I am hoping that is OK! I think, I hope!!, the problem is not the title or the clothes or the seat so much as what they represent in the lives of the people Jesus is addressing.
The scribes and the Pharisees think they are better than other people. And so even as they teach about God’s will, they don’t do God’s will. Jesus’ message to them is to practice what they preach, to follow God knowing that they still have a long way to go. They can’t always be teachers because, Jesus says, “you have one teacher”—God—“and you are all students.”
That’s a good lesson for every priest to hear every once in a while.
There is also a flip side to this which is relevant to all of us. Jesus tells the people of God not to call anyone “your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”
We all have the opportunity, and the obligation, to learn directly from our God and Father. God invites each of us into a personal relationship with him, not mediated by anyone else, not dependent on anyone else. God loves each of us as God’s beloved child. God wants each of us to know God as a beloved Father.
That is the most important thing I am going to say today.
But here is a second important thing. We don’t do it alone. Virtually all of us first learn about God from other people. We each need to develop our own relationship with God. But other people can and do help us.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. Today we remember with gratitude and love those who have gone before us, those who helped to form us into the people we are, those who guided us in some way on our Christian journeys.
And today we celebrate the mysterious way in which they continue to help us learn to know God better.
We see this in the epistle to the Hebrews, where the author tells the stories of some of the biblical heroes, people from the ancient past even in New Testament times, and then says “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). In some mysterious way, we are surrounded and supported in our relationship with God, in our Christian mission, by Christian people from all times and places.
In our service we make the same point when we pray, “We praise you [God], joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name.” In our worship we sing as part of the heavenly chorus of praise to God. And when we sing a little out of tune, the heavenly chorus keeps singing and gets us back on track.
But it is hard to wrap our minds around what we call “the communion of saints.”
So here is an analogy.
I was a wrestler in high school. In my senior year, we wrestled our cross-town rivals at home. We were a decent team; so were they, so we expected the outcome to be close.
Before the meet, our coach went through each match-up, telling us what he knew about our particular opponents. Some of their guys would beat some of our guys. Some of our guys would beat some of their guys. And there were a few matches that could go either way. I was one of those matches, and the coach told me, in front of the whole team, that he needed me to win my match. The team was depending on me.
My school came out in force for the meet. The auditorium was packed with my classmates, and they were great. They were making noise, cheering us on.
When it was my turn, I shook my opponent’s hand, then we went at it. It was a good match, and I won. The rest of my teammates did what they needed to do, and we won the meet. The crowd went crazy. It was probably our high point as a team for my entire wrestling career.
But the crowd, which was so enthusiastic for most of the meet, had, so I thought, been totally silent while I was wrestling. As you might guess, I was a little discouraged by the fact that my classmates had not cheered for me.
I was distressed enough that I asked my parents about it on the way home. They assured me that the crowd had cheered for me as loudly as they had cheered for the rest of the team. I had just been so focused on my match that I hadn’t noticed.
That made me feel a lot better. I also realized, even then, that the cheering I had not noticed had still helped me. At some unconscious level, I had felt the crowd’s support. Their support had helped me wrestle better than I otherwise could have done.
Here is how this all ties together. The Communion of Saints is a little bit like that crowd. They are our cloud of witnesses, the fans that gather around to cheer us on. Christ is with us all the time, the whole company of heaven surrounds us all the time, cheering like crazy.
But all too often we are so busy living our lives that we don’t notice the cloud of witnesses all around us, just like I was too busy wrestling my opponent to hear the crowd cheering for me. Mostly we don’t notice our heavenly fans, the host surrounding us with their love and support.
The good news is, whether or not we notice, the communion of saints is there, is here, is all around us. And whether or not we notice, the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses that make up the whole company of heaven, they give us the strength to live better than we could live all on our own. They cheer for us. They cheer for all our brothers and sisters. They give us strength that we sometimes don’t even know we have.
We are still, each of us, responsible for cultivating our relationship with God. We are still responsible, each of us, for supporting our brothers and sisters. We are still responsible, each of us, for healing a hurting world. We are still responsible, each of us, for doing what we can to grow into the full stature of Christ, as we promise in our baptismal covenant. The communion of saints cannot do any of that for us any more than the crowd could wrestle my opponent for me all those years ago. Jesus reminds us of that in our gospel reading.
But on this day, I thank God for the saints who have helped us along the way. And I ask God to help us be the people they teach us to be, to live as the beloved children of God that we are, to be the saints of our place and time. What better way could there possibly be to express our love and gratitude to those who have gone before us?
In the name of Jesus Christ, who makes all things possible. Amen.