"I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too." This hymn (#364 in our hymnal) was written by a mother for her children in 1929 in Britain. She was an Episcopalian, so she probably looked at saints like we do, with a little ‘s,’ as those who have gone on before us living faithful and exemplary lives. They could be our grandparent, aunt or uncle, mother or father, brother or sister, good friend, or a Sunday School teacher or faithful church member. But, for us, they exhibited something in their lives that showed us their faith in God. Whether by word or deed, or both, we know they believed in and followed the same God we worship each time we come here.
Today we call All Saints’ Sunday in the life of the church. The real All Saints’ Day comes on November 1, the day after Halloween. Maybe other Christians than me are just a bit uncomfortable with Halloween. This year there was some publicized debate about very gory costumes being produced for young children – zombies and people with bloody injuries. Halloween is a strange holiday! It may be one of our oldest holidays, with origins from thousands of years ago. Druid priests observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. Their ritual observed the beginning of the Celtic year. On the eve before the new year, the priests would offer sacrifices of crops and animals, and dance around the fires to ward off the evil Samhain, the Lord of the Dead and the Prince of Darkness. The Celts thought that Samhain called together dead people, with their evil spirits taking many forms, including those of animals. The priests kept the fires of sacrifice going all night long, and then gave an ember to each family to light and warm their own homes and to keep away the evil spirits. The festival lasted for 3 days, and people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of the animals. (Sounds a lot like Halloween to me!)
It was not until the 9th century after Christ that the Church declared November 1 as a church holiday to honor all saints. The day was called Hallowmas, or All Hallow’s or All Saints Day). But the Christian practice did not wipe out the old traditions. People continued to keep some form of the Celtic ritual for warding off evil spirits on the day before All Saints, on All Hallow’s Eve, which became Halloween.
One has to admit that it is an odd mixture of cultural practices when churches sponsor Halloween parties or create haunted houses. Some churches have All Saints parties instead, with attendees dressing as people who have had good influences on their lives. Still, Halloween remains one of the most popular holidays, for Americans and many other countries around the world.
So we come together this morning on this All Saints’ Day to remember those who have died whom we might call saints. We list in our bulletin members of the church who have died since the last All Saints’ Day. But there are so many more saints that have died this year in all our lives. Take a few moments to remember the saints in your lives, the folks who have shown you what it means to live faithfully and well. Write them down, if you wish. And we will do an odd thing in the middle of a sermon, and give you a few moments of silence to meditate on the saints of your lives, as well as the saints of this church……..
The church in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote, was struggling faithfully. It was not easy to be a Christian in this city, which was a commercial and cultic center, and a free city because it had declared and shown its loyalty to the Roman Empire. And yet the small church kept gathering, and Paul praised them for their faithfulness in his letter. As was typical of apocalyptic times, Paul and the early church thought that Jesus would return soon to save believers from an evil and corrupted world. They thought this would happen in their lifetimes. And yet some of the members of this new church had died, and other members were distressed because they thought the deceased members would not see Jesus again. In the passage we read today, Paul wrote to reassure the church that all would be included in the glorious day of the Lord’s return. He used words and images familiar to this early church people. "Jesus who died and rose again" was an early creedal statement. The image of the sound of the trumpet and descent from heaven harked back to Moses going up and down the mountain and the clouds to the book of Daniel where "one like a son of man" went with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient One, and was given everlasting "dominion and glory and kingship." Paul’s images here are used by many in modern times to depict what is called "The Rapture," a sudden purging of the evil earth, when all the good believers will be swept to heaven and the rest left behind. There are books and movies about this rapture, and bumper stickers declaring, "In case of rapture, this car will be abandoned."
But most likely, Paul did not mean to describe a rapture. Paul was seeking to comfort an upset but faithful people, and to give them a sense of hope. Paul had not experienced the Second Coming, or even death, so he did not really know what would happen. Tom Wright, the author of Paul for Everyone, says that Paul trying to tell the Thessalonians them about such an event is a bit like trying to describe the color blue to someone who is blind. There are so many variations of blue (light and dark and navy and aqua and teal, and Carolina and Duke blue!). Blue would be difficult to describe to someone who had never seen colors. We also need to look at this passage through the eyes of the 1st or 2nd century. These were not a scientific people. They did not look for facts like we do. They needed comfort. So Paul drew from images and words that would be familiar and comforting to them (not from facts). There will come a time, Paul assured them, when God would come and right all wrongs, and gather all the faithful, dead and alive, into a community of light and love and hope. No one would be left behind. "Therefore," says Paul, "encourage one another with these words" (v. 18). We have no idea when the day will come, as it will come "like a thief in the night" (5:4) Paul says a bit later in this letter. We Presbyterians tend not to dwell on this future day, but rather we concentrate on living as faithful people now. But in the meantime, Paul urges the church to live in the light of God, "for you are all children of light and children of the day" (5:5). "Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, as indeed you are doing" (5:11), he says. Paul’s words were meant to encourage, to support, to give hope to people who were struggling, grieving, and trying hard to hold on. "But we do not want you to be uninformed," he said, "about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope" (v.13). These seem to me to be the most important words of this passage. Paul does not deny the grief. We grieve when we lose loved ones. We grieve when someone big and important and influential in our world dies, like John Kennedy or Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs. Grief is a natural reaction to loss. And there is "a time to mourn," a season to grieve. We acknowledge that each year with All Saints’ Day.
But we do not grieve as others might without any hope. Our hope is signified by this table, where we remember the greatest saint, our Lord Jesus Christ, who "died and rose again" in order to save us. Remember that Jesus was not alone at the table that last night of his earthly life. Gathered around him were friends and even enemies.
When we come to this table, in a few minutes, we come forward with friends and family, and perhaps with strangers or even folks we do not like. We come as saints and as sinners, for we are all both saints and sinners in our earthly journeys. Some of us come as baptized people, claimed by God, yet still driven by human urges and needs that sometimes lead us to sin. We come, especially this day, with memories of the saints who have died before us in the faith, who also struggled and yet someone led us to know our Lord better. We come hoping that we too can set such an example for those who come after us.
Saints are people just like us. A story has re-surfaced recently about the first landing on the moon, on July 29, 1969. Before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left the Lunar Module, they, at Buzz’s insistence, took communion with a chalice and elements that Buzz’s church had given him before he took off. What a powerful statement of faith! We can all be saints by being faithful.
For, as the song continues, "They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea. For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too."
In the quiet moments after this message, consider again, who are the saints in your life? Will you be one too?
All glory be to God. Amen.