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Matthew 20:1-16
Luke 19:1-10

“ Heaven and Earth Are Filled,” words and music by Christopher Grundy

Heaven and earth are filled with the light of the saints who have gone on before us, shining around us still as we’re running this race, grateful our path is lit for us.
(With deep thanks to my writing instructor, Robert Benson)

This is the day we set aside to remember our dear ones who have died.

Not that we ever forget them, of course, but this our time for remembering them together, especially the dear members and friends of First Church we have lost in the past year. And what a year it has been:

In January we lost sweet Norma Packard.

In May Harry Brooks slipped away, Jary Greene passed on, and, finally, we were forced to accept the reality that Energizer Bunny Ann Grose was human after all.

In August the gracious and generous Ginny Kendall entered into eternal peace, and shining Charlie Read died in his sleep at only 16 years old.

Last month the seemingly indomitable Sally Lemaire succumbed to death’s ways, and early this month dear Ann Floyd’s heart gave out just like that—on her birthday, no less.

Each one was fully human: beloved, blessed, wounded, flawed, a wellspring of light and love. Each one a miracle, the unlikely, utterly unrepeatable product of egg and sperm, nature and nurture, time and experience, risk and regret, love and grace. Each one made in God’s image, a sheep of God’s own fold, a lamb of Love’s true flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming. Each one made of stardust and returned, in the end, to dust.

Each one a saint of God.

And so we come today to remember and give thanks for them all, as well as the parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, mentors and others who have left us in the past year. (And, yes, pets too.)

We gather to remember that our departed dear ones now are part of something bigger: a great cloud of witnesses whose race has been won. However bereft we might feel, we try to consider that we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, a collection of cheerleaders who give us strength, inspiration, encouragement, and companionship as we run our own races.

We gather to remember and give thanks for the many, many lives that have blessed ours, some still with us on this earth, and others who live on in our hearts. In the remembering we become more aware of some of the countless ways God loves us; that, by God’s grace, our lives, too, are holy; that we, too, are saints.

That is what Robert Benson, author and writing instructor, discovered some years back when he was on retreat. The retreat leader had instructed participants to draw circles of the people who had “helped [them] on their spiritual journeys,” to make maps of the clouds of witnesses in their lives.

But Robert didn’t feel like drawing, and so he headed out to the nearby creek and began collecting sticks. Saintsticks, he called them.

This is his recollection of that experience 1:

         I selected a few sticks and started to stand them in the circle I had drawn in the sand, one stick for each person who had helped me on the road toward God.

        I began with the obvious ones—my parents, my brothers and sister, my children (saints is a relative term, is it not?), two pastors I had been close to, and my two best friends in the prayer community…  Then I put a stick in the ground for each of my grandparents, one for my best aunt/friend Bo, and then when I thought of aunts, I had to include Aunt Frances and Aunt Bertha. They were not actually my aunts; they were everybody’s aunts.

        They taught Sunday School and greeted folks at the church where I grew up.

        … It was becoming clear that I was going to need a larger circle than I had first thought.

        It also occurred to me that if I was going to include Frances and Bertha, I should include those who used to take us on church retreats and such. So down went a stick for Henry and Billy and Wilson (tall stick, that one) and one each for the two Joes. Then two Betty sticks, and a Connie and a Judy.

        Then I put in one each for the two schoolteachers who taught me to love books and writing, Mrs. Kirby and Mrs. Flatt. . . . Once the literary arts entered the picture, it seemed only right to include Wordsworth and Frost and Buechner and Dillard and Milne and Greene and Gibran and Le Carré. Whatever this place is that I have wandered to on my journey, such writers helped bring me to it. …

        Then the faces of others, those who I had loved and who had loved me, began to come into view—those who had held my hand and stolen my heart, those who had carried my burdens and lifted my spirits, those with whom I had worked and dreamed and sung and laughed and cried.

        *****

        One of the things that struck me about my road to God that morning in the sand with my Saintsticks was that I had never not been on it. … There were more than a few times when it seemed as though I was pretty lost in the woods, perhaps even in danger of heading toward a cliff without realizing it. But once I started toward God, I never really stopped and was never really in need of starting over.

        Was I ever in need of confession and forgiveness and grace and a touch of providence itself? Certainly. Was I in need of turning toward God as though we were strangers to each other and had never met? No, not once. Which makes me no different from you, though it may well have taken me a lot longer to figure it out.

        Once we start home toward God—which happens the minute we start, actually—we simply do not ever turn around and head in another direction. There is no other direction. And in the moments when we feel as if we are so turned around that we will never get home, somebody turns up and nudges us a couple of points to starboard, whichever direction that is. Suddenly, without being particularly conscious of it or faithful about it, we sense that we are headed toward God again full blast. . . . [W]e suddenly find ourselves slipping out from the darkness beneath the bridge, into the light, heading for Home, the only place we have really been going.

        You may well have known that and believed it all along, but I did not figure it out until I was kneeling in the sand over my Saintsticks that morning. And when I said it aloud to myself, with some considerable amount of wonder in my voice, the whole crowd of Saintsticks seemed to look up and say, “Yes, yes, he finally got it.” Then a hubbub seemed to come over them all, with lots of handshakes and slaps on the back and hugs all around. A general joy just sort of overtook all of us right then and there.

        I began to see them in their places, the places where they had been Christ to me—the hallways and the houses, the churches and the chapels, the schoolrooms and the shopping malls, the bars and the ball fields, the retreats and the restaurants . I saw them in doorways, opening their arms to me when I was hurting;
on park benches, sharing their hope with me when I was afraid; in sanctuaries, throwing out lines to me when I was drowning.

        I saw them walking beside me on roads I had walked thinking I was surely all alone, and I heard them laughing with me on golden days where the sun still shines even now. I saw them with their arms around me and their tears falling mixed with mine, in places so dark there was barely enough light for our tears to glisten.

        I remembered those places, and then I knew what it meant to be on holy ground—ground that had been made holy by the One who made it and by those who walk it and do the work of the Christ on it. We do not often see the place we are standing as holy ground. But the fault does not lie with the ground; it lies with us. We do not always see the saints among us, either, but that is because we do not see what it is we are looking at.

        We do not always see that we should be moving about our days and lives and places with awe and reverence and wonder, with the same soft steps with which we enter the room of a sleeping child or the mysterious silence of a cathedral. There is no ground that is not holy ground. All of the places in our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.

*****

When the time came to go back inside, Robert had collected some 80 sticks and named just as many saints in his life, people who had walked with him on his journey toward God.

How many saints surround you? How many saints have loved and held you, taught and encouraged you, challenged and inspired you, smoothed your path and walked with you through the rough places? Do they know what a difference they have made in your life? Have you thanked God for them lately?

Can you see the cloud of witnesses? Do you feel how it bears you on eagle’s wings?

Perhaps you would like to play your own game of Saintsticks, or draw circles of the saints in your life. Perhaps it would help to tell someone about one of the saints in your life. Perhaps you could take home the insert in your bulletin, and pray for some of those saints each day in November. However you do it, find some way to give thanks for them. And, while you’re at it, offer a special shout-out for Norma and Harry, Jary and Ann, Ginny and Charlie, Sally and Ann.

Heaven and earth are filled with the light of the saints who have gone on before us, shining around us still as we’re running this race, grateful our path is lit for us.


1 Robert Benson, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True: The Road Home to God (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001), pp. 133-141.