4) — feeds hope for peace among the earth’s nations. Beyond the bounds of the lectionary reading, the banquet vision is followed in verses 10-12 by a far less generous vision, a vision of Moab’s demise. This is discouraging. Yet these verses serve as a sobering reminder of the sad social realities that give rise to our loftier dreams.
Hopefully deep in our DNA we too resonate with those lofty dreams. I trust we all dream of a day when all children live in safety, not frightened by violent parents or wars and famine. No doubt we also dream of a day when all children, and all adults will have access to education so they can reach their potential. Do we dare to dream with that beautiful passage from Isaiah 2 that weapons will be hammered into plough shears and pruning hooks? We dream of a day when racism and various other phobias are something relegated to history. In the dream it doesn’t matter if you are black or brown or white, yellow or red, or all the shades of the rainbow, you are embraced as a brother or sister, a friend. As these dreams inspired by Isaiah, or the Suffragettes, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King soak into our DNA let’s know that they are an invitation in us to be holy. They are an invitation to be one of the little saints.
Now we celebrate this week two special days, All Saints and All Souls. Many of the souls we easily remember are little saints.
I want to read a portion of a prayer by an aging Mother superior.
I am growing older, and one day will be old.
Keep me reasonable sweet. I do not want to be a saint… some of them are so hard to live with…
but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.
Elizabeth Goudge, A Diary of Prayer, Reproduced in a Mothers Union book page 100
What about the souls who are anything but saints, those people who seem to be the crowning work of the devil? The Royal Commission into child abuse showed us an overwhelming lot of people who may have pretended to be saints but they violated our notions of descent humanity let along any sense of holiness. Our community now treats them like lepers. We don’t want them anywhere near our schools and we are not even sure we want them anywhere near our churches. Is it possible for us to really believe in a God who has sufficient love and generosity in forgiveness that all souls actually means all souls?
I recently heard of a brother and sister who were both abused by their father. The brother is torn in two, half of him would happily murder his dad, and the other half wants reconciliation. I am not sure if it is fifty-fifty, it might be ninety-ten in favour of murder. The sister matured into a Christian with the capacity for love and forgiveness blessed by a deep love from her husband and her children. The sister was also damaged by the abuse; somehow her faith and loving relationships are helping her to move along the journey of forgiveness.
It is easy to give thanks to God for the souls who are little saints and to light a candle to remember them. Can we light a candle for an abusive parent, a parent who walked out when we were three, or the one who put us up for adoption? What about the colleague at work or the neighbour who constantly bully us, can we light a candle for them? It may only be when we are well along the journey of forgiveness that we can light a candle for these souls. I would never insist that someone should light a candle for the parent they hated. If we still hate that person we are not ready to light a candle and ask God to forgive them.
My invitation as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls is that hear in this phrase the breadth, depth, height and width of God’s amazing grace. God’s love includes all the wonderful saints. It includes the little saints who are often overlooked. It includes you and I who put our big toe into the pool of holiness from time to time. And as hard as it is to imagine it includes those who would walk a mile rather than come in contact with that pool of holiness. We are invited this week to dive in boots and all into the pool of holiness. Immersed in grace we even discover love and the capacity for forgiveness.
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