Learning From Those Who Have Gone Before

Learning From Those Who Have Gone Before

November 4, 2012
Stina Pope

All Saints Day is one of the great feasts of the Church, like Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. Just like you know that where there is a group of Japanese people you will find Obon Festival, in all of the traditional Christian churches you will find All Saints, which includes Halloween, by the way. All Saints is one of the “baptism days.” There are five traditional baptism days: All Saints, the Baptism of our Lord, which is right after Christmas, the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, and the fifth one is whenever the bishop comes! The bishop will be coming to see us in October, by the way, as part of his regular visitation schedule.

So what is so big about All Saints? It’s the ancestors. As it says on the back of the bulletin, originally “saints” meant all of the Christian people. Then the meaning started changing, so that saints meant someone who had done something very special, not ordinary like you and me. That meant that celebrating All Saints Day was now about celebrating only those special people – and that was not good for the ordinary people who like to have a day set aside to remember the people that were perhaps only special to us. So the church, in its wisdom, established a second day, called All Souls Day, right next to All Saints day. So then there was All Hallows Eve – remember that in the Jewish tradition from which we come, the “day” started with the evening before (remember where we learn that? Genesis), and there is a special church service for All Hallow’s Eve, and the Bible readings are about ghosts and rather spooky things, it’s great! Then November 1 is the feast of All Saints Day, which must be transferred to Sunday if it is not celebrated during the week, because it is such an important feast day. Then there is All Souls Day on November 2, when the names of the “ordinary dead” are read. But! Nowadays, it is rare for a church to celebrate both All Souls and All Saints Days, but since we are required to celebrate All Saints, we have expanded it to include all people, again.

But back to the question, what is so important about All Saints? It’s because we believe that when people die, they may leave behind the physical body, like an old set of clothes, but they are still alive. We call this the communion of saints. Again, when we say communion of saints, what “saints” means is all of the ancestors, not just the ones who did heroic things, the ones we see in stained glass windows. The Orthodox have a wonderful image for this that I just love. They believe that the saints, our ancestors, are having a fantastic banquet in heaven, and that when we celebrate Eucharist, that there is kind of a time/space warp, where we are all tied together.

We also acknowledge that those who have gone before us can “see” better than we do. They have a better idea of what is really going on, and so it is appropriate for us to ask their advice, and to ask for their intervention. Some people find this weird, but I think about my grandfather, who had lots of connections, and when I needed something, it was logical that I would go to him and ask who I should talk to to get what I needed. And, he might also tell me that I didn’t need what I thought I wanted and to get over it. Now that he is not here on earth but I’m sure is having a grand time organizing things in heaven, why should I stop going to him for advice? One day I was talking to a friend about healing work, and she said, who is that man who is standing behind you? I was a little surprised, because I knew that we were the only two people in the room. But I asked her, is he bald? Yes, she said. Then that is probably my father. That makes sense, she said. He is very proud of you. It made me happy to hear that.

In the Christian tradition, we believe in life, life abundant, and life eternal. We say that Jesus came to be with us here on earth in order that we might have life. As we learned from Marcus Borg, Jesus taught mostly about life here on earth, and how to live life to the fullest, what is really important if you want to really live. And we also affirm eternal life. What is important to me about this concept of eternal life is simply that it is. I don’t need to try to figure out what it is like. I like the concept of the Orthodox banquet, and I like CS Lewis’ images of the afterlife in a book called “The Great Divorce” which, if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a small book and quite wonderful.

Some of you may not know that like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church also has monasteries of monks and nuns. They do a variety of different things. Some of them also have a way of life that ordinary people can join. This is something that your former vicar has done. Each day, I get a post in my inbox that is from the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. One of the small things that SSJE does is send out the sermons that are given there, and the post is named “Brother, give us a Word.” So the sermon title is essentially a word. The “word” that jumped out at me from this week’s sermon by Br. David Vryhof was “Identity.” Then there is an explanation. This was the sentence that explained the word Identity: “Children of God, channels of God’s love and blessing in the world, fountains of hope and joy and peace. That is what we are!”

[pullquoteleft]On this very special feast day of the church, we celebrate those who have gone before, who we call the “saints,” but what we have to include in our discussion of them is us.[/pullquoteleft]What a wonderful way to talk about us being part of the saints of God! On this very special feast day of the church, we celebrate those who have gone before, who we call the “saints,” but what we have to include in our discussion of them is us. Our beloved ancestors may well have done some really fine things, but they were people like we are people. Like them, we are children of God. Like them, we are channels of God’s love and blessing in the world. Like them, we are fountains of hope and joy and peace. Are you looking around to see who it is I am talking about? Don’t we always want to do that? Oh, not me, we say, we are not special, we are not channels of God’s love and blessing, we are not fountains of hope and love. So here is my question: if there is a beautiful fountain, but the water is not running through it, is it still a fountain? Of course it is! Sometimes the plumbing needs some work, sometimes it just needs to connect with the water source again, but even when the water is not running through it, it is still a fountain.

We may have forgotten that we are children of God. We have turned off or run away from the water so that we are not channels of God’s love and blessing in the world. But the truth is that we are God’s children whether we remember it or not. At any time, we can remember that joyful truth and connect to the source of our true life. When we do that, we will absolutely be channels of God’s love and blessing, we will be active fountains of hope and joy and peace. What more could we possibly want than this?

[pullquoteright]I think sending that smile out is how we touch God from the inside and send God out into the world[/pullquoteright]How do we live as saints? What does that mean? If we are not connected to the water of life, how can we possibly be saints? Remember that a fountain is still a fountain, whether the water is flowing through it or not. A wise friend of mine said that our bodies are where God comes and dwells with us today. Even when those bodies are old and falling apart, even when they are failing us, they are still the place where God comes and dwells today. I think of the old man carefully feeding his wife with Alzheimers. His hands, his mind that made the decision to stay and feed her, that is the place where God is. I think of the smile as an extension of God. You know how when you smile at someone, usually they smile back? I think sending that smile out is how we touch God from the inside and send God out into the world – and you know what is really interesting? When we do this, when we smile as a gift, not because we feel good or happy, but because we want to give the other person a gift, it works. God starts moving through us, and we feel better. This is not a fake smile, but rather a smile that says, I see you as a beloved child of God and this smile is my way of reaching out to you, even though I am exhausted, even though I may not feel very good, I want to give you this small gift. This is the kind of thing that a saint does.

It may be bigger. I saw on Facebook that someone left an envelope under the windshield wiper of someone’s truck. It said, “I saw that you really needed new tires. If you will take this receipt to the tire shop, and ask for Sam, they will install your new tires for free. All that I ask is that when you can, you will do something nice for someone else that needs it, like someone did for me.” When we help others, and do it in such a way that they do not feel indebted to us, we have opened the waters for the fountain in a big way. And we will feel blessed, as much as the people we have helped, maybe more so.

In Revelations, we read, God’s dwelling is here with humanity. God will dwell with us, and we shall be the people of God. Let us be who we are. May we remember that we are always fountains. May we remember to connect to the source. Let us be who we are, the people of God, showering our sisters and brothers with God’s love, reminding them that they too are the people of God.

Our Readings Today

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