Have you ever heard someone’s name mentioned and you exclaimed, “Oh, they’re a saint!” You say this because you know the positive character of that person, a character that seems saint-like to you.
Maybe you’re having a conversation with someone and they offer to do something for you, and you say to them “What a saint you are!” In this context, the person offers something that eases your burden. Grace Taylor, Nancy Morrow and Sarah Gage almost always put the bagged sandwich lunches together for me the week that I am scheduled for St. Herman’s. All I have to do is deliver the lunches. These women ease my burden, and I often tell them they are saints!
Our understanding of saintliness and of who is (and who isn’t) a saint has changed significantly over the years. Dare I say, it has evolved. At one time, sainthood was reserved for the iconic great past figures of the church: Peter, Paul, Mary, and Francis. These were the ones we lifted up on All Saints Day as we remembered their extraordinary lives: Lives of fealty to God and Christ-like behavior. They were also lives that we believed were beyond our own capacity to live - or at least their perceived extraordinary lives.
Many of these saints had done less than saintly things at one time or another. Some were even downright scoundrels! Paul was a murderer. Peter denied Jesus. Francis was a spoiled, indulgent little rich boy who liked to party. Mary, well, she was pretty close to perfect. But remember she could be a bit of a maternal nudge (remember the wedding at Cana). On the other hand, she was a Jewish mother, so she was just living her role. All these folks got redeemed one way or another, which is good news!
All the faithful departed – those ordinary people like you and me – were relegated and remembered on All Souls Day November 2. We had a day for commemorating the Christian superheroes on All Saints Day, and All Souls day for everyone else. It was a two-tier form of honoring people; the greater and the lesser.
This two-tier system is kind of a hard sell when you have another theology that says we have all been made equal by a loving God. All equal but two tiered, evokes the flawed policy called separate-but-equal. In God’s reign, separate-but-equal, like all two-tiered systems that divide people, is an oxymoron. I think this contradiction is what moved the church to reconsider who was and was not a saint.
Today, the understanding is that we are all saints – or at least we all have the potential to be. This theology of universal sainthood is writ large in that perennial favorite All Saints Day hymn, I Sing A Song of the Saints of God. with its litany of everyday folks who are saints: a doctor, a queen, a shepherdess, a soldier, a priest. The universality of the ordinary people who are saints is captured in the closing lyrics, “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
That’s a paradigm shift in the theology of saints and sainthood. These days, we honor specific folks for exemplary Christian lives, by commemorating them with special days on our liturgical calendar. But this is not an elevation of status above the rest of us, but rather highlighting lives of Christ-like behavior, which we are called to emulate.
The psalmist this evening expresses this universality. He asks,
"Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? " *
and who can stand in his holy place?"
4 "Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
5 They shall receive a blessing from the Lord *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
(Ps. 24: 3-5)
The psalmist is describing an entry festive procession into the Jerusalem Temple. According to the Law, one was required to be fastidiously and ritually pure to do so. The psalmist asks who really is pure enough that they can face God in God’s Temple and be a part of this procession?
The reply is those with clean hands, pure hearts, who do not engage in falsehood and do not commit fraud, are the acceptable ones.
In that reply, the psalmist deconstructs what was formerly required for entry into the Temple, which was an elaborate, involved, and often cumbersome set of rituals and behaviors to be acceptable to do so. You had to be super-pure; be a super-saint. It was a two-tiered system.
Now, there is a paradigm shift: Those who try to live good lives are allowed to process and enter the Temple. What was a two-tiered system (those who were ritually super pure and those who were ritually less-than-pure) has been eradicated. As long as you worked to lead a decent life, all are welcome. All are the same before God.
The Book of the Revelation to John further eradicates tiers; the tier between God, who is up in heaven, and we mortals, below on earth. The scene described is of the end of time when all things that God intends for Creation, come to fruition. We call this the reign of God. This is not some far off, distant time. Jesus told his disciples when they asked about God’s reign that, “the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17:21) In eschatological terms, we live in an already, not yet, state of being. The reign of God is coming, but it also already exists.
John indicates this truth as he tells of seeing God descend from heaven to earth:
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
What had been a two-tiered separation between us and God is now gone. God desires to be with us, not far off. God’s strongest desire is to walk life’s journey with us. To comfort and console us. To take away all the pain, loneliness and grief that we experience.
This eradication of tiers is one of filling every valley, making low the mountains, of making the crooked paths straight and the rough places plain. It is God’s desire for us and Creation. We humans created the tiers, the differences, and the things that keep us apart, not God.
So, dear saints of God, on this All Saints Day, know that you are saints and that eradicating the tiers and the differences is holy, saintly work. We may be imperfect at it, but that’s okay, because God is with us. On this day, remember that God dwells with you as you do this saintly work. On this All Saints Day and every day, God is well-pleased when you mean to be one too.