I preached this sermon on November 6, 2022, All Saints Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:20-31.
One of my favorite books when I was little was The Velveteen Rabbit, and I will admit that even now, many years later, it still brings a tear to my eye when I read it. If you’re not familiar with the book, by Margery Williams, it tells the story of a toy rabbit who is given to a young boy as a Christmas present. The toys talk to each other when people aren’t around, and the little rabbit befriends a threadbare old hobby horse, learning from him the secrets of what is called “nursery magic,” including the mysterious concept of becoming “real.”
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. ”Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. …Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
And thus begins the Velveteen Rabbit’s own journey toward becoming “real,” which, as you might imagine, is not just about becoming more realistic, like the other rabbits who can jump and run and play, but about becoming more true: it’s about discovering the luminousness that radiates from within a person when they have given themselves over to a life of deep and faithful love.
For the little toy rabbit, this process of becoming real proves surprising, and costly, and beautiful, and I will leave it to you to revisit the story to find out exactly what happens to him. You can find the full text of the story online.
I was moved to do so myself this past week because the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey feels especially appropriate for the feast we are observing today. In the world of nursery magic it might be called becoming “real,” but in the Christian tradition we have another, very particular name for following the long and twisting road towards love: we call it sainthood.
Sainthood, to be honest, has an unhelpful reputation. We too often associate it with the opposite of “real”: plaster statues of seemingly perfect people, with their halos and their dreamlike gaze directed towards heaven. We might feel inspired by such figures, but we might also struggle to see how their seemingly exemplary lives bear any resemblance to our own imperfect ones.
But if you have ever felt that way, I have good news for you: the saints, even the most famous and revered ones, are far messier and more real than you might expect. If you have never done so, find a biography about one of them and read it. They struggled with doubts, with despair, with health conditions, with war and economic instability. They fought with their colleagues. They ended up in prison and in exile. Some of them were beloved in their own time, many were not. And really, in the end, the only thing that is consistently true about them is that they were somehow dedicated to the vision of blessedness that Jesus elucidates in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel: that God stands on the side of those who are vulnerable and trampled upon, that God enlivens those who give their lives away for love’s sake, that God does not forget those who pay the cost of caring deeply in a callous world.
God’s mission in Christ is to make these things real, to make them tangible, indeed, to make them inescapably present even as the forces of death and despair surround us—this is what we mean when we talk about the kingdom of God. And sainthood, far from being a sort of self-satsified, holier-than-thou lifestyle choice, is simply what it looks like to participate as best we can in that kingdom, in the redemptive work of love in our lives, for as long as we can, until most of our hair has been loved off, and our eyes drop out and we get loose in the joints and very shabby, until our carefully cultivated defensiveness and artifice have been worn down so thin that we burn, burn, burn brightly with the fearlessness, with the joy, with the reality of love. That is what a saint looks like. And, however imperfect our lives and our circumstances, that is what we have been invited into, from the day of our baptism until this very moment.
This morning, baby Natalie will be baptized into the Body of Christ, taking her own place within the Church’s long journey toward becoming real, becoming saints, becoming all that God made each of us and all of us to be. We will bathe her in water and in prayers, passing on that which we have been given in our own baptisms: a glimpse of what is real, and the One who is real, and the wondrous hope that we will come to know that reality in our very flesh…that over the course of our lives, we will become as part of it. Natalie’s share of this story is just beginning, and we rejoice for her and her family.
And yet, as it is said, “in the midst of life we are in death,” and so this morning, on All Saints, we also summon the memory of those whose stories have ended—those whom we love and see no longer and yet who are no less real simply because they are absent. In fact, we might say that that they are even more real now, blessed and at peace in the nearer presence of the Living God.
Our beloved dead are so real, now, that our limited senses cannot quite perceive them, except in our hearts, in those moments when we still feel the weight of our love for them, how it endures beyond death, how it cannot be destroyed, how we are bound together for all time, beyond all time. We say their names out loud, each one a life now infused with eternity, and in the silences between, we listen for the music of heaven.
And so here we find ourselves, beloved ones, saints-in-progress, weary hearts still daring to believe in nursery magic—here we are, suspended on this November morning between life and death, between warmth and winter, between the promise of the future and the tenderness of the past. Here we are, asking what is true and what is real and what is worth living and dying for, and knowing, in the end that the answer can only be love, that it can only be the name of love, which is Jesus.
Here we are, rich and poor, hungry and full, laughing and weeping, longing for him, for the Savior who will gather up our worn out bodies and call us blessed, who will make us whole, who will make us truly alive. Not perfect, plaster saints, but real ones: threadbare, wise, and full of grace.