Standing with the Saints

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, November 3, 2013
Blair Pogue

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31


While I am thankful for the benefits of social media, I sometimes wonder if being bombarded visually 24/7 will cause us to lose a common repertoire of iconic images. In America from at least the 1920s through the 1990s there were a few powerful images etched indelibly into our imaginations. These shared images gave us a sense of unity: the black and white image of the haggard mother clutching her two children during the Great Depression, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, the photo of the solider and woman kissing at the end of World War II, the image of the lone Chinese student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

In some of these photos we see one person pictured, such as the photo of the student facing down the tank in Tiananmen Square. And yet we know that one person never stands alone. One person never stood up to graft or corruption alone. One person never shared a vision of a country united in a common humanity alone. One person never sat in the “whites only” section of the bus alone. No one holds a vigil for loved ones killed by senseless gun violence alone. No one grows in faith as a follower of the Way of Jesus alone. Behind each person standing for a better future is a community of persons. This is what All Saints’ Day is about: the community of men, women, and children of faith, claimed by God, who show us what it means to love God and neighbor. The saints are those who stand behind and often ahead of us, giving us the strength, inspiration, and courage to stand up against whatever speaks of hate rather than love, whatever works to destroy human freedom and flourishing.

I would love to know what was going on in each of your heads when you heard our first reading from the book of Daniel.  How many people said an internal “say what?” What an odd reading, and it doesn’t help that Daniel had a powerful and frightening vision as he lay in bed: the four winds of heaven stirring up a great sea and four great beasts coming up from the sea. Harry Potter watch out!

Daniel’s vision was widely known in Jesus’ day. It was an iconic story etched in most Jews’ imagination. It’s part of that genre we call apocalyptic literature, written to strengthen and inspire communities of faith during tough times. In this instance, the Israelites are living under the rule of the Greek Seleucids, who gained control of Judea in 198 BCE after Alexander the Great’s death. The Seleucids suppressed their Jewish subjects, murdered dissidents, and inserted their polytheistic images and rites into Jewish religious sites. They went so far as to erect an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV came to power in 175 things got especially ugly. All these actions, and especially the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple, were attempts to shame and humiliate the Jewish population. In response, Daniel wrote a book to give hope to the subjugated Israelites. He wanted to let them know that God was with them even under the devastating rule of the Seleucids. He promises readers that there will be a better future and that those who persevere and remain true to their faith will be delivered and glorified.

In Daniel’s apocalypse the four beasts are stand-ins for tyrannical rulers. Daniel hopes that a greater understanding of God’s involvement in history, and especially the knowledge that God will be victorious in the end will affirm God’s authority and as a result inspire God’s people to stand up to oppressive rulers who are destroying the lives of their subjects. If you think the situation the Israelites faced in the second century is something of the past, just open the paper or talk to members of our faith community who had to leave their homes and countries for a better future.

Whether we live in the midst of crisis and oppression, or must stand up for what is right and true in the face of unhealthy office politics, school board battles, or family squabbles, it is so often the love and inspiration of God working through Jesus’ followers, past and present, that gives us the strength to stand, rather than to just sit or look the other way.

Throughout the ages Jesus’ followers, referred to as “saints” by church leaders like Paul, have lived out their faith in good times and bad. What’s fascinating is that Paul referred to all Christians as “saints,” even those causing and living in the midst of various conflicts – perhaps to remind them that they ultimately belonged to God. He even addresses the constantly dysfunctional Corinthians as saints in his letters to them.

Last Sunday I invited you to send me stories of Christian friends and relatives who had an impact on your life and faith. Many thanks to those who took the time to respond.  I was moved by the fact that the people you named were not the saints we celebrate on feast days, but ordinary saints like family members and Sunday School teachers, whose lives will never be written up in history books, but who shaped your faith and life in important ways. During the Prayers of the People this morning, and tonight when we remember Bil Gangl and Joe Dunnwald, we will have the chance to give thanks for some of these ordinary saints who have influenced us in profound ways. In his 80s Joe Dunnwald was always here for worship, regardless of whether there was a blizzard or an ice storm. Bil Gangl led the way recruiting servers for Loaves and Fishes, and inviting us into his final year of life so that we could reflect on how to live and die well.

In his book Revealing Heaven, Episcopal priest John Price shares common experiences from hundreds of stories of people who were pronounced dead and then returned to life. Certain themes appear over and over again: an experience of well-being and of being flooded with a bright and healing light, an encounter with God described as the most powerful experience of love imaginable, a review of the major moments and decisions of the person’s life, an opportunity to acknowledge and experience healing and reconciliation with God and others, and a joyful celebration and reunion with deceased relatives and friends. These near-death experiences are all highly relational and bring healing, wholeness, and greater understanding and faith to those who died and then came back to life..

            Today we celebrate the communion of saints, the community of people claimed by God, invited to follow the Way of Jesus across countries, cultures, and the ages. The saints of God inspire us and cheer us on, whether they sit next to us on the pew, have breakfast with us each morning, or lived hundreds of years ago. They are young and old, rich and poor, black and white, extroverts and introverts, from every walk of life. As the hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God” reminds us, “you can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea.”

The saints of God surround us and they surround our altar each time we celebrate the Eucharist. They are with us always, enabling us to stand when it would be easier to sit, or to pull the covers over our head. Because of God’s saints we are more faithful, more loving, more outward-looking. May we rejoice in their fellowship and, inspired by their example, run with endurance the race that is set before us. Amen.