21 Pentecost , All Saints Sunday, 11/3/2019

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Thoughts on 21 Pentecost , All Saints Sunday
The Rev. Clarence E. Butler

It is too sad, that we are forced almost, to use our automobiles for every task that takes us beyond a hundred yards of our homes.  This observation may lead you to believe that I long for the good old days, or that I want to make us less dependent on fossil fuels, both our own and foreign.  In a way, all of the above may be true.  But that is not what prompts me to make my observation.  Rather, I make this observation because today is All Saints Sunday.

We need to walk more.  People have often teased me that the reason I needed two hip replacements is that I walk too much.  Well, I walk because, when I drive, I miss so much.  I must pay strict attention to my own driving and the driving of others.  In the two weeks that I spent recently in Germany, my home away from home, I walked.  There were statues which I would not have seen, had I driven.  In the old town section of the Marburg, a medieval university town where I lived and studied and worked for many years, I walked.  I walked with a fellow former student who pointed out to me, something that was not in place when we were students there.

Acknowledging its dark past, the City of Marburg has placed a Star of David on the sidewalk, just outside of buildings where German Jews once lived or owned, stars commemorating fellow citizens, fellow human beings who were freighted off to a concentration camp.  In Utrecht, Holland, a beautiful Dutch City with its amazing canal system, a former colleague, his wife, and I walked.  At a point along our way to a museum, they stopped and pointed out to me a wall, like the Vietnam Memorial in our nation’s capital, which lists the names, the individual names of Jews who were removed by the invading Nazis and did not return to Utrecht because they no longer lived on this earth.

I became aware recently of a similar memorial, but this time in Montgomery, Alabama, which bears the names, as best recorded in history, of all those of African descent who were lynched, including a school teacher who had the audacity to chastise three Caucasian boys for bullying a little girl.  These memorials are accessed not by automobile, but on foot, and the expectation is that we will stop and linger and reflect.

Why, you ask, do I raise these specters of dark, dark history, both abroad as well as in our own homeland?  Why, when there are other, much more pleasant reminders of our history?  Well, the answer is both simple and complex.  Today we observe the Octave of All Saints, that day and octave when we recall those who have gone before.  That is one reason.  Another comes in the form of a question: how do we define the word “saint”, and can an individual be designated a saint who is not of the same faith tradition as are we?  And did any of these individuals live lives which guarantee that, if we were to meet them, they would stand out because of the halo which the saints in museum paintings sport?

Over the main entrance to the main campus library where I once worked, stand these words: “Remember the past; imagine the future.”  This is actually a rather liberal transliterations of the Old Testament “remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations,” taken from Deuteronomy (32.7)  That admonition continues “ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.”  Although not a reading from this book of the Hebrew Bible assigned for All Saints Day, I suggest to you that this brief line from Deuteronomy has direct bearings on our understanding of the Feast of All Saints, just as strolling through the streets of our own cities and discovering statuary and other memorials add to our understanding of who we are and to the significance of this holy day of obligation.

All Saints Day is the occasion that we remember our own and, knowing that most Christians cannot observe that day of obligation because of work, we are permitted to transpose that celebration to the Sunday next following.  And so it is, that this morning to give thanks to God for those who provided a path for our own journey.

In the Old Testament, the word “saint” was applied to any Israelite as one of the chosen people of God.  In the New Testament, in letters to the Romans or the Philippians, the word “saint” is used to connote any member of the Christian Church, as in “to all the saints of Christ Jesus which are at Philippi.” (Phil 1.1.)  And then there is a more ecclesiastical usage to designate individuals who lives have been exemplary such that the Church has canonized them and set aside a special day of observance and adoration.  There is also the more folkloric definition which is applied to anyone who denies himself or herself certain pleasure of this world, in the hope of gaining access to the world hereafter.

So, Good People, we raise further questions: What does that have to do with you and me?  Where do we begin to differentiate among, to draw the line between those special holy people and the biblical usage?  And can the term “saint” be applied to those who have not been canonized by the church?  These are genuine concerns, and that is why I find the adage in Deuteronomy most useful, for it provides common ground for our understanding of saints.

On All Saints, we remember our own, we pause to remind one another that you and I are part of a long line of faithful departed. It is too easy to forget how vital and important to us they are still today, those prior generations and those whom we love, but see no longer.  We are shaped and formed for good as their imitators in ways we are only dimly aware of, in ways that we lose track of only to our own detriment.

We are not the self-made women and men whom the American dream trumpets and glorifies.  In fact, the myth of the self-made man is a lie and a heresy, so far as our faith is concerned.  Rather, we are the product of communities, large and small, who have taken the time and effort to steep us in the practices and traditions that make up our culture, which includes our religious practices and belief.  These individuals have caused us to acknowledge the presence of God in our lives.

I am talking about family, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy.  If it were not for such as these, we would not have the joy and the assurance that we carry with us in moments of distress.  If it were not for such as these, I shudder to imagine what might be our daily condition.  When I hear the hymn “For all the Saints,” I get a heightened sense of connectedness to dear and beloved ones whom the world claims are dead and gone forever.  I think of those now as part of the church triumphant who were, in years past, willing to go to such great lengths to see that I should succeed in my endeavors.

I think especially of my Aunt Hester, who was not really related by blood, but was the aunt one of my high school sweethearts.  It was she who kept me from being crucified, tarred and feathered by my father, for it was to her that I first confided that I did not want to become the medical doctor whom my father had desired.  My girlfriend’s aunt took the old man aside and told him of my plans to become a professor of German literature and culture, because she truly believed that one should follow one’s passion, which also did not include marrying her niece.

Aunt Hester was not particularly holy by church standards.  In fact, by the standards of her denomination, she was a hardcore, unredeemable sinner, although she went to church every Sunday.  You see, Hester loved her whiskey sours and a good game of poker, and a trip to the racetrack, all forbidden by Missouri Synod Lutheran.  But no one knew better than she, the values of hard, honest work, of saving for a rainy day, of living within one’s means, and of being loyal to family and friends.

Hearing on future All Saints Sundays that hymn, who will come to your mind?  Perhaps the kindness of saints who helped you move into your first home and get settled when you felt vulnerable and at a complete loss?  Saints who have invited you into their homes for dinner as though you were family, because they wanted you to be part of their lives?  Perhaps a classmate, new like yourself, who made you feel at ease, and by whom you found yourself being received as a friend?

Perhaps your saints may be a clergyperson whom you allowed the privilege of entry into your lives through baptisms, weddings, memorial services; or a lay visitor who brings meals-on-wheels, or who drives others to medical appointments, who read to children, or provide books and tapes, in order that incarcerated parents may record books for their children to hear.

We have attempted to capture the diversity of the saints of God in that hymn “we sing the song of the saints of God,” and I am always cognizant that as inclusive as those lyrics attempt to make us, we will invariably omit someone, for there are those saints—not the ethereal ones which we cannot see, but real live ones—whose efforts and prayers on our behalf we will never know, and who do not want to draw attention to their doing no more than the Beatitudes instruct.

As we remember these saints, we recover our own sainthood, and come to bless the God who has blessed us in Jesus Christ.  As Christian people, we are nothing, if we are not thankful for the life and example of such as these.  Of course, this is not to diminish their faults and shortcomings, but to allow the luster of their goodness to remind us that they have become “more than conquerors” through discovering Christ’s love, and have received from God that same crown of righteousness to which we aspire.

We would do well to heed the instruction of the writer of Deuteronomy who has written: “remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations, ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.”

So today, remember the saints of God’s choosing, the saints whom God has empowered to make a difference far beyond their deaths.  They are not as far off and different from us as they seem.  Do not fail to be grateful for them, and to let their living witness ennoble and empower you in your living sainthood.