Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day when we give thanks for the lives of all those held up in esteem as exemplars of the faith. When I imagine the saints, I think of them as achieving perfectionism. Followers of Jesus who got it all right, and whose lives are ideals for us to follow. One definition for perfectionism does in fact focus on the theological: perfectionism is “a doctrine holding that perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained.” And the saintly ones who do this are way beyond where we ourselves could ever be. But we can try, right? Perfectionism is what we’re called to achieve, isn’t it?
A sermon based on Luke 6.
That’s what we may think, in our social media hungry world. However, Neil Pasricha, a blogger and the author of The Book of Awesome, describes the insidiousness and harm of social media. He says, “There’s a problem comparing your Director’s Cut life with everyone else’s greatest hits [when you scroll through posts]. No matter how good that burrito you microwaved for lunch is, [even] when you chopped up a little avocado, and you put on a dollop of sour cream, and you even melted the cheese, and added the salsa you really like, and sprinkled on some jalapeños. Then you go on Instagram and someone is at a lobster buffet in the Maldives, [and] it’s impossible to feel good about yourself.” And we tend to look at the saints or people we consider giants in the faith in the same way, comparing our ordinary every day lives with the great things they accomplished in their lifetime, and then either think we must go and do likewise, or that we will never be good enough and just throw in the towel on Jesus.
So let me say it outright: You don’t need to be perfect to be a follower of Jesus. And even the saints themselves were never perfect no matter what we ideas we imagine about them.
This became clear with Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Before she died in 1997, many of us thought Teresa to be the exemplar of faith and connection to God. Yet, after her death, we learned that she had grave doubts, and she felt disconnected from God. Her questioning at least allowed us to see her in a more honest light. Or consider St Augustine of Hippo, who infamously prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity, just not yet.” No, the saints were not perfect.
Jesus gives us a glimpse of this need to let go of perfection in his Sermon on the Plain from Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells the people assembled on that day that they’ll be blessed—they’ll be happy—if they are poor, and hungry, and hated, reviled, excluded, and defamed because their reward would be in the age to come. But, get this, if you’re rich and full and if people speak well of you, then you’ll be miserable because your reward has already come to you.
Let me ask just one thing: which side of this equation does our society idealize? Which side do we want to be on ourselves? It’s clear Jesus never spent time on social media because that person with their photo of a lobster lunch at the oceanside will get tons more likes than the unhoused man sitting alone on a bench.
Trappist Monk, author, and peace activist, Thomas Merton explores our desire to be perfect and what it might look like to live as a saint in his book New Seeds of Contemplation. He begins by suggesting that things in God’s creation become saint-like simply in their being. He describes a tree and little yellow flowers by the side of the road, and a lake hidden by some hills, and the sea. He writes that they are “saint[s] who praise God without interruption in their majestic dance.” Why? Simply because they are what God intends them to be. They do not try to be something other than what they were created for. Imagine a hippopotamus saying that a diet was in order because he wanted to be as sleek as a race horse. Preposterous, right? Because it would mean that a hippo stopped being a hippo since it had a false idea of what it could be. Even if that hippo were to find a horse mask and put it on, we wouldn’t be fooled.
And yet how often do we put on masks ourselves? How often do we hide behind disguises in the hopes that it will get us more “likes” in real life? We define ourselves by what we do, or what we have, or where we’ve been. We listen to an ego that declares others won’t accept us if we are truly ourselves, if we are authentic and honest.
Thomas Merton writes, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He continues, “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find [God] I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find [God].”
Why does Jesus say that if you’re hungry and poor and pushed aside by others you’ll be happy? Because in all of those situations, you realize that you must depend on God. You have to seek out God. You have to spend your time finding God, coming closer to God in your daily life. And drawing near to God means that you will begin to hear and understand what you mean to God. That you are beloved, and beyond compare just as God made you. That when you devote your life to discovering joy and then bringing it to others in your unique way, that’s when you’re drawing near to God and becoming a saint.
When we chase after the image of success in our world, when we grasp for money, fame, and fortune, we push aside what God wants for us. We become something we are not. We try to be perfect in the eyes of the world, and that is only fleeting, and will ultimately leave us empty.
God calls us to faithfulness not perfection. God wants us to become simply who we are called to be in our full humanity. We will not always get it right; we will mess up. But we can still become saints if we choose to seek after God, coming into God’s presence in order to uncover all that God desires for us.
May we do that on this All Saints’ Sunday. May we choose to live as the beloved children of God that we are, so that like the elm and the mountain, the horse and indeed the hippo, we can praise God without interruption in our majestic dance.