Last night, we opened the doors of our church. You may have opened your doors at home too. Here the jack-o-lanterns that the youth carved last week were all lit up, and we welcomed little gangs of goblins, and witches, and superheroes who trooped up the steps eagerly looking for candy.
One of the things I love about Halloween is the way that it transforms a fall night that is growing darker and colder into one full of happiness and light. Childhood is so fleeting, and anything that can be done to bring a little more joy into it, in my view, is worth it.
But, I confess that as a small child I didn’t particularly like Halloween. The witches, and monsters, and decorations made me uncomfortable. And though I’d go trick-or-treating, I secretly liked it when the ghosts and goblins made their ways out of the classrooms for another year. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think a lot of kids get scared of things that go bump in the night.
But then we get a little older, and we see a costume is just a costume, and we find something lovely about candles in pumpkins, and candy given to our kids by neighbors and friends.
But that doesn’t mean we stop getting scared. And not of witches and ghouls, but of other, more grown up things. And sometimes our fear even comes in places that usually bring us comfort, like church. And like today, when a day after Halloween, I’m going to talk about two things that I have seen scare Christians the most: death and the Book of Revelation.
So, seriously, who likes to talk about death? I was a trauma chaplain and a hospice chaplain before I became a parish pastor, and even I don’t like to talk about it. And I sure don’t like thinking about my own death, or the deaths of people I love.
And yet, death is a part of life. We’re all heading there. And we are probably all, whether we admit it or not, at least a little bit afraid of that.
And then there’s the second part; the last book in our Bible, the book of Revelation. I get so many questions about this book, probably more than any other book of the Bible. Through the ages certain churches have pointed to the book of Revelation as a sort of game plan for the end of the world. They read everything that happens in this book literally, things like a fiery lakes and dragons and a Beast that wants to destroy us all.
People hear that, even sometimes those of us who read the Bible with a little more nuance, and they are so afraid that they don’t even want to read this book. We don’t want to know. Revelation is the Biblical equivalent of things that go bump in the night, and we would prefer to pull the covers up over our heads a little more.
But, what if we did the spiritual equivalent of what we might do with a scared child at bedtime. What if we turned on the lights instead, and took a look?
Today’s passage from Revelation is not one of the scary ones. Instead, it tells us of what happens after the scary stuff. There is a new heaven, and a new earth. And God is wiping the tears away from our eyes. And we are told that God is the Alpha, and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And it is good.
The reality is that the book of Revelation isn’t a how-to guide to the end of the world. It’s actually an allegory, written by early Christians who were being harshly persecuted by Rome. It’s a book that describes that persecution in metaphorical terms, and how God is still with them, even in the midst of their pain. It’s a book, ultimately, about hope and about God as the author of a story that is very good.
When we know that, and when we come out from under the covers of our fear, and turn on the lights, we find that there is nothing to be afraid of.
That has a little something to do with last night’s celebration. Because Halloween actually started out of a need to calm peoples’ fears, not make them greater. Halloween, as it turns out, is actually a contraction of words that mean “All Hallows Eve”. And today is “All Hallows Day”. Or, as we call it, All Saints’ Day, because a hallow is a saint.
But in earlier times the night before All Saints’ was scary. The people somehow came to believe that on All Saints’ day the souls of the departed were close to the earth, and if someone who had died was mad at you, things could get dicey. And so, they started disguising their identities by dressing up in costumes. And they lit the night with candles, like the ones we put in pumpkins.
But these days, it’s All Saints’ that scares us, not Halloween. Halloween is fun and games. But All Saints’ is when you come to church and you talk about people who have died. And while you’re doing that we can’t hide the truth from ourselves that one day people are going to be coming into a church and remembering each of us too.
Most of us will take ghosts and goblins any day over that.
And yet, what if we took a page from our ancestors, and what if we spread a little light to the things that scared us, instead of avoiding them altogether.
And what if we started spreading that light by looking at the saints we have known, the ones who are now in that place that Revelation talks about? The one where every tear is brushed from their eyes, and where the Alpha and Omega, who has the first and the last word, is with them?
In our faith, we don’t believe that saints are the people who live impeccable lives. We don’t think they are perfect. And we don’t need anyone to canonize them and give them that official title. Instead, we believe the saints are simply those children of God who have died.
In that sense, we have all known saints in our lives.
Martin Luther said that in life we are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We all get it wrong sometimes, but we keep trying to get it right. And I like that idea. Life is a dance between those two identities, and no one is going to get it exactly right this side of heaven. But because we believe in grace, because we believe in forgiveness, and because we believe that God’s love is so big that it could even overcome the tomb, we believe that the ones we have lost are now saints.
And we also believe that those saints left something here for us too.
There’s an old story about a boy who goes to a church where there are stained glass windows filled with pictures of saints, the kind that light up when the sun hits them. And he is asked in Sunday school, “Who are the saints?” He says, “I know…saints are the people who the light shines through.”
So, maybe the saints in our own lives have never made their way onto stained glass windows, but they are still the people the light shines through.
I remember some of the people I’ve known these last few years who are now saints. Saint Marion was my great-aunt who believed that education mattered for every child. Saint Liz was a woman who, though she was weeks from death, sent us a wedding gift for a marriage she knew she wouldn’t live long enough to see. Saint Chris was a pastor who loved others fighting depression, even as he fought his own. And Saint Alicia was a young woman who forged her own path in a job where no one expected to meet someone like her.
The light shined through each of them. And I know it has shined through your saints too.
And one day, when are days are over, our greatest hope can be that the light will have shined bright enough through us that we are remembered, not as perfect, but as aspiring saints. And people will remember what we taught them about God’s light and love too. Because being saints is our calling, even as it’s one we will never fully achieve in this life.
Remembering the saints is our task today. And so, do not be afraid. Those bumps in the night are nothing to be scared of. Pull the blankets off, open your eyes, and look for the lights that the saints have left burning for us, long after they have been gone.
And so now, let us name our saints, and let their lights shine…