SJF • All Saints Day 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages...+
One of the things about optimists and pessimists is that they can look at the same thing but speak about it in entirely opposite ways. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? At home in my kitchen cupboard I have a wine glass that is etched with a line around the middle, and the words optimist and pessimist appear respectively above and below the line. The optimist says, “Hey, I’ve still got half a glass left” while the pessimist says, “I’ve only got half a glass left.” Each has the same amount, but one is content, the other despondent.
Today is All Saints Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. This is the day on which we remember all of the great saints of ages past. We also anticipate by a bit the celebration of the Feast of All Faithful Departed, which used to go by the name All Souls Day. And we do this in recognition of the fact that the saints are larger in number than just those few who are named on the church calendar. As the old children’s hymn says, “They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still,” and you can even meet them “in shops or at tea!” A saint is what every Christian is called to be. We are called to be saints, and that doesn’t mean sanctimonious, but being a member of the body of Christ — into which we will welcome a few more new members through the sacrament of Baptism in just a few minutes!
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There seems to be a paradox about all of this, however. And part of it lies in that reading from Ecclesiasticus, with which I admit I’ve always had a bit of difficulty, because it seems to contradict itself. The author sings the praises of those famous men who are remembered, and then says that some others are forgotten and have left no memory — and then turns around and says that “these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” So which is it? Is the glass half full or half empty?
We will find our answer — as is so often the case — in the Gospel. Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us a catalog of blessedness — of what it means to be blessed. We are so used to hearing this passage that we are likely to be unaware of how startling it must have been to the ears of many who first heard it. Even today, while I’m sure many will tip their hat towards the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, you will find few who would agree that the poor, the mournful, or the reviled and persecuted are living in blessèd circumstances!
Jesus’s words are startling in part because the prevailing view then — and I’m afraid to say, now — is that your circumstances in the world are a reflection of how right you are with God. For many, then as now, health and wealth was a sign of God’s favor, and poverty or illness a sign of God’s judgment. If you don’t think that sentiment is still very much alive you haven’t been paying attention to the health care debates! Under much resistance to the urge to provide health care for every single man, woman and child, regardless of circumstances, there lies that old sneaking suspicion that if you were a better person you wouldn’t be in such a mess. That “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is still very much with us — and it is particularly ironic to me that it is so often espoused by religious people who think they’ve got the Gospel on their side. The “prosperity gospel” maybe, but not the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
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In Jesus’ time, this way of seeing the world came largely from people who held that obedience to the Law of Moses — especially as they interpreted it — was the defining principle of what it meant to be a righteous person. They were eager to judge others, looking for specks in their neighbors’ eyes while ignoring the logs in their own. Jesus followed more in the tradition of the prophets — who see righteousness as a matter of internal disposition rather than in merely external compliance: good and evil come from within, as Jesus would say, out of the heart, as a tree’s fruit shows what kind of tree it is deep down. You know, you can’t cover up graffiti with just a light coat of whitewash — it will come bleeding through after a few days. You need to work from the inside out if you are to be righteous.
And so Jesus casts aside the false gospel of prosperity — and holds up the more challenging vision of the kingdom of heaven. It is not limited to those who, like the scribes, were rich enough to have the leisure to spend their days studying and arguing about the law and other people’s sins. Rather, as Jesus will go on to say in the mountainside sermon: God’s kingdom is open to any who are willing to seek him and his kingdom and his righteousness; and you are to seek those things first, and then to knock at God’s door and to ask for a handout from the Lord of the household. The gate may be narrow and the road hard that leads to eternal life, but Jesus assures us that it is there for all who seek it, who seek him, with all their hearts. While the scribes were busy keeping people out of the kingdom of heaven (or so they thought) for not observing all of the appropriate rules, Jesus points the way to eternal life, in him and through him, doing the Father’s will. The scribes are the pessimists and Jesus is the optimist!
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John’s vision in Revelation gives us a similar message. Initially the number of the servants of God marked for salvation does seem surprisingly small: 144,000 — a little over the capacity of the two Yankee Stadiums put together. It begins to look as if few indeed will be saved. But then John turns around and sees a multitude beyond counting, not just from the tribes of Israel, but from every nation and tribe and people and language: countless countless thousands of people. The kingdom of heaven is not a posh nightclub with a stern bouncer at the door — much as the scribes might have seen it. Rather, it is a huge expanse, so large that it can contain more people than can be counted. And of those countless, countless people too, it is said: they will no longer hunger or thirst — they are the blessèd who have come to the kingdom of heaven. Their tears are wiped away, they drink from the springs of the water of life, and worship for ever at the throne of God.
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And it is God who makes all the difference — getting back to that troublesome passage from Ecclesiasticus. Some people who have done good and gone to their reward have been forgotten — by us, but not by God! Even if they pass their lives unnoticed and uncelebrated, or even though people forget them, God will not. They are his, and he will not forsake his own. The treasure of their goodness — which is, after all, only the return on the goodness that God has already poured into their hearts— that treasure will be shared out and enjoyed in the kingdom of heaven, when they and all the blessed will be gathered in, at the time of the great harvest. God stores up all who seek him in his treasury, he calls them all to his embrace, even if their lives were lived in obscurity, even if they left no monument or memorial in this world.
Human beings may forget, but God will not. Human beings may be unaware of all the anonymous good done in the world, but God sees not as humans see and looks to the heart of each and every one of us. God is one who looks at all our half empty hearts, and by his grace supplies the difference.
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As I said at the beginning of this homily the number of the saints is far greater than the list of those on the calendar. All of us are called to be saints — and the one who calls us is the one who makes us so. Today he calls these children to join us as members of his body, the church. Some might say it’s only a drop in the bucket — if they want to be pessimists! I prefer to take the optimistic view and say that drop by drop the bucket gets filled! Our God is a God of abundant blessings, abundant blessings of which we may not be aware at the moment — when we are poor or mourning or hungry or thirsty for righteousness, or when we are persecuted or reviled, or when evil things are spoken against us falsely on account of our lives or our service to God our Father in heaven. It may not feel like blessing at the moment — but it is, and it so will be seen to be.
So let us then, as our Lord commands us, “Rejoice and be glad!” Not only do we still have half a glass full — but God has not stopped pouring yet!+