For All the Saints (& the Blessed St. Nemo)

All Saints’ Day, Year A

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:9-17

I would like to begin this reflection on All Saints’ Day by breaking the rules somewhat. Though it is the day dedicated to remembering all the saints, which we will get to in a moment, given the current state of the world there is a saint who’s experience and patronage is worth pausing for a moment and venerating. This saint provides for us a wholly unique perspective on the world, on God, and the wider communion of Saints that may impart upon us some wisdom, and a greater sense of community in these increasingly troubled and divisive times.

You see, this saint is unlike any other. They have experienced things that most of us can scarcely imagine, and have been remarkably present among the most crucial junctures in history. They have a peculiar ability to make the impossible possible, to understand things that we cannot understand, and exercise an unprecedented freedom that can lead us to a whole new understanding of everything. Considering their noteworthy and remarkable achievements, I would dare to say that this particular saint is the greatest among the saints.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “Isn’t this against the spirit of All Saints’, marking out one saint above all the others?” and I tend to agree, however this saint is so exceptional that it is logically impossible for them to be judged any less than the greatest. Another reasonable question would be “by what standard can such a judgement be made?” As you will see, the very nature of this saint will prove to be self-sufficient in answering that question. But to put it briefly, in the ways that all other saints have failed, this saint has succeeded, and all things that are impossible for other saints are possible for this saint.

So who is this saint so lauded and proficient? St. Peter? St. Paul? St. Mary? No, no, and no. If not these surely who could carry such a title? And no, before you even ask, it is not Jesus, Jesus is the Son of God. Even this saint, so mysterious and impressive, does not claim to surpass Jesus. Who is it then? I’m surprised you haven’t guessed yet, but it is understandable, since they tend to pop up in unusual places.

The saint I’ve been referring to is of course, the blessed St. Nemo.

To those who know St. Nemo this should come as no surprise, but for those who are unfamiliar with Nemo, you may be surprised to learn that you have seen Nemo countless times in Scripture. Had you listened carefully to our lesson from Revelation you would have heard that St. Nemo was right there with St. John, counting the multitude. For those of you who are still unfamiliar with St. Nemo, let me give some select moments in Scripture where Nemo appears.

In Exodus 33:20, when God warns Moses that he will not be able to see God’s face and live, Nemo is the one next to Moses who is able to see God’s face and live. In Job 1:8 when God is bragging to Satan about the faithfulness of His servant Job, Nemo is the only person who is mentioned as being like Job. In Psalm 14:3 when the Psalmist laments the wickedness of Israel, they only mention one who does good: Nemo. In Ecclesiastes 10:14 when Qohelet struggles to understand what the future holds, he acknowledges that Nemo knows what is to happen, and what the future holds. In Matthew 11:11 after hearing the death of John the Baptist, Jesus mentions that the only one born among women greater than John the Baptist is Nemo. And of course, in our reading today Revelation 7:9 when St. John is unable to count the great multitude, Nemo can.

Now if you are still a bit mystified by Nemo, fear not, you just need to brush up on your Latin for all to be clear. St. Nemo, for all of the impressive resume, is the patron saint of parody and contrarians. The reason for this peculiar patronage is in the very name: “nemo” is Latin for “no one”. So in our reading today when John writes: “After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,” if we wish to have some fun and venerate St. Nemo, we would read the passage as “After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that [Nemo] could count,”

St. Nemo is the creation of a monk named Rodulfus Glaber, who bored with his typical Biblical devotions, invented St. Nemo to inject silliness and humor into his study. Others in his monastery found St. Nemo amusing, because you can say scandalous and heretical things about theology and Scripture while still being technically true. When I said earlier that Nemo is the greatest among the saints, it is indeed quite a scandalous claim, but it is technically true because of course no one is the greatest among the saints. It is a nonsensical judgement. Eventually Glaber was inspired to publish a History of Nemo in 1290 and the joke spread throughout Northern Europe for several decades before fading into obscurity.

Why then, should we reflect on St. Nemo today? How can an obscure joke from a 13th century monastic impart upon us wisdom for our troubled and divided world? The Blessed St. Nemo invites us to see things in a new light, to take our humor seriously, but most importantly of all, be contrarian to the status quo.

These are indeed troubled times, but perhaps what is most troubling of all is the narrative that the problems we face are insurmountable, inevitable, and unprecedented. What’s more, we are told daily that we must face all these troubles alone. There is a certain arrogance in these assumptions, as if we are so special and unique that none of what we face hasn’t already been challenged, and defeated, by those who came before us. But we know that there is nothing new under the sun, and more than that, we know that the final victory has already been won. This is not to minimize the issues of our time, each day “the Great Ordeal” described in our Revelation reading feels more relatable. But in our anxiety and eagerness to address these problems we have forgotten who we are by losing ourselves in divisiveness and the pursuit of individualism.

Shortly after being invented, St. Nemo became an effective criticism of an intellectual fad called “negative theology”. “Negative theology” is a method meant to address human limitations in describing God. The idea behind it was that it since God is so great and powerful it is more accurate to speak about what God is not rather than what God is. So rather than saying “God is Just” it would be easier to prove logically that “God is not unjust”. One of the odd quirks of classical western philosophy and theology is that it is extremely difficult to prove that something is the way it is, but extraordinarily easy to distinguish something by what it is not. Essentially, when comparing things or trying to understand the world, we focus on the differences rather than the similarities. This methodology has bled over into the most fundamental ways we interpret the world around us, and more importantly, how we understand our own identity.

While this methodology is not inherently bad or even ill-founded it became a stumbling block in academic and personal devotions to God. Taken too far, it distanced believers from God, for though they may have been able to describe God in technical accuracy, encountering only what God is not is not encountering God at all. St. Nemo is the parody of this idea. Nemo is only negative, and while technically correct, ultimately nonsensical. Writers would use St. Nemo and an imagined heretical group of followers dubbed the “Nemonites”, who could only speak of God, their neighbor, and themselves in the negative, to mock this obsession with divisiveness.

In our Great Ordeal we too have been seduced by divisiveness. In these last days we have ceased to center our identity around who we belong to, instead by simply saying what we are not. We are told to seek every difference from our neighbor, our past, and our ideas to understand who we are. It is toxic, it is killing us, and it is a lie. “I vote this way because I’m not like those people”, “Yes, I’m a Christian, but not like those Christians, I’m Episcopalian”.

This is the heart of All Saints’ day, and even the blessed St. Nemo. Rather than accepting the lie from the status quo that we are all too different to be reconciled, that we can only know ourselves by creating an other to be our antagonist, St. Nemo shows that when we think this way, we become no one rather than who we hoped to be. And that Glorious company of Saints is our reminder that we all are looking for belonging. The saints are not perfect people, some were heroes worthy of veneration, many had flaws and beliefs that are inexcusable to our modern sensibilities. They are people from all times, nations, stations in life, and ideas, yet they are bound together and identified not by their differences, but their shared mission as witnesses of the Gospel. They belong to God and are known by their special purpose.

This is the very meaning of the word “Saint”. It shares the same Latin root where we derive the words for “Sacred” and “Sacrifice” as well, all ultimately meaning “Belonging to God, and set apart for a special purpose”. This is the healing balm we need in our Great Ordeal. We who belong to God must be witnesses to Good News. In our present time and place, surrounded by divisiveness and confusion, witnessing the Good News is being a contrarian to divisiveness, and more importantly, seeing all people as belonging to God. Rather than distinguishing ourselves from our neighbors, we must see our neighbors as ourselves: people looking for meaning, for hope, for their basic needs, fundamentally good, and most importantly, beloved by God. We are all looking for belonging, and it is our task to find more ways to welcome people in, rather than reasons to cast them out.

When, not if, When we learn to see ourselves and all our neighbors as belonging to God, as part of All the Saints, then shall the final seals be broken, the trumpets sound, lampstands lit, and Heaven and Earth will become one. This Great Ordeal is not the first, nor the last Ordeal that we will face. As with each seal being broken follows great resistance, we will be tempted to lose ourselves once again to fear and divisiveness. But we can take heart not in what we have heard but in what we have seen, the Lamb who conquered death, and the countless multitude that surrounds Him, all those who belong to God. When we finally get through the Great Ordeal, after all this painful separation we shall all be together again, the Lamb will be our shepherd leading us to the waters of life, and God will wipe every tear from our eye.

I say to you, all the saints of God, be a witness to the Gospel. Be the strength for those who’s strength has run out, the ear to those who are not heard, the friend of the friendless, the courage for the fearful, the peacemaker to conflicted, the hope for the hopeless, and the family of all God’s people. Know yourself by your purpose, do not say, “I belong to this party, this club, these people, this town, this state, this nation…” none of that is true. You belong to none of those things. Nemo belongs to those things, you belong to God. Amen.

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