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Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

On this All Saints’ Sunday, I have a particular saint in my heart. My high school athletic director, Mr. Olson, passed away at the end of September, and I was invited to join a Facebook group honoring him. Mr. Olson was the athletic director for decades, the vice principal forever, a football coach… he was one of those fixtures who is remembered fondly by generations of students. On this Facebook group, it happened that most of the tributes were stories of people getting in trouble with him as vice principal. They described the way this big former lineman would limp-stomp down the hall and shout your name with his football-coach voice: “Williams! In my office, now!” And then you’d get in his office, and he’d sit down and smile. I found that especially the troublemakers loved Mr. Olson, and everybody’s memories just glowed with love and respect.

These memories remind me of our impulse to say only nice things about people at their funerals. That’s a valid impulse, because of course we want to remember the things we liked about the people we love. At the same time, we usually know more about someone than just what we happen to like about them. When I sit down with a family to talk about the memories and stories that are important to them in their grief, we usually come to at least one or two stories that the family specifically asks me not to tell at the funeral. Sometimes it’s just a private family dealing that doesn’t have to be aired, and sometimes it’s the stuff we need to get off our chests but that feels like it would besmirch the memory of our loved one. Sometimes I feel like I should only tell half the truth at a funeral.

I’m in good company here. Mother Teresa, as she was coming to the end of her life and preparing some of her affairs for posterity, expressed a desire that her correspondence should be destroyed and never published. When her executor ignored her instructions and published it anyway, we found out why: Mother Teresa struggled with doubt and despair for most of her career. She went decades without having a sense of God’s presence. She confessed this in her correspondence, but she didn’t want it published, because she knew what her name meant to people, and she didn’t want to discourage other people with her spiritual darkness (compare Christopher Hitchens’ analysis).

We have this impulse to avoid part of the truth, to tell only the favorable things, as if we had to make the case for God’s grace or to suggest that God has been gracious despite appearances to the contrary. And then there’s the book of Hebrews. As I talked about last week, Hebrews insists over and over again that we don’t have to earn grace, that we don’t have to change God’s mind about us, that God is already there loving us and Jesus has already done everything that could ultimately need to be done. It’s not our job to be perfect. It’s not our job to be good enough. It’s not our job to make something happen in God’s reality. It’s our job to be loved. It’s our job to receive the love that God pours out on us in Christ. This week’s reading puts it in a particular way: “His blood [Christ’s death] will purify our consciences from useless rituals, so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). We are loved, always and forever, so that we may serve God.

So today is All Saints’ Sunday, this first Sunday in November, when we acknowledge all those who have gone ahead of us in the faith. When we talk about the saints, I hope we feel like we can tell the whole truth of their lives – the public parts of their lives, anyway, not just to air dirty laundry. I want to tell the truth about the difficult parts of our lives, the parts that can be full of struggles, failures, and shortcomings. And then I want to talk about the love of God that transcends all the rest of that, the light that outshines all the rest of life in love. My friend and colleague, Pat Gillespie, puts it this way: “Our job at a funeral is to identify how God’s light has shined through the particular life we’re remembering.” That means that at the funeral, we’re going to talk about the particular life and the particular person who lived it, but that will always be in the service of talking about God’s love.

It’s like talking about a diamond. When my mom managed a jewelry store, I learned a fair bit from her about diamonds. What I learned is that each diamond is unique in its shape, its color, and what gemologists call “inclusions.” Inclusions are those little imperfections, the little chunks of something else that got stuck inside the diamond when it was being formed. We’re like those diamonds: you see what you can see because of what’s in there, but it’s the light shining through it that matters the most.

It’s the light shining through both our successes and our failures that matters. It’s the light of God that shines through our great, amazing accomplishments and through the places where we’re broken, lost, and confused. Both of those point toward what matters the very most in our lives; our faithfulness and our sin are a lot closer to each other than we might think they are. Jesus, when asked what is the most important commandment, doesn’t come up with rules that must be perfectly obeyed, he comes up with: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” What that looks like on the ground isn’t necessarily all that pretty, because love is a messy business.

So we celebrate today saints like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who spent her whole career in deep tension with the religious hierarchies around her and a deep angst toward God. She also spent her career with a burning desire to love and serve God’s people. Not only are both those sides of her real, but I think they’re united. They’re one witness to God’s love that transforms our world relentlessly toward what God would have it be.

And we celebrate other saints in all their imperfections. The devoted mother who taught her kids how to knit and how to drink. The great pillar of the church whose family is just glad to see the guy gone. The hostess who was so delightful that nobody knew just how unhappy she was when company left and she was stuck by herself.

The good news is that God knows both parts of each of those stories. God knows both parts of all our stories, yours and mine. God loved us even before any of that happened, and God loves us still. It’s not the perfection of our story that makes a saint. It’s not the perfection of human effort that makes a saint. It’s the love of God. Saints aren’t chosen for being perfect, their called to live by and for God’s loves. That’s what saints do: we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – limited as all that is – and we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves, so far as we can.

So I hoped you would bring a saint with you – a memento, a picture, a name, or just a memory. Hold that saint for a moment in your heart. What makes them wonderful? Where did they really nail it? And where did God show love despite the fact that they didn’t? Where did God’s grace shine through in unexpected ways? God is there on both sides, shining through both our successes and our failings, because that’s what God’s love is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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