All Saints' Sunday / C November 3, 2019
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
All Saints Sunday: the Sunday immediately following November 1st; the day on which the Church stops to remember and honor Christ’s holy ones.
I admit that I may be painting this Major Feast Day of the Church with quite a broad brush, but it seems to me that most of us have two ways of thinking about the blessed saints of the Church. And it turns out that neither one of them is particularly helpful in our attempt to relate to these individuals.
We either think of “Saints” with a capital “S”: St. Peter, St. Ann, St. Thomas, St. Augustine. These are the great heroes of the faith who populate stained glass windows, are portrayed in art, and have churches named in their honor. Those who made their mark in the world and left a legacy of holiness that outlasted their lifetimes.
Or we think of “saints” with a lowercase “s.” And here we usually mean someone of heroically long-suffering patience, or rigidly upright moral conduct.
Either one of these concepts can be intimidating, and basically inaccessible to us regular folks who take up space in the pews.
Realistically, we don’t feel we can live like the people who bravely faced the lions in the coliseum; live like those who laid down their lives for their faith and went down to glorious martyrdom. Or even our “saintly” neighbor down the block who never misses a Sunday worship service (or an opportunity to remind you that she never misses Sunday worship). We don’t feel like we can live like these people; and, if we are honest, we don’t really want to live like these people. Either dying violently or living in joyless rigidity - these seem to be the two dominant models for sainthood, and neither is terribly appealing. And neither promises to fulfill Jesus’ hope for us that we might have life and have it abundantly.
The other reason we place the concept of sainthood on an elevated moral pedestal is because that “otherness” – safely beyond our reach - excuses us of accountability and absolves us of responsibility. Saints, seen in these two models, capital “S” or lowercase “s,” are seen to be totally out of touch with what our “real” lives are like, down here in the “real world.” After all, what does Saint Anselm know about paying the mortgage on time? What can St. John of the Cross’s lofty poetry do for us when we get a flat tire, or go through a divorce, or are diagnosed with cancer? What does St. Margaret know about raising children amidst the many pitfalls of our modern society? The saints don’t know what our “real life” is like. And so, we think, we can easily dismiss them, don’t have to listen to the prophetic messages that their lives speak.
This is what we tell ourselves to keep us safely distant from sainthood. But the original use of the term “saints,” particularly by the apostle Paul, was meant to indicate all the faithful who gathered to worship God in Christ. Today – All Saints Sunday - is not just about the great heroes of the faith, nor should it focus solely on our own beloved departed who have gone before us. The title of the day, after all, is not “Some Saints Sunday.” This is “All Saints Sunday;” and as the popular children’s hymn that will be sung today in many churches goes, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
If we can take away some of the haloed awe we often place around saints, and allow ourselves to see ourselves as “saints of God,” we must then ask: “If we are all saints, just what does that mean? If it doesn’t mean heroic glory or cheerless and unattainable perfection, then what should we do? How should we live?”
The great saints of the church, the heroes of the faith who gave their lives for the gospel, were in fact, as the song says: “folk just like us.” So, let’s start there. And if we think about it, we really already know that. Think of St. Peter, God bless him – the Gospel record shows that he certainly put his foot in it more than once, up to the point of denying and abandoning Jesus. With that in mind, perhaps we can then picture a 21st century St. Peter losing his temper and making rude gestures in traffic. If St. Teresa of Avila were alive today, she might take twenty items to the checkout lane clearly labeled “fifteen items or less.” If St. Bridget or St. Francis lived today, they might have embarrassing pictures on Facebook of their younger and wilder days.
The saints – even the greatest ones - were everyday human beings just like us, and that means we can be sure they made the same mistakes and had the same frailties, same successes and failures. And yet there was something within them that inspired them to do great things for the sake of the gospel message; something led them to live - and sometimes die - with incredible courage and boldness. How did they do that? And why should we care? Well, because, if we are all saints, then we are all called to live as though our life and our memory will still be important a thousand years from now. How can we live so that our legacy strengthens generations of the faithful – those alive today, and those who will come after us?
The one common thread in all the saints’ lives – What all the saints had was an unshakeable commitment to follow Jesus, no matter where that took them. And we have an incredibly vivid portrait of where following Jesus takes us in our gospel lesson from Luke today. Consider the very first sentence we read: “Jesus looked up at his disciples.” Think on that image for a moment: “Jesus looked up at his disciples.” What does that imply? In order for Jesus to look up at his disciples, he had to be at a level below them. So, take your mental picture from old Sunday School illustrations – the picture of Jesus standing up on a rock above a crowd of people to preach to them . . . take that old image and stand it on its head. According to the Gospel text, Jesus was not standing above his followers, but was down on the ground as he taught this most central of his messages. Imagine this picture: picture him crouching or kneeling in the dirt as he heals someone prostrate with pain and illness.
And then put yourself in the image. Picture yourself as one of the disciples standing around in a circle as Jesus gently and carefully lays hands on a pain-wracked man or woman, the entire laser focus of his love trained on this beloved child of God, ready to pour out his healing grace. And with hands on the dirty, bad-smelling, sore-laden body of some hopeful soul, he looks up at his disciples, looks up at you, and says, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are excluded and reviled and persecuted. You are blessed, and you are beloved, and you are mine.”
Jesus speaks to us not from above us, not from some elevated pedestal, but from the center of our frail, suffering, flawed humanity - because that is where he lives; not above us, but among us. He chooses to be with and in the pain of the world, and he calls us to follow him there. That was the special charism of the great saints. They weren’t spiritual athletes, accruing an ever-escalating number of holiness points. But they knew that their own weaknesses, combined with the desperate needs of the world, created the very conditions for God to work miracles, and they gave themselves to that process wholeheartedly.
That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? It seems like the saints would bring all their strength and intelligence to bear on those who pulled the levers of power and wealth and influence. But instead they entrusted their weak and wounded selves to the Jesus they found at the bottom of the world, at the bottom of the chasm within themselves, looking up at them and telling them they were blessed. And they heard him there. They followed him there. And through them, he changed the world.
Let’s be honest: none of us gathered here this morning and hearing this gospel today are literally poor and hungry. But even those of us blessed with economic riches and societal privileges are often desperately poverty-stricken in other ways. We are starving for meaning in our lives. We weep silent, inward tears of loneliness and depression. We hunger for community and friendship and love - sometimes without even realizing it. We thirst for our own lost integrity and hope in a world seemingly driven mad by greed and cynicism and self-centered motivation.
But the hope of the gospel means that we need not fear looking down into the depths of suffering, both inward and outward. Whether the abyss we run from takes the form of the hungry and oppressed around the world and in our own neighborhoods; or perhaps it is the unexplored and often unacknowledged darkness within our own hearts . . . whatever form that deep, dark abyss may take, when we look down into those places, the Gospel promises us that we will find Jesus there, looking up at us.
And where the Lord is, we need never fear to go. That is the truth that the great saints, the heroes of the faith, all knew. They saw Jesus look up at them and call them blessed, and so they followed him down into the depths. And there, they found healing, and joy, and communion with God and with one another.
An individual who follows Jesus down to join in lifting the whole world up. That’s really all a saint is. No halo, no glory, no perfection, not even any particular, rarified holiness. Just mustering the courage to say “yes” to Christ’s love, the love and mercy and grace that reaches out to touch us in our poorest and most wounded places.
Want to know if you’re a saint? Don’t look for your image in a stained-glass window. Don’t look for your name among those listed in a calendar of saints’ days. Merely look down . . . look down . . . and see Jesus look up at you and say, “You are blessed.” Take that truth into your heart and know that this day, All Saints’ Sunday, is for you.