Most of the church observes today as All Saints Day, when we remember and celebrate how God was present in the saints who lived and died before us, but I think if we stop there, we miss the point. Of course we should celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us in this life. They have done so much to shape who we are. But we need to go further.
We need to celebrate all the saints. The person who joins you in worship on Sunday morning, and the person half a world away who worships in another language and tradition. The person whose name you see in the membership directory but whom you’ve never seen in the church building. Even some who’ve never entered a church building at all or joined a congregation. This is a day to celebrate the glory of God that’s present in them, too, and how that glory touches us.
Usually, as we probably do today, we think of a saint as the spirit of someone who has died and now lives in heaven. Or we use the term for a holy person, someone still living who has an extraordinary relationship with the sacred and a high degree of moral perfection. But those definitions don’t really define all the saints we celebrate today. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner gives me a better understanding of saints.
“In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.
“Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘I am foremost among sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15) . . . .
“. . . [T]he feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. . . . [M]aybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.
“The Holy Spirit has been called ‘the Lord, the giver of life’ and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.” [From Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC]
Occasionally I’ll add someone to my friends network on Facebook, and periodically I review the list and might delete someone. The filter I use for who’s on my list is some variation of the question, “In whose presence do I become more alive?” Who expands my experience of the grace of God? Who challenges me to grow toward maturity in my faith? Who makes my life richer and more complete? And who values what I may contribute to his or her life? It’s a very small portion of all the saints in my life.
In the early church, the term “saint” referred to any member of the fellowship of faith. A saint wasn’t someone who stood out as especially holy and unblemished; a saint was someone who stood up and made a commitment to follow the way of life Jesus pioneered as a model for our relationship with God. A saint was an ordinary person like you and me, warts and all, who wanted to learn a new and more fulfilling way of life.
The saints who lived and died before us didn’t walk on water or on clouds; they walked on this earth like we do, and that’s what made them real. They may not have changed the world around them very much, but they changed our experience of this world, and they still do. They weren’t perfect, but they were growing toward perfection, toward completion, and they still play a role in our growth toward completion.
So do all the saints who still walk this earth with us today. It is exactly here where life has placed us, here in this network of friends, this company of all the saints, where we search for what will fill the God-shaped hole in the center of our lives, and where we grope for it, and perhaps where we will find it (Acts 17:26-27). And that’s what I celebrate with all of you.