Since it is that time of year, I want to start by taking a quick poll this morning. How many of you buy your favorite candy for Halloween so that you can snack freely as children are coming to your door? Never mind what kind of candy kids like, Halloween is really about what kind of candy adults like. And how many of you buy extra candy at your house just in case you have a crowd of trick or treaters descend on your house? Even though, be honest, you only had two trick or treaters last year and one the year before that?
In any case, by the time we get to the morning after, either all the Halloween candy will be gone at your house or you will have squirrelled away the leftover Halloween candy for yourself or you’ll wake up with a stomachache because you finished off the bag on Monday night.
No matter which of those scenarios unfolds at your house tomorrow, I hope you will take heart. Tuesday is much more than a candy hangover day. In fact, Tuesday is every bit the occasion as Halloween is on Monday. Tuesday, November 1st is All Saints Day.
For all the saints. It’s a great day in the calendar, but the truth is we don’t talk about saints as much in the Protestant church as people do in other Christian faith traditions. What’s more, if you and I have learned anything about saints over the years, I’m not sure what we’ve learned is accurate.
Over the years, I’m guessing most of us have picked up the idea that saints are spiritual superheroes. Always faithful to God. Performing miracles. Engaged in serious pursuits and rarely having any fun. Living lives that border on perfection. And often dying in ways that are premature and unnatural.
For example, Saint Perpetua was attacked by a wild cow and then killed by a sword. St. Valentine was beheaded. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. In light of the lives and deaths of the saints we know, is being a saint something any of us really aspires to? Probably not.
The saints we know by name are simply not like us. Saints devote their lives to causes that make the world a better place. Saints get put on pedestals and painted on cathedral walls. Saints don’t go around making mistakes and falling short…the way you and I do…
Then again, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that all human beings are a mixture of saint and sinner? We are all a combination of light and shadow. We are all imperfect and beloved. We are all gifted and broken. We are all good and not so much. Maybe it’s time we gave equal attention to some other stories about saints.
One of the great patriarchs of the faith, David, was both the King of Israel and an adulterer and murderer. Peter was the disciple who denied Jesus three times and the leader of the early Christian church. Paul was a ruthless persecutor of Christians until his life was transformed on the road to Damascus and he became the first Christian missionary.
We live in a world where we like to put people into neat and well defined categories. Especially this year with the election fast approaching, citizens across this country are labeling other people and parties and positions as either good or bad. We allow almost no room for dialogue or nuance. Not to mention bearing in mind the distinct possibility that what unites us is often stronger and deeper than what divides us.
Meanwhile the church too often adds to the divisiveness. We talk about certain sins rendering us ineligible for the love of God when we can actually point to all kinds of Scripture passages that show us how wide God’s mercy really is. We forget how outrageous God’s grace tends to be. And how inexhaustible God’s capacity to forgive remains. God’s love is more inclusive and more scandalous than any of our human perspectives care to acknowledge.
Arguably, God loves us the most when we are a total mess. God sent Jesus Christ into the world not so much for the saintly, the upstanding, the purest and most blameless among us. Jesus didn’t come into the world to save the ones who’ve never had a selfish or racist or sexist thought. The ones who never lashed out against a person they love. The ones who have gotten lost and fallen victim to greed and corruption. The ones who are judgemental and self-absorbed.
Instead, Jesus Christ came into the world to save the ones who know full well how much they need help and healing. Which is to say you and me. A mixed bag of sinner and saint.
The saints we lift up are not perfect or closer to God or holier than the rest of us. Rather, their “saintliness” is born of an awareness of their weaknesses and faults. It emerges out of the courage to face their own insecurity and vulnerability. And it’s fueled by a dogged desire to follow their own spiritual yearning until they discover who Jesus is for themselves.
Who are saints? Saints are the people among us who, even if they disagree with us on the pressing issues of the day, somehow manage to be instruments of God’s love in our lives and the lives of those around us. Because they let God use them for good works in the world.
Saints are people who take a close look at themselves and make new commitments regularly to be less resentful and less fearful and less judgmental. So that the love of Christ can bubble up within them and wash over them with forgiveness and new life.
Saints are people who have learned the blessings of generosity. Saints are people who resist the temptation to believe that life is all about looking out for number one, accumulating as much as we possibly can, keeping up appearances, keeping up with the Joneses, keeping up with that nagging voice that tells us we never have enough.
At the same time, saints are people with open hearts who know deep down inside how good it feels to live lives of service…reaching out to others, making the world kinder and gentler, standing for something greater than our own interests, sharing what we have out of a sense of the many ways God has enriched us along the way.
Saints are people who don’t have all the answers. But they fact check their politics and priorities and lifestyles and household budgets and words and deeds against the ways of Jesus Christ. Saints are not the ones who beat themselves up for falling short and for not getting better. Saints are the ones who find meaning and joy and purpose in the arms of Jesus and in the company of others who are likewise sinner and saint.
Saints are people who have been healed and empowered and changed by a love that is more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. Saints are people who have an acute awareness of God’s presence alive and moving within them. Most of all, saints are works in progress. People like you and me whom God has not finished with yet…
As we look forward to All Saints Day on Tuesday, you and I hold fast to one of the great promises of the Christian faith. In and through Christ sinners become saints. We who were dead come alive again. Those who have gone astray find hope and a home. Broken spirits and bodies and hearts find healing.
On a larger scale, human communities strive for sainthood as well. In Christ human beings find a way together out of the sinful violence, hatred, greed, and inhumanity that plagues us and tears us apart. In Christ all the saints envision and build a world where those who labor will have enough income to feed their families. Where refugees will be welcomed with open arms. Where all who are sick will receive adequate health care. When we will sit down at one table with those who we once considered strangers and enemies. Muslims and Jews and Christians. Rich and poor. Black and white and everything in between.
When we talk about saints, we are usually referring to folks who have gone before us…loved ones whom we remember fondly along with the ancestors of the faith. But the saints are also the ones who sit beside us and walk with us...some we know well and some whose names we may never know. They are folks who spend much of their lives quietly taking care of others, working in and outside the church, and giving to sisters and brothers in need.
In honor of them, we echo Paul’s words in Ephesians. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
At the same time, we remember God has plans for each of us that we might live to the glory of God even with our shortcomings. On Tuesday, then, we sing a song of the saints of God, reminding ourselves that God means for us to be one too. Amen.