Sermon: All Saints' Sunday

Patrick Allen on November 6, 2012


All Saints’ Sunday
Ec 2.7-11; Lk 6.20-26
4 November 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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This morning, this first Sunday after All Saints’ Day, is (strangely enough) All Saints’ Sunday, and a kind of continuation of Thursday nights’ celebration – an occasion, if may indulge in the Jesse Jackson school of redundant but rhyming oratory, for us to celebrate, venerate, and seek to emulate those men and women, ancient and modern, more-well known and not-so-well known, who are for us models of what is sometimes called heroic sanctity, though we might better understand them as ordinary Christians – which is simply to say that they have become what all Christians – all of us who by faith and baptism have been united to Christ – must one day be: conformed, each in their own very particular way, to the image of Jesus Christ.[i]

The saints are the ordinary, the norm.  Though wonderfully, even comically, diverse in their personalities and vocations, they are in the most important sense “standard issue,” and the Church offers them to us as encouragement and models for our own lives.  But for that to happen, for that to “work,” we must come to know them and to love them.  

Back in days of yore when I was the youth minister at Christ-St. Paul’s parish, I attempted to launch a new element in our program of Christian formation for young people.  What I planned was a scheme in which our young people would cultivate real relationships with some of the older folks in the parish, less for the solicitude of the elderly than for the edification of the young.  

So one evening I gathered the youth of the parish to myself and said to them, “How many of you want to have a career that is fulfilling and calls forth your best efforts?”  They all raised their hands.  “Good,” I said.  “And how many of you want to have a long, happy marriage, that endures and sustains you in good times and bad?”  Again, they all raised their hands.  “Great,” I said, “and how many of you want to have a faith that anchors your heart and mind in God’s goodness and mercy and fills all your days with joy and gratitude?”  Again, raised hands.  “Wonderful,” I said, “and if that’s what you want – what you really want – wouldn’t it make sense to spend some time and cultivate friendships with people who have had those things?”

And they were considering this.  Now, a boy named Jacob was more subtle than any of the other cretins in the youth group, and he looked up and said, “Wait, you’re not talking about old people, are you?”  Well, that’s exactly what I was talking about, and Jacob and the youth were having none of it.  But if there was a failure to launch with that program, it was a failure of leadership and execution – my leadership and execution – but I continue to believe that the idea itself was and is sound.  It comes straight from Holy Scripture, after all, and is in large part the point or our All Saints’ and all of our saints’ celebrations.

You who fear the Lord, writes the sage Jesus ben Sira in our first lesson from Ecclesiasticus, You who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for everlasting joy and mercy.  And how does Ben Sirach suggest that we cultivate this enlivening and joyful hope?  Consider the ancient generations and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or whoever persevered in the fear of the Lord and was forsaken? Or who ever called upon him and was overlooked?

Consider the ancient generations and see.  The writer of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews said almost the same thing – indeed, he was probably alluding to ben Sira, when he said, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.”[ii]  St. Paul would even say to the Corinthians, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”[iii]

Growth in grace, trust in the Lord, a sure and certain hope for good things.  These come in part – but in significant part – by the knowledge, love, and imitation of the saints.  “We believe,” after all – and as we shall confess together in just a few minutes – in the “communion of the saints.”  The borderland between us and them is not so wide as the rationalists, secular and religious, would have us imagine.  But they are just “right there,” and they help us along as intercessors and as exemplars – leaders and heroes, sisters and brothers, friends, for us to imitate.

The goal, after all, is to be like them – with them to abandon ourselves to God’s love and so to become the visible signs and instruments of the Gospel of Peace, of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and for the world.  That should be our goal, at least in theory if not – and I’ll speak only for my own sorry self – in actual practice.  To be saints – that, as I say, should be our goal.  But it is definitely God’s goal.  In fact, we have it on the authority of his own word that he will not be satisfied with anything less than that you and I, together with Blessed Mary ever virgin and all the saints, be conformed – each in our own very particular way – to the image of Jesus Christ. 

Consider the ancient generations and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame?  They trusted in the Lord, that is the key to the saints’ godly lives and holy deaths.  We could even say it is what makes a saint a saint.  But how does that work?  How does it change us.

Forty years ago, researchers at Stanford University performed what would become a famous experiment in child psychology, it’s been repeated in many different variations.[iv]  Maybe even some of you have done it to – I mean performed it with! – your own children.  It’s the “marshmallow test,” and it was pretty straightforward.  Children aged 4 to 6 were given a marshmallow and told that they could ring a bell to summon the researcher and get to eat the marshmallow right away, or they could wait a few minutes until the researcher returned and get to eat two marshmallows.  It’s a simple test of self control, of making the rational choice to wait for two rather than settle for one.  But it turns out that only about a third of children will wait for the second marshmallow.  It’s an interesting test in and of itself, but more so because it turns out to have enormous predictive value.  It turns out that success on that test correlates remarkably well with success later in life – with performance on the SAT’s, with weight control, with trouble with drink and drugs, and so on.

It’s an interesting piece of research, but a recent revision of the marshmallow test, just within the last year or so, has added a layer of complexity and really I think a much deeper level of insight into the results. 

This time, prior to administering the marshmallow test, researchers at the University of Rochester gave the children a small art project to do.  So a researcher gave each child either a well-worn, heavily used, broken set of crayons or a small, rather boring sticker.  But the children were promised better art supplies – brand new crayons, more and better stickers – if they waited for the researcher to come back.  But with half the children, the researcher did not follow through with the promise, eventually returning only to tell the child that the better supplies were unavailable. 

And then the researcher administered the marshmallow test. 

The children who had been primed to believe that the researcher was reliable, was trustworthy, waited an average of twelve minutes before eating the marshmallow, but those who had reason to believe the researcher was unreliable, was not trustworthy, waited only, on average, three minutes.

The lead researcher, Celeste Kidd, summed up her analysis like this – she said, “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered.”  In other words, if the child has reason to trust the researcher, the authority.

Consider the ancient generations and see: who ever trusted the Lord and was put to shame.

The saints delayed gratification; they were patient, willing to suffer, willing even to die for the sake their faith.  The saints played a long game.  Because they trusted – because they had good reason to trust – the Lord. 

Jesus said – we’ve heard it in this morning’s Gospel – that his saints, his blessed ones, in this world would be poor, hungry, weeping, hated.  But that after that they would posses God’s Kingdom, would be satisfied, laughing, and heirs of a great reward in heaven.  Well, “promises, promises,” we might skeptically say.  But the saints considered and understood that these are promises from the One who has proven himself faithful, trustworthy, who loved his own and “loved them to the end,” “even to death on the cross,”[v] and whose glorious resurrection is the vindication of his love and the sure foundation of the Church’s faith, and of the saints’ trust.[vi]

Consider the ancient generations and seeRemember your leaders…imitate their faith.  It is not the case that the saints are people who have some innate gift of extraordinary will power that allows them to live lives of heroic sanctity in the darkest and most difficult of times.  They were – they are – ordinary people, with ordinary intelligence, ordinary problems, and all the ordinary questions and fears, ordinary will power.  But they were – they are – transformed by the faithfulness of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the absolute and utter trustworthiness and reliability of Jesus, so that they became, finally, who they were always meant to be: the heirs of everlasting joy and mercy.

Let us know them, let us love them, let us commend ourselves to their prayers, and then let us imitate their faith in the One who has shown himself always and ever perfectly faithful, even our Lord Jesus Christ. 

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[i] Rm 8.29

[ii] Hb 13.7

[iii] 1 Cor 11.1

[iv] This summary taken nearly verbatim from Sarah Zielinski:

[v] Jn 13.1; Phil 2.8

[vi] 1 Cor 15.14