Friday, October 30, 2015

Let's Hear It for Anonymity!: Reflections on All Saints (1 November 2015)

All Saints
1 November 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         Over the centuries Jews and Christians have wrestled with the following question:  What is the fate of righteous people who do not know or who do not affirm our religious beliefs?  Some Jews and Christians have simply expressed ignorance and left everything to God.  Others have taught that there is no salvation outside the community of faith, whether Jewish or Christian.

         Some Jewish teachers, unsatisfied with either of these positions, have taught that God made three covenants with humanity:  the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses.  While Jews are obliged to keep the covenant God made with Moses, non-Jews may be considered righteous if they are faithful to God’s covenant to Noah.

  • Do not deny God.
  • Do not blaspheme against God.
  • Do not murder.
  • Do not engage in sexual immorality.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not eat a live animal.
  • Establish courts of law to establish justice.

Anyone who follows these commandments has a place in the world to come.

         For Christians the question about the place of non-Christians in the world to come was already front and centre in apostolic times.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” [i]

         In more recent years, as Christians have become more engaged in inter-faith dialogue, many contemporary theologians have tried to flesh out Paul’s thoughts.  Our own retired bishop, Michael Ingham, wrote a book, Mansions of the Spirit, in which he described three ways of understanding the relationship between different faiths:  exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist.  But my favourite is a phrase from the writings of Karl Rahner, a German Roman Catholic theologian.  He wrote about ‘anonymous Christians’, people who follow the way of Christ, whether they know it or not, whose lives manifest the love and compassion of God and who are signs of God’s saving grace.

         ‘Anonymous Christians’.  What a good way to describe the people whom we celebrate today on this feast of All Saints.  On this day the Christian community throughout the world remember those who have followed the way of Christ, whose lives have shone with the love and compassion of God and who have embodied God’s saving grace.  Some are ‘anonymous’ because we do not know their names.  Others are ‘anonymous’ because they did not make a name for themselves that brought them to the attention of Christians beyond the limits of their own communities.

         For example, I do not think that any of you here knew Eulalia Macy, a saint of Christ Episcopal Church, in Denver.  But I knew her and I know her to be one of God’s saints whose life transformed my own.  When you look to the west wall of the parish and see the plaques that enshrine the names of those who are buried in our Memorial Garden, I know that you will see the names of some saints who made you who you are.  As we offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings in a few minutes, no doubt all of us will be remembering the names and lives of people who were icons of Christ, beacons of the Spirit, the embracing arms of our God.

         In this place and in those like it all over the world, there are ‘anonymous Christians’, not because their names are unknown, but because their names are only known to a few.  But that anonymity does not mean they are unimportant nor that they have no influence.  I am convinced that the work of God is most probably undertaken by the ‘anonymous’.  Although we live in a ‘celebrity’ culture, where everyone is urged to become someone else, preferably rich or beautiful by our culture’s standards or just famous for being outrageous, I am convinced that the greatest influence on human lives is exercised by the many quiet and unassuming people of faith who will never be seen on Youtube or Twitter or any other media.  And that, to me, is actually good news.

         The good news of our celebration of All Saints is that the work of God in creating, restoring and renewing the creation is not dependent upon fame or fortune.  God’s work is most powerfully accomplished by teachers who care for their students, by parents, relatives and significant adults who care for children, by employers who are committed to bringing out the best in those who work under their supervision.  The good news of God in Christ finds its voice not in the celebrity who draws attention to herself or himself.  That voice is found in the work of volunteers who give of their time, their talents and their treasure to care for those in any need or trouble.  Anonymity is a gift; it allows us to focus on what is most important while avoiding the distractions of maintaining our ‘image’, our ‘brand’, our status.

         On this day let us also remember all those who do not identify themselves as members of our community of faith, but whose lives embody the good news we know in Christ.  While some of our Christian sisters and brothers would not name them as being one with us in the work of God, we who gather today in this place number these righteous ones among those who are working for the world that is to come, a day when all God’s people, all people, will be free.

         So let’s hear it for the gift of anonymity, a gift that sets us free to be God’s saints, God’s holy ones, for those among whom we work and live.  Let’s hear for all the ‘anonymous’, Christian and non-Christian, believers and non-believers, in whom the good news of God in Christ has been lived.  For through them, the day is coming when “ . . . the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well- aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear [and] will destroy . . . the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations [and] swallow up death for ever.” [ii]

[i] Romans 2.14-16 (New Revised Standard Version)

[ii] Isaiah 25.6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

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