2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Luke 19:1-10
This has been a year of firsts due to the coronavirus. Last night was another one: it was the first time we did not celebrate Halloween the way we are accustomed to: No incessant knocks at the door, No pouring candy into the grubby hands of little aliens, baby sharks, animals and creatures of all kinds roaming the streets. No tricks, no treats, hardly any decorations and carved pumpkins on the neighborhood porches. COVID has forced us to change our practices – while some scaled-down version of Halloween took place, I doubt children did not get the same big stash to last them to the end of November.
Today however, we acknowledge All Saints Day, a holiday with a long history, and one that fortunately hasn’t been canceled. We celebrate today like the church has for centuries those who belong to the church triumphant in Eternity. In the days of early church, Christians would set aside different days to celebrate the anniversaries of the death of martyrs, who had sacrificed their lives for the faith. Eventually the church decided to make it one day to observe all martyrs, and that became All Saints Day, celebrated in the Western Christianity on November 1.
Now to make it all more confusing: hundreds of years later All Souls Day was added on November 2, so that people could pray for all the faithful who died, the average Joe or Jane Christian who might not be good enough to make it to heaven (in the thinking of the day), or who didn’t die a martyr’s death. These were not the non-monks, nuns, priests, hermits, those A-level persons super saints who lived lives of such sacrifice to border on the miraculous. This was based on the idea that the souls of the faithful who didn’t make it into heaven would wait in purgatory, a place between heaven and hell where those souls could be purified to get ready for heaven. And they could still be helped by the prayers of people on earth.
The Protestant Reformation changed this way of thinking. Protestants don’t believe in purgatory, so we don’t pray for the souls of the dead, beyond trusting them to God’s care and giving thanks for their lives. So after the Reformation, we merged All Souls Day with All Saints Day, and honor anyone who has died, especially those who were part of our community of faith. Protestants also don’t believe in a hierarchy of God’s servants, leading to a hierarchy to a of saints. We believe we are all in this together. The Greek word that is translated “saint” means “set apart for God’s use.” And Paul called all Christians “saints.” Most of his letters are addressed to “the saints’ in various parts of the world, meaning the Christians. It is clear from the letters that not all of the saints acted in a “saintly” manner. There were all sorts of problems and controversies among the faithful. Yet Paul still addressed them as saints, because they had been called so by God.
In the gospel story this morning, we heard about a man who was far from a saint who became one of the saints. Zacchaeus was a chief tax-collector and he was rich. He was rich because he was good at what he did, that is, collecting money from the people for the Romans, and keeping a healthy share for himself. Tax collectors had a well-deserved reputation for being dishonest. And Zacchaeus himself confessed that he was no exception. But when Jesus called him by name, and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus had a change of heart – he received Jesus joyfully.
Because it is Stewardship season, I can’t resist pointing out that this was not just a spiritual conversion for Zacchaeus. He had a financial conversion as well. He responded to Jesus by saying, “I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” We don’t really know what happened to Zacchaeus after this. But if he continued to follow Jesus, we can count him among the saints. Saints are ordinary people, sometimes even bad people, who turn their lives around in response to God’s call. It reminds me of the powerful saying, every saint has a past, every sinner has a future. And in that future is becoming a saint.
In Thessalonians, Paul gave thanks for the Thessalonian saints because “your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing…” Paul saw this growing in faith and love as something to be proud of. What do we have to proclaim here? We should be proud of the saints of Merrick/Freeport Church. What do you think? First, I would say that we welcome all kinds of people and make an effort to understand and work together. We have a servant mentality. We receive and give thankfully, like Zacchaeus. We do not get into power struggles; instead we are eager to pitch in and help. We are open-minded and willing to welcome new ideas, new leaders, and new ways to worship, and this is bringing us closer to God. Most of us are not wealthy but we want to do what is right, and we give what we can to all the mission programs. We have a lot to proclaim about here. God is making us worthy of his call, we becoming his saints.
Today we will light a candle and list those saints who made a difference in our lives as a way to give thanks and honor the light that was in them, and the grace God that shone in their lives. Especially we want to remember those we care about who have died in the past year or in blessed memory. But whether it was days ago or years ago, the impact of a Saint in our life lives an imprint forever. And that is something we can never cancel or curtail its celebration.
Let us remember all those saints who made our lives so rich and full. Let us rejoice, like Zacchaeus, that we too, by following their examples, are becoming and will indeed be counted among the saints. Amen.