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For All the Saints

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland on Reformation Sunday/Memorial Sunday October 30, 2016 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.

Texts:     Ephesians 1:11-23

For All the Saints

Living as we do in this northerly latitude, some of us are–what’s the word: discouraged? aware? sensitive? … about the loss of daylight, the lengthening darkness that descends every year around this time. I know I am-sensitive, aware & easily discouraged by this; you might say I’m not a fan … whaddaya gonna do?! It’s a force of nature… it’s never gonna change; gotta make do.

I’ve been reading about the ancient Celts. I understand that they believed that the longer hours of darkness this time of year meant something.  To them it signaled a “thinning” of the barrier separating the living and the dead. In fact, they believed that the spirits of the dead visited the earth during these late autumn days.[1] From what I’ve briefly read, I notice other cultures all around the world have developed their own variations of this annual natural phenomenon.

When Christianity became established, the Church intentionally celebrated various Christian holidays on the dates of various pagan holidays/rituals.  For example, the Church celebrates All Saints on November 1 which was the date of the Celtic New Year and Samhain rituals.  Ironically, culture has maintained its pagan-like tendencies over time, obscuring Christmas with Santa, presents and toys as the focal point, obscuring Easter with the Easter Bunny and candy, etc.

The ancient Celtic interpretation of a natural event occurring every autumn is, in a way, a sort of spiritual predecessor of a sect of Christian mysticism which also confronts darkness—though not literal but spiritual darkness.  Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross, two of the more notable Christian Mystics, sought to understand their personal experiences of spiritual darkness (the Dark Night of the Soul) and discovered the depths to which God will go to meet us. Their struggle to remain prayerful and connected to God in the midst of spiritual depletion opened them to an experience of God’s presence in a depth they had never before experienced or imagined possible.

Modernity with all of its conveniences and advantages seems to have chased away some of the spiritual gravitas that once accompanied natural phenomena such as the encroaching darkness of autumn. Pagan though some ancient proclivities turned out to be, these were still spiritual responses to natural phenomena.  Christian Spirituality has proven to be amenable to working with and shaping these impulses. The Enlightenment may have rescued humankind from the Dark Ages, but every technological advance since then seems to result in our becoming more resistant to spiritual reverberations of natural phenomena.

The increasing hours of darkness, for example, the solitude of evening, created in our ancestors a powerful spiritual response. We seem to have lost much of our essentially human, spiritual connection with the natural world. This domestication of darkness and light, of life and death, has resulted in our becoming less and less attuned to (or interested in) the rhythm and wisdom of creation.

The letter to the Hebrews declares that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). To me this is synonymous with the “Communion of Saints” we affirm every time we say the Apostle’s Creed together.  What the Communion of Saints–the great cloud of witnesses—offers is spiritual wisdom, spiritual fortitude—spiritual grounding. This great spirituality reaches out to us from across time and space.  It is a gift from generations who have engaged the mystery of life, generations who struggled to live life and faith in this world.

Christine Valters Paintner says that this gift comes to us through the stories of our ancestors.  Painter believes that it is closer than we realize: embedded in our genetic code. Their stories, their narratives are ours too.  Sometimes specific details may emerge. Sometimes the experience is more intuitive. Altogether, Painter believes that the collective memories of our ancestors are already living inside of us, waiting for us to tune in and listen: “within each of us is a sacred thread that ties us to our ancestral past,” Painter says. “We carry within us the wounds and unfulfilled longings, the hopes and dreams of everyone who came before us. Learning their stories helps us know our own story (and faith) more intimately. [2]

Painter compares the spirituality of our ancestors with ripples in water, shared memories expanding outward like concentric rings from a stone dropped in a lake, the ripples widening out to the great shores of God.  Your story and my story are embedded in the story of family, which is the continuation of the story of our parents’ families, and so on back through generations. So powerful and deep are these stories, she believes, they operate practically on the level of genetics.

Such is the spiritual power of the Communion of Saints, the Great Cloud of Witnesses.  Today let us recognize that there is (what Painter describes as) a luminous wisdom guiding us which is so much more expansive than basic human intellect.[3]   We absolutely need what the communion of saints has to offer.  Our world is driven by a different Story, a different Rhythm: individualism and greed … violence which prowls the earth searching for innocents to devour.  Earth’s utter survival hangs in the balance.  All of which, perhaps, can be traced back to the domestication of the mysteries of the natural world.  We could do worse than take our cue from nature–nature is God’s creation after all. Painter observes “the earth prepares for winter and the increasing darkness that comes with it, by shedding what [is] no longer need[ed] and moving inward.”

We might move inward like that. Rather than despair at what has become of the world or what threatens humanity and creation, let us instead tune into the faith and the courage of those who lived and died before us. We can, like them, transform our world.  We can, as they did, faithfully sacrifice for God’s kingdom on earth. We can, like they did, claim our identity as saints of God, healers of the earth and the church in our generation.

Today we also celebrate and remember the Reformation: a powerful world-changing movement of great spiritual fortitude.  One of the Reformation’s leaders, Martin Luther, had much wisdom to share about the need to repair and repent and reform our wandering away from God—as believers and as the Church.  One of the foundational ideas of the Reformation is that we are all saints of God.[4]  Saints are not distant, legendary giants of the faith, Saints are, as Paul believed, those who believe.  Saints are not all dead.  Saints are not perfect or without sin. Rather, Luther says, we all become saints through a “foreign holiness”, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ.  His holiness covers all sins and shortcomings that remain in flesh and blood.[5]

Listening to the lives of the saints, listening to their struggle to live lives of faith keeps us in the constant company of saints—the great cloud of witnesses including the congregation of God’s people who gather to worship. Gathering in Jesus’ name strengthens us for the journey, as Thomas Merton reminds us:

“We become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their limitations and handicaps, and by submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior.”[6]

Darkness can be an opportunity to receive divine illumination. The lengthening hours of night provide an opportunity to listen to the lives of the saints and to recognize the great cloud of witnesses calling to us, longing for communion with us.

Today is the day for all the saints: those who have died recently and those who died long ago.

Today is the day for all the saints: those who are here, seated among us and beside us in the pews, and those who once sat with us here in this place, but do so no longer.

Today is the day for all the saints: everyone living and dead whose life and faith matter to God and matter to us!!!

Today is about “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory”  (Ephesians 1)

Today let us dare to ask God what kind of saint God is calling us to be “so that we may know what is the hope to which the Lord has called us: what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints …”

Poet-theologian-artist Jan Richardson wrote these words in honor of All Saints:

For those

who walked with us,

this is a prayer.

For those

who have gone ahead,

this is a blessing.

For those

who touched and tended us,

who lingered with us

while they lived,

this is a thanksgiving.

For those

who journey still with us

in the shadows of awareness,

in the crevices of memory,

in the landscape of our dreams,

this is a benediction.[7]
[1] www.history.com “The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland, the UK and northern France. They celebrated their new year on November 1 signifying the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. The night of October 31 was Samhain, when it was believed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth. Celts thought that the presence of these otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to see the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.”
[2] Christine Valters Paintner  Luminous Wisdom of Night: Reflections on All Saints http://www.patheos.com. Paintner is the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering classes and resources on contemplative practice and creative expression.
[3] Bruce Epperly, Remembering All Saints, http://www.patheos.com
[4]  Sharron R. Blezard, “Saint Who? Saint YOU” in The Stewardship of Life, November 4, 2010.  “Luther would expand the idea of sainthood to include all Christians on earth and in heaven. The Augsburg Confession (depending on the translation) notes this fact in articles XII and XIII. In Luther’s Commentary on 1st Peter, he addresses the phrase “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” saying:  Thus Scripture calls us holy while we are still living here on earth, if we believe. The papists have taken this name away from us and say: `We should not be holy; only the saints in heaven are holy.’ Therefore we must get the noble name back. You must be holy. But you must be prepared not to think that you are holy of yourself or on the strength of your merit. No, you must be holy because you have the Word of God, because heaven is yours, and because you have become truly pious and holy through Christ. (Luther’s Works 30:7).    In his Commentary on Galatians (1531), Luther says:  When we have repudiated this foolish and wicked notion about the name “saints” which we suppose applies only to the saints in heaven, and on earth to hermits and monks who perform some sort of spectacular work let us now learn from the writings of the apostles that all believers in Christ are saints (Luther’s Works 27:83).
[5]  Ewald Plass, What Luther Says  in Blezard, op cit.

[7] Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, 2013