Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Today we gather to celebrate the stories of the people who have shaped us. We focus much of our attention on those who have died—saints of old, ancestors, and recently departed loved ones; but All Saints is not a memorial service to grieve the dead. Instead, it is a recognition of the way their stories have been woven together with ours into the greater narrative of the Church and God’s work in the world. For this reason, All Saints is not just a celebration of the dead, but of the living—and even those not yet born. This is why alongside the names of the recently dead, we read the names of the recently baptized—to honor the stories that God continues to weave together to form the story of this community and the whole Church as it stretches into the future.
For me, All Saints is an emotional commemoration. Next Friday marks 24 years since my mom died, and so I always think of her on this day. I remember the love she gave me and the lessons she taught me; one story about her in particular I cherish is that, in the midst of her sickness, she taught me a different way to think of how God was at work. She never believed that God had made her sick, or that God had failed to heal her; but she did believe that whatever happened to her, God would be with her and with our family and would help us continue on. I didn’t come by this lesson because of what she told me, but by how she lived. No matter the fear, the doubt, the frustration she faced, she always lived the truth of that belief.
I remember the story of Kurt Queller, a friend and professor at the University of Idaho who first began to open my eyes to a new way of reading and understanding the Bible. I remember Neil and Karen Morgensen and David and Edie Block, our wonderful neighbors in Watertown, WI during Stephanie’s internship who made that neighborhood feel like home while we were there. Neil even helped me get a job at the Trek bicycle warehouse while I waited for assignment and ordination. I remember Bill and Grace Scheuttler, an elderly couple at my own internship in Pottsville, PA who took it as their personal mission to make sure their young vicar was had all the love, attention, assistance, and food he needed.
I remember Mike and Eunice Niebaum, and Rick and Judy Aznoe, and John and Ruth Allen—my friends’ parents who were like family to me as I was growing up; and Karen Spencer and Josie McClean, my high school Science Bowl coaches. I remember Betty Grant, my fifth grade teacher who spent countless afternoons after school with me, pushing me to apply myself and keeping me from being swallowed up in the chaos of Mom’s illness and death—I remember that she showed up for me at Mom’s funeral.
I could go on, but you get the picture: as I look back, there are a million stories I remember today of people who are alive and people who have died, and the same is true for each of us. I don’t remember these people because they were extraordinary; they were just normal people doing normal things. They weren’t at all special, except to me—and that is what makes them memorable.
That is what it means to be a saint—to be special. The word “saint” is derived from the Latin word sanctus, which means holy; to be holy is to be set apart for a specific purpose, namely for God’s purpose. The people we call saints are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They are not special except to God; but because they are special to God, their stories and God’s story are intertwined, just like the stories of all the people I talked about are intertwined with mine. What makes a person a saint is not supernatural faith or extraordinary actions or magical abilities; what makes a person a saint is that their stories have been touched by God’s story; and because of that we are able to see God’s stories in theirs.
It’s hard to know exactly how to translate the word that Jesus uses into English, but the Latin translation used is beatus, which is why we call these the “beatitudes.” Beatus is also the root of the word beatify, which is part of the process of officially recognizing someone as a saint. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that’s what Jesus is doing: he is beatifying the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the hungry for righteousness, the compassionate; telling us that these people who are at the bottom of the ladder—who are vulnerable and oppressed and forgotten about—are saints, not because of what they’ve done or how they behave, but because they are special to God, because in their stories, we can see God’s story. It is in the least, the last, the lonely, the little and the lost that we can most clearly see the story of God—the story of the Creator of the Universe who gives up divine power and glory to become a human person, a peasant, and to be crucified on a tree. Because God chose to enter into the darkest, ugliest part of the human experience, even the darkest, ugliest parts of humanity reflect God’s glory. Even death itself tells God’s story of life.
That’s the real reason why we celebrate this feast today, why we remember and tell the stories of these people who are special to God and to us, even if they are special to nobody else. We celebrate this feast because these people and their stories point us to the story of God. These imperfect, flawed, sinful people are able to reflect the glory of the Almighty God because God has entered into their stories and inhabited them. God has adopted them as children, and so they have become like their Father, tellers of the divine story. We need these storytellers because the story they tell—the story we tell with them—is the truth that can set us free from the lies the world tells us about ourselves.
The story of the world says that we do not matter. The story of the world says that only the people with the biggest sticks, the most money, the loudest voices get to determine write the ending. The story of the world is shaped by wars and coups and corruption; it is written by the victors, while the losers are lost and forgotten. The story of the world revolves around kings and emperors and presidents, and so we fight and clamor and live and die for them; but salvation does not belong to these. Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.
What makes a person a saint is that their story points people to God’s story because that person is special to God, and they have been changed by God—washed and made pure in the blood of the Lamb who was slain. Today we rejoice in the saints whom God has gathered and continues to gather around this font and table. We rejoice for the people whom God has given us to help us see the truth of God’s story; and we rejoice that each and every one of us has been adopted as God’s children—God’s saints—and that through us, God’s story continues to be told.