This Sunday, we celebrated All Saints’ Day. I preached from the Isaiah 25:6-9 & Revelation 21:1-6a texts. This is completely unedited and as most of you may know the final product from the pulpit is somewhat different than the manuscript. So, here you go:
Today we celebrate one of the great days in the Christian Year. On the first Sunday of November, many churches celebrate All Saints’ Day. The very first mention of this day is found in a sermon from the year 402 A.D., and for the last 1,600 years there have been churches who used this day to remember all of those who have died in the faith. Now this was definitely not a day that we ever celebrated or even mentioned in the little church I grew up in – most people, if they had ever heard of it, would probably associate it with the Catholic Church. However, in recent years there are more and more protestant churches that are beginning to celebrate this day, commemorating the faithful followers of Christ around the world, both living and dead. For the most part, All Saints’ Day has become a time to remember the faithful who have died in the year preceding that particular Sunday.
In some church traditions, being a saint is seen as something totally out of reach. We think of people like Mother Teresa – those people who have devoted their entire lives to service in Jesus’ name. Yet, being a saint is not out of reach. In fact, I believe that if today is to be a faithful time of celebrating the lives of ‘the saints,’ it should be a time when we lift up those ordinary women and men who practice their faith in the ins and outs of everyday life. Those are the kind of saints we need to imitate.
There is a classic story about one of these saints told by Tony Campolo. There was a man named Joe who was addicted to alcohol. By God’s grace he was converted to the Christian faith at a mission in one of the worst parts of New York City. Before his conversion, Joe was known – at best – as a dirty hopeless wino with no future. Following his conversion, something profound happened. Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known. He spent his days and nights “happening by” the mission to do whatever needed to be done. There wasn’t a single task that was too lowly for Joe to take on. There was never anything he was asked to do that he considered to be ‘beneath him.’ If a bathroom needed to have vomit mopped up, Joe was the man. If a toilet needed scrubbing, Joe was the man. Joe did anything he was asked with a kind smile and gratitude for getting the chance to help. He could be counted on to feed those feeble men who wandered into the mission off the streets, and to carefully prepare those for bed who were simply too far gone to take care of themselves. One evening, the director of the mission held a worship service and spoke to the usual crowd of still and sullen men with drooped heads. One man looked up, came down to the altar, knelt to pray, and began to sob. “Oh God, I’m ready to change.” The repentant man kept shouting, “Oh God, make me like Joe! Make me like Joe, dear God! Make me like Joe; make me like Joe!” Finally the director of the mission came, and knelt down beside the man to pray, “Son…I think it might be better if you prayed, ‘Dear God, make me like Jesus.’” The man looked up with tears in his eyes and a puzzled expression on his face. He asked, “Is he anything like Joe?”
That’s what it means to be a saint. We need to be like Joe! When people are around a saint, they know it. Saints are those people who follow Jesus so closely that he starts to rub off. When you look at a saint, there is something joyful and worthwhile about them – they embrace the world with one hand and God with the other. They’re people worth imitating.
Our scripture lessons for today demonstrate what awaits those beloved followers of Jesus, like Joe, have to look forward to after death. So often, we offer people condolences and talk about our loved ones being in a “better place.” Yet, do we really look forward to heaven? When I was a kid, my brother and I once talked about heaven. I remember us worrying that heaven would be just like church – except it would last even longer. Imagine: heaven itself is just like church that never ever lets out for lunch – an eternal Sunday morning service. Are you ready to sign up? Now, even though heaven is described in terms of eternally worshiping in God’s presence – it also uses the metaphors of those things in this world that we love the most. I’m going to take an unofficial poll here: Raise your hand if you like to eat. All-right – that looks like a 98%, at least – the other 2% are asleep! Isaiah is talking about what lies in store for the faithful and he says it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of the greatest food you can imagine: a feast of rich food, the best of the best! And on top of that, death is going to be taken care of for good – no more suffering, no more cancer, no more nursing homes, no more bad kidneys. God’s going to take care of everything that is wrong with this world – all our tears will be wiped away. Revelation then fills in some of the blanks from Isaiah – there’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth – it’s going to be like the most luscious wedding reception you’ve ever attended, except far better! “God’s home is going to be with humankind; 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.” Now, does this sound like a never-ending Sunday service?
No way! This is the kind of vision that inspire people to live like Jesus! This is the kind of vision that inspires the ordinary Joes of the world! This is the kind of vision that make us want to be saints. To me, it takes a vision like this and the power of God to inspire the kind of life saints are called to live. Today we remember the saints – we remember the people in our lives who have stuck with the faith when everything went south. Today we remember the people in our lives who clung to their faith in spite of everything taking a nose-dive. Today we remember those people who loved life, who lived with a spirit of great joy, and who could find God in all the little things of our world. Today we remember those who looked at the mess they had made of their lives and turned it all over to God, accepting his grace, forgiveness, and salvation. Today we celebrate the countless Joes of our world. Today we celebrate the saints, and we look forward to that big family dinner that God has in store. Because, in the end, when all is said and done, God will wipe away all of our tears, God will take away all of the pain of this world, and welcome us to the greatest celebration of all time – the celebration of his goodness and presence that will never, ever end.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.