All Saints 2022

All Saints’ Sunday 2022; Luke 6:20-31


According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Laurentius (St Lawrence) was the “principal of the deacons” serving in Rome in the middle years of the third century, when yet another round of persecutions of the church arose. Believing himself to be in imminent danger of martyrdom, Laurentius decided to complete his diaconal duty by distributing all of his goods and even the treasures of the church among the poor and neglected of its congregations. The legend related by Foxe tells that the persecutors demanded of Laurentius an accounting of the church treasures, and that Laurentius promised to offer one in three days’ time. Then, “with great diligence he collected together a number of aged, helpless, and impotent poor, and repaired to the magistrate, presenting them to him saying, ‘These are the true treasures of the Church.’”[i]

Blessed are the poor, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, the commemoration of All Souls, the communion of the living with those who have led the way for us in faith. Of course, it is always Jesus who leads the way for us, and every Sunday is a festival of his resurrection; he tells his disciples the way of life in this sermon from the early days of his roving ministry. But we tell the stories of the saints to remind us of the various ways in which Christ’s example can be lived out, even by the likes of people like us.

Saint Sebastian, a Christian serving in the Imperial Guard at Rome, was betrayed to the emperor who was no friend of those who placed their faith in a higher power. The emperor summoned Sebastian and accused him of ingratitude and disloyalty for turning against the gods of Rome. Sebastian replied that he could show the emperor his fealty no more clearly than to pray to the one true God for the emperor’s health and prosperity, not to some false imperial and nationalistic gods. Enraged, the emperor sent him to be executed by a firing squad of archers, but when the Christians gathered to retrieve his body, they found him alive, and nursed him back to health. True, once the emperor discovered, to his shock, that Sebastian had survived, he had him killed again, but not before Sebastian clearly instructed him once more in the error of his ways, and the true way of Christ.[ii]

Bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you.

This week, God willing, we complete the first major election cycle since the attempted insurrection of Epiphany 2020. It would be foolhardy, perhaps, to downplay what is at stake. Too many lives, too many people’s safety and wellbeing hang in the balance between security and destitution, enfranchisement and violence, recognition and ruination. These elections matter to those voting on all sides of them; they matter to those who believe in a peaceful transfer of power between representatives of the people, and those who care enough to make it happen. I won’t try to shrug off the concerns many of us have about the state of our discourse, the dangers of hateful rhetoric, the angry violence that has erupted all too often of late, and the fear that it has engendered.

At the same time, it would perhaps be well to recognize that we, the people, never have had the ultimate authority here. God has. God, who loves each and every one of God’s children, regardless of gender, race, status, or state of grace. God, who is unelect and who elects to administer justice with mercy, judgement with compassion, who is love incarnate and ineffable. That is our ultimate authority, allegiance, and our hope in good times and in trouble.

In The Sayings of the Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell, “The abbot Agatho said, ‘If an angry man were to raise the dead, because of his anger he would not please God.”[iii]

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it wasn’t with the magnanimity of the conqueror. When he said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” he prefigured his own prayer from the cross, not for violence or vengeance, but, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus did not pray forgiveness for his torturers so as to legitimize the Roman practice of crucifixion, but so as to confront it with the terrible and awful truth of God’s judgement, justice, and mercy.

Instead, if someone strikes you across the cheek, Jesus says, offer them the other. A contemporary saint observed that we are often so struck by hateful or hurtful thoughts, words, and actions that we don’t even know what to say, how to react or respond. When the slur or the stereotype spill from the mouth of the person opposite, whether aimed at us or at some other innocent: the member of another race, sex, gender expression, religion, that one advises, ask them to repeat it. “Excuse me? What did you just say? Would you care to say that again?” Offer your other ear, and see if the bully has the courage to continue to assault it.

It is a risky strategy – Jesus was not renowned for playing it safe – but it comes with his recommendation, and therefore with power. It makes the person responsible for their own words and behaviour; it invites them to take accountability for them without condoning them. And if it doesn’t work to reframe the moment, we can shake the dust off our feet and pray for their souls.

The abbot Macarius is reported to have said, “If we dwell upon the harms that have been wrought upon us by men, we amputate from our mind the power of dwelling upon God.”[iv]

A modern saint, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who lived through the most harrowing circumstances and had much to dwell upon, wrote,

“One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, an oasis of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. …

If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies, and the violence. This is a way that we can take on … suffering and transform it.”[v]

I notice that in Archbishop Tutu’s model, centering ourselves in love does not depend upon others loving us, but in knowing that we who are made in the image of God are made in the image of love.

The communion of saints, ancient and recent, surrounds us, their examples rippling around us. Not all of them are martyrs, thank God; those who tended to Sebastian were also counted among the saints of his church. Regardless of their call, they point to Jesus, the author of love and the Word of God. We are not small, or helpless, though we may be meek. For we are made in the image of God, and God is with us.

Love one another, then, as Christ has loved each and all of us, no exceptions.

[i] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, edited by Marie Gentert King (Spire Books, 1976), 23

[ii] Foxe, 26-27

[iii] The Sayings of the Fathers, Book X.xiii, in The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998), 103

[iv] Sayings, X.xxiv, Waddell, 107

[v] Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Doubleday, 2004), 78-80

Featured image: Jan de Beer, Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, via wikimediacommons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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