“Incarnation’s Saint”

All Saints Sunday

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The Roman Catholic Church recently announced that two Twentieth Century popes will soon be declared, “saints.”

Both were outstanding leaders in their time. Pope John XXIII initiated Vatican II, the process of reform that allowed liturgies in local languages instead of Latin and many other changes in his Church. Pope John Paul II supported Christians in his native Poland and other Iron Curtain countries, and their resistance eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union.

The process for making someone a saint in the Catholic Church is complex. There has to be documented evidence that two miracles occurred after people had asked for help from the prospective saint. Or a saint will need to display what are known as “heroic” virtues. (John Paul II apparently has two recorded miracles, while John XXIII has one attested miracle plus lots of heroic virtues.)

In our church, we have no procedure for canonization. We have always remembered disciples of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary by giving them feast days in our church calendar. But rarely have we venerated later Christians – like, say, the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

Yet, in recent years, we have made more use of the ancient practice of venerating the saints. While we haven’t added “St.” to a holy person’s name, we’ve remembered leaders in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and we have expanded the church calendar to include them. Today, on the Sunday after All Saints Day, we honor all exceptional Christians, from ancient times and modern.

Our practice avoids superstitions sometimes attached to saints in the past; for instance we don’t worry about relics. Yet we are still able to recognize Christians who made a difference.

This veneration helps us to remember where we came from. It reminds us that “History” isn’t just a bunch of names and dates. History is real people – noble, wonderful people who built the church.

Today, I would like to say a little about the one person in the Episcopal Church Calendar who had close associations with Incarnation. His name was Phillips Brooks. Brooks’ brother Arthur was rector of this Parish and Phillips would often come to New York to visit him. The life-size Tiffany memorial on the south side of the church portrays Phillips in all his 6’ 4” stature!

I often mention Brooks around Christmas time because he is best known today as the author of the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But in the 19th century, Phillips Brooks was one of most renowned preachers in the English-speaking world.

He was serving as the Bishop of Massachusetts when he died in 1893; but before that, he was for many years the rector of Trinity Church in Boston—then as now the largest parish in Massachusetts. (As an aside, I would note the memorial to Arthur Brooks on the north side of the church was designed by the architect of Trinity Church, H. H. Richardson.)

People came from far and wide to hear Brooks speak. I have assembled a collection of many books he published of his sermons. Lectures he gave on preaching are still read by seminary students today.

So Phillip Brooks was a noted preacher. What did he have to say?

Well, he was part of what was known as the Broad Church movement. This movement tried to envision what we would call a more inclusive Christianity.

Anglican clergy in the movement went out on a limb and attacked the institution of slavery—as Brooks did. Or they questioned the trivial bickering that sometimes went on between high church and low church parties in the Episcopal Church—as Brooks did. Or they extended a friendly welcome to clergy of other Christian churches—as Brooks did.

A century later, the Broad Church message strikes most of us as pretty reasonable! The proponents of this message made their point so well that, today, freedom and tolerance are championed by all Christians.

And, at the heart of Brooks’ own interpretation of the Gospel was another quality that resonates with us today. This quality pertains to the individual soul – rather than society.

In his sermons and writings, Brooks returned again and again to the joy of being a Christian.

He realized of course that people go through terrible times. Bad things happen to them. They disappoint themselves and God. Still for Brooks, God is merciful and loving. Whatever happens, God calls us to embrace life and live it to the fullest.

In his personal life, Brooks practiced what he preached. He bore considerable physical and psychological discomforts. He mourned the death of many family members and close friends. A woman he apparently expected to marry turned him down. And yet he continued to preach with tremendous conviction the Gospel of affirmation and inner peace.

Brooks lived this Gospel. Many residents of Boston who were not church members but heard him preach would line up at his door. They wanted to talk to him because they thought he could give them advice that would help them with their problems.

Sunday after Sunday he preached the deepest truth as he saw it: Christ came to the world to bring life—life in all its fullness.

Phillips Brooks himself enjoyed a full life. Though he was from an old Boston family, Brooks was no Puritan. He loved to travel to distant countries, for example. Reading one of his diaries, I came across a description of his visit to the Holy Land and his first sight of the town of Bethlehem. That experience may have inspired him to write his Christmas carol.

More important, though, Brooks’ composition has helped others to imagine the birth of the Savior and God’s presence among us. That’s what saints do: they inspire. They tell us about God and what God can do to bring us joy.

So, on this All Saints Sunday, as we remember those we have known who have departed this life, we can think how these loved ones inspired us. Their witness challenges us to find our lives in the wholeness Christ promised.

And, as two new young persons are given the gift of new life in Jesus Christ through the sacrament of baptism, we can give thanks for the life we share with the saints.

Amen.


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