|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
November 5, 2017
All Saints’ Sunday
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.” That’s what Saint John the Divine reminds us in the letter we heard this morning. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”
In the gospels, there’s a story about Jesus teaching his disciples that only those who become like children can hope to truly enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-4), and what he had in mind is something more than the patronizing sentimentalization of children that is so common in our society these days. This is about more than just that “kids say the darndest things.” It’s about something unique and holy that is present in childhood that fosters deeper and closer intimacy with God.
Today is, of course, All Saints Sunday, when we commemorate the whole heavenly host of saints down through the ages. I have heard many definitions for saints over the years, but this week I’m pondering what it means for saints to be God’s children. Saints are like people who grew up and yet didn’t ever outgrow the divine imprint of joy and wonder that is the hallmark of childhood. They retain the ability to view the world with hope and possibility. They hold on to their imagination when so many around them succumb to the idea that adulthood and maturity require us to be serious and somber and solemn all the time. Saints show us what it means to be God’s children, how to hold onto all that is good and joyful about life with God. They are the living embodiment of the prayer that we say after every baptism, that the newly baptized will have an “inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [the Lord], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [of God’s] works.”
Joy – and its companions, humor and laughter – are underappreciated values in the spiritual life. To live with God, to follow the way of Jesus and come to know him as savior and friend, is to know joy. Joy is necessary, and it is an essential element for healthy life with God. That’s what the saints show us.
Think about saints for a minute…the holiest people you can think of. People who truly reveal God to you, whose whole lives model God’s presence and holiness. I wonder if some of you are thinking about Desmond Tutu, who actually visited Transfiguration a little over 10 years ago. It is hard to find a picture of Desmond Tutu in which he’s not smiling that mischievous smile of his. Heck, he co-wrote a whole book – a book I highly recommend – called The Book of Joy. I think that Desmond Tutu’s saintliness, his holiness, is tied up with his palpable, his infectious sense of joy.
How about Mother Teresa, another modern-day saint…it’s hard to find photographs of her where she’s not smiling. Or think about Saint Francis, out there in the wilderness, preaching to the birds. It is easy to imagine him smiling, laughing, being joyful, because being in touch with God brings you in touch with joy.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now,” and that means we must let go of the notion that “mature, adult” faith must be somber and serious. Faithful Christianity, even in strange and unsettling times, doesn’t mean we must be deadly serious. When we’re deadly serious all the time, it won’t be long before we’re seriously dead.
Clergy haven’t helped this a whole lot, I admit. We call the priest who leads the Eucharist the “Celebrant,” as in the one leading the celebration, but I wonder if you’ve ever heard the Mass prayed in such a way that there was no celebrating happening anywhere. You know, the priest gets to the Sanctus and says, “therefore we praise you, 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. Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” And you think, if this is what the choirs of angels sound like in heaven, we are in big trouble!
Or have you ever been in a service during Easter where the Celebrant starts “Alleluia. Christ is risen.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s what it was like that first Easter morning. “Have you heard the news…he is risen. Let us run to the tomb…” Or later in the day, when the disciples get back from Emmaus, “Guess who we met…”
It shouldn’t be this way. I mean, Jesus was funny and full of joy. His joy was infectious. People wanted to be around him, and not only because he could heal them. He brought them joy. And the same with the saints. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Many of the saints had terrific senses of humor and had deep well-springs of joy. Augustine of Hippo is famous for praying, “Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.” And Teresa of Avila is famous for saying, “A sad nun is a bad nun. I’m more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits.”
According to legend, St. Lawrence, the great third century saint who was martyred by the Romans by burning to death on a gridiron, is reported to have called out to his executioners: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side!” Which seems ludicrous. It seems crazy to be funny at such a terrible moment, but his humor showed his refusal to be afraid of death. The joy that came from God in life stayed with him right up until the end.
Joy is a vital part of the Christian life. Humor and laughter are gifts from God that help us enjoy creation, because our God is a God of joy. In the psalms, we read that God delights in the beauty and play of creation, and in Isaiah, we read that the Lord takes delight in us. Think about it. The same God who made platypuses and narwhales and peacocks made us. We are a source of joy to God, and joy is meant to be part of our existence.
The world has plenty of people playing at being adults, but we are called to be saints, and that means we’re called to be God’s children. The Christian life is hard – no one would contest that – but it’s not supposed to be a life of drudgery. We are called to show the world how to experience joy and wonder in all of God’s works.
So do not be afraid to laugh, dear friends, even in these strange and unsettling days. Do not be afraid to afraid to ask God for joy. And definitely do not be afraid to rediscover the child inside you. For that child, filled with joy and hope and faith, is a saint of God.
 This section is inspired by James Martin, America, April 2, 2007, https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/609/article/most-infallible-sign