While flipping channels one night, I came across a Holly Hunter movie. I’m a big fan of her movies. It’s a Southern thing—she grew up in Conyers, Ga., where I used to live. I know people who knew her when she was a kid—so we’re practically related. The movie, Home for the Holidays, is a 1990s dramedy about a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving. At one point, Holly Hunter and her mother are having an argument about her older sister, something like, “Oh yes, as you’re always reminding me, she’s practically a saint.” Of course, it turns out she isn’t really a saint—just an overly responsible, bitter, perfectionist.
Today is All Saints Sunday, which raises the question: What exactly is a saint, and what is it we are celebrating today? First, it’s a time to thankfully remember those of our church members, friends and relatives who have died in the last year, who have gone to join the saints in heaven. Second, it is also a day we are invited to reflect on our own saintliness, especially in the light of the life and witness of those who have gone before us in the faith.
For we must remember that, as Christians, our family tree is not limited to, nor defined by, our biological connectedness. We are all grafted into God’s family tree through baptism; we have all been adopted as children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ through the working of the Spirit in our lives. Therefore, we are related to all the saints—they are our sisters and brothers.
When I reflect upon the lives of “the saints,” the ones I’ve known personally and those I’ve only heard or read about, I don’t feel very saintly myself. I feel like the little boy I read about who was met at the door by the author one Halloween. He was about 4 and wore a Superman outfit. He reached out his hand as he said trick or treat. The woman could not resist teasing him a bit, asking, “Where’s your bag?” He replied, “My mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me.” The woman smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!” He glanced down at the “S” on his chest before whispering, “Not really, these are just pajamas.”
We’re always aware of falling short, of not measuring up. We are also always aware that the other people in our family of faith seldom measure up either.
The Scriptures tell us that because we’re Christians, we’re also saints, but most of us don’t believe it. We look down at the “S” on our chest and then plead with God, “Not really, I’m only human.”
This is the great mystery of All Saints Day. We are indeed only human, but we are also “the saints who gather at …,” as Paul put it in many of his letters. We are, as Martin Luther said, saint and sinner at the same time. Though we don’t go around in Christian pajamas with a big haloed “S” on our chest, we do have an invisible cross on our foreheads. It was put there at our baptism with these or similar words: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Each of us has that mark on our lives, a mark that calls us forward into saintliness. We are invited to constantly live into our name as a child of God, as a baptized saint.
And we never quite make it. We’re always aware of falling short, of not measuring up. We are also always aware that the other people in our family of faith seldom measure up either. Unfortunately, we are sometimes more aware of the failures of others that we are of our own. Someone sent me a little poem a few years ago. I ran across it in my files the other day:
Oh, to live above,
with Saints we love,
Oh, that will be Glory.
But, to live below,
with Saints we know,
Well, that’s a different story.
The struggle of the Christian life is to remember that we are all saints in spite of our failures, and to remember that the other people in our church family are saints as well, in spite of their imperfections.
As Isaiah said: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear (25:6).
We are invited, on this All Saints Sunday, to remember our sainted-ness, our blessedness, our holiness—all gifts from God, gifts we were given for the benefit of the world.
We are also invited to remember the sainted-ness, the blessedness, the holiness of others. To remember that they, too, are the beloved Children of God—and treat them that way.
Amen and amen.