A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 7, 2021 (All Saints’ Sunday)
People sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite hymn?” Which is such an unfair question! That should really be asked of Buffy, not me! Because there are just so many good ones. It’s like asking, what’s your favorite Bible passage? Or, perhaps an even harder question, at least for me, what’s your favorite coffee? The unsatisfying answer is always, “well, it depends.” It depends on my mood and the context and, in the case of hymns, the liturgical season.
But if pressed — like if someone said ‘you can’t have your morning coffee until you tell me your single favorite hymn’ — I think I’d have to go with our opening hymn this morning, For All the Saints.
I like it partly because of the perspective it offers; partly because I love All Saints’ Day, partly because of the tune, partly because of the tenor line, and partly because it was the opening hymn at my father’s funeral. And so For All the Saints always makes me feel connected not just to the great saints of the church, but to all the people I have known and loved and lost over the years, most especially my dad. For me, that hymn is highly charged with emotion, embedded with hope, and imbued with a sense of deep spiritual connection.
All of which — the emotion, the hope, the connection — are brought to bear on All Saints’ Sunday. This is a day to recognize that we are not alone in our strivings. That there is a whole host of saints urging us on, inspiring us, drawing us ever closer to the risen Christ, both in this world and at that future time when we rest from our labors and ourselves join that great cloud of witnesses. That nothing we face in this life hasn’t been encountered and overcome by those who have come before us in the faith.
But I realize celebrating all the saints on All Saints’ Sunday can be a bit overwhelming. Like drinking from a firehose of holiness. There are just so many of them, spanning the generations amid a variety of circumstances and situations. It’s hard to know where to even start. Here at St. John’s, we only have a fraction of the total number of saints in our midst. But between the windows and the reredos, I counted 30. So today I wanted to briefly share the story of a single saint.
And I’m choosing Saint Margaret of Scotland because she just happens to be in one of our recently restored stained glass windows. She’s the one right around the corner from the chapel, next to St. Andrew.
Margaret was a Hungarian-born 11th century princess whose family fled to Scotland after things went awry for them in England. She gave up her desire to become a nun and consented to marry the King of Scotland. Margaret and Malcom had eight children and their descendants ruled Scotland for the next 200 years. Born into privilege, Margaret nevertheless had a heart for the poor and an undying love for the church.
She is credited with rooting out corruption in the Church of Scotland and turning it into a faithful institution grounded in piety and good works. She rebuilt monasteries, established hospitals, and worked to conform the practices of the Scottish church with those of continental Europe. She’s also said to have regularly read Bible stories to her good-hearted but illiterate husband. And while she used her influence and wealth to serve the poor, it wasn’t just a charity of detachment. She often visited the sick and nursed them with her own hands — a reminder to all of us that outreach is not merely an act of pity, but must be embodied.
So, we remember Margaret of Scotland and put her in stained glass to watch over us and intercede for us every time we gather at St. John’s.
Yet as we reflect on the saints that surround us, it’s easy to forget that if we were to actually meet someone the Church deems a saint — someone who is recognized on the liturgical calendar, someone for whom churches are named, someone celebrated in statuary or oil paintings or stained glass — if we were to meet one of these great saints, at some level we’d be disappointed. Not because the person wasn’t inspiring and holy, as Margaret undoubtedly was, but because they were decidedly human.
We sometimes forget that these saints we commemorate, every single one of them, had human blood coursing through their veins — from St. Francis out in our Memorial Garden to St. John the Evangelist in whose name we gather in this building, to Margaret and all the other saints in our windows. They were real people, not Renaissance-era paintings. And even when some folklore or legends arise around them, when you strip everything away, they were all sinners like you and me, people seeking to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own day.
Sometimes they succeeded, often they stumbled. But in the end, I find this inspiring, rather than disappointing. Because it makes real the connection between you and me and St. Margaret and St. John the Evangelist. It binds us together as surely as we gather in person and online this morning.
So why do we lift up certain people as saints? It’s not because they had a PR machine hyping their cause. It’s because they lived their lives according to the Beatitudes. No matter what they encountered or endured, the saints lived their lives according to these particular words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning. More than anything else, the saints embodied and centered their lives on the principles of compassion, humility, justice, and peace. They were merciful, they were peacemakers, they hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and above all they were faithful.
Now, I don’t often quote the pope in my sermons. But on All Saints’ Day this year, Pope Francis spoke to the gathered crowds in St. Peter’s Square about this intersection between the Beatitudes and the saints. He suggested that the word “blessed” — as in “Blessed are the (fill-in-the-blank Beatitude)” “is the principal proclamation…of unprecedented happiness. Holiness,” he said, “is not a life plan made up only of effort and renunciation, but is above all the joyful discovery of being God’s beloved sons and daughters. And this fills you with joy…The joy of the Christian, then, is not a fleeting emotion or a simple human optimism, but the certainty of being able to face every situation under God’s loving gaze, with the courage and strength that come from him. The saints, even in the midst of many tribulations, have experienced this joy and have borne witness to it.”
And that, friends, is why we look at the saints as such faithful companions, walking alongside us on this journey of life and faith. As we sang earlier, “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia.”