Monday, November 6, 2017

Letting the Light In: Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

It was one of the highlights of the year. What could be better than dressing up as a ghost, Frankenstein, a werewolf, a vampire, or a favorite superhero, roaming around the neighborhood with your friends, knocking on strangers' doors, and filling up sacks with candy? 

Of course, I’m talking about Halloween, one of my favorite holidays as a kid. 

At the time, I had no idea that what we were doing on the night of Halloween was Christian, and wonderfully so. I didn’t know that Halloween - or All Hallows’ Eve - is a vigil for one of the great baptismal feast days of the Church year: All Saints’ Day. Or that the Church had transformed pagan festivals into a Christian celebration, creating an opportunity to lampoon and make fun of the forces of evil and death by dressing up like witches, devils, and goblins. I didn’t know that by putting on a costume and going trick-or-treating, I was celebrating Christ’s victory over evil, and proclaiming that evil has no power over us, that there’s nothing to be afraid of, because we belong to the risen Christ. 

That includes affirming the truth that all who have died in Christ are not lost, but safe in God’s loving presence awaiting the completion of God’s purposes for the world. 

Today, on All Saints’ Sunday, the Church remembers Christians who have died, including holy heroes who gave bold witness to the Christian faith, persons who made such an impact that they changed the course of history. 

We can look to the example of St. Paul. Starting out as a persecutor of the Church, he came to believe in Jesus, giving up everything he had ever known to travel all over the Roman Empire to share the good news that through his death and resurrection, Jesus is the true Lord of the world. And that God’s sin-and-death-conquering reign has begun. Along the way, he suffered hunger, shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment. But he never gave up. And in the end, he died as a martyr, giving his life in witness to the gospel. 

St. Mother Teresa is a more contemporary example of a holy hero. For about 50 years, she worked with other women to minister to the poorest of the poor in places like Calcutta, India. Forming the Missionaries of Charity, she responded to the needs of the hungry and the sick, the homeless, the blind, refugees, the dying, and orphans. 

We find another holy hero the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we remember each year on the Episcopal Church calendar. Dr. King gave his life championing the cause of civil rights for African Americans. He worked tirelessly to realize the dream of a society in which persons will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And he died for the dream of a Beloved Community in which people of all nations and races may live together in harmony. 

These are just some of the towering figures of faith who changed the world. They may seem almost superhuman in comparison to our daily lives. It may be hard to relate to them. Their examples may seem unattainable. After all, it can be difficult enough just to make it through any given day or week with the challenges of work, school, and family life. 

That’s why it’s important that we balance our remembrance of the Church’s holy heroes with the New Testament’s broader understanding of sainthood. 

Take, for example, this opening line from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians: 

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  

This is a typical way that Paul begins his letters to churches. It’s a reminder that “the earliest definition of the word saint is every believer.” That’s particularly striking in the case of the church in Corinth. Because this church was plagued by every sin and disruptive behavior you can possibly imagine. Seriously, if you can think of it, they were doing it. These were Christians whose lives hardly measured up to the high standards of sanctity that we often associate with the word “saint.” 

And yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians that as sinful and imperfect as they are, they have been sanctified by God. They have been set apart as holy in the waters of baptism. They are called to be the saints they already are. They are called, not necessarily to do great things, but to do small things with great love. 

When I think of ordinary, imperfect, everyday saints who did small things with great love, I think of my great-uncle Charlie. In fact, I’m wearing his ring. My grandmother made it for him. It has his initials on it: HBC. Hobson Bryan Cargile. 

His older brother was named Charlie, so he got the nickname “Little Charlie” when he played baseball for a place way up north called the University of Alabama. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. 

I have my first and middle names from him. And my son is named directly after him. 

Uncle Charlie died on November 5, 1980. I was 11 years old. There’s a lot about him I don’t remember. But I vividly remember how he made me feel. 

Mom and I would go over to the house, and she would visit with my grandmother and great-aunt while I hung out with Uncle Charlie. He would make a cup of coffee for himself, and then pour one for me. Actually, my cup was about this much coffee and this much milk with a couple of sugar cubes added. Then we’d go watch sports or westerns on TV. I would sit with him in his favorite chair as we both sipped coffee. 

The way Uncle Charlie treated me made me feel like somebody special. It made me feel important. I didn’t have to do anything. We didn’t even have to talk. We could just be together, resting in the safety and acceptance of each other’s presence. 

Uncle Charlie radiated unconditional love. He touched me deeply in ways I couldn’t understand until many years later. I would even go so far as to say that Uncle Charlie’s love for me helped shape my understanding of God. When I wear his ring, I feel close to him. As though somehow this world and the next - heaven and earth - are brushing up against each other. 

A child was once asked: “What is a saint?” And looking up at the stained glass windows in her church depicting people from the Bible, she answered: “Saints are people who let the light in.” 

She’s right. Saints are people who let the light in. Saints are people through whom the love and grace of God shines. Saints are people who do small things with great love. 

Uncle Charlie did that for me. Who has done that in your life? 

As we remember and give thanks this day for all those we love but see no longer, may we remember that we, too, are called to be saints. We are called to let the light of Christ shine. We are called to do small things with great love. 

May God empower us to lead lives worthy of that calling.