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Matthew 10:5a, 7-8a
This is the day we set aside to remember our dear ones who have died.
Not that we ever forget them, of course. Not that we ever stop missing them. Not that they are ever far from us.
But this is our time for remembering them together, especially the dear members and friends of First Church Amherst we have lost in the past year:
Sweet Bob Page slipped away on an early December morning. The beloved Ken Langley finally found rest and peace late of an evening in mid-March. And in mid-August former priest and justice worker Dan Casey passed through the veil that separates this world from the next.
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.
And so we come today to remember and give thanks for them all, as well as for the dear family members and friends, mentors, and others—including pets—who have left us in the past year. Carol Dick’s brother and Lydia Vernon-Jones’ sister. Christopher Stoney’s mother. The fathers of John Aierstuck and KC Conlan died, as did the grandmother of Jessica Ortiz and Louise Harper’s beloved 26-year-old granddaughter, Eliza. My friend Rob and my stepfather, Wiley. The groundbreaking writer Toni Morrison, and local peace activist and legend Frances Crowe. Jay Killough’s four-legged friend Muscgy, and Melanie Blood’s beloved Maverick and Eisley.
It is right and good that we remember and honor them together, that together we find comfort in the promise that now they are part of something bigger: a cloud of witnesses whose races have been won, a gathering of saints who surround us with the glory of God, the fullness of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, a holy huddle of ancestors who inspire us, cheer us on, and give us strength and courage as we run our own races.
I encourage you this morning 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, that they 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 we, too, have been redeemed by grace. That we, too, have come this far by faith. That our lives have been shaped by a legacy of love and hope, and that we have inherited a divine portion of power and glory that is working in and through us and all creation to make all things one. Consider that, by God’s grace, our lives, too, are holy; that we, too, are saints.
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.
Nine years ago, I had the crazy idea of inviting you all to come to worship on All Saints Day dressed as your favorite saints—and, amazingly, many of you did. We shared the stories of our saints with the children and with one another, and it seemed to me that the great cloud of witnesses became a little more real to us that day.
Some photos from that day popped up on Facebook yesterday, and my heart was flooded with memories painful and poignant, silly and sweet. Some of those pictured have since joined the great cloud of witnesses: Saint Gale McClung, Saint Tom Lindeman, Saint Dan Casey.
We continued our All Saints in-costume tradition for a few years, and then it seemed time to give it a rest. But perhaps we should try it again next year. After all, that great cloud of witnesses and saints is getting bigger and more crowded all the time. And what delight it would be to see who might come dressed as Gale or Ken or Ann Grose or Hub Smith or any number of First Church saints.
Beloveds, “heaven and earth are filled with the light of the saints who have gone on before us, [and they are] shining around us still as we’re running this race of life” 1—and some day we all will join them. For now, let us stay true to our call: doing our best to follow Jesus, love one another, heal the wounded, overcome evil, and raise the living dead to new life. As we continue the journey, let us be “grateful our path is lit for us.” And let us live every day in the light and power of the communion of saints.