Year A, All Saints 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
If you read too much about All Saint’s Day, you will get confused. It’s kind of a weird day. Most Episcopal churches celebrate it by reading the names of those who have died in the past year. It’s an opportunity to mourn and remember. Yet the term “saint” is not what we think it is. Frankly, I blame Billy Joel and his hit, “Only the Good Die Young.” One of the lines is: I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. He makes a distinction between the sinners and the saints, saints being those who are perfect and boring, while the sinners are… everyone else.
Now, Billy Joel isn’t completely to blame. I believe it was the early church that started it. They wanted to honor those who had died for their faith, the martyrs. They declared them saints after they died which led to the idea that saints were Christian superstars, the people who were super holy. They might have sinned a little, but definitely not much.
However, if you read the New Testament (especially Paul’s letters), you will find the definition of saints is far different. When the Apostle Paul refers to saints, he refers to all Christians—not just the really good ones who have died, but all Christians, anyone who has been baptized. I think it is good and appropriate to read the names of those who we have lost because they were and are saints of the church. They were not perfect, but they were God’s children, just as we are. It is interesting that we find it easier to identify saints as those who have died, rather than those of us who are still living. I think that is partially because we still have that idea in our heave of a saint being an extra holy Christian. But it’s also natural to remember those who have died for their good qualities. And you know, I have to admit, that when I looked at our list this year, there were several who I knew well and I perceived as especially good and committed Christians, people I would feel comfortable referring to as a saint. But I doubt most of them would have considered themselves that way.
Our three readings today effectively depict the various ways we define saints. The reading from the Book of Revelation considers the future, after Jesus comes again and all are gathered together in paradise. It’s a very traditional All Saints reading because it is otherworldly/heavenly—and while we know that a saint is any Christian, we still associate this day with those who have passed.
The Gospel reading (the Beatitudes) is much more relevant to the living saints. It talks about those who are struggling today, right now. Those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek….they are blessed right now. It refers to what will be, but the blessing is now. It even goes further to describe the Kingdom of Heaven as a place we can inhabit right here, right now. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness safe, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Even the kingdom of heaven is now. The reading from 1stJohn combines the past, present and future. “See what love the Father HAS given us….we ARE God’s children NOW….when he is revealed, we WILL be like him…”
I had a hard time deciding which text to preach on. If I went with the Book of Revelation, then the focus would be on the saints who have died, the saints we remember today. If I went with the Beatitudes, then it would be about the living saints. I was leaning toward the Beatitudes when I happened to read something about Paul. While Paul is not represented in our readings for today, his description of a saint is a big part of this day. It said a theme of Paul’s writings is, “Become what you are.” I had never heard that before. It kind of sounds like something that I would hear in a yoga class, but the more I thought about it, the more relevant it seemed, especially for today.
In fact, it is exactly what our reading from 1st John is saying, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” It’s refreshingly simple compared to what Paul usually writes. We are called children of God and that is what we are. Become what you are. My friends, we can wait for our death for people to see us as saintly, or we can become what we already are. We can claim the sainthood that was bestowed on us at our baptism. Why are we so afraid of that? Partly we are afraid because we lack confidence in our identity as children of God. I mean we hear it a lot, but we don’t really take it in. But I think we’re also afraid to claim our sainthood because it means that we have to be more like Christ. It’s much easier to admire Christ then emulate him.
It’s ok if we are a little rusty on living like saints, because we will have ample opportunities to claim our sainthood in the near future. This next week will be one of the most divisive in recent history. It will divide families, neighborhoods and it even threatens to divide churches. I know this election is important. I really am aware of that. But it’s not the most important thing. Our political leanings cannot define us. Why? Because we are children of God first. We are citizens of the United States of America. But before that, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. That is our most important citizenship and our most important loyalty. And guess what, God always wins. It doesn’t always seem like that because God plays the long game, but God always wins. Vote. Pray. Be passionate. But remember who deserves your loyalty. Remember to whom you belong. You are a saint, in God’s kingdom. You belong to God.
|Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash