Saints and Icons
November 1, All Saints’ Day:
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
A lot of saints…kind of freak me out.
Their stories are really fantastic, and the images of them can be pretty gruesome.
Sebastian tied to the tree with all the arrows. Lucy holding her own gouged out eyes on a plate. Bartholomew flayed alive. St. Lawrence roasted on a gridiron… Actually, that’s sort of a funny story.
In the year 258, a new prefect arrived in Rome and demanded that the church turn over all of its riches.So Lawrence went and gave basically everything that wasn’t nailed down to the poor. When the prefect returned
and demanded the treasures of the church, there was Lawrence standing among the poor, the blind, and the suffering,
and he gestured to them and said, “here are the treasures of the church.” For that little bit of political theatre he was burned to death on a gridiron.
Tradition says that in the midst of this torture he called out…“This side’s done…turn me over…and have a bite.” Lawrence is now the patron saint of both cooks and comedians.
Saints like that disturb me because they don’t seem human. One acquaintance of mine says that they’re like Replicants in the movie Blade Runner— they are MORE human than human. [Dickey, Colin (2012-05-21). Afterlives of the Saints (Kindle Locations 110-113). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.]
Sure they provide us with something to aspire to, but that’s a REALLY high bar.
And how many of us really thought that sitting on a pole for 36 years in the desert (that’s what St. Simeon, one of the founders of western monasticism was famous for), or stripping naked in the town square and giving up all of our wealth to live in abject poverty, like St. Francis, was what we were signing up for? (I don’t think it’s what any of us are hoping for little Ellie—our beautiful baptismal candidate.)
In the Episcopal Church we’re more comfortable with the more ordinary saints. All those ones we just sang about…the folks just like me…the doctor and the shepherdess… (although even one of them was slain by a fierce wild beast).
That hymn almost didn’t make it into the 1982 Hymnal. There was a concern that it lacked “theological profundity,” but it does give voice to our popular, and broad understanding, of sainthood.
We understand the church as “the communion of saints” as a kind of continuum that includes all of us and extends through time and space to include all who have gone before and all who will come after.
In our calendar we recognize, hundreds of Holy Women and Holy Men, many are the outliers—the more human than human types— but many are simply “those faithful departed who were extraordinary […] servants of God and of God’s people.” [Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 742]
Ones like Absalom Jones, who in 1802 became the first African-American ordained a priest in the African Episcopal Church and who is commemorated on Feb. 13.
Or Vida Dutton Scudder, who taught at Wellesley, and helped found and run the Denison House in Boston which served poor immigrants for decades in the early 20th century, her feast day is Oct. 10.
Those more ordinary examples of faithfulness are still inspiring, but even with these less fearsome examples I often still have trouble making the leap from them to me—it’s difficult enough just being faithful myself each day…how can I be in the same league as them?
What does it really mean to say that we are knit together with them? That we are part of that community?
So for several years, I’ve found it helpful to think of this saintly continuum in terms of icons. Are you all familiar with icons? Icons are used much more robustly in the Eastern Orthodox churches, but they are becoming more and more prevalent in the Episcopal Church.
Icons are not simply pictures of holy women and men, they are, it’s said, “windows into heaven,” a vision of “another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now.” [www.antiochian.org/icons-eastern-orthodoxy] Icons are lenses through which we glimpse the divine.
It’s also said that because we are made in God’s image, “human beings are the real icon of God”
That’s why in our Baptismal Covenant we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to look for that divine light in each of us.
In just a little while, we’ll baptize Ellie into this communion. Ellie is only 7 weeks old. Can anyone looking at her doubt that she has the spark of the divine within her? That the light of God isn’t shining brightly within her?
Can anyone look at any of the many kids here and not see that divine spark within them? And I’m a parent, so I know that its not always so easy to see… but we all know it’s there.
We also know that as we grow, that light sometimes gets harder to see. We all know that the longer you live, the more damage you sustain. Because “The hardest thing this world…is to live in it,” as one pop-culture philosopher puts it. [That would be Joss Whedon speaking through Buffy Summers at the end of Season 5, in the episode “The Gift”]
We live and learn and experience loss. We get hurt. And we start applying bandages to our wounds.
The hurts may have long since disappeared, but very often the bandages remain.
Over the course of life we can become wrapped —entombed—in layers upon layers of bandages.
Bandages of denial, bandages covering shame, or simply to prevent the world from getting too far in.
There are a lot of scrapes and bruises that happen along the way and the bandages accumulate and they begin to obscure that spark… cover up that divine light.
Those freaky replicant saints are the ones who have had most, if not all, of their bandages removed. Consequently, their lights shine more brightly. Not because they’re more perfect, but because they’ve been broken and healed, and no longer need that covering.
And the thing is, none of us can remove those bandages alone. We need help. We others to reach into the tomb, guide us out, take off our bandages.
And we need to be there for others.
We need a community around us, a community here, but also that great cloud of witnesses —the holy humans and freaky saints—who have already had their wrappings removed.
That’s what we promise to do in our baptismal covenant…to do all in our power (with God’s help) to support one another in our life in Christ.
I’m still not sure about sainthood as a goal to strive for, but I am convinced that we all are, and can be icons that shine just a little more brightly the grace and love of God into the world.
As a community we are called to do exactly what Jesus commands today, to unbind one another.
To allow ourselves to be unbound, let the bandages drop from our eyes, and from around our ears; allow our hands to be untied; our hearts unbound; so that we can become icons for others. To let the light of God shine through us and into the world.
So, here is your invitation this All Hallow’s tide… —these three days of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls Day— when we celebrate and remember not only the exceptionally heroic outliers but the extraordinarily ordinary folks—on the day we celebrate 121 years of ministry from this place— Your invitation is this:
Come out. Unbind each other, and let God’s love and grace shine through you, and join the saints in light. Amen.