Sunday, November 4, 2018

gratitude for the saints who have loved me...

Today many congregations will observe All Saints Day. As one who grew up in a highly intellectual low Reformed congregation, I didn't know much about this feast day. Hell, I didn't know much about ANY feast day! In time, however, my soul settled within the sacramental/liturgical part of the Christian family. It is where I am most nourished and at rest. 

While serving Trinity United Church in Cleveland, my German friends turned me on to their version of All Saints Day: Totenfest. Prussian members of the German Evangelical Church celebrated their "Feast of the Dead" on November 25 right before the start of Advent. Totenfest marked the close of the Christian calendar, too. Obviously, Totenfest 
had roots in both All Saints and All Souls day that was institutionalized by Pope Boniface IV in 609 CE. The Roman observance started in the grassroots as a way to "remember the virgin Mary and all the martyrs. In time it was officially added to the church calendar on November 1st in 837; All Souls Day, a time set aside to pray for the souls of the departed who where in purgatory, was formalized as November 2." (http://www.ucc.org/ worship/ worship-ways/year-c/p/pentecost-totenfest.html) As the Reformation ripened:

The Prussian Emperor Fredrick William III wanted a church feast to not only "remember the war dead, but also church members who had died in the previous year. It was observed on the last Sunday of the church year, right before Advent began. This was also the time of clearing garden sand fields of the summer’s growth in preparation for winter.


My Cleveland friends told me that in parts of modern Germany, Totenfest is still a time when families visit the graves of their loved ones to "clean off the flowers of summer and cover the graves with evergreen boughs for the winter." After the anti-German hysteria of WWI, Americans of German heritage tended to shift this feast to what we once called Decoration Day in late May. As I learned of the old ways we worked to revive them in that old church, but now in ecumenical harmony with the wider church's celebration of All Saints Day. After the call to worship and opening hymn, we would read aloud the names and dates of those who had entered "that great cloud of witnesses" in the previous year. Each name was followed by a bell chime and extended silence. The collect for All Saints Day found in the Book of Common Prayer closed this liturgy of remembrance.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


Two texts appointed for today hold unique meaning for those of us who mark the passing of loved ones, and, trust by faith that they continue to share love and prayers with us as a part of what the NT book of Hebrews calls "that great cloud of witnesses." (Hebrews 11: 1-2)

Since, 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 run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

In the OT book of Ruth we are given a story of a stranger to the tribe of ancient Israel - a foreigner - who had come into the clan during a time of famine and exile. By tradition, when Ruth's husband died, she was released from any vow of obligation and free to return to her own people. But, the text tells us, Ruth not only refused to leave her ancient mother-in-law Naomi, but promised to care for her as if she were flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone. "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  One commentator observed that in Ruth's promise, we are given: "the voice of God promising never to leave us, never to abandon us. I often find myself clinging to this promise of God. The way is not always easy in life, and God does not guarantee a smooth road, but God promises never to leave us and on that I depend." (http:// prayer.forwardmovement.org/forward_day_by_day.php?d=4&m=1 1&y=2018)


In today's gospel, Mark 12, a comparable revelation about God's fidelity and our intimacy with the Lord is articulated. When Jesus is questioned by those who are suspicious of his authority, he answers in a way that is both faithful to his tradition but also as boldly inclusive as Ruth's promise, too. "Which is the greatest of our commandments?" Mark puts it like this:  

Jesus replied: The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other' and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Like Ruth before him, Jesus affirms that loving God and those we can touch is
our calling. This not only renders us faithful, but makes God's promises flesh in our lives. Theories, doctrine and dogma have their place, but if we have not love then we remain "far from the kingdom of God." This is, perhaps, one of the reasons I continue to treasure All Saints Day. It invites me to remember those real saints who have given me love - or showed me the way of love - in my ordinary life. To that end, we are preparing Mexican "Bread of the Dead" as well as French roast chicken for our evening Sabbath feast. 

Today I give thanks to the following saints who have opened my life to the way of gracious love. May they keep me grounded in small acts of compassion until I, too, rejoin them in that great cloud of witnesses. Thank you, Lord, for:
MLK and Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hammer, Lou Reed, George Harrison, Leonard Cohen, Ray and Jane Swartzback, Sam Fogal, Roger Anderson, Mike Daniels, Jim and Betty Lumsden. Linda Cain, Beth Lumsden, Phil and Bessie Mescall, Donna Johnston, Aretha Franklin, Dolores Brown, Mike Daniels, Rick Webber, Kathy Artz, Don Wooten, Bob Strommen, Alfred Schmaltz, Anthony Bourdain, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, and Dorothea Soelle. 

Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

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