The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
All Saints’ Sunday
November 4, 2018
In the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every All Saints Day I come back to this story--and you’ll have heard it before, so forgive me--but it’s what’s on my mind each year. And it has to do with how I conceptualize of the term “Saint” -- and the thing that we mark on All Saint’s Day--and celebrate this particular Sunday, All Saints Sunday.
When I was a child, my great grandmother died. I remember that people referred to her as a “saint.” “Oh, she was such a saint,” they’d say at the funeral home, at the church, at the covered-dish luncheon after the burial. My great grandmother was a saint.
But I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I knew that she was a pillar in her church, always in the same place and pew. Always ready with a covered dish or a pie for a church social, or if someone had died, some ham rolls or a casserole delivered to the house.
She always kept just the kind of candy each great grandchild liked in a drawer in her living room, and that was the first place we’d go after greeting her when we visited.
Any time I was with her I felt loved.
I knew she was good to me--and to my family. But I wasn’t sure. Was she a saint?
The Saints we think about, the Saints of the Church, the ones on our Calendar and in our windows, the ones known across the Christian faith, are probably equally complicated.
As Fr Scott Gunn has said, All Saints Day is the day when we remember Saint Mary. All Souls Day is the day when we remember Aunt Mary. And I think that’s a pretty good way to think about it.
The Saints of the Church with a capital “S” have revealed God’s grace to us in miraculous ways. Think of St Mary, the Mother of God, as the Church names her, whose “yes” to God paved the way for the birth of Christ--the salvation of the world. Francis, whose love of Christ led him to give away all his many earthly possessions, to embrace the poor and marginalized, to live in voluntary poverty, and to found the order that bears his name. Saint Julian, who saw all of God’s creation miraculously in a hazelnut, and discerned the infinite goodness of God in such a way that led her to understand that evil was no thing next to the mercy and love of God. St Lawrence, the archdeacon of Rome, who, when the emperor Valerian demanded he hand over the riches of the Church, went and sold all the silver and gold and jewels he could get his hands on, gave the money to the poor of the city, and entered the emperor’s court along with the poor and downtrodden recipients of his almsgiving, announcing to the emperor that these, the poor, were the treasure of the Church--and that the Church was far wealthier than even the emperor.
The Saints of the Church are her servants, her martyrs, her faithful who have shown God’s grace revealed in the love of Jesus Christ in particular ways, in particular times.
The Saints of the Church are those who, like Lawrence, like Julian, like Francis, and like Mary, understood that the values of the world, the conventional wisdom that surrounds us, the things we hear each day about what matters have got it all wrong.
Blessed Mary, Blessed Lawrence, Blessed Julian, Blessed Francis realized that the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the righteous--these are blessed. These whom the world has forgotten or ignored, turned aside or shunned, these blessed ones matter to God; God lifts them up; Jesus holds them close to his sacred heart.
Though their plight in this world may be fraught with peril and hardship, they are beloved by God.
And the Saints are the ones who have shown us this, time and time again, in their living--and in their dying. They’ve shown us how to follow Jesus--to live into our baptismal relationship with Christ, to die to sin and self and live for God.
And so we pray for them, and we ask their prayers for us.
But lest we think that somehow Saints are like superheroes, specially gifted with spiritual power far beyond our understanding--lest we think they are so much superior to us, so very different than we are, let’s remember that they were, frankly, a lot like us. And many, many of them were young. St Lawrence was 33 when he was killed by Valerian. Julian was 31 when she received her mystical “showings.” Francis was 25 when he renounced his inheritance before the Bishop of Milan, and 41 when he died. And Mary, mother of our Lord, was probably the age of a high school student when she gave birth to Jesus.
These brave young people, and older people, the Saints of God lived their lives in such different ways--and often at great cost--that they showed us the hope of --the reality of--the kingdom of God. That what we think we know is not the whole story. That the kingdom of God is radically different; that the way of love is stronger even than death. They reflect for us the resurrection of our Lord in their embodiment of God’s grace.
And they’re people just like us.
Just like my saintly great grandmother, who had her moments when she, too, showed God’s love and grace for me.
The Saints show us that the world can look like the beatitudes -- that the values of the kingdom of God include everyone, even and especially the downtrodden.
Friends, in a world that is full of hatred, in a world when even our public figures put down and devalue and rail against the vulnerable and marginalized, in a world when a man spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric can take a gun and walk into a synagogue and murder in cold blood eleven blessed children of God at prayer, we need the Saints to show us that we can live differently. That the love of God can overcome even the darkest hate. That all are included in the love that is the reign of God.
We need the Saints to remind us that, by virtue of our Baptism, we are united with Christ not only in his death but in his resurrection. That we can live differently in the world. That we can share hope and love and embrace everyone whom we meet.
We need the Saints. We need their witness. We need their prayers. And we need the reminder that we, too, can strive to live -- to show the love of God in the world--to be vessels of God’s grace--just as they were and are.
They gather around with us here at this altar as we celebrate this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving--as we receive Christ’s presence in the sacrament of his Body and Blood even as they completely and fully know God’s being now in the life they enjoy in heaven.
And we are joined with them now on earth in the Communion of Saints even as we will be fully joined with God in the life to come.
In a moment we’ll remember the saints who have come before--and particularly those Saints of the Church who have shown God’s grace in ages past. We’ll ask their prayers for us. And we’ll walk together again to the font of our baptism, be sprinkled again with that holy water that drowns us and renews us and raises us to new life.
And as we pray, I invite you to remember the Saints--those known to the Church, and those known to you alone. And as a reminder of what the Saints have stood for, of reign of the kingdom of God expressed in the Beatitudes of Matthew, as a reminder of how broad and encompassing God’s love is in the face of evil and hatred in the world, I want to share a story with you.
It’s a story from Flannery O’Connor, the Southern Catholic writer, who shares an unlikely vision of the Communion of Saints experienced by a character called Mrs Turpin, a good Christian lady--in the sense of the civic religion, not the actual faith of the apostles. A good lady who, as Flannery says, has had “a little of everything and the given wit to use it right.”
You need to know a bit of backstory--the time and setting is the 1960’s or thereabouts, and Mrs Turpin, a white farm lady, has encountered a young woman, a Wellesley student, who has listened to her self-satisfied, racist cant about how she believes the world is ordered. The Wellesley student has called Mrs Turpin a wart hog and thrown a book at her. Mrs Turpin has gone home to her farm, where she’s fed the pigs and is washing out the hog lot with a hose. And standing on the fence, with her sore forehead, with the words of the young woman ringing in her ears, she raises something of a prayer--a complaint--to the Universe. From Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”:
"What do you send me a message like that for?" [Mrs Turpin] said in
a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force
of a shout in its concentrated fury. "How am I a hog and me
both? How am I saved and from hell too?" Her free fist was
knotted and with the other she gripped the hose, blindly
pointing the stream of water in and out of the eye of the old
sow whose outraged squeal she did not hear.
The pig parlor commanded a view of the back pasture
where their twenty beef cows were gathered around the haybales
[her husband] Claud and the boy had put out. The freshly cut pasture
sloped down to the highway. Across it was their cotton field
and beyond that a dark green dusty wood which they owned
as well. The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the
paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.
"Why me?" she rumbled. "It's no trash around here, black or white,
that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day
working. And do for the church.”
She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before
her. "How am I a hog? she demanded. "Exactly how am I like them?"
… "I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy," she growled.
"Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and
spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
… Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.’
In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue. The
pasture was growing a particular glassy green and the streak of the
highway had turned lavender. She braced herself for a final assault and
this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. “Go on,” she yelled, “call
me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell.
Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
A garbled echo returned to her.
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, "Who do you think you
The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment
with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture and
across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly, like
an answer from beyond the wood.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it.
A tiny truck, Claud's, appeared on the highway, heading rapidly out of
sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child's toy.…
Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all
her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared,
returning. She waited until it had had time to turn
into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming
to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the
very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs.
They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who
was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant
with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin
remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing
some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There
was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson
and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending
dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic
and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak
as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a
field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward
heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first
time in their lives, and bands of black [folks] in white robes, and battalions
of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom
she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always
had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right.
She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind
the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for
good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone
were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even
their virtues were being burned away.
She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes
small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision
faded but she remained where she was.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way
on the darkening path to the house. In woods around her the invisible
cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of
the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
+ + +
 Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” from The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Text accessed online 11/3/2018 at http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/archive-courses/summer06/engl278/e-texts/oconner_revelation.pdf.