A sermon on All Hallows' Eve
Have you ever played the game "20 Questions"? Today my sermon is full of questions. Today I want you to ask me these questions, twenty of them, the ones in your hands. And I am going to answer them. Now, I know that these are questions with answers you may already know. So this is a test. A test of faith. A test with no grades! But how well will you do on this test of faith? Let's see.
What is tomorrow? Monday, yes. But tomorrow is also All Saints' Day.
What is today? Today is All Saints' Eve. The night before Christmas Day is Christmas Eve. So today is the eve of All Saints' Day, the day or evening before All Saints'. Which is where "Halloween" got its name.
What is Halloween? Halloween is the contraction, the short version of the phrase (All) Hallows Evening. Or "Even." Or "E'en" (with an apostrophe). It's a time when children of all ages dress up, pretend and get treats. Or play tricks, if they can. These days, we need to take great care and be safe on Halloween.
Why "Hallows" and not "Saints'"? All Hallows is what folks used to call All Saints'. "Hallows" is an old word, like the one used in the Lord's Prayer, "Hallowed be thy name..." Hallowed means "holy" or "saintly. Today is the eve, the day before All Saints', a time to remember and celebrate all the saints.
How did this celebration of Halloween and All Saints' start? It probably started in Ireland, in a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain, which means "summer's end." It was the official end of the "lighter" half of the year and the beginning of the "darker" half. Are you remembering the time change next weekend?
The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the other, the spirit world, was "thin" at this time of year, allowing spirits or ghosts, both good and bad, to pass back and forth. Family ancestors were honored and "invited home," while others were warded off, with costumes and masks. Since the church also observes All Saints' on the Sunday after the actual day, we will remember and "welcome home" all the saints of our lives NEXT Sunday.
Why is Halloween important? Halloween is more than just trick-or-treating. When we know the real meaning of Halloween, we see that it is not a time to fear, but rather, a time to embrace. It is a time of embracing our past and remembering, a time to remember and honor all the saints of our lives.
Why do people still dress up for All Saints' Eve? Children of all ages like to pretend to be other people. We like to use our imaginations, to imagine who we might be or might have been or might become. Today a few folks have been dressing up a bit and acting as if they were some of the "saints of All Saints'."
Why is the feast of All Saints' so important? It's so important that the church celebrates it twice, on the actual day (tomorrow) and on the Sunday following. For us, All Saints' is the "name" day of this 268-year-old parish. That's why next Sunday, Bishop Rabb will be here and we'll have confirmations and baptisms.
Who are the saints? In addition to the New Orleans football team, the saints are, as our Prayer Book puts it, "the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ..." (p. 862). To be a saint is to become more and more like Jesus.
How do people become "official" saints? In Catholic tradition, great saints are canonized or made official over a period of years, sometimes centuries. In the Episcopal Church we choose our saints by starting with the Catholic calendar of saints and adding others, every three years, by vote, at our General Convention.
How perfect are saints? "For the saints of God are just folk like me," that old, beloved hymn says. Saints are not perfect. But saints are made perfect, over time, by the God who loves us perfectly. And saints become perfect when they become perfectly themselves, not someone else.
How can you be a saint and a sinner at the same time? How can you NOT? Just because someone is made holy by God, just because the communion of saints is made holy, just because the church is made holy, just because you and I are made holy by God does NOT make you, me or the church any less human.
What is "the communion of saints"? In the Nicene Creed we say "we believe in the communion of saints." That's all the saints who have gone before us, who have lived and died and gone to heaven. Including your grandparents. Including some of the former clergy and members of this church. Including Mary and Joseph, Abraham and Sarah, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And . . . including Zacchaeus, from our Gospel story today.
Who is Zacchaeus? Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, someone whose job it was to collect all Roman government taxes, no matter how he did it. One scholar suggests we compare his behavior to subprime mortgage agents on steroids. This means he was particularly hated by his fellow Jews. Zacchaeus' wealth was great; his height was not. For some reason, he wanted to see Jesus.
This corrupt, wicked man did not want to be wicked and corrupt any longer. Zacchaeus knew his life needed to change. And he had heard about this Jesus. So Zacchaeus put his pride aside so he could see this saintly man, this son of God, who was ready to offer him salvation.
Why is Zacchaeus a saint? Zacchaeus was not thinking about appearances, about how he would look if he, a grown man, exposed himself to ridicule by running in public, let alone climbing a tree. But this little man was feeling young at heart. And the low branches of the sycamore tree were calling out to him.
When Jesus and Zacchaeus met eye to eye, when they saw each other, Jesus rejoiced. "I must stay at your house today!" And so did Zacchaeus. "So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him." I think Zacchaeus was more than happy. I think he was full of the holiness, full of the happiness of God.
How does God want me to be a saint? God wants you and me to be saints by being perfectly ourselves. It's been said that your true vocation, your true calling by God is where the world's sadness and your gladness meet (Frederic Buechner, paraphrased). To be a saint is to find your gladness and help others with sadness.
How might I actually be a saint today? Do you know someone who needs a kind word, a smile, a hug? Who needs a phone call, a visit, an e-mail from you? Who needs to know that God loves them? Today, think of one person who needs to know that saints really exist. Then go forth. Be a saint for someone.
Why should I want to be one, too? Don't be a saint because you SHOULD. Be a saint because you ARE, because you want to be. Let God's love for you flow through you. Let God's mercy and forgiveness and joy flow through you. But be sure and keep some of God's love, mercy, forgiveness and joy for yourself!
What is joy? Joy is different from happiness. You might call it happiness "plus." It's the gladness that comes from God. Actually, it's the way God takes our sadness and transforms it. If we let God, that is. If we actually give God our sadness and our pain, our suffering and troubles, God in Christ will transform it.
Where is joy? It's deep within us. When we are born, a seed of joy is planted in our hearts. Other saints - those people who also have that seed of joy planted deep within them, people like our parents and friend and other loved ones - show us how joy grows. Throughout our lives, joy can grow - if we let it.
That's what made Zacchaeus a saint. He let the seed of joy planted in his heart grow so much that he climbed up a tree, jumped down, hosted Jesus at his home and then - he gave away everything he truly didn't need. He was no longer just a chief tax collector. He was a chief joy reflector, and Jesus loved him.
Where is YOUR joy? That's the final question.