Psalm 24, Psalm 31:1-10, 22
All Saints Sunday
Years ago, one of my pastors while I was in my college years sent one of those email forwards that used to be so popular. I’ve tried to find the source of the original, but it seems to be anonymous. The email was called “The Quiz” and it went like this: "Take a few moments to think about your answers to the following questions. Question 1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world. 2. Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest. 3. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize. 4. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress. 5. Name the last decade's worth of World Series Winners. How did you do? If you are like most people, you can only fill in a few names here and there, but usually can't remember who did what and who won what. The point is most of us don't remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They're the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
“Now, here's another quiz. See how you do on this one: 1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school. 2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time. 3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. 4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special. 5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. 6. Name a half dozen non-celebrity heroes whose stories have inspired you. Easier? Of course. We have no problem remembering the people who have helped to shape us. We remember those who have inspired us and encouraged us. These are the people we tell our friends about. These are the people that hold a place in our heart. These are the people we truly value."
I had that email on my mind as I was thinking about today. Today we’re remembering not the Nobel winners and Oscar winners - not unless they had some personal connection to us. No, we’re remembering the ones who have helped us in difficult times, who made us feel special, whose stories have inspired us, who have taught us, the ones who hold a place in our hearts. Today, we’re celebrating All Saints Sunday. Most of us know that means that we’re remembering and giving thanks for those who have died during the last year in particular in the life of our congregation and families and community. But underneath that, we might be asking, “What is a saint exactly?” because we tend to use the word to mean some kind of “perfect, holy person” in our everyday vocabulary, and although we loved the folks we are remembering today, we do know that they weren’t always perfect.
So what is a saint, anyway? The word in the Bible literally just means “holy ones.” It’s used to describe people mostly in the writings of the apostle Paul, and he uses it to refer almost entirely to living people, and certainly not perfect people. He refers to the apostles, the original followers of Jesus, as saints, and although we admire them, we know that Peter and the rest were not perfect, and since Paul and Peter were fighting constantly, we know Paul didn’t think Peter was perfect either! Paul also refers to broader groups of Jesus-followers as saints, both those who he is writing about, and those to whom he is writing. And in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his letter by calling his audience those who are “called to be saints,” called to be “holy ones.”
Next we might ask: “Well, what does it mean to be holy?” Because again, when we use the word holy we have certain pictures in our head about what that means, and it usually isn’t a word we use to describe ourselves. What does holy mean? Perfect? Super close to God? Very pious? Last Sunday we celebrated Consecration Sunday. And we use that word a lot in the church - consecration. It’s also what we call it when we bless the bread and cup for communion and ask God to make them into the Body of Christ for us - that part of the prayer is called the “prayer of consecration.” Consecration basically means to add sacredness, holiness, to something ordinary. We ask God to take our ordinary stuff - our money, or the bread and grape juice - and make it into something holy - something that’s set apart for God’s purposes. We ask God to help us make ordinary things vessels for God’s work. Consecrated.
So, saints - holy ones - are when regular people offer their ordinary lives to God and ask God to make them holy. Saints are people who let God work in and through them so that they in turn can do the work of God in the world. That’s it. And that’s quite enough! We don’t need to be perfect, although we strive, day by day, to be a bit more like Jesus, to follow him more closely, to love like he taught us, like he loved us. We don’t just ask God to make our lives holy and stop there, doing nothing to be open to how God might accomplish that in us, how God might have to change us, mold us, challenge us as we’re made holy. And so perhaps that’s what we see in others when we call them saints: we notice when people are particularly receptive to giving their lives to God to make them holy, and then are particularly open to letting God move right into their hearts and lives in order to accomplish just that.
I was sharing with our Bible study this week that I was thinking about Mr. Rogers this week when we were talking about saints, because I’d seen a short video, about 4 minutes, with interviews from some of folks working on the upcoming film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, where Tom Hanks stars as Fred Rogers. If we had more time today I’d just play the video, and I hope we maybe take a church outing to see the movie when it comes out later this month. In this video, Tom Junod, the interviewer whose interactions with Mr. Rogers are portrayed in the film, says, “[Fred Rogers] had that amazing gift, of looking at a person and seeing what that person needed, that he was going to minister to that person … When I think of Fred, I often think of him in terms of what he did every morning, which was pray and think of the people he needed to pray for and write to those people.” Actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Junod, says, “His ability for empathy was enormous. What he could do immediately to any person with any kind of problem, any human condition, was relate to it.” Frank Warininsky, a lighting guy on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said, “If you hit Fred on the right day, or Fredhit you on the right day, he could change your life.” Powerful words. And then, in a clip from the upcoming film, Mr. Rogers’ wife is asked, “How does it feel to be married to a living saint?” And she answers, “If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable. You know he works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger.”
I was really struck by her response. I think it’s so important that we understand what we mean when we celebrate All Saints day, because if we think saints are perfect people, when we give ourselves an “out” from trying to be saints ourselves. We give ourselves an “out” from responding to the apostle Paul when he says we’re called to be saints. But saints are saints not because they’ve done something we can’t, something we can never attain. They’re saints because they allowed God to do something in and through them, because they let God make their ordinary holy. So I think Mr. Rogers is a saint. But we can be too. We can’t get away with saying things like, “I’m no Mother Teresa.” We talked just a couple of weeks ago about the struggles she had, how she wrestled with faith too. The only reason we can’t be Mother Teresa is because there’s only one of each of us. You can be you, which is the best thing for you to be. And you can be a saint of God, a holy one, called to just that path, called to give your ordinary self, so that God can do holy stuff with your life - whatever shape that might take: A person who listens and loves well. A person who builds others up. A person who loves relentlessly. A person who sees those others skip over. A person who forgives. A person who serves. That saint can be you.
At the end of our service today, we’ll sing a hymn called “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Each verse talks about all the places we can find God’s saints: those who loved God, who follow Jesus, who we find at home, at the store, in our neighborhoods. And each verse concludes with the hope: “I meant to be [a saint] too.” Ironically, Lesbia Scott, who wrote the hymn for her children, was surprised, even dismayed that a little song for kids became so popular. But maybe she forgot the point of her own words. (1) Today, we celebrate all the saints, in all the places in our lives we have found them. And let us mean, God helping, to be saints too, whose ordinary lives are made holy by God. Amen.