All Saints A – An ordeal to hope for

Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

I once asked confirmation class what they thought made a person a saint. One astute teen answered: “You have to be dead.”

It’s true that All Saints probably began as a festival honoring Christians who had been martyred for their faith. It grew to include men and women known to have led exemplary faith lives and who were, as the teen pointed out, dead.

Today, the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints includes (by my count) 337 individuals and 13 groups. It is a more diverse list than one might expect. They are not all Episcopalian or Roman Catholic. Not all are men, or ordained. Not all were martyred.

They are writers (Thomas Merton), musicians (Bach), theologians (Karl Barth & John Calvin), architects (Ralph Adams Cram), doctors (William Mayo & Charles Menninger), nurses (Florence Nightingale), scientists (Copernicus & Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), a U.S. Cabinet member (Frances Perkins), environmentalists (John Muir), African Americans (Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass & Sojourner Truth) and even a lawyer (Pauli Murray.) There are people whose names we know (e.g., Deitrich Bonhoeffer & Martin Luther King) and more than a few we probably don’t [1] (e.g., Hiram Hisanori Kano, Episcopal priest and minister to the Japanese-Americans held in American internment camps.)

No one, however, is on this list who has not been dead at least since 1986, proving the savvy teen’s point: To be a saint, you need to be dead.

St. Paul understood the notion of “saint” differently. For him, the word referred to living believers. (Romans 1:7, 1 Cor.1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2.). Only much later did it come to mean “the martyred,” and still later, the exemplary Christians who were dead-but-not-martyred.

The first reading from Revelation, points to one thing that St. Paul, the teen and the contemporary church could probably agree on as being constitutive of sainthood. The Elder says it: the saints are those who have been through the “great ordeal.” The Elder does not describe the great ordeal in detail. Maybe he meant martyrdom. Maybe not. Like the challenges described in the Beatitudes (Matthew) the ordeal is a situation which tests our faith and calls for the practice of saintly virtues.

We ought not to seek out such ordeals. Jesus says to pray that such ordeals not come our way. (Mtt.6:13) Still, sometimes they do.

I hope by this time next week our national election is over and that Biden has won. If that happens, after the Inauguration, we will need to start rebuilding a functioning government with institutions which reject the agendas of white supremacy and misogyny.

In rebuilding, we will not be able to ignore those who were emboldened by Trump’s deplorable rhetoric. Their fear and anger will not go away on its own. It has been baked into American culture and institutions, many of which have served us handsomely. So before we can rebuild in a way that is progressive, equitable and sustainable, we will all need to deeply embrace and articulate some new values.

This may not be the “great ordeal” we usually think of when we read Revelation, but I would argue that it is plenty great, because it is important and it will be very difficult.

It is important because matters of life and death are at stake:

  • affordable healthcare
  • environmental protection
  • the enforcement of laws against discrimination based on skin color, gender or sexual orientation
  • the enforcement of safe labor laws and equal pay legislation
  • a governmental reinvestment in public education, and
  • a national commitment to non-lethal policing.

It will be difficult because we have been pointing fingers and not listening to one another for a long time. It will require us to practice more than a few of the saintly virtues.

Jesus said not to seek out ordeals. But I think this is an exception.


Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash

[1] A good reason to start constructing litanies from the calendar of saints and then make room for it in the now way-too-crowded All Saints liturgy. Maybe we don’t really need baptisms on All Saints.