During my first year at Yale Divinity School, I remember sitting in Dr. Abraham Malherbe’s New Testament class when he asked us all a question. “Take out a piece of paper,” he said. “Now write down on that piece of paper the one thing you think represents the essence of Jesus’ ministry, the dominant theme of Jesus preaching and teaching?” Hoping to impress, we all went to work. We wrote down words like – love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. Certainly, we told ourselves, one of these had to encapsulate the essence of Jesus’ teaching? When we offered up our answers, Dr. Malherbe said, “Wrong! You are all wrong. The essence of Jesus’ ministry, the one thing he talked about more than anything else was none of these things. The one thing Jesus talked about more than anything was the Kingdom of God.” Malherbe went on to explain that if you look at everything Jesus said in the Gospels, he talked about the Kingdom of God more often and in more different ways than any other subject. He told people the Kingdom was coming, he described in parables what it was like. The Kingdom was like – a pearl of great price, a treasure buried in a field, a small amount of yeast that leavens an entire loaf of bread. He showed people what the Kingdom looked like when he broke bread with sinners and tax collectors and made these same kinds of people his closest disciples. Jesus wanted people to know that the Kingdom of God is what the world would look like, what human relationships would be like, if we allowed God’s ways to be our ways, if we let God rule our hearts and our actions.
In our Gospel for this morning, Jesus is talking about the Kingdom again. He is describing how in God’s Kingdom the things that God values are different from the things that humans value. In the Kingdom, it is not the rich, the well fed, and the happy who are blessed, but the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn. In God’s Kingdom, human values are turned on their head and enemies are loved, good things are done for the hated, cheeks are turned in response to insults, and we only do to others what we would have others do to us. In the Kingdom, Jesus tells us, God has a special place for the poor, the weak, the forgotten, and the lost.
My friends, on this All Saints Sunday we celebrate the Saints who spent their lives working to make the Kingdom of God a reality. We remember the great saints like St. Francis, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Catherine, St. Julian of Norwich, and all the others who have been the shining lights of the faith. People who showed us a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in the ways they lived and loved and died. But on All Saints, we are also reminded that we too are saints, that we too have a duty to work to bring about the Kingdom of God, to create a little slice of the Kingdom in the way we live our own lives. While we tend to think of the saints as long dead heroes from the church’s past, the fact is – all of us are saints. We may not feel like it, we may not think ourselves worthy, but it’s true nonetheless. As Christians, we are all grafted into the family tree of God through the sacrament of baptism; as such we are adopted as children of God, as sisters and brothers of Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit. And this morning, while we remember the saints who have died and grieve their passing, we also celebrate as new saints are welcomed into our family through the waters of baptism.
I am reminded of a story told by Lois Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, about a little boy she met at her front door one Halloween. This little boy was about four and he was wearing a Superman costume. He reached out his hand and said trick or treat. Mrs. Wilson looked at his open palm and said, “Where’s your bag?” He replied, “My Mom’s carrying it. It’s too heavy for me.” Mrs. Wilson smiled and said, “But you’re Superman!” The little boy looked down at the big S on his chest and looked back at Mrs. Wilson and whispered, “Not really, these are just my pajamas.”
Our faith proclaims that because of our baptisms we are all saints, but we don’t believe it. At the most, we may feel like we have a small “s” embroidered on our shirtsleeve but never that big “S” on our chests. We can’t be saints, we think; we are too sinful, too worldly, we are not holy enough. But make no mistake about it, a saint is what we become the moment we are baptized, and as such it is our task to join with Jesus in bringing about the Kingdom of God.
Not long ago I read something Vincent Harding once said. Vincent was a civil rights pioneer and sometime speech writer for Martin Luther King. Speaking at a Children’s Defense Fund Conference he said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist. . . We are citizens of a country that we still have to create – a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its own children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world. . . I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.” Harding, a Mennonite, was talking Kingdom talk. He was pointing to an America he could see, an America he was working to create, an America he yearned to live in; an America that was not yet, but an America that was coming.
My brothers and sisters, as the baptized saints you and I are called to be citizens of a Kingdom that does not yet fully exist, but one that is coming. Whether you are liberal or conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, there isn’t a politician living or dead who can save you. Only Christ and his Kingdom can save you. Therefore, we are called to create little slices of God’s Kingdom in the way we live our lives and love those around us, to see this Kingdom in our mind’s eye and hold it up as the goal of all our striving. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” I just love that – “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” The saints are those who keep on trying to be the best mothers, the best fathers, the loving husbands, the compassionate wives, the honest bankers, the caring physicians, the just lawyers – although sin is never far behind. The saints are those who take seriously their baptisms and strive to rise to the better angels of their nature despite this broken world of ours. Remember, being a saint is not about being morally pure or especially righteous, because the fact of the matter is, we are all sinful creatures, we all fall short of the glory of God. As the old saying goes: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” (A mantra, by the way, that should have been a guiding principal during this election). Being a saint isn’t about being sinless, or perfect, it’s about following Jesus in spite of our sinful selves. After all, St. Peter denied Jesus three times. St. Thomas was full of doubt. Moses was a murderer and Abraham sold his wife to Pharaoh. However, despite these glaring flaws, they each did all that they could to follow God with courage and faith.
I am reminded of one last story about a little boy who visited this Cathedral with his Grandfather one Sunday afternoon to see our beautiful stained-glass windows. The grandfather told his grandson that the windows contained depictions of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and many others. When the boy got home, he told his Mom and Dad all about the Cathedral. His father, curious about what his son had learned, asked, “What is a saint?” The boy thought for a minute and then replied, “A saint is a somebody the light shines through.” I’ve always thought that was a pretty good definition – “A saint is a somebody the light shines through.” So wear that “s” proudly. You are a saint, forgiven and beloved by God; tasked with the work of the Kingdom. Therefore, let the light shine through in your life and do as Jesus’ commands – care for the blessed poor, feed the blessed hungry, comfort the blessed who mourn. Stand tall in the knowledge of your identity and love even those who would revile you for it. For the saints of God are just folks like us and there is not any reason, no not the least, why we shouldn’t be one too. Amen.