Two Reasons for Celebrating All Saints’ Day
(All Saints’ Day sermon)
By Rev. Kit Billings
October 30, 2005
Heavenly Secrets no. 3417 One single angel is more powerful than ten thousands of spirits in hell, yet not so from himself but from the Lord. And he has that power from the Lord in the measure that he believes he can achieve nothing from himself and is accordingly the least. And he is able to have such a belief in the measure that humility and an affection for serving others exist in him, that is, insofar as the good that is essentially love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbor is present in him.
This is a special Sunday as we come together this morning to celebrate All Saints’ Day Sunday. November 1st is actually the day known as “All Saints’ Day,” the day following Halloween. But like we do with Thanksgiving every year, as a church family we are honoring this special day in our congregational life together on the Sunday before the actual day arrives.
All Saints’ Day Sunday is recognized in our New Church hymnal as the time when we celebrate the “faithful departed”, those who have gone ahead of us into Heaven. In the Lord’s New Church on earth, we do not practice the art of canonizing certain followers of God per se, who exemplify a certain high degree of holiness. I believe where New Church and Catholic theologies come close to each other in this area, however, is that Swedenborgian theology does recognize that there are different orders or levels of angels in the Lord’s Kingdom of Heaven. So, without a doubt, our theology describes that while here on earth there are those of us who choose to follow the Lord in a very special way, which involves actually doing and growing into the sort of person that passionately loves the Lord more than any one or any thing else. These are the people who actually live out our Lord Jesus’ summary of the Greatest Commandment: to love the Lord thy God with your heart, mind, soul and strength, and through this deepest of loves then to love one’s neighbor as thyself.
In Swedenborg’s amazing tours through Heaven, he did describe many times being blessed to see and visit with people or angels from an extremely highly regarded depth or level of Heaven, which he described as the “Third” or “Inmost” Heaven where the love of God is the central love and passion. He described how these angels had a countenance and radiance unlike any others in Heaven, and that it was indeed an amazing boost to one’s spirit to be in their presence. According to our theology, whenever anyone dies here on earth, the first angelic persons to greet us upon our awakening are those from the Third or Inmost Heaven, who radiate love and peace beyond what we can comprehend. These wonderful people are not referred to as “Saints” in New Church writings, but still there is a parallel here that deserves some discussion. The primary difference in the two systems of belief is that the Catholic Church believes in the importance of officially recognizing or canonizing who on earth has reached a state of “sainthood,” while New Church theology touts that such an endeavor might better be left up to the Lord and His amazing powers after we die to uncover every least aspect of the human heart and mind where both hidden honors and monstrosities can easily lay concealed.
But be that as it may, in short, I believe there are at least two good reasons to celebrate All Saints’ Day Sunday. First of all, so that we can come to honor God for helping every person who has gone on before us to become an angelic citizen of Heaven, for in the Lord’s New Church we understand that angels are not some separate order of being, but instead are people who’ve been fully and completely saved! Thus, this morning we can honor all of the Lord’s “success stories”, those who comprise what is known as the “Communion of Saints” in Heaven, which in New Church theology simply refers to all of the angels of Heaven who are people like you and me who actually made it, who fully regenerated in God’s Divine Love, and therefore who in God’s grace and truth became wholistically “one” with God you might say. By becoming “one” with the Lord I mean this in clear, New Church terms: those who have grown to deeply love and believe in the truth that everything good and true about us comes from God, and none of it actually from one’s self.
This morning, therefore, we can gather in part to celebrate our friends and loved ones who died this past year, as well as in years past who lived a good life in the Lord’s Spirit and who made a positive difference in our lives. These are the people who comprise what Paul’s letters refer to as “saints,” which are simply any genuine Christian person who lived in “the Way” that Jesus taught us to live. Yes, in Apostolic theology, every good Christian man or woman is a “saint,” because they are in the body of Jesus Christ, which is His church, and these good people have chosen to try hard to rise above a merely natural form of existence.
In New Church theology we do not pretend to be able to judge the hearts of any human being. We can only make a good, insightful “best guess” as to who may well wind up in God’s Kingdom after death. As Scripture reveals, only God has the power to know and judge the full extent of the heart and soul of any human being. Our theology reminds us that in this world we are given the ability to put on a pretty good “mask.” We can hide selfish motives and ambitions behind an outwardly loving exterior. Yet be that as it may, the Lord does allow us to be able to see and have a feeling for genuinely loving and faithful good folk. We can have a pretty good feel for those that exude a loving spirit and affection for God and others, as well as themselves hopefully. These are the ones I believe that Jesus was talking about whose higher joy is being useful to others…in serving others, because they “get it” that love is about helping, supporting, nurturing, and serving each other. Love is about helping God to bring His blessings into lives of all people, especially those who need our help the most. These beautiful and beloved human beings, these “saints” as Paul understood them, touch and enhance our lives immensely, and so we come to thank God for them and to wish them well in their life beyond this world, as we assume that they are more than likely citizens of God’s Kingdom, called “heaven.”
And so, one very important reason to celebrate All Saints’ Day is simply to sing praises to God for those in our lives who helped us to see and feel God’s presence in our lives. There are three people in particular I am thinking about this morning who I love and adore, who I knew rather well, and who I personally believe are either in Heaven right now or are on their way to getting their by means of the World of Spirits (God’s “waiting area” after death): my Grandpa Galen (the Rev. Galen Unruh), my Uncle Steve (one of my mother’s brothers), and a wonderful New Church Christian gentleman (who just died this week in fact) named Rick Kelly.
Who is on your mind this morning? What saintly or good-spirited person is warmly in your thoughts this morning whom you’d like to honor on All Saints’ Sunday? I’m sure that there are many thousands of black folks in America this morning who are thinking affectionately about a very dear woman in our nation’s history, who just passed away late this week, Mrs. Rosa Parks, whose refusal to step to the back of a city bus in the winter of 1955 launched our vital Civil Rights Movement. In a little while after our collection we shall take a few moments to light some candles for people in the next life, as we celebrate our ongoing spiritual connection with them. Indeed, there is at least one good reason to enjoy this unique theme in the worship life of Christianity. And I pray that your remembrances of loved ones today, while it can bring up some sadness and grief as well, will call up some very precious love and memories of how God blessed your life through the goodness and wisdom of these special persons.
But what about that other group of faithful Christian people who have lived an unusually wondrous Christian life? You know, the ones who’ve helped humanity in some way to “raise the bar” as far as our spiritual potential in God to love others as Jesus loved us, and/or perhaps to understand life and the Lord in a much clearer and purer way—those whom, perhaps, helped launch humanity into a much greater passion for justice, as God defines this term. I’m thinking now about those uniquely driven and exemplary faithful servants of God who, by their special example and humility, have changed or lifted up the spiritual outlook of many people on earth. These are the people whom many of us might refer to in conversation as, “Wow, now that man was a saint, don’t you think?” Or, “If anyone was a saint in life, she sure was!” There are a number of such loving and influential people and spiritual leaders in Earth’s history, some of whom were Christian and others not. Some of these unusually wonderful people never are recognized internationally, while others are. For example, Francis of Assisi, Siddhartha Guatama (a.k.a. the Buddha), Dorothy Day, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and of course Helen Keller.
Some of our world’s great Christian helpers and revelators came out of Catholic circles and have been officially “canonized” by the Roman Catholic Church, a process that is typically long and difficult. In those circles one can find such great and famous names as St. Joan of Arc, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Augustine of Hippo. For me, Thomas Merton, Joan of Arc, and Mother Teresa are the three Catholic Christian icons whose leadership and missions in life have influenced me deeply.
It seems clear to me that God is very good at calling certain individuals in life to lead an unusually high and especially challenging path, who are incredibly open and therefore given special powers to help, to heal and to bless others in God’s great and loving name. Such spiritual “Saints” indeed go back…very far back into history…and again come out of both Christian and non-Christian paths. I agree with the Apostle Paul that God calls every one of us to be His “saint.” But for true, there are certain leaders who take that calling up into a unique mountaintop of spiritual power, prayer and enlightenment, and of service to humanity. These people, these leaders, help the rest of us to remember the enormous potential and power that lives within every one of us as God’s beloved child. This morning I’d like to briefly lift up one of them, a real favorite of mine…Mother Teresa, who has been officially canonized a Saint within the Roman Catholic Church. I’d like to reflect about her life with the hope of reminding all of us of the awesome Love of God that lives within our souls that can lead us also into limitless service and compassion for our fellow humans.
As we have been reminded this morning by our two Scripture readings, to truly follow our Lord Jesus Christ in His path or Way, to live a righteous life as Jesus defined it, we need to be willing to love and nurture the Lord who lives within those who are hungry, who suffer in prison, who languish without enough clothing, and who ail from sickness and disease. Also, we need to move intently toward God’s version of true greatness in life, which is not at all about gaining power over others but instead wanting to serve others in any way possible. Jesus uses the language that we must be wanting to be “the slave” of all. Yes, genuine spiritual greatness can be typified internally as well, when we realize that everything we are, everything within us that is good, every least ounce of love, insight or talent we have belongs literally to God, since the Lord is the only Divine Author of life while we are its recipient. This is, in part, why only God is to be worshipped, only the Lord creates and sustains all goodness and truth.
Perhaps more than anyone else in history, Mother (or “Saint”) Teresa brought Christ’s words of truth we read this morning to life. She was simply amazing! She was a Saint in the highest degree, I believe. Why would I say that? Quite simply because that little nun, that little “Lady of Loreto” as she was called, chose to hear and follow God’s voice and calling to her to go vulnerably into the worst slums in this world and transform the lives of many terribly sick, outcast, and dying men, women and children, doing this in God’s holy name…not for her own glory but for God’s glory. Mother Teresa had the ability to deeply experience that when we do good to “the least of these” we are doing it to Christ Himself. She simply saw God in the face of every individual, but especially within the faces and lives of those whom our world tends to call the wretches, the outcasts. While Teresa was small in stature, she was clearly a giant in spirit. And she helped God to raise the needs and the importance of people in poverty to a new level again, just as Jesus Himself did thousands of years before her.
Mother Teresa’s given name was Agnes Bojaxhiu, and she was born in 1910 to Albanian parents in Skopje, Yugoslavia. Both of her parents taught her the Christian value of generosity toward the poor. In fact it was Agnes’ mother who first taught her how to wash an ailing person and to dress their wounds; her mother urged her to treat each person as a child of God. Agnes was raised among a stalwart Catholic minority among a predominantly Muslim population. But instead of learning to hate those who were different from her, she learned to love and respect them.
It was in her teen years when Agnes felt and heard God’s voice within her heart, calling her into missionary work in India. Her older brother, Lt. Lazar Bojaxhiu, found it difficult to understand his younger sister’s zeal for helping “the least of these” as Christ put it. And in her young, idealistic teenage way she responded, “You will serve a king of two million people. I shall serve the king of the world.” This determined Catholic young woman felt clearly that God was calling her to be a missionary in India. In her own words, “I was eighteen, I decided to leave my home and become a nun. Since then, I never doubted even for a second that I did the right thing. It was the will of God, His choice.”
Mother Teresa’s calling was, as a young woman, to leave the world of prominence and renown and instead go into the smelliest and hardest to endure places on earth and love those who need it the most. At first she simply had to live as a homeless person lived in the streets of Calcutta. And then her mission began. Teresa felt deeply and with faith in her heart that every poor child or baby deserves to be loved, educated, fed and given proper medical attention. In particular, it was her mission to help the “outcasts” of India and elsewhere to realize (perhaps for the first time in their lives) that God is here, present with them, and that He loves them…that they are the Lord’s beloved child…that they truly matter. And in addition to this, Teresa had a unique and miraculous ability to help humanity to see God in a way that our Lord Jesus did long before her. As she wrote in her own writing: “Where is God? We believe he is everywhere—he is the creator, he is everything. But where is he to my human eyes? To make it possible for me to see the face of God with my human eyes, he has made himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the lonely one…”
And the only way for Teresa to truly know the poor people of earth was to “walk a mile in their shoes” and become one of them. She said, “We have to dive into it, live it, share it.” Indeed, few realize the toughness and iron will of this tiny Albanian nun. She walked in sandals in the mud paths of the slums, amidst the starving, the very ill, the abandoned and the dying. It was her calling to live among the people of the “third world” as we call it, becoming available to their overwhelming needs. As can be read in her biographies, there were times when she felt helpless and alone. Yet even though she suffered through being asked to eat her lunch underneath stairs instead of out in the open (being brandished a person of poverty early on), Teresa’s calling by God gained greater clarity. She learned that it was her job in this world, her challenge, to make a special connection with those in poverty, with those suffering with leprosy, with those labeled the “outcast.” She felt in her soul that it was her responsibility to show these people God’s love in her heart for them and through this love to rekindle in the poor their own awareness that they were loveable, that they were cherished by God. For Teresa, these were the brethren whom Jesus had spoken.
Teresa and her sisters took seriously God’s calling to tend to the sick and the dying. Teresa often told the story of the man half-eaten by worms whom she picked up from the gutter (something she often did daily, picking up dying babies, children and adults from the gutter to help them die with some loving attention and dignity). The sisters removed the worms from his body, washed and fed him, and tried to make him comfortable. This dying man then said to them: “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for…I am going home to God.” This story epitomized Teresa’s calling, to help the poorest of the poor feel God’s love for them, and especially to make sure that no one dies alone. And she did well to help the lepers find new dignity again. Once asked by a fellow who questioned why it was that Teresa had picked him up out of the filth of the gutter and bathed his open festering sores, she simply answered: “Because I love you.”
Yet if one were to think that this little nun from Albania were a softie, think again! One young man who made her acquaintance at a convention described her as being “…one shrewd cookie.” Another tough retired British major who also worked with the homeless described Mother Teresa as a “plain little nun who bullies me…. Yes, she bullies me. Not unkindly, I hasten to add, but when she wants something badly she insists and one feels that one is arguing with God himself. It’s an unequal struggle. I always capitulate.”
Teresa believed that poor people have a special openness toward life, in that they are without attachment to what is material and external. And she understood that their terrible suffering brought them into a depth of being similar to that of Christ, since He was one who suffered so much and was “acquainted with grief.” She believed that the poorest of the poor are blessed in that their greatness came from their enormous power to endure through longsuffering, through all their hardship.
There was so much about her to be honored by all Christians. I would like to close by mentioning two final qualities, which by the way would definitely make her a wonderful “Catho-borgian” if you get my drift. For indeed, these two traits of her I’m now going to mention make it seem as though she was an ardent follower within the Lord’s New Church.
Teresa had a terrific awareness that whatever religious tradition happened to be the history of the person she was caring for, this should be what is respected and honored, especially in that person’s dying days. She did not always lead adults into conversion into Christianity. If someone wanted to convert and be baptized, then she would help them to do this, otherwise she deeply respected and supported their faith perspective. As any good New Church Christian might have noted, Teresa discovered that her God was a God of all the people. In an appeal to the Indian government for religious freedom, she once wrote, “You can call him Ishwar, some call him Allah, some simply God, but we all have to acknowledge that it is HE who made us for greater things: to love and to be loved. Who are we to prevent our people to find this God who made them—who loves them and to whom they have to return.” Mother Teresa was well known for her remarkable interfaith statements long before the Second Vatican Council’s openness to other world faith traditions. But she was right in line with the Lord’s Second Coming.
Another amazing connecting point between her and our religion was that for her, genuine or truly spiritual love comes into life not through archaic tradition but rather through bringing love into action. Teresa often stressed that love has no meaning unless it is put into some form of loving or useful deed. For her, God’s love becomes alive and real in our world today when anyone helps a sick person or one who is dying, giving medicine to a leper, teaching a child with disabilities, or when simply smiling at one’s own child—this she taught makes up “God’s love in the world today.” Isn’t it just wonderful how the timeless secrets of the universe come to all those whose hearts are simply open to them? I sure deeply appreciate it.
Mother Teresa, bless her soul, was one of many spiritual heroes in our world, and she helped our consciousness as a whole to rise higher on Earth. She did well to live out the words of Christ who described what it really takes to be His disciple. May our remembrance of all the saints in our lives and in this great world God has made be full of thanksgiving to God who inspired them all! And indeed, this same God continues to inspire us, right now. Amen.