Who shall we remember today and
what shall we learn from their lives?
Today is All Saints Sunday. In the Episcopal tradition, this is a sort of “Day of the Dead,” a “memorial day” when we remember those who are no longer with us. The questions of THIS day are, “Who shall we remember today?” and “What shall we learn from their lives?”
In our Bible study classes this week we pondered exactly who we should remember today. We had three guesses. We wondered:
- First, is All Saints Sunday for remembering those who were exemplary Christians, saints with a capital “S?” If so, today we would remember only our Christian superheroes, people like Perpetua, who refused to deny her faith, even as she was given to wild beasts during the second-century Roman persecutions. If we are remembering only exemplary Christians, perhaps we would include people who weren’t actually martyred for being Jesus-followers, people like the 19th century King Kamehameha and Queen Emma, who brought all of their Kingdom of Hawaii to Christ. This answer relies solely on the fact that this past Thursday—November 1—was All Saints Day.
- OR, second, is All Saints Sunday for remembering ALL Christians who have died? THIS answer relies solely on the fact that this past Friday—November 2—was All Souls Day, also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. In this view, a view that is found in the New Testament, all faithful Christians are saints—saints-with-a-little “s.” Here we might remember Jim Green, our founding Rector, our parents, a Sunday School teacher, or some other Christian who told us about Jesus. I’m guessing that, of the 394 people who are listed in our burial register—over half of whom were baptized, confirmed communicants of this parish—there likely was someone here who helped point the way to God for you. Maybe it was Carol Cummins (a kind and gentle chorister), or Ida Mae Yates (who greeted everyone at the door each week), or Gia Adams (a long-time “pillar” of this church), or Corolyn Faga (who not only invested her joy and her later life in this church, she bequeathed us her daughter), or Frank Evans (a prophet and saint who shared his heart for the Palestinians), or Jim York (a quiet and faithful soul). Maybe your “saint” wasn’t a member of this church, but another congregation, someone like Mrs. D. B. Williams, who invited you to sit in her pew when you first came to church while in college, after you had been kicked out of someone else’s pew.
- OR, third, is All Saints Sunday for remembering EVERYONE who has died? THIS answer arises because we don’t want to omit our deceased loved ones, even though perhaps they were not yet Christians when the died. We profoundly hope that God’s mercy trumps God’s justice, and that ALL WHO HAVE DIED will somehow be able to join us in our life-ever-after. For example, there were 27 people who died in the past year who were dear enough to someone here that they put them on our “souls departed” prayer list. Those 27 people included two parishioners (Mr. H. T. Huang and Mrs. Marion Earle), 2 mothers (Ruth Sprung and Trudy Bartis), 1 grandfather (Phelan Tyler), one daughter (Sharon Elizabeth Jarlson), 2 aunts (Marie Sullivan and Jessie Bush), 4 cousins (Bobbie Smith, Joe Cowden, Aaron Meadows, and Larry Bedosky), one sister-in-law (Eileen Falkenborg), 1 uncle (Harrison Jones), and 13 friends (Linda Parsons, Ellen Pence, Patricia Maener, Dionne Spear, Dale Regan, Shane Schumerth, Aristides Moreno, Deidre Alabanza, Brody Peterson, Norman Lent, Carlene Sherpherd, Bob Gore, and Don Biesenbach). Many among this list were Christians, but some may not have been. Yet All Saints Sunday has become a day for remembering them, also.
This is because the answer to the question of who we should remember on All Saints Sunday, in typical Episcopal style, is “YES.” On this day we remember people in all three categories: exemplary Christians, ordinary Christians, and all who have died. On this day, All Saints Sunday, we name in living memory all who have died in a great celebration of glory, as a reminder of what awaits us in our new life-hereafter.
We know that those who have died await us in that place that Jesus Christ has prepared for us after we die. These are the people who Hebrews 12:1-2 calls the “great cloud of witnesses,” all those people who have lived before us—whether Christian superheroes or not—who have lived lives of faith. In Hebrews this “great cloud of witnesses” not only shows us how to live and inspires us to follow their example, this cloud actually becomes cheerleaders for us as we “run with perseverance the race” of our Christian life.
Today’s Old and New Testament readings tell of what our life-ever-after will be like. They tell us that God is making a “new heaven and a new earth.” The Revelation passage tells us that the “sea”—that primordial chaos that God put aside when he undertook creation, that sea that wrecked such havoc in our world this week—THAT sea will be no more. Eden will return: a utopia, where there is no more death, no more crying, no more pain, no more dead babies ripped from their mother’s arms found floating in the water after being turned away from the door. In this restored creation we will ALL be saints; there will be no more sinners. We hear this, too, in our Isaiah reading:
And he will destroy on THIS mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples.
Death, you see, will be no more, and all the saints of God (capital “S” and little “s”) will be reunited in this new creation.
Who shall we remember today? We remember everyone who has been a saint for us. The question remains, though, “What shall we learn from their lives?”
I’ll tell you what I have learned from studying the lives of saints. I was very shocked to discover just how human, just how imperfect, each of the “capital-S” saints was. This was an important learning for me because I thought that we all had to be perfect to “attain” salvation. But the saints have taught me otherwise.
- I’m thinking of Jacob, here, one of the progenitors of both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, Jacob, that scoundrel of Genesis who cheated his twin brother out of his birthright. Jacob was running for his life when he used a rock for a pillow, and then wrestled with an angel for God’s blessing. Thief, beloved of God, redeemed, saint.
- I’m thinking of King David, here, who took a woman who was not his wife, Bathsheba, and arranged for her husband to be killed. Murderer, beloved of God, redeemed, saint.
- I am thinking of Jerome, here, a fourth-century scholar who translated the Bible into Latin from Hebrew and Greek, who was—and I quote—of “irascible disposition, [with a] pride of learning, and extravagant promotion of asceticism [that] involved him in many bitter controversies… Jerome was seldom pleasant, but at least he was never dull.” Unquote! Proud, beloved of God, redeemed, Saint.
- I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., here, who the whole world recognizes was a powerfully effective prophet of God, who also apparently was not faithful to his wife. Adulterer, beloved of God, redeemed, Saint.
See, in our world today we tend to “write off” those who are less-than-perfect. Don’t we think of a “saint” as the opposite of “sinner?” This is why we NEED All Saints Sunday. We elevate a few for special reverence, to remind us of what is possible on our journey of faith. But we need All Saints Sunday more to remind us that we are all saints—the everyday, ordinary people of God, Christians like you and me. People, like us who, though all sinners, are all saved by God’s grace.
“Who shall we remember today?” One was a doctor, and one was a queen, one was a shepherdess on the green. “What shall we learn from their lives?” That, God helping, and the saints cheering us on, we each can be one, too.