Click to see All Saint Sunday at HPPC – Nov 1, 2020
Two Things We Don’t Talk About Much
All Saints Day – November 1, 2020
Highland Park Presbyterian Church
David Hogue, Interim Pastor
My mother used to tell a story that I can never directly recall. I must have been 5 or 6 years old, and my theological interest apparently had shown up early. One day I allegedly asked my mother, “Mom, when I die, will I go to heaven?” She replied (probably hopefully), “Well, yes, of course you will.” I pondered this for a while and then, perhaps afraid of being there alone, I asked her, “And what about you? Will you go to heaven, too?” “Yes, David, I believe I will.” I asked the same about my sister Julie and received the same positive response. “And what about Dad? Will he go to heaven?” But before she could reply I corrected myself. “Oh, no. Dad would have to go to work.”
We don’t like to talk much about death. I’m not a fan of Woody Allen’s personal life, but I’ve always loved one of his memorable quotes: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Death is most often that phantom hanging out in the background; only occasionally does it step out from behind the curtains of our desire not to see. It’s painful enough to ponder our own death, but even more painful to imagine life without those special people who have shaped our own lives, who have loved us, challenged us, helped to make us who we are.
But in the last seven months, death has been showing its face everywhere – on our tvs, our computers and phones, and in our conversations. We sit back and watch hard-to-fathom numbers mount as a result of this pandemic that has waxed and waned since March. By the time we are participating, virtually, in this morning’s service, the death toll due to COVID-related illnesses will have climbed past 230,000 in the U.S. alone and 1.2 million deaths worldwide. We can’t get our heads around numbers that large, and so those individual stories of families losing loved ones, of grandparents and parents and spouses and children passing away, penetrate our hearts and make this plague real. And for some of us, death has struck closer to home.
I worry that the sheer number of deaths is changing the way we think about death itself. When we are bombarded by such large numbers, and daily hearing stories about heartbreaking losses, could we ever get to the point where each passing is “just another death?” Is it possible that our ability to grieve could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of losses we are being asked to absorb, that we could become numb to it all?
We don’t talk much about death. But we Protestant Christians don’t talk about saints much, either. Certainly not like our Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican brothers and sisters who carefully retell stories of their heroes in the faith, and have feast days in their honor throughout the year. When we do talk of saints, we tend to use the word like Paul did to describe all members of the household of faith or all those who have passed through the gates of heaven. Or we use it even more casually to describe someone who has put up with a very difficult spouse, parent, child, or boss. “You’re a real saint,” we say to acknowledge the patience they’ve shown, and probably also admitting that we couldn’t have stood it if we were in their position.
But once each year we stop to remember those who have left us since this time last year. To utter their names once more, to grieve together their passing, to celebrate the gifts of their lives to us and to the world. It’s an antidote, I think, to the anonymous deaths occurring all around us. Some of them may not stand out as “holy” or special or extraordinary; some have even demonstrated qualities we don’t admire; others have left indelible impressions on us and serve as models of something that we ourselves aspire to be – they continue to in-spire us, to breathe into our lives hope and promise and examples of what is good in this world.
Matthew’s Gospel records this collection of Jesus’ sayings that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Those first words are the familiar claims we know as the Beatitudes, where Jesus proclaims special blessing on those the world sees as unfortunate. Though Matthew spiritualizes their descriptions, it is clear from other readings that Jesus also means the actual poor, the hungry and thirsty, the persecuted and reviled, and yes, those who mourn. They don’t look blessed, to say the least. But a day is coming when they will be blessed – spiritually wealthy, well fed, at home in the eternal presence of God, and comforted. It is a great reversal – those who seem the least blessed will become, in the future, the most blessed.
And that glorious passage from the book of Revelation offers a similar vision of the future: those who have come through “the great ordeal” shall gather around the throne of God, worshipping day and night. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, we are told…for 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.”
Whatever else it means, it seems to me that these two passages imply at least three things. First, they mean that the blessed one is recognized. Jesus saw the plight of the poor and their suffering. He did not “pass by on the other side” like the first two visitors in the story of the Good Samaritan. They were not nameless faces in a crowd. He saw the beggars, the struggling farmers and tradesmen. Secondly, this was not simple pity, because Jesus saw their value. “You are not invisible, you are not overlooked, you are not dispensable, you are not just one of a large incomprehensible number. You matter,” we can imagine Jesus, the Lamb of God, saying. Finally, at least here, he proclaims good news: “it will not always be this way. There is hope. You will be remembered, you will be comforted.” One can only imagine what words like Jesus’ and the John of Revelation meant to those struggling simply to survive – neglected and oppressed by the Roman Empire and the religious elite alike. A teacher, a rabbi, saw them, valued them, and remembered them.
But what has all this to do with us? How does this prepare us for the losses all of us here have already faced, and the losses yet to come? How can Jesus proclaim that those of us who weep will laugh? Or the Psalmist in another setting so confidently proclaim that God will “swallow up death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces?”
One part of that answer, today’s Scriptures tell us, lies in remembering and being remembered. Whatever else this mystery of life and death involves, recalling the lives and stories of those who have mattered to us, who have shaped our lives mostly for the better, is ultimately an act of faith. We can no longer see them, or touch them, or listen to them. They will no longer answer our emails or phone calls or letters, but when we remember them in our hearts, and when we share our memories with each other, we are participating in their own immortality. We share the stories of Jesus as testimony to his continuing presence in life; we do so as well when we remember our own “saints.”
One of my favorite definitions of pastoral care – the bearing of one another’s burdens – was written by Professor John Patton who retired several years ago from Columbia Theological Seminary near Atlanta. He speaks of it this way. “God created human beings for relationship with God and with one another. God continues in relationship with creation by hearing us, remembering us, and bringing us into relationship with one another. Human care and community are possible because of our being held in God’s memory; therefore, as members of caring communities we express our caring … by also hearing and remembering.” Who knew that just by listening, just by remembering, just by thinking to ask later on, we were participating in God’s own mission?
Remembering, of course, is not always pleasant or easy. When we remember, we face again that which we have lost. At first we are most likely to remember the time of their death or the first appearance of a fatal illness. At times our memories are marked by regret or embarrassment, by anger or an empty sense of what we never received from them in the first place. We might be tempted to turn our loved ones into saints as holy ones – into a mold they do not fit – so we end up grieving someone who never was. But if remembering is somehow an act of faith, a participation with God in their continuing presence, we are called to bring them to mind, to tell their stories to each other, to remind ourselves of who they were and of who they will continue to be for us.
There will, of course, come a time when the generations have passed, and the rich stories of our own lives and of those we love will be forgotten – simply because there is no one to tell them or remember them. Sure, our names and social security numbers or something we have written or accomplished will be recorded – mostly likely including all of our on-line posts. But the reality of each of us, the funny, tragic, and embarrassing stories that make us who we are, cannot be stored on a hard drive. These two shall pass. Some writers have described this reality as “the second death” – when those who knew us have themselves passed into history and there is no one to remember. As persons of faith we know that what comes next is a mystery, but we refuse to accept that this is the end. We cling to the declaration that “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.” And as we remember, we proclaim together that “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”
I was struck by the words of Presbyterian pastor Jill Duffield this week: “I need All Saints’ Day this year,” she said, “because I need that great cloud of witnesses to speak from the grave and tell me that there is more than meets the eye this year. God’s liberation comes after the plagues. Weeping lingers for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Every tribe and nation will unite in heavenly worship. Death does not have the last word and evil gets sent packing. I need to know the end of the story so that I can try to be faithful in this long and difficult chapter of it.”
She goes on: “I wish I had more certainty that the rancor of this season would be transformed into reconciliation. I wish that our world did not demonstrate the depth and breadth of sin with such variety and skill. I wish the good news got more airtime and that evil was less resilient and relentless. But that great cloud of witnesses assures me of things hoped for and by their faith I can do the next thing I have to do, with my whole heart and even sometimes find delight in doing it.”
Well, my Dad doesn’t have to go to work anymore. He is home, at rest in the presence of the God he loved. But his memory, and the memories of so many other “saints” in my life continue to give me hope – a hope I might not have sustained except for their witness. For all who belong to my “great cloud of witnesses” – and for yours – I give thanks today.