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2 Corinthians 4:5-18
Ginny Earnest was the first feminist theologian I ever met. She hadn’t even finished college, much less gone to seminary, but she refused to believe that God made women to be any less than men. She was an artist, a dancer, a worship leader, a wife, mother, and friend; she had one blue eye and one hazel, and she possessed a deep joy. A few months after she died at age 41 and we placed her washed body in a homemade pine coffin and lowered it into a hastily dug grave overlooking the Potomac River, I moved into her family’s little house.
Kevin Oldham was a brilliant pianist and composer who was wicked funny. In college, we would talk late into the night about God and sexuality and love. Eventually he was able to live into the fullness of who God had created him to be. His funeral in Kansas City was the first to be picketed by the homophobic and hatred-spewing Fred Phelps and his family church.
Without meaning to, my brother, Keith, taught me all kinds of things I hadn’t asked to learn: how years of resentment and bitterness will never make up for a lifetime of longing to be accepted, how our desperate need for love can lead us to settle for so much less than we deserve, how music can bring our souls alive even as our bodies are wasting away, how surrendering to the love and care of others can heal a world of hurt.
There was Sally, a former roommate; Todd the Dog Whisperer, whose death by suicide shook me to the core; my dear friend and fellow dreamer Millie, whose diseased heart was filled with pure Mennonite gold; my Papa Moore, who called his grandkids “whippersnappers”; my Grandpa Kemper, who inspired me to learn to play guitar; Grandma Kemper, who took up painting at 60 and bass guitar-playing at 75, teaching me that you’re never too old to learn something new; my Gran, who seemed to think she could drag me off the road to hell if only I’d move back to Texas; Larry Stookey, a seminary professor who nurtured my love for worship; 16-year-old Charlie Read, who had a smile that could light up the night; Nancy Oliver Hutchinson, my high school English teacher and long-distance friend who supported me when my parents would not, and who died this past August of ALS; too many First Church members to count; the nine members of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church murdered as they studied the Bible; and the 11 members Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue gunned down while they worshiped.
Then there are the official saints: Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles; Francis of Assisi, lover of the poor and diseased, preacher to wild animals, and repairer of the church; Teresa of Avila, reformer of the church who summoned believers to mystical union with Christ through prayer; Howard Thurman, follower of the Jesus who stood with all who lived with their backs against the wall; Martin Luther King Jr., drum major for justice and prophet of transforming love; Dorothy Day, community builder and prophet of mercy and nonviolence; and, most recently, Oscar Romero, courageous pastor and martyr of El Salvador’s church of the poor.
These are some of my saints.
Take a moment to run down your own roll call of saints: the people who loved you into being, showed you how to live, and mentored or inspired you along the way. Take a moment to consider how the lives of these dear ones pointed you to God’s love, how they were instruments of God’s healing and peace in your life. Take a moment to give thanks for all the ways they walk with you still, whispering in your ear when you’re afraid, cheering you on when you feel like giving up, reminding you what life is about when it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other.
Consider what makes them saints for you. I would guess that your saints, like mine, were not perfect, were not what most of us would consider pious or prophetic or super-human. Nor were the heroes of our faith. Consider Abraham the wife-dealer, Moses the murderer, Jacob the betrayer, Rahab the so-called harlot, Ruth the dis-obeyer, Esther the complacent, David the adulterer and murderer, Peter the denier, and Paul the persecutor.
Entertain the notion that saints are made, not born; that the only prerequisites are an open heart and a willing—meaning humble, contrite, teachable, perhaps even broken—spirit. Hold on to the likelihood that, for most of us, the sainthood quotient increases with age, as love smooths out our rough edges, failure humbles us, loss equalizes, time wisens, and, by grace, both heart and mind open ever deeper and wider. Remember that sainthood, like salvation, is a gift not earned but bestowed, that it is a product of God’s goodness, not ours.
Consider that all who are created and blessed by God are, if they are willing, travelers on the road to wholeness and oneness with God. Consider that we are not alone but that we make the road by walking together, that together, by God’s grace and through God’s transforming Spirit, we are building the realm of God. Consider that the way of Jesus, though it leads to a cross, is the path to life abundant and a love that is stronger than death.
Several years ago, I was visiting sweet Earl Morgan for what I knew would be the last time. He was on his deathbed at Cooley Dickinson, and it was clear that he probably wouldn’t live through the night. But he was still alert, still longing for human companionship as he prepared to pass through the veil that separates this world from the next. And so we talked and prayed together. And because we hadn’t had time to plan his memorial service, I asked him a question:
Earl, I said, how do you want to be remembered?
So profound and beautiful and true was Earl’s response that I have incorporated that question into my routine pastoral care. Sometimes, if I think the question might unsettle or shock, I preface it with a qualifier: Now, I know you’re not going to be dying anytime soon, but … Not to worry, I ask everyone this sooner or later, and it’s never to soon to think about it: When your life is over, how will you want to be remembered? Sometimes that question can even inform how a person lives:
How do you want to be remembered?
Because you will be remembered, you know. Because you, just like the loved ones you think about and long for every day, will be missed. You, too, will rest from your labors. You, too, will join that great cloud of witnesses.
And what about that cloud? What about the loved ones who have passed on, the dear ones whose absence still makes your heart ache, whether they have been gone four months, two years, or more than a decade? I cannot know for sure, of course. And yet, having been with people near death many times, having heard them greet loved ones long gone, I firmly believe their spirits remain and live on, that we will be reunited with them and that they are with us even now.
All Saints invites us to pause in our living long enough to remember and honor our dead. It offers us celebration, comfort, and challenge. In remembering whom we have lost, we come to understand how much they are a part of us. In mourning their loss anew, we open ourselves to still more comfort and healing. And in reflecting on how they lived, we are inspired to get ourselves on the right road.
Therefore, while we carry this treasure of God’s glory in clay jars, though we be afflicted or discouraged, struggling with life’s challenges or confronting the certainty of death, we do not lose heart. Because all the sufferings of this life, all the violence, hatred, and injustice we see in these days is but temporary. Because what is real, what is true, is here with us and everlasting even if it cannot be seen. We do not let our hearts be troubled because both heaven and earth are filled with light of the saints who have gone on before us.
Therefore, beloveds, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight that burdens us, and every sin that clings so closely. Let us open our hearts to the wideness of God’s mercy. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And let us, like the trees of the field, clap our hands as we go out with joy.