Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses. Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of these your servants, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at the last, with all your saints, we may attain to your eternal joy.
I would like to begin this morning by inviting you to remember someone who is no longer living, whom you love and who still loves you, even in death. You can close your eyes if you want and see them in your mind’s eye. As you remember them I invite you to hold this memory in your heart as we begin.
Remembering a loved one can bring up all different emotions. It can bring a smile to our lips or a tear to our eye. It can make our hearts beat faster or conjure up a feeling of irritation and anger. It’s amazing how a memory can bring so many emotions. Sometimes we don’t want to confront our emotions, so we try not to remember, but emotions are just emotions, they aren’t good or bad, they just are.
The longer you live, the more people there are to remember. You find that you can imagine the concept of the heavenly hosts because if you live long enough you eventually have more friends in heaven than on earth. Death is part of life and it’s both hard and good. Hard because our friends are no longer with us in bodily form and good in a strange way, because you know some how intuitively that they are at peace, and not so very far away.
For every saint in your life, you gain wisdom. Every person we encounter teaches us something about ourselves and the world. They teach us how to live and how not live. Think for a few second about those who have passed away and what wisdom they gave you….
This morning I have made a wisdom wall. I invite you to take some time to write a piece of wisdom that a saint in your life shared with you and place it on the wall. I was reminded of a saint of this congregation last Sunday as we had celebrated the 25th anniversary of Harvest Christian Fellowship, an urban church in Indianapolis whom we have supported. Harvest Christian came about because Pat Thomas and a gentle man named Calvin Kirby happened to come upon the pastor as he was considering turning a motorcycle shop into a church. Calvin’s name was lifted up last week and I smiled as I remembered his warm spirit and his dutiful and stubborn love for his wife Carolyn.
I was reminded of another saint of this congregation last week as the session decided to lease out our pavilion to the Indiana Basketball Academy. About 9 years ago, when I first came here, your interim pastor Kim Olson was naming the challenge that we had we more building than we need. Rev. Olson sat down with a group of women called the Lunch Bunch and asked them what they thought about the problem. A very wise saint, Carolyn Barnes said, “well, if we don’t need this space, maybe we should share with the people who need it more than we do.”
Grief itself is a paradox, we mourn those who have passed on, and we are grateful and blessed for knowing them. It is better to have known and loved the person and to experience the loss than it is to have never known them at all. If we are honest, we may struggle with naming the person who has passed away as a saint, knowing full well that while they lived on earth they were a sinner, and at the very least no a very nice person.
I once officiated over a funeral for someone and when the service was over and I had proclaimed that they were a child of God and redeemed the grace of Jesus Christ, a family member came out and said, “its really nice you actually think that about her.” True enough, all people are sinners, we just don’t name the sins in the memorial service. They aren’t saints today because they were saints in life, they are saints because of the saving death of Jesus Christ. Again, another paradox.
Jesus was constantly bringing people to this kind of tension. He was able to make a hot tempered fisherman like Peter into the leadership of his church. He was able to take a murderer like Paul and make him an orator for the world. He was able to make a prostitute like Mary Magdelene into a preacher of the resurrection. So too you can acknowledge the sin and shortcomings of someone you loved, ask for grace to forgive them of where they sinned against you or others and love them in death. We are saints because we are sinners – sinners who have been forgiven and loved and graced into sainthood. It has nothing to do with what we do, and everything to do with who God is. God loves us. God made us for that very purpose, so He could love us and we could love him.
He loves us enough to forgive us for being satisfied with ourselves, for gorging ourselves while others go hungry, for hoarding our wealth while others have nothing. Yes, he loves us enough to forgive us for everything we have ever done to separate ourselves from Him. If we will only ask his forgiveness, he will forgive. God loves us enough to transform us from sinners into saints.
All Saints Day celebrates the times when ordinary sinners conveyed God’s holy love to you and to the world, probably in unexpected times and places.
So often when I interview a family in preparation for a funeral they will share with me that the thing they learned from their parent or grand parent is that they lived by and followed the Gold Rule. The commandment that Jesus puts in this sermon: to love one another as God loves you. How do we model loving our enemy in world that encourages the contrary?
The other day Jackson and I were driving down Keystone and somebody cut me off causing me to have to slow down and slam on my horn. Jackson said, “Give them the finger, Mom.” – Um no. Tempting, but no.
Who are the people in your lives who have modeled the gold rule for you, and have lived contrary to the temptations of the world?
Sister Joan Chittister: “We do not do it alone of course. We are companioned through life. Underneath it all, holding us up . . . are the people who love us. . . . They stand by. . .. They provide the unchanging foundation of love” (Called to Question).
And Madeleine L’Engle: “Here we are on the border of Christian mystery. We are not meant to be separated from those who have gone before us” (Walking on Water).
An interesting perspective is in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell explores the lives of ordinary people who become extraordinarily successful and concludes that none of us is a self-made woman or man. We carry with us generations of people before us.
People do not rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage. . .. People who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work and make sense of the world. . . . The legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. (p. 19).
Upon the death of his mother, the late Henri Nouwen wrote a book, The Greatest Gift, and said it beautifully:
When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die; then oppression, persecution, even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge—a knowledge more of heart than of mind—that we are born out of love and will die into love, that this love is our true Mother and Father, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us. (Our Greatest Gift)
“Born out of love—die into love”: that is the hope and promise of the gospel. The dead do not die into nothingness, but into God, into love that is eternal, unchanging, forever.
We join the great company of saints who have gone before us, and the great company of saints who will come after us – all of us forgiven, all of us loved to our very core. We come together around this table to remember that God’s love isn’t limited by our standards. In his Son, Christ Jesus, God is setting a new standard: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do to others as God has already done for you. Not so you can become a saint, but because you already are.
Rev. Dr. Shelly Wood