We all have our favorite hymns. When I meet with folks who are planning a funeral, I often find that they request a favorite hymn be sung. A minister friend told me about one such graveside funeral near Dalton, Georgia. The family requested that a soloist sing as a part of the service. The soloist was contacted, and he was told that the family had requested that he sing "Jingle Bells." Well, this was a first for him, but he got himself ready. At the appropriate time, he began to sing: "Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh, o'er the fields we go, laughing all the way..." This gifted tenor closed by singing the familiar chorus with great gusto and enthusiasm. After the service, the widow made her way to the soloist, thanked him, and then confessed, "As you were singing, it dawned on me. My husband's favorite song was not 'Jingle Bells.' It was "When They Ring the Golden Bells." Well, today, many congregations join in singing one of my favorite hymns -- "For All the Saints." You remember the words:
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
And, yes, I have stipulated that it will be sung at my funeral. I like everything about it: the words and the music, the tempo and the theology. This hymn is not a funeral dirge. It is a hymn of triumph, and I like that. When I was serving my first church, we had Sunday night worship services. They were poorly attended, and I tried several times to get the Administrative Board to end them. Yet, month after month, they voted to keep the services going. Finally, I scolded them, "You keep voting to have these services, but none of you ever come!" One board member retorted, "Yeah, but it gives us a good feeling to know that wherever we are - on the lake or the golf course or just watching television at home - that our minister is holding services at the church." Those Sunday night services were very informal. We had no bulletin. There was a message, a time for prayer, and we sang a number of hymns from the Cokesbury Hymnal. In fact, we took requests. I always cringed when one fellow raised his hand to offer a request because he always wanted us to sing "Day Is Dying in the West." You talk about a dirge! The words are depressing. The music is depressing. It takes awfully good preaching to rescue a service after that. However, we have no such problem with "For All the Saints." Both the words and the music celebrate Christ's victory over sin and death.
You may know that the words to this hymn were written by a man named William How. In the late 19th century, How was an unknown bishop working in the poverty-stricken slums of London, England. It was out of his experience in that setting that he wrote this hymn. The music was written by a young British composer named Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was one of the acclaimed English composers of that era. When you combine great words with great music, you have the essential ingredients for a great hymn. And now, each year, especially on All Saints Sunday, we have the privilege of joining our voices with those from all time and history in singing "For All the Saints."
This is a day on which we remember loved ones who have died. We remember with thanksgiving our grandmothers and grandfathers, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters, our aunts and uncles, our friends and neighbors, and other loved ones who have preceded us into death. On this day I especially remember my grandparents, my father, and my mother-in-law. You have special persons you remember, too.
Today, in our churches, we also remember with deep gratitude the lives of persons who have passed away within the last year. In the church I serve, we will call the names of these persons, ring the church bell, and light a candle in their memory. For some, this is an emotional time. They are grieving and their wound is still very tender to the touch. For others, this is a sobering time. The talk of death forces all of us to take stock of our lives. And, for still others, this is a time of giving thanks for those upon whose shoulders we stand.
Today, many of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are continuing to remember their beloved pope - John Paul II who died six years ago. Earlier this year, the Vatican announced that the former Pope's candidacy for sainthood is progressing quickly - he has been "beatified." Now, I know very little about the Roman Catholic process for naming a person a saint. But, I have read that "beatification" is the second step in a three-step process. In order for a person to be "beatified," the church needs to see evidence of a holy life, confirmed by devotion to the beatitudes. It is any wonder that the Gospel reading for this All Saints Sunday is the beatitudes?
Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are those who mourn... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the pure in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake... Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
These are the saintly virtues by which a godly life is measured. Obviously, they describe God's ideal vision of who we can be. I think most of us read these as the job description of a Christian and decide it is impossible to attain. We conclude, therefore, that they are not even worth attempting. Sainthood is like a carrot on a stick that is always beyond our reach. It is something that can only be achieved through extreme self-sacrifice. If we could accomplish the beatitudes, we would become saints.
However, the reality is something very different. The reality is that in our worship each week we witness the making of new saints through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The reality is that those of us who have been baptized already are saints. It is not a matter of doing all the right things or living an extraordinary life characterized by self-denial and sacrifice. It is not a matter of going to church all the time or even working three miracles that can be documented by the church. It is simply a matter of being a part of the body of Christ, which is the source of blessing even in the midst of hardships. Once you have been baptized in the name of Christ and received his grace, you have everything you need to be a saint.
Now, here comes the complicated part. Though we already are saints, it is also true that God has given us the freedom to deny our identity as God's children, to walk away from his grace, and to choose not to be the persons, the saints, that God calls us to be. The great 20th century German theologian Karl Barth said that it is like being a prisoner who has received a pardon. The person is free, but until that person gets up and walks through the doors of the prison, that person is still a prisoner. I once heard Barbara Brown Taylor suggest that it is like knowing there is a check in the next room with your name on it, and it is made out for a million dollars. The money is yours. You are a millionaire. But, until you claim it and cash it, you are as poor as if it never existed. It is up to us to claim who we are. And, it is up to us to act upon the gift that has been given. Some of you have been blessed with athletic ability. However, unless you cultivate that ability and use it, you will lose it. I believe that applies to our sainthood as well. Once we have been baptized, we are saints. Our calling from that day forward is to exercise our sainthood, practice it, and live it out, so that we do not lose our ability to be saints.
Now, in that light, do the beatitudes sound any different? I hope so. When you hear them recited, just read between the lines: You are loved; now act like it. You are redeemed; now act like it; you are a saint; now act like it. Become what you already are and you will be blessed - regardless of your circumstances in life. In other words, because the kingdom of heaven has come near in Jesus Christ, we can experience joy with every breath that we take.
Let me tell you about one of my saints - a man I knew in a former church. He was a retired Army Colonel, but those who had known him for many years said he had the personality of a drill sergeant. He had been a heavy drinker for more than thirty-five years and was very demanding. By the time I became his pastor, he was a much kinder soul. When I first visited with him in his home, he told me about how being part of a Disciple Bible Study group changed his life. He said that he later shared with his Sunday School class that through the grace of God, he had undergone a personality change. Now, one of the members of his class was a psychiatrist who stated his belief that personalities are set at a very early age. Therefore, there is no such thing as a personality change. The Colonel responded, "Well, I don't know much about psychology. However, I used to be severe and now I am considerate. I used to be mean and now I am kind. I used to be selfish and now I am concerned about others. Maybe I haven't changed personality, but I now am under new management." He's one of the saints.
And that's what this day is all about: remembering the saints who have gone before us; reminding ourselves that we, too, are saints; and becoming more completely the persons God has called us to be. We are blessed.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Let us pray:
Gracious and holy God we give you thanks for this day in which we remember the saints. We give you thanks for all of those who have gone before us upon whose shoulders we stand. We give you thanks for the gift of baptism and your grace that enables us to be saints and help us to live more fully into that. In Christ's name, Amen.