|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Revelation 7:9-17||Psalm 34:1-10, 22||1 John 3:1-3||Matthew 5:1-12|
By David Grant Smith
The Festival of All Saints’ Day was originally observed during the Easter Season as another way of celebrating the Resurrection. The Saints (the famed folk of the Church) and saints (the myriad of ordinary folk who proclaim our relational orientation to God and God’s purposes) were (and are) living examples of how, like Christ, they and we are are always being raised to new life. Because this Festival celebrates both the famed and the ordinary folk who live and move and have their being in God, this vision of diverse peoples standing in a unified celebration is a fitting way to celebrate the day. A vision of the diversity of humanity (“from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”) standing united in purpose — to praise the God in whose image they are created — is at the heart of what the day celebrates.
This vision asserts that this great throng of diverse peoples are united in their common experience (“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal”). The universal experience of suffering is often what binds humanity together; and it is the common experience of suffering which is what the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels use to call us to become partners with God in embodying compassion. The blessed company of Saints and saints are those who maintain their sense of relational being and interdependence, no matter the circumstances. And in this vision, they join as one Body and give voice to their experience by praising the One who lures us all into intentionally living our lives in such a way to be aware of the suffering of others, and to persevere in embodying compassion to one and all.
It is intentional that the author of Revelation uses the image of palm branches as being the “banners” borne by the throng around the throne. The author’s vision is one of victory and perseverance; yet, the victors are brandishing palm branches instead of swords and shields, the usual image of victory in the context of the ancient Roman Empire in which the book of Revelation was written. This image in the vision points, of course, to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with his followers waving palm branches
instead of swords — a counter-protest to the Roman army’s entry into Jerusalem on the other side of the city. The image of peace and humility (standing over and against the image of subjugation and domination) is an icon to what it means to live one’s life as a Saint — as a citizen of the Realm of God. The Saints are those people who wage justice through the avenues of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love.
This section of the vision is completed with a pastoral vignette. The throng surrounding the throne is cared for in loving and intimate terms by the One on the throne (and not the other way around, as is the case in an earthly empire). In a process-relational eschatology, we understand that in death our lives are received into God’s consequent nature; and there we will be cared for forever. The vision in Revelation claims that there will be no more suffering. Whether this claim is achieved all at once or gradually during the course of eternity we do not know. But we do know that, as beings created in the image of God, and empowered to be co-creators with God, we are always in God’s presence — before death, during death, and after death. And this Festival for All Saints is a day to celebrate what this eschatological vision is all about.
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
Picking up on the final portion of the Revelation reading for this day, the use of Psalm 34 as a response to it reflects on the idea that inside of God’s care there is no want for food — hunger is gone, and there is no lacking for anything. This seems to fly in the face of what we know to be as reality, perhaps especially as process-relational thinkers. By the very nature of being people who dedicate ourselves to understanding things relationally and interdependently, we know that there really is hunger, thirst, suffering, and want for the very basic things of life all around the world, as well as in our own communities. It’s an over-simplified understanding of what the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels are all about if we preach the idea that if we love God, we will never be hungry! However, we can use these images to embody the compassion to which God calls us through our sacred texts. If we live our lives intentionally aware of the needs of those around us (as did the Saints of old whom we emulate, and as do the saints who inspire us in our daily living), we become part of the way that God provides for all people. We become the solution to the problem of poverty, hunger, and all the other injustices which are suffered around the world.
The psalmist speaks of those who “fear the LORD” throughout this ancient hymn text. The ancient Hebrew concept of “fearing God” isn’t so much about being afraid of God; nor is it exactly about being in awe of God (though that is a piece of it). Rather, the idea of being one who “fears God” is being one who is in right relationship with God. And to be in right relationship with God also means to be in right relationship with self, family, neighbor, stranger, enemy, and even creation itself. Those who “fear God” are the “holy ones” (verse 9), or the Saints. Those who live their lives in right relationship with God, self, others, and the cosmos, are those who make themselves aware of the needs of others, and make themselves aware of the ways that God empowers them to help meet those needs. Living this kind of intentional life is delicious, the psalmist asserts — “O taste and see that the Lord is good” — and our redemption is defined in the way that we redeem others from their suffering.
1 John 3:1-3
This brief portion of one of the Letters of John could be described as a “kinder, gentler” eschatology than what seems to be most popular among certain preachers, authors, and movie-makers. The affirmation that “we are God’s children now” goes hand-in-hand with the other readings for today, and is a fitting way of summarizing the celebration of All Saints’ Day. The statement “what we will be has not yet been revealed” gives us insight into the idea that we are evolving into what God intends for us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we can neither perceive nor imagine. But the author of the Letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God.
As process-relational people, we look at life in terms of how we are becoming, not just how we are now — life is not static, it is always evolving. The author of this Letter (attributed to John) looks toward the future not as a fait accompli, but as a process of becoming. Saints — whether famous or ordinary — are people who actively embrace their relationship with God, self, family, neighbor, stranger, and creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each one to become. How do children of God behave? How do they strengthen their relationships? And what work do they do to continue to evolve and grow into God’s vision for us? These questions are tools for discerning how to perceive God’s moment-by-moment lure, and they are at the heart of any celebration of All Saints’ Day. What we are now is clear; what we will become is uncertain. But with God’s help, and as God’s children, we know that what we will become in God is beautiful.
The Beatitudes, as these sayings of Jesus have been called over the centuries, have that name because of the first word in each sentence: Blessed. In the Latin translation, which served western Christianity until the last few centuries, the word for “blessed” is “beati” which is also the Latin word for Saint. The Saints are the beatific ones who put flesh and blood on the way that Jesus calls us to embody God and God’s purposes in a spirit of compassion. As in the other readings for this Festival of All Saints, the kind of living described by Jesus is nothing less than an intentional method of putting God’s primordial nature (and the initial aim of God) into action.
These sayings of Jesus are difficult, because they require so much of us. They call us to empathize with those who suffer, and they call us to take action to alleviate suffering where we see it. Furthermore, they tell us (in the last two sayings) that when we embody God’s purposes for the world, there will be those in the world who will stand over and against us for doing so. What makes this even more difficult is that (as if it’s not bad enough to be persecuted for doing what is right), it seems that Jesus is saying that it is good when we suffer this persecution. And we need to suffer this way in order to “make it to heaven after we die” (as some would articulate it). But there couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. To be clear, Jesus isn’t praising the fact that we will be persecuted. He is saying that what we are doing which brings about that persecution is what is good; and that in spite of any persecution, we are “blessed.” In a process-relational worldview, we don’t proclaim that suffering is good or redemptive. What we do proclaim is that God is always with us in our suffering; and that it is our responsibility to notice and address the suffering which takes place around us, and to do something about it. This is what it means to be “blessed” — to be a Saint. The Saints (and saints) of God aren’t simply those people that are somehow handed a place in heaven when they die, or people who will take over the earth because they are so humble. The Saints (and saints) of God are those who work with God to create heaven on earth in this life — not for themselves, but for those who have need of it the most.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is currently doing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware, where he is the Chaplain Resident for Pain & Palliative Care. Up until July of 2014 he had been the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, where he is still canonically resident as a priest. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.