Father Nicholas Lang
The Feast of All Saints
A man was reflecting with his children on his college experience. “One day,” he said, “our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a serious student and breezed through the questions until I read the last one: What is the name of the woman who cleans this classroom?”
He thought it must be some kind of joke. He had seen this woman several times in the hall. She was tall and in her late 50’s, but how would he know her name? He handed in his paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before the class ended, another student raised her hand and asked if that last question would count toward the quiz grade.
“Absolutely,” answered the professor, “In your careers and in life in general, you will meet many people. All of them are significant. All of them deserve your respect and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello.’ The man said “I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned that her name was Dorothy.”
Each year this Sunday is set aside to celebrate what we call the “communion of saints,” the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt and those who hurt us, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise. Many of them have a special day of observance on our church calendar. Many of us are named after them. But All Saints’ Day is not really so much about them—they each have their special day. All Saints’ Day is about the Jacks and Jills—and the Dorothy’s—those mostly unknown people who live out their faith by love, doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Each of you, I am sure, can think of your own examples of those folk and by remembering them today they will enrich your soul.
Yes, there are some extraordinary lives represented in that mix but let’s not forget that our holy family tree also includes murderers as well as martyrs, swindlers as well as the guileless, the cowardly as well as the courageous, the edgy as well as the unswerving—even the just plain weird—and, yes, some who smoke, drank, and ate chocolate. When we overlook the humanness of saints, we fail to recognize God’s role in the making of saints.
Now this may come as a surprise, but the word “saint” refers to all those who have been made holy through the gift of the Spirit. In other words, we are made saints in baptism. It’s not a matter of doing extraordinary things or wearing sackcloth and eating locusts and wild honey in the desert. It is simply a matter of being a part of the body of Christ, sharing in the holy meal he has given us, and living as the unique person God called us to be.
Preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Once you have linked up with Christ’s body (that would be a bunch of characters like us), you have everything you need to be a saint. You have your identity, your halo, and a choice: to live as who you are or not.”
She says it is like knowing there is a check for a million dollars in the next room with your name on it. The money is yours, but until you claim it and cash it you are as poor as if it never existed. “Our vocation, our calling from that point on,” she says “is to act like saints and exercise our sainthood, practice it, so that we do not lose our God-given capacity to be saints.”
The Gospel we hear today is not the usual All Saints reading, and it confronts us with the mystery of life and death and while it speaks to the promise of the life to come—resurrection, eternity, the afterlife—it says much more about life on this side of the grave and how we are called to live it more fully and generously.
We don’t know exactly what happened after Jesus raised Lazarus but I bet there was a big party that night with lots of food and wine and dancing. Legend has it that Lazarus was thirty when Jesus restored him to life and lived another 30 years. What if we were given an extra thirty years to live?
No matter how young or old we are, what if, when the end came, God intervened and said, “Not ready for you, yet. Here’s thirty more years for you.” What would we do differently—not in the sense of looking back with regret but rather looking ahead with great anticipation?
The most difficult thing we are asked to believe may not be that Jesus raised Lazarus or that God raised Jesus or that there is life after death, but rather that God loves us so much with all our warts and failings that God wants to resurrect our lives now, adjust them from an old way of life to a new way of life.
There is a folktale told in a number of Asian cultures about a person who is allowed to visit both heaven and hell. In hell, people were seated around a large banquet table with food piled high. Those seated at the table all held three feet long chopsticks with which to eat. As they pick up food with the chopsticks, turning it towards their mouths, the food remains beyond reach. And although there is an abundance of food, everyone is starving.
In heaven, there were people seated around the same kind of banquet table and people had the same long chopsticks, but everyone was full and content. The difference between hell and heaven is that in heaven, people don't try to feed themselves with the long chopsticks; they feed each other.
This ancient, simple story points to the power of community. This is a place where not only God feeds us but we also feed one other.
The Victorian novelist, George Eliot, who knew well the full extent of the human condition, once wrote, "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" Recognizing the commonality of our human natures, our human struggles, our human hopes, is it not precisely through our hunger for being and living in community that we come to fully embrace our need for God and one another?
A Sunday school teacher asked the class, “What is a saint?” A little girl raised her hand. “A saint is someone that the light shines through.” “Very nice,” said the teacher, wondering where the girl came up with that. She learned that the girl was remembering the saints depicted in the stained glass windows in the church and the rays of the sun shining through them.
Someone the light shines through. And that is what makes a saint. It is that easy—it always was and always will be.