The story is told of two brothers who were rich but very wicked. They were just awful. They were miserly when it came to their money, they were mean to the village’s children, they were verbally abused to, well, everyone. But these two wicked brothers did have one redeeming quality, well, sort of, they were members of the local church. But one of the brothers suddenly died and the pastor, as you might expect, was asked to preach his funeral. But on the day before the funeral the surviving brother went to see the pastor with a proposal. He said, “I will give $100,000 to the church on one condition. During my brother’s funeral you have to tell everyone that he was a saint. Now, the pastor knew the church needed the money but he didn’t want to lie. How he could make such an outlandish statement? Well, the next day everyone in town turned up for this funeral because word had gotten out about the hundred thousand dollars and everyone wanted to see what the pastor was going to do. Would he lie to get the money? Would he tell the truth about his awful man? Well, after a short prayer and a familiar hymn the moment of truth was upon them. Time for the sermon. Everyone moved to the edge of their seat as the pastor began. “This man was an ungodly sinner, wicked to the core, he was mean as a snake, but, compared to his brother he was a saint.”
Today is All Saints Sunday the day we celebrate the saints of the church. But why is this important? Well, first a little history. All Saints Day itself came into being in the year 835 when Pope Gregory IV established November 1 as a special day to honor all the saints of the church, those who have gone before us, the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” as we often call them. Over the course of history however, the word “saint” became associated with the great heroes of our faith. Especially in Catholicism, those canonized for sainthood were lifted up because they either had a remarkable experience of God or they were an extraordinary leader in the Church. And I think it’s important for us in the Protestant tradition to recognize and honor this understanding of “saints” as well. Obviously, we don’t use the saints as intercessors; we don’t pray to them. But we can learn from their lives and from their experiences of God.
Now, that being said, in our church today we don’t just think of saints as people who were extraordinarily holy. As a matter of fact, sainthood, for us, has little to do with being good or somehow set apart. Instead, we remember the “Communion of Saints,” which is simply every person who has died surrounded by love and grace of God.
And I would say both understandings are fine. But what if we were to broaden them a bit? What if we were to view the label “saint” as a vehicle for uniting? What if our definition of “saint” not only connected us with our deceased forebears from years past, but with our living sisters and brothers around the world as well? Do you see what I’m getting at here? If we are indeed the saints of the church, all of us, present as well as past, then why not embrace one another, sharing what unites us over and above that which divides us?
So, what is it that unites us. Not just Christians but all people of faith? You know, there’s a story from the Buddhist tradition that may help us out here. It seems that there was a young man who wanted to discover the way to truth, goodness and salvation. So the young man came to The Buddha and asked to be shown the way to salvation. The Buddha agreed and took the young man down to the river. Once there, he took the young man out into the middle where it was waist deep. The Buddha then took the young man by the back of the neck and pushed his head under water. The young man thought, “Awesome! I am being baptized by the Buddha” But the Buddha didn’t let him up. He held the young man’s head under the water for a long time. The Young man began to struggle and tried to push his head up, but the Buddha used his second arm and hand to keep the struggling man under water. But just as the young man was about to drown, the Buddha let him up. The young man, frightened and confused coughed out the words, “Master Buddha, why did you do that?” The Buddha replied, “When you thought that you were drowning, what did you desire most?” The young man answered, “Air.” “When you crave God’s goodness and wholeness as much as you craved air,” the Buddha said, “you will find it.”
“When you crave God’s goodness and wholeness as much as you crave air you will find it.”
And the same is true for you and I. People of faith can rally around some basic understandings of what it means to be a part of this global community. And particularly within our Christian tradition, what it means to be a part of the on-going march of the communion of saints. My friends, when there’s a craving inside of us for justice, for equality, for peace; that’s saintly. When there’s an overwhelming desire for the poor in this country and those living in poverty ridden countries around the world to be fed and clothed, and provided with clean drinking water and quality medical care; that’s saintly. When there’s a craving inside you to see every child and every person given an equal opportunity to excel, regardless of social standing or national origin, or race, or sexual identity, or whatever; to me that’s participating in the present and continuing Realm of God (and that too is saintly). And when there’s a craving inside you to join with all people of faith, past and present, to speak up for voiceless, stand up for those who have been knocked down, and walk with those who have been outdistanced, even when these things are unpopular; that’s saintly. And on a more personal level, when there is a craving inside you to move a little closer to God through faith formation, devotion, and prayer; that’s saintly. And finally, when there’s a craving inside you for peace; that deep abiding peace that starts deep within you but soon leads you to actively join with other faithful people from around the globe, working toward that day when war isn’t tolerated and violence is overcome; that too, is indeed, saintly.
One final thought this morning on this idea of saints. I alluded to it earlier but I want to be perfectly clear. We are all, at the same time, both saints and sinners. To be a part of the “communion of saints” isn’t a mandate to be perfect. Not even close. But what is required is a loving and compassionate heart, a bit of humility, and a mustard-seed-sized, or greater, faith in God. And, my dear friends, here’s the good news for today; the best news! We all have these things in abundance. Thanks be to God! Amen.