A Sermon for All Saints Day

A Sermon for All Saints Day

Text: Matthew 5:1-12


My mother had a powerful intellect and was not at all sentimental, but she did have one contradictory quality, and she knew it was contradictory. She was a hero-worshipper. She admitted that there was no sense in this. Take for instance one of her chief heroes, Admiral Lord Nelson, who was killed aboard his flagship while winning the great Battle of Trafalgar. She read many biographies of Nelson, which meant that she had to confront the fact that he was a flagrant adulterer who conducted his famous liaison with the married Lady Hamilton in plain sight for years, abandoning his own wife in the most public and heartless way. My parents were solidly married for more than fifty years and they most definitely did not approve of adultery. So I asked my mother this question: Since Nelson made his wife so miserable and flaunted his affair all over Europe, was he still her hero? Well, yes, she said rather reluctantly, he still is. But why? I pushed her. She said, because of the prayer.

I knew which prayer she meant. This prayer was written by Nelson in his diary on board his ship, on the eve of Trafalgar, in full view of the enemy fleet. [1] Here is the prayer that Nelson wrote:

May the great God whom I worship grant to my country for the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet! For myself individually I commit my life to him that made me…To him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen, Amen, Amen.

What is a hero? What is a saint? The eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews gives a roll call of the so-called Old Testament saints. The passage is often called “the Heroes of Faith.” I don’t know about Canada, but in the States ever since 9/11 the word “hero” has been used more or less indiscriminately. All firefighters, police and military personnel are automatically called heroes. Everybody who died at the World Trade center is called a hero even though a good many of them were interrupted in the midst of their ordinary jobs and never had a chance one way or the other to be a hero.

Is a saint the same thing as a hero? Halloween is a much more subdued affair here in Toronto than it is in the States—thank the Lord!—but here, as there, it overwhelms All Saints Day. It takes effort and imagination to stage a competition with All Hallows Eve. For some years at the parish in New York City where I was on the staff, we had a banquet on All Saints Day—on the day itself, November first—and a special festive Eucharist where the whole congregation read aloud, in unison, the names of all the people who had passed into eternal life from our church fellowship within living memory. It was a powerful experience, and each year when All Saints comes around I find myself missing it very much.

But what about all those names? Were all those people saints? Were they “heroes” of faith? Or were they merely “souls,” to be remembered on All Souls Day? What makes a saint? Does Nelson’s prayer qualify him to be a saint or only a British military hero (we won’t ask the French about it)?

When I was in the Toronto airport in 2003, I picked up a copy of Roméo Dallaire’s book, Shake Hands With the Devil. I would hope that every Canadian household would have this book. You know who General Dallaire is, of course—an authentic Canadian moral hero, the commander of the UN peacekeeping forces during the Rwandan genocide. Generally speaking I think it is important not to have heroes, but if anyone is a hero, this man comes close to qualifying. Why is that so?

Dallaire found himself in an intolerable position. The great powers behind the UN, with the United States first in line, abandoned him. He was in agony because he had to stand by helplessly while 800,000 people were murdered in one hundred days. As you know, Dallaire’s suffering during and after the 100 days was so intense that it brought him to the brink of suicide. There was no leader from the global North who shared his burden with him. Even some of those who were in Rwanda at that time were critical of this or that decision he made. His mission failed. He was in no usual sense of the word a hero. And yet he was. Here’s what makes him different: he took responsibility and judgment upon himself. His book displays this. Of him it can truly be said that “he came through the great tribulation.” Of him it can truly be said that he “hungered and thirsted after righteousness.”

In the lectionary that’s used in the States, it’s customary to read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day. Why is that? Are they marching orders for saints? If so, they are strange orders. It is not easy to hear the Beatitudes the way they are meant to be heard. I think they are somewhat baffling to most of us. We are familiar with them, but we don’t really know what they mean. Are they instructions? How are they related to our actual lives? Listen again:

Our Lord Jesus, when he saw the crowds seeking after him, gathered his disciples and went up on top of a mountain where he taught them, saying:
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…

When you read those words in the context of the suffering of General Dallaire, they take on a special meaning, don’t they? They become words of comfort, words of sustenance, words of promise. A wise interpreter explained that the Beatitudes are not exhortations; they are congratulations. [2] Another biblical commentator wrote, The sayings of Jesus…in the Sermon on the Mount are a part of the gospel. To each of these sayings belongs the message: the old aeon is passing away. Through the proclamation of the gospel and through discipleship you are transferred into the new aeon of God. And now you should know that this is what life is like when you belong to the new aeon of God….This is what a lived faith is like. This is what the life of those who stand in the salvation-time of God is like, of those who are freed from the power of Satan and in whom the wonder of discipleship is consummated. [3] I recently assigned a novel by Graham Greene to my students at Wycliffe College. It is called A Burnt-out Case and it is about a world-famous architect named Querry who has found himself profoundly depressed, unable to take joy in his work, unable to love anyone. He goes to the end of the line, upriver into the depths of what was then the Belgian Congo, as far as his boat could travel, the end of the world you might say, to hunker down in a leper colony. He does not go there to do good, far from it; he wants to escape from the world and from himself. Still, the choice he has made of a Catholic leper colony suggests that he is not a completely burnt-out case after all, but in some way disguised from himself is seeking redemption. Querry’s intention is to conceal his identity, but a fatuous English journalist breaks through his cover and, with the collaboration of an equally fatuous priest named Thomas, writes an absurd hero-worshipping story called “An Architect of Souls: the Hermit of the Congo,” in which he tries to depict the architect as some sort of self-denying saint—to the disgust and dismay of its subject. Throughout the novel the question arises over and over, “What is a saint? Who is a saint?” An important conversation takes place between the Father Superior of the leper colony and one of his priests:

Superior: Father Thomas, I can understand why you are attracted to Querry [the architect]. You are both men of extremes. But in our way of life, it is better for us not to have heroes—not live heroes, that is. The saints [of the Church] should be enough for us.
Fr. Thomas: You are not suggesting that there are not live saints?
Superior: Of course not. But don’t let’s recognize them before the Church does, We shall be saved a lot of disappointment that way. [4]

If we are going to have heroes in this life, human nature being what it is, either we are going to be disappointed or we are going to be in denial. Greene’s novel ends ambiguously: we are not specifically told if the architect finds redemption or not, though it is certainly hinted at. What Greene seems to say in almost all of his novels is that redemption finds us in spite of ourselves—that is to say, the grace of God follows those whom God loves to the last station up the river, the deepest place in the jungle, the furthest outpost where we seek to escape. And there, Greene seems to suggest, God is able to make a saint where there was no saint. Lord Nelson seemed to sense this as he threw himself on the mercy of God in his final hours. On this special day let us remember that we do not achieve sainthood, nor did any of those whom we call saints. The saints are the people of God, period—so that Paul addressed all the members of all his churches as saints, no matter how badly they were behaving. Martin Luther taught us that we who are baptized members of Christ are all, each one of us, saints and sinners at the same time (simul peccator et iustus).

I was surprised, as I prepared this sermon, to find myself using so many military examples. Ordinarily it’s best to be careful about finding heroes in the military because it is so commonplace and unthinking to do so. However, there was a story on the front page of The New York Times yesterday that forcibly struck me in the context of the Beatitudes.

Combat Post Lowell is a company-sized American outpost in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, one of the most forward, most isolated United States positions in the Afghan war. It’s under regular fire from the Taliban, so much so that helicopter pilots avoid flying in if they can. When there are attacks, anyone wounded has to be held at the post until a helo can be found to evacuate him.

One recent day, the Taliban fired an 82-millimeter mortar into the outpost. It blasted shrapnel into two of the Afghan men who were serving the American military. One of them died instantly. The other, Jamaludin, was the cook, an aging man with a severely atrophied leg. He received numerous wounds that were potentially fatal. Immediately the American Army doctor and the medics went into action. Jamaludin was very near death. There was blood everywhere. The helicopter would not be able to come for an hour, if at all. There was no time to put on gloves. Jamaludin’s breathing was obstructed, so the doctor put his thumb in the cook’s mouth and held it there to keep the passage open. The medics worked frantically.

The first sergeant began to prepare for the wounded man to be carried outside to the helo when it came. That meant they would all be under fire. But the first sergeant took the time to give the cook a message of encouragement in his own Pashto language. He turned to the Afghan interpreter. “Tell him,” he said, “tell Jamaludin we’ve got him. Tell him we’ve got him.” Note that this was not a military comrade. This was not a companion in arms. This was a cook—a peasant, a cripple, an aging Afghan without a word of English. One of the medics, Sergeant Filip, had a free moment so he stepped aside and scrubbed Jamaludin’s blood from his fingers. “I hope he doesn’t have anything,” he said. “I didn’t have time to put gloves on. You have to stop the bleeding however you can.”

The helicopter arrived. The mortar fire started up again. The medics and the doctor ran across open ground with Jamaludin on a stretcher. The mortars fell short. The men got him onto the helicopter. It shuddered and rose. It lifted and passed over the hills. Jamaludin was going to make it. Sergeant Filip stepped behind a screen and prayed. [5]

Were these heroes? Are they saints? Or are they just ordinary men doing extraordinary things in the midst of carnage and death by the grace of God? [6] For it is God who makes saints and heroes out of such damaged goods as we sinners are made of, and many of such saints are known to him alone. In actions like that of Sergeant Filip and the others, and a thousand thousand other self-forgetful deeds not found in newspapers, truly we may recognize and give thanks for the presence of the One who said,

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who meekly put their trust in God, for they shall inherit the earth.

[1] A printed, framed copy of Nelson’s prayer is placed on top of his tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. There is a superscription explaining it, which reads: Written by Lord Nelson in his diary on board the Victory, while in view of the enemy. It is dated October 21, 1805, the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar in which he received his mortal wound.

[2] I wish I could remember who this was.

[3] Joachim Jeremias. The Sermon on the Mount

[4] Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case. New York: Viking, 1961, p. 105.

[5] This extraordinary reporting was done by C. J. Chivers and the photographer Tyler Hicks. “A Warning (‘Incoming!’), a Blast, a Fight to Save an Afghan Life,” The New York Times, 11 November 2008. I have abbreviated and condensed the story but much of the wording is Chivers’.

[6] Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame has insisted that throughout his ordeal during the genocide, and after, that he is just an ordinary man. His memoir is called An Ordinary Man.

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