November 6, 2016

All Saints Day Year C

What do you think of when you hear the word saint? Some of us think of “Saints” with a capital “S”: St. Peter, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis, the heroes of the faith who left a legacy of holiness that outlasted their lifetimes. Sometimes we think of “saints” with a lowercase “s,” “they think they are such a saint” - someone with rigidly upright moral conduct. Either concept is intimidating to most of us who routinely lock our keys in our cars and have been known to shout at the television during a particularly bad sports play.

We don’t feel like we can live like the people who bravely faced the lions in the coliseum and went down to glorious martyrdom, or even our “saintly” relative or friend who never misses a chance to go to church. And if we are honest, we don’t really want to live like these people. Dying violently or living joylessly seem to be the two dominant models for sainthood in our society, and neither fulfills 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 absolves us of responsibility. Saints don’t live in the real world. What does Saint Anselm know about paying the mortgage? How does St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul help us when we get a flat tire or are diagnosed with cancer? The saints don’t know what normal life is like. And so we shouldn’t have to listen to the messages that their lives speak, we think.

This is what we tell ourselves to keep us safely distant from living like a saint. But the original use of the term saint was meant to indicate all the faithful gathered to worship God. All Saints Day is not just about heroes of the faith, and it’s not even just about our own beloved departed who have gone before us. This is not “Some Saints Day.” This is “All Saints Day,” and as the hymn we will sing today goes, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Think about the commitment you are making when you sing that cheerful hymn at the end of our service? “If we are all saints, what does that mean? If it doesn’t mean heroic glory or unhappy 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 folk just like us. And if we think about it, we really already know that. Poor St. Peter, God bless him, certainly put his foot in it more than once, up to the point of denying and abandoning Jesus. We can easily picture a 21st century St. Peter losing his temper and making rude gestures in traffic. If St. Teresa of Avila lived today, she might use the last scoop of coffee grounds in the break room and not replace the canister. If St. Bridget or St. Francis lived today, they might have embarrassing pictures on Facebook of their younger and wilder days.

We know that the saints were everyday human beings just like us, and we can be sure they made the same mistakes and had the same frailties. And yet something within them led them to do great things for the gospel, to live and sometimes die with incredible courage and boldness. If we are all saints, then we are all called to live as though our lives will still be important a thousand years from now. How can we live so that our legacy strengthens generations of the faithful to come after us?

What 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. Picture being a disciple standing around in a circle as Jesus gently 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 hands on the dirty, bad-smelling, sore-laden body of some hopeful soul, he looks up at his disciples 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 from the heart of frail, suffering, flawed humanity, because that is where he lives. He chooses to be with and in the pain of the world, and he calls us to follow him there. That was the gift of the great saints. They weren’t spiritual athletes, accruing an ever-escalating number of holiness points. They knew that their own weaknesses combined with the desperate need of the world created the very conditions for God to work and they gave themselves to that process wholeheartedly.

It seems like the saints would bring all their strength and intelligence to bear on the levers of power and wealth. 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, God worked.

Many of us hearing this gospel today are not literally poor and hungry. But 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 love and meaning. We thirst for our own lost integrity and hope in a world driven mad by cynicism.

But we need not fear looking down into the depths of suffering, both inward and outward. Whether the abyss we run from is the hungry and oppressed in our world or the undiscovered darkness within our own hearts, when we look down into those places, we find God waiting for us.

And where God is, we need never fear to go. That is what the great saints, the heroes of the faith, knew. They saw Jesus look 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.

Someone who follows Jesus down to join with him in lifting the whole world up. That’s all a saint is. Not sinless perfection, not even any exceptional holiness. Just mustering the courage to say yes to his love, his love that reaches out to touch us in our poorest and most wounded places. Want to know if you’re a saint? See Jesus look at you and say, “You are blessed.” Take that truth into your heart and know that All Saints’ Day is for you.