Wednesday, November 05, 2008

All Souls Day

Revelation 7: 9-17
1 John 3: 1-3

We’re about to name some names in worship. These names are the names of people who have died in the past year, whether they are church members or the loved ones of church members. I am sure there are others, and there are extra candles. Of course, we also remember those who died less recently than these, sometimes back thirty, forty, sixty years. It is only natural. The tradition of doing this at this time of the year is an old tradition. It even predates Christianity, predates Christ, and many of the traditions of Halloween, the jack o lanterns, the costumes, the images of horror and fright all are based in how we think about and handle death.

The main name for November 1st, and the Sunday closest to it, is All Saints Day. The term “saint” is a problematic one for Protestants. Saints are traditionally part of a Christian practice we do not share, and have at times been very prejudiced against. In our tradition, the only churches named after saints, for instance, are churches named after John, Paul, Mark, James and Matthew. Very rarely do you see a “St. George” or “St. Patrick” United Methodist Church.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers, that all people who follow Christ are charged to preach the gospel somehow. Sometimes that is carried forward to assume that everyone who dies in the Lord must be saints. That all who follow Jesus, when they die, somehow become saints. Others understand that the lives of saints are somehow made extraordinary by a lifetime of action, or by one action. Somehow, for some, Cassie Bernall, who is known only for one act, which was professing a belief in Jesus Christ just before she was killed in the Columbine Massacre, is of the same stature as Mother Theresa, who protected, fed, clothed and otherwise kept alive and gave dignity to thousands of Children in Kolkota, India.

It is perfectly honorable to name the names of those whom we love who have died. But it is also perfectly honorable to tell the stories of people who have had clear opportunity to witness to their faith, and did so. And rather than place arbitrary value on those stories, what is better, I think, is to know the stories, and to take strength from them when we feel weak, or weary, or uninspired. Though Mother Theresa did save thousands of lives, sometimes the story of Cassie Bernall is more relevant to a situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes people are named saints in the traditional understanding of saints because of holy lives lived, other times for significant singular acts in desperate times.
Each of the people we are about to name here could be saints. Some of us here know why that could be true, most of us don’t. But we name them anyway, on All Saints’ Day, because we loved them. Were they ever inspired by their faith to witness somehow? Did they ever let it be known that they were Christian? We don’t always know. WE name these names because we loved them, and think the best of them. We name these names of those close to us, not knowing sometimes if their stories ever included inspiring moments, or moments of clear witness. For some of these names, it is easy to identify moments where they did indeed exhibit their common priesthood. For others it is harder. But we have faith that, at some point while they were on earth, God used them somehow to show his love and grace and wisdom to us, or to someone. We may never know that story, but we have faith that it exists.

We have faith that, now that they are no longer with us, alive and breathing on earth, that they hunger no more, thirst no more, that the sun doesn’t strike them, nor any scorching heat; that the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” We pray for some that they are now where they always wanted to be, in the presence of God, praising him always, as they seemed to do so well here. We pray for others that they have realized what God actually is, and have found the comfort and ease in God that they couldn’t seem to find here on earth.

What we hope for them, and ultimately hope for ourselves, is that we experience the truth of knowing that we are God’s children now, and that what we will be will be revealed. We hope to indeed find out that when he does reveal himself to us, we will really be like him, as we believe—that the image of God that is within us is alive, and real, and the purest part of us. We praise God today for those who have gone before, because they now know the whole truth, that which we know only in part.

Are these people saints? It is not for us to decide. What IS for us is to honor them, and remember the best parts of them as those parts that reflected most clearly the image of God within them. For it is those parts that we have faith are now clothed in white robes, giving constant praise to the lamb around His throne.

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