A message given at Asbury UMC, Sunday November 5, 2006
We call this All Saints Sunday, and on this day we recall the gifts of loved ones now gone; we speak their names in silence or read them aloud. We remember them as we share in the Lord’s Supper. It is a time we recall with gratefulness the inexpressible gift of life, the inexpressible gift of each life – each unique and unrepeatable life, the gift of those lives that have touched our lives in special ways.
For me and for Mary Ellen the list of the Saints this year includes both of our fathers. For some of you as well the list contains names of those whose passing is recent and for whom the grieving goes on.
To the human eye the night sky is filled with countless specks of light. With the aid of a standard telescope many of those specks of light emerge into view as stars, planets, galaxies, clusters of galaxies. With the Hubbell telescope orbiting the earth, millions and potentially billions of those specks of light emerge into clarity as stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies. Each human life is like a speck of light against the vastness of time and space.
From a certain angle a human life is … nothing … nothing of significance … inconsequential, but today as we read the names of the saints on All Saints Sunday, we stand in thankfulness, in wonder, and even in awe at the mystery of each individual human life. We say here that each human life – no matter how long it was lived – is a galaxy, a universe, something great and expansive and unfathomable.
When we were in Newfoundland this summer, I took a lot of pictures, in fact almost 3,000 of them, which my wife found to be a little over the top.
One of my favorite pictures I took one clear cool breezy day. We were driving along one of the many beautiful bays along the west coast. I pulled the car over, jumped out and began clicking away. In the distance across the bay there were ancient mountains, and between the mountains and rising nearly to the height of the mountains, was a massive orange rock formation, this geological oddity of Newfoundland, where a section of the Earth’s mantle has been preserved above the crust of the earth instead of down below the crust of the earth where it belongs.
I knew these rocks to be more ancient than human minds can imagine, hundreds of millions of years old. Right next to the road there was an old cemetery. Now I say it was an old cemetery; some of the older tombstones were worn and cracked. website offline The oldest dated back a century or two.
In the background: ancient rocks, abiding in Earth time, God’s time.
In the foreground: human time, measured in human generations, time measured in years and tens of years.
And between the cemetery at my feet and the billion-year-old rocks on the horizon, there was a house, and beside the house a clothesline,
and on the clothesline was that day’s laundry waving in the breeze.
Human time, rock time, and this very moment.
Can’t you see it? It’s a great picture. I’ll sell you a copy, framed; I’ll even sign it.
Time, time, time: “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all who breathe away,” so it says in the hymn book.
We honor life today – individual lives; we also honor the fabric of human life in families and friendships, and in a special way in the fabric of life in Christ that we call the communion of saints. When we talk about Saints today we are not talking about people with halos around their heads. In the early church the saints – the hagios – were the ordinary people who came together in homes, originally to share their food and share the communion wine and share life and love and hope. Sometimes they argued, often they made mistakes; they held different opinions; none of them was perfect, but they were saints anyway.
So when we name the saints today, we are not holding anybody up on a pedestal – there are no perfect people on our list – each one lived and struggled and achieved and failed. What they all have in common is that they were and are loved. They were and are held here in the bond of human love and in the love of God.
That invisible mixture of human and divine love is what we call the communion of the saints. That means that we, too, are saints. You do not need to be perfect to be a to saint. You do not need to die to be a saint –
not in the Biblical sense of the word.
We are all saints – mortal, fallible, flesh and blood, confused and struggling creatures – yet we are saints by the grace of God.
On Tuesday morning, we celebrated here the life of Hazel Otto, who is now one of our Asbury Church saints. Remembering her and speaking of her this week, I realized the way in which her life had become a kind of liturgy. In the church we have the Eucharist, and in the Eucharist we have the prayer of Great Thanksgiving, that prayer of thanks to God that frames the liturgy. Hazel in the last part of her life repeated herself a great deal, just as we repeat ourselves a lot in the liturgy of the church. Hazel recited over and over again a litany of gratefulness; her litany always began with her version of the Great Thanksgiving. It began like this, “I have had a good life!” “I have had a good life!”
Then she would recite the same stories. She would celebrate her memories. She would celebrate her marriage. She would celebrate her cat. She was celebrate her house. She would celebrate her neighbors and recount their acts of kindness. She would celebrate the professional work she had done as an educator and advocate for children. She would celebrate her sister, Vicki, her dear dear friend.
Hazel is one of my saints today. She has reminded me that it is possible to live one’s life in such a way that it becomes a litany of gratefulness, instead of a laundry list of frustrations and gripes.
In the United Methodist Book of Discipline there is a section on what it means to be part of the body of Christ, part of the communion of saints, a member of Christ’s Church. This is part of what it says:
Each member is called upon to be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict. Each member is to identify with the agony and suffering of the world and to radiate and exemplify the Christ of hope.
(par 220, 2004 Book of Discipline)
We are ordinary human creatures, finite and mortal, but we have a very high calling here. If we were immortal beings, we would have forever to live out our witness for Christ. We would have forever to commit ourselves to being a light and leaven in society, that is to say, to insist on the justice of God for the poor, adequate housing for people of all income levels, access to medical care for all, and insuring human equality.
If we were immortal beings, we would have forever to be reconcilers and a culture of conflict. We would have forever to mend the wounds in the fabric of our families and to overcome hurt and division in our communities and congregations.
We would have forever to work for civility and true dialogue around the issues that deeply divide us in society and in the church.
If we were immortal beings, we could identify with the agony and suffering of the world…. in another century or two or three. We are not immortal, and because life is short, the call for faithful discipleship is always an urgent invitation. It is an invitation for today, not tomorrow.
The issues confronting us – confronting humanity – are at present so urgent that we do not have the luxury of procrastination. We are little mortal specks in the vastness of the universe, and our life spans are infinitesimal blips on the clock of the cosmos (A dose of humility is always in order.)
But in the brief time given to each of us, we are called to high purpose; nothing less is asked of us than this:
in the present time, to identify with the agony and suffering of the world and to radiate and exemplify Christ in the hope.
Peace to you,
Rev. Scott Summerville