In the name of God, creator of all. Amen.
A friend of mine became the bishop of the Diocese of Missouri a few years ago – the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson. Bishop Johnson is a kind person of spiritual depth, with a genuine heart for ministries of justice and equity. For the past few months, he’s been putting out these daily prayers on his Facebook page that have often spoken to deep places within me. A couple of times I’ve shared them on our parish Facebook page. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to follow Bishop Johnson on Facebook. You may find, like I have, that reading his prayers each day forms a simple, but solid little spiritual discipline.
Earlier this week, on All Souls Day, he offered this one that I share with you today:
Holy of holies,
we give them back to you.
Our beloved dead, our holy ones,
the flawed and the broken ones,
the loved and the unloved ones,
the bold and the brash ones,
the saints and the sinners of your redeeming.
We give them back to you, O lover of souls. Amen.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, one of those rare events when a major feast of the church can be transferred to a Sunday. And, as a church, we’ve typically sort of meshed together All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day into this conflated observance of All Saints’ Sunday, but they are distinct days with distinct observances.
All Saints’ Day is really about remembering and honoring the Congregation of Saints who have been lifted up as examples of the faith by the church through the centuries. Many of them you probably know – people like St. John the Baptist who baptized Jesus; St. Francis, who we think about each autumn with the Blessing of the Animals; even St. David of Wales, for whom our parish is named. All Saints’ Day is about remembering all the saints – those who are most familiar to us, but also all those whom the church has historically honored, but who we may not think of by name very often. It’s a day for us to honor their contributions and to aspire to embrace lives like they lived.
All Souls’ Day is a little different. It’s about remembering the holy examples of human living that might not have been officially recognized by the church – those individuals who nurtured us and showed us how to walk our very own paths of righteousness. We remember those important people from our own lives who have gone before, and we commend them to God. Parents and children. Teachers and friends. All of those whose holiness is known to us, even if it isn’t celebrated by the wider church.
That’s where Bishop Johnson’s prayer speaks to me: “Holy of holies, we given them back to you” he prays. We recognize that God has given each of us to this world for only a time. We don’t think of that every day. But today reminds us to recognize that, and to acknowledge it, and to honor it. We think about it in the context of those who’ve gone before. God had given them to us for a time, but now, with the stain of their memories coloring our own souls and shaping our own vision, we give them back to God. We give them back for their greater life that transcends this tangible plane. They were ours for a while, but just on loan. Now we give them back to God.
It’s a radical idea. We live in a culture that so often seems more committed to consuming and discarding than it is to honoring and preserving.
I remember in the movie Fight Club from several years ago, the main character, the unnamed narrator, reflects on this culture as he travels for work. He said that we live in a single-serving, disposable culture. On the plane you get single-serve snacks; in the hotel, you get single-serve soaps; at fast food restaurants, you get single-serve seasonings. Over time, it trains us to use and dispose, use and dispose, over and over until we die – faceless cogs in the machine of society. It’s a cycle that shapes how we see each other, and even ourselves. It cheapens creation and erodes community.
But All Saints’ Sunday points us in another direction. It points us toward embracing with thankfulness the gifts that have been loaned to us, and to gratefully return them to God – but only after having retained some piece of their holiness to incorporate into our own lives. These good gifts weren’t just faceless products that were used and disposed. They were gifts from God that made us more human – that brought us closer to the image of God that we were all created to be.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we read from today, we hear words that are intimately familiar, but also still profoundly counter-cultural – counter-intuitive, even. We hear that blessings can come from surprising places – surprising experiences. We expect blessings to come from the good, enjoyable, easy things of life. Sometimes we even define blessings in that way: those things that are good, enjoyable, and easy for us. But Jesus says that God isn’t limited in that way. God’s way of acting in the world isn’t confined to only the ways that we would define it. Through the radical love of Christ, God can use even our sadness and our discomfort, our disappointment and our poverty to intercede on our behalf in the world. God doesn’t wait for us to be happy and content. We are being enfolded in love and blessing even when life hurts. Even when we feel distant from God and out of God’s reach, God is reaching toward us, still.
And that’s part of the gift of these two feasts we fed into today – the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls. They show us that God doesn’t wait for perfection before pouring out blessings. God uses imperfect people. God uses hurting people. God uses people who question their worthiness and who think that God wants nothing to do with them.
And if God can do all that, can’t God use us? We, too, are imperfect. We, too, sometimes hurt. We, too, wonder if we’re good enough, and we wonder how God could ever use us. When we look back at all the saints, both those lifted up by the church and those known only to us, we see that those are the kinds of materials that God not only can use, but that God always uses.
Our culture may see things and even people as disposable. But God sees our value.
We give them back to you, O God. But we’re better because of it. We’re better because you have given them to us for a time.
When it feels like the world is trying to use you up and spit you out, remember that you’re not disposable, either. For someone, you’re the polish that leaves them a little better than the world found them. For someone, you’re the saint. You are a gift that God is letting the world borrow for a while. Even in your brokenness, even in your sinfulness, even when you feel most unworthy, you are God’s gift. Amen.