Earlier this year my college chaplain died. Sammy was a United Methodist minister who in the 1950’s had left his PhD program at Princeton to go to seminary. A son of South Georgia, he turned down offers of big steeple churches in the north in order to return home to serve as a pastor and work for civil rights.
As a college chaplain Sammy loved, and was loved by, everyone. He advised a fraternity that was perennially about to get kicked off campus while at the same time affirming gay kids coming out long before it was culturally acceptable. He prayed with us on Wednesday nights in the chapel and then snuck out back to smoke the cigarettes that his Methodist ordination was supposed to ban. He deeply loved the school, but was also quick to be honest when the administration got things wrong.
Sammy was not perfect. He was a human being who messed up, just like all of us. And he wasn’t a saint in life. Had anyone suggested that he was, he would have broken out in a grin, shook his head, and laughed.
But Sammy is a saint now.
Protestant Christians don’t just think of saints as people who are extraordinarily holy. Sainthood, for us, has little to do with being extraordinarily good. In fact, the biggest barrier between you and sainthood is this: you’re still alive.
Rather, every November 1st on All Saints’ Day we remember the Communion of Saints, which is simply every person who has died believing in Christ’s love and grace.
This All Saints’ Day is the first that Sammy has joined that fellowship. I’m not sure exactly what the Communion of Saints looks like today, but I picture Sammy in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by other imperfect people who in death have been made saints by a Christ who defied the grave.
I am better for knowing him. As are so many others. And there are those who you have known who you are better for knowing too. Remember them today, and thank God for all the saints.
God, thank you for the saints we have known, and thank you for loving the saints we are becoming. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is the Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and the author of Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.