University Congregational Church
Oct. 28, 2018
“Communion of the Saints”
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” Hebrews 12:1-2a
I belong to several online groups. One of my favorite is revgalpals, where women clergy share resources and provide support to one another. Last week, one woman wrote that it was the anniversary of her husband’s untimely death. She was asking for advice about whether to make hospital calls and lead a Bible study on that day or whether she should take the day off. She asked a “great cloud of witnesses” – clergywomen all over the globe. In addition to the support and advice she received, some clergywomen offered perspective on a larger topic: practices and rituals for remembering those who have died.
November 1st is All Saints Day. It is the one day of the year set aside to remember those we love and who have gone before. That “great cloud of witnesses”. Consider who is included in your great cloud of witnesses… your parents, grandparents, friends, members of this church, perhaps even people younger than you. Who is in your great cloud of witnesses? This morning, I want to offer some reflections on the importance of All Saints Day.
First, let me explain what we mean when we say the word saint. The biblical Greek and Hebrew words translated as “saint” literally means “holy ones” or “faithful ones”. This word occurs more than 50 times in the Christian Testament. When Paul wrote his letters to congregations in the 1st century, he often addressed his letters to “the saints in” a particular town. He referred to all of the people in that community of faith as saints. Presumably, all people in a community of faith can be called saints because we are all a part of the body of Christ. In other words, you don’t have to die or be venerated to be considered a saint. You don’t need to be perfect – you are a part of the living body of Christ at University Congregational Church in Wichita Kansas.
Take a moment to look around you. Right in this room are about 160 saints! You’re a saint. You’re a saint. You’re a saint! We aren’t perfect, but we are trying to live into faithfulness. We are also a part of the great cloud of witnesses. Bob Meyers, the founding preacher at UCC, wrote “we meet on Sunday to inspire each other for the next week of work and worship. We have enlisted in a crusade against cruelties and injustice and deception, a crusade where the wars are fought on weekdays, on the street, in hospitals, in our own hearts – everywhere! – So that coming to be with the rest of the church is like R&R for a soldier: a chance to regroup, to heal the wounds and share the small victories, something nobody wants to miss. We are supposed to be some kind of saving or redeeming force in the world.” Where God Lives sermon by Bob Meyers
In addition to the saints who are a part of the body of Christ in the physical world, there are saints who have died. They now are a part of that eternal realm of God’s love. Yet, their memories continue to be alive in us. And they continue to be a part of the body of Christ, a great cloud of witnesses.
I believe it is an often overlooked but important part of our faith tradition to honor those saints and our personal saints in special ways. As a progressive Christian, I have to say that there are many things taught about the so-called afterlife that I don’t believe. Heaven. Hell. Resurrection of a body. Angels. Those are aspects of the belief system that are not certain in my mind.
But I am absolutely convinced that resurrection happens on a regular basis.
* When someone comes to the mind or heart of the living, that person is resurrected.
* When a story is told about that person, s/he is resurrected.
* When a tree planted in the memory of another blooms, s/he is resurrected.
* When a lesson that person taught is shared again, s/he is resurrected.
* When a birthday or a death day or a holiday comes along and people remember, s/he is resurrected.
* When a song is sung or a poem read or a joke told and it was connected to or written by that person, s/he is resurrected.
It is important to recognize resurrection of our loved ones. Every Valentine’s Day, I make and decorate cookies with my nieces and nephews and we talk about my sister, Marlee, and her life. They never knew her in physical form but they know her by her life story and they re-member her into our family every year. And every year on either her death day or her birth day, I treat those around me to her favorite kind of pizza.
I have my Papa’s file of jokes, his jar of coins, his grandfather clock, and a jar of sawdust from his shop. When the clock chimes or the jokes are told or the sawdust smelled, he is resurrected. When I cook one of my grandma’s beloved recipes, she is resurrected.
Today is the day we remember the saints. Those who sit beside us on Sundays and those who have died but live on in our hearts. That’s what that great phrase “the communion of the saints” means. Communion of the Saints is the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. We are all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all.
In public life, we honor the goodness of other human beings by naming cities and streets after them, writing and reading books about them, making statues of them, painting pictures of them. We even name holidays (holy days) after them. Their lives continue beyond their earthly days.
In the faith-filled life, we recognize that our faith community stretches beyond space and time. We commune with Christians around the world, believers who came before us, and believers who will come after us. We believe that the church is the communion of saints, and that we belong to the communion of saints.
Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholic Christians regularly use icons depicting the saints as physical reminders that all saints are truly present. Our sanctuary is devoid of those symbols, but we are still surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Think to those who have come before – your own family members or your friends who were a part of this church or your faith development.
All Saints Day is a time when we remember Christians of every time and place, honoring those who lived faithfully, shared their faith and pointed us to the way of Christ through the witness of their lives. The saints in our lives inspire us to live in holiness and righteousness.
I want to close with this poem “Some There Are Who by Their Living”
Some there are who by their living lift us to a higher plane,
Finding joy disclosed in sorry, healing hidden in their pain.
They are drawn by brighter visions, glad to give all they possess
For a greater good, discovering holier depths of happiness.
Some there are who by their dying draw us closer to the Light,
Finding death a blessed journey into that most gracious night.
When we feel the sting of knowing that our days are brief and swift,
We remember those whose living met each moment as a gift.
Thanks to God for those inviting us to live more faithfully!
Thanks to God for those who show us richer lives of charity!
Thanks for those we see no longer, but whose memories in us lie!
Thanks to God for those who teach us how to live and how to die!
“What Does Communion of Saints Mean?” www.umc.org. Oct 30, 2017.
“What Is the Communion of Saints?” by Paul Thigpen, Ph.D. June 5, 2014.