The Sunday After All Saints is time to really relish all the meanings of the word saint, remembering all the paragons of our faith in ages past, our beloved saints that each of us have known and loved, and our own status as saints, members of the community of saints that stretches through time and eternity. Baptism is a way to mark and honor that status, claiming this baby today also as a saint. Not making him one, mind you, because God already knew and loved this baby long before any of us got to meet him, even his parents. But celebrating that fact publicly here for all of us, and in the process, celebrating all of our belovedness as well. That’s what being a saint really comes down to – being beloved, and knowing ourselves as beloved, and acting out of that belovedness.
Which is, as we all know, not the same as being perfect. Or – do we all know? We still most of us think of saints as those perfect people, the ones who got it right – so perfect they weren’t even human. And we can find plenty in our tradition to back up this idea, that seem to emphasize getting our behavior exactly right, believing exactly right, in order to merit praise and a ticket to heaven. We hear words like our prayer today, asking God to help us ‘run without stumbling’; we hear Paul asserting to the Thessalonians that his conduct has been ‘pure, upright, and blameless’; we hear Jesus skewering religious leaders for their pride and hypocrisy and telling the rest of us that we’d better humble ourselves; we might just be tempted to think, be a saint? That must be for other people. I’m not good enough for that; besides, I’ve got other stuff going on. Catch me on the next round.
But then there’s the language of the baptismal covenant we all recited again – will you do these things you have promised, trying to live out your faith in this world? Well, I will, we answered – with God’s help. I’ll try, but I know I’m not going to always get it right. I’ll need God’s help. Not gonna manage it any other way. And what our faith actually teaches us is that God says back to us, no problem. I’ll work with what you’ve got.
If we need a story that shows us how God does that – well, there are a lot of them, but the primeval one would be to recite for ourselves the story of salvation history right there in scripture, how God brought God’s people out of slavery into freedom and continues to do so today. (This is the story that runs through the Old Testament, that part of the Bible so many of you like to tell me is awful and you never read it.) Today’s reading from the Old Testament, from the book of Joshua, gives us the finale to that story – kind of. After all the long years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites have arrived at last at the border of the Promised Land. Slavery in Egypt is far behind them; they have been in the wilderness for 40 years and God has cared for them, nurtured them, and brought them to this promised place. They had to go through those 40 years to get Egypt out of their system, stop seeing themselves as slaves and own themselves as a people, and now they’re ready. But first they have to walk through the waters of the Jordan, and just to remind them one more time of how they got there, God parts the waters just like the Red Sea, and they cross through on dry land. They passed through the water out of slavery, and now they pass through the waters into the Promised Land. (Nice touch on a baptism day, all that water, right?) God brings them through all the way.
But it’s important to remember that nothing in their behavior shows they deserve it. All through the time in the wilderness the people of God acted like you-know-whats with God, and with Moses his chosen leader. It’s the most amazing formation story ever, when you think about it. Who would want to tell this story about their own origins? There are no shiny sterling heroes, no sweeping praises of the people’s glory and might and faithfulness. It’s just a long tale of bad behavior. They have been tested and found wanting over and over again – complaining and disbelief over God’s providing them food and water, making their own god as a golden calf, harassing Moses in his attempts to lead them. And yet God has forgiven them, again, and again, and again again, and here they are. But now that they’re in the Promised Land, this is no finale. They’re not going to get any better – God will tell them to go one way and they’ll go the other. They will do terrible, horrific things to some of the people that live in the land, and say that God commanded them to do it (yes, I think that’s what’s going on there); and they’ll intermarry and pick up the customs and gods of others in the land, and pretend that God never existed, and it will just go on from there. Those are our ancestors in the faith. It’s all still going on. It’s why we’re tearing each other to pieces in that biblical land today, and why we tear each other to pieces here in this city, and in our homes, and in our hearts, and act like that’s all normal and ok. And yet still, God will love us.
Of course it’s not all of it bad behavior – there’s also the stories in salvation history of ones we might actually more easily call saints, those who try to do the right thing, who listen to God and try to share what they hear of God’s word to others. Who show mercy to their enemies, who lead people back to goodness, who keep the faith in times of trial, who change their hearts and lives and live as God asks them to. But none of them are perfect either. And those are our ancestors in the faith too – the ones who said, I will, with God’s help.
Being a saint means remembering all that, and knowing it’s true of every one of us – the good, the bad, the ugly. And the God-belovedness, the persistent unflagging love of God that calls us out of our dark corners and bloody deeds and pulls us into light and wholeness and healing. That love never gives up, no matter how terrible the times. God hasn’t given up on us; God isn’t giving up on us now. Because we’re all of us saints of God, no matter how many times we stumble in the race and how stained and full of blame we might be. That’s why Jesus reminds us to humble ourselves – it’s so God can exalt us. When we exalt ourselves, of course, it doesn’t look good. But God is all about exalting us, every chance we give her. God’s eager to do it, right here, again, for you.
And to make that tangible, in a minute we’ll celebrate the Eucharist at that altar, and we’ll all make our way to it and receive again the bread of life, which is given freely to every single one of us. Whatever we’ve done or left undone, whether we’re ready or not. To remind us, all of us saints, that God loves us, first and foremost, and always, forever.
And so, as we say every Sunday: walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice for all.