Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, there was a reason he picked October 31 to do so. In Luther’s day, the next morning would have seen the church absolutely packed with notable people coming in for All Saints Day mass. See, while today the big Christian days are Christmas and Easter, in Luther’s day it was Easter and All Saints Day. The world revolved around the annual celebration of the saints of the church.
Now, All Saints Day is still celebrated widely around the world with lots of various traditions attached to it. In Mexico it comes during the season of Dia de Muertos, and in French-speaking countries it’s celebrated as Toussaint. But the big thing that countries that celebrate All Saints Day have in common is that they are all largely Catholic countries. Protestants like us, we tend to shy away from talking about saints, because for a long time, that was seen as “too Catholic” to do.
But I think there’s more than just anti-Catholic bias behind not celebrating the saints. I think, without the tradition of praying to the saints for intercession, we Protestants just don’t have a good place to think about saints. After all, these people who became saints were perfect, holy, and set apart. They did extraordinary things to earn that title, so even though Luther pointed out that we should study the lives of the saints as a way to understand how we should live as Christians, the fact that they’re just so holy makes them really beyond our ability to imitate.
I mean, consider some of the saints. St. Francis of Assisi gave up his father’s wealthy clothing business to become a wandering monk. He renounced wealth of all kinds, wore a simple robe, and relied on charity to even eat! He was way too holy for the rest of us to act like him.
Or think of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, who were willing martyrs for their faith. Even though they were young, both Perpetua and Felicitas accepted death in the arena at the hands of wild animals over renouncing their faith and getting to live their lives. Not something we can imitate—we’re just not that holy.
Or even think of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She devoted her entire life to serving the poor of Calcutta, giving spiritual guidance and feeding the hungry. She was so holy that the entire Catholic world demanded she be sainted after she died! That’s not a person we can look to as an example—we can’t be that good.
But—and y’all probably saw this coming—what if we look at it differently?
Consider Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Plain. Those who are blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated. He commands his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for their oppressors, to turn the other cheek, to give generously, and sums it all up by saying “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Now, at first glance these seem like really steep commands. They’re really hard to fulfill, to the point that most of us might give it a half-try and give up. Who, after all, is willing to always love their enemies and pray for those who oppress them? But the thing is, these aren’t out of reach for us. They’re hard, yes, but they’re not things we simply can’t do. And I know they’re within our reach because I’ve been reading about the lives of the saints.
Yes, those same saints that we put up on a pedestal, who are too holy for us to imitate, whose place in our faith as Protestants doesn’t really make sense. Those saints.
I know Jesus’ commands are attainable, even though they’re hard, because the saints were nothing more than people. They were just ordinary people who heard what Jesus told them to do, and worked very hard to do it. We remember them as Saints Perpetua and Felicitas because they heard Jesus’ call not to deny him, and they trusted in his promise that “even though they die, they will live.” We remember him as Saint Francis because he heard Jesus’ command to be generous, to give up his possessions and follow, and he trusted. We remember her as Saint Teresa of Calcutta because she heard Jesus’ command to treat others as you would want to be treated, and took it seriously.
But one thing is absolutely true about all of them: they were nothing more than people.
They were ordinary people like the billions of Christians throughout time who, even though we don’t always label them as saints, were saints. The only thing different is how far they took Jesus’ commands on their lives. We remember them because these people did what we try to do, what we’re called to do, as Christians. And they’re not the only ones.
A community of women in the Middle Ages who lived in communities along the Rhine River took the call of Jesus seriously enough to organize themselves into charitable communities called the Beguines. Women like Mechtild of Magdeburg or Hadewijch of Antwerp sewed clothes to give to the poor, and cooked meals to feed the hungry, and collected alms to support the needy. They weren’t superhumans, they were ordinary women who listened to the call.
George Fox spent a long time trying to strengthen his own faith, looking for God’s presence in every place he could imagine. Then he felt God’s presence in silence, and realized that it was in stillness that we could feel God present in our hearts—and he shared that with others. He helped strengthen the faith of his neighbors by helping them to still their lives, and founded the Society of Friends—the Quakers. He wasn’t a superhuman. He was just an ordinary man who was looking for God.
And in case we imagine the saints are only people who live far in the past or far away, Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove live in Durham, NC and have organized a collection of young families who make God’s presence felt in their lives by living by a monastic rule. They pray the hours together, collect alms to give to the poor or the local charities, and they organize together to do good deeds. They’re not superhumans. They’re just people.
Every one of the people we named this morning—Donald, Ervin, Gerald, Spencer, Ed, and Vickie—was a saint. They were saints because through the waters of baptism, they were called by Jesus to start making the kingdom of God known by their faith put into action. They heard what Jesus said on the plain, to treat others as you would want to be treated, and to one extent or the other as they had ability, they did that. And because they did it, they’re saints we are called to imitate.
Just like the saints of old. Like Francis. Or Teresa. Or Perpetua. Or Felicitas. Or Mechtild. Or Hadewijch. Or George. Or Jonathan. Or Leah. Or any of the numberless saints who have heard the call of Jesus and done their very best to follow what Jesus commanded.
And so are y’all.
Yes, one thing is true, that one day every one of us will be a memory of those who come after us. And we are called to leave behind a legacy that others will imitate. The lives of the saints, all the saints we celebrate today, are extraordinary not because they were free of the burdens of temptation that we have, or that they didn’t have the weight of worry for things in the world that we have, or that they were uniquely blessed by God to be holier than the rest of us. No, the only thing that separated them was that they did what Jesus said. And we’re called to do the same. We’re called to act in the world in such a way that those who come after us will see what we’ve done and try to imitate our actions, because we’re just people trying to do what Jesus calls us to do.
I think that’s really the blessing of All Saints Day. We get to look over the great sweep of history and see Christians throughout time, and by looking at what they’ve done, we can realize this calling that Jesus makes on us isn’t impossible. It’s not beyond our reach. If they can do it—if the saints in the past managed to love their enemies, or give generously, or treat others as they wanted to be treated—then we can too. Because we’re just ordinary people, just like them.
And thank God for that. Amen.