Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I mentioned last Sunday that I attended an Episcopal church for a while when I was growing up. It was there that I learned of a wonderful Christian tradition called “All Saints Day.” It’s a day to give thanks for the lives of faithful men and women who have died, but whose memories live on in the ways they impacted others while they were among us.
Sometimes we focus on the more famous saints. Today, for instance, also happens to be Reformation Sunday, and did you know that this year marks the 500th anniversary of that important day in 1517 when Martin Luther published his 95 theses, or criticisms of the excesses of the Church? It was October 31, 1517 to be exact, so here we are at T minus 2 days until a global 500th anniversary party for the Protestant Church. Because while Luther intended simply to reform the Catholic Church he loved, and to remain part of that same tradition, he set in motion a chain of events which ultimately resulted in what we now call Protestantism. (And incidentally, when you can’t hold yourself back from speaking out against corruption and injustice, remember that the word Protestant comes from the root word protest, and your roots as a protestor go back at least half a millennium!)
Martin Luther was of course only one of a great many famous saints of the Church. Even within his own century there are other heroes of the Reformation too– John Calvin and John Knox being just a couple of the better-known movers and shakers at the time. And then if you think about the centuries of Christendom before and since, not to mention thinking back even farther to biblical men and women of faith … it’s quite a list, isn’t it, even limiting our consideration to saints of God who are widely known?
But I also think back to Pastor Justin’s sermon 4 weeks ago, reminding us of the way Christianity spread throughout the world, not only in broad strokes by big names, like the heroes of the Reformation, but also in long sequences of faithful actions by ordinary Christians. He gave us the whirlwind tour – starting with the Church’s earliest days and a small band of Jesus followers in Jerusalem – and he reminded us that, from there, there were hundreds, thousands of different trajectories that ultimately brought the Church to millions of different places around the world … places like the corner of 28th and Dravus here in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. Every one of those chains of influence, spanning across time and around the world, had its share of saints too. Some of them only ever known in the specific congregations of which they were a part.
Because the word “saints,” for Protestants, doesn’t carry any superhuman connotations. No miracles are required. And celebrity isn’t a prerequisite either. Simply being a person of God, or a follower of Christ, “counts.” This is why it’s entirely appropriate for us to sing, as we did earlier today, that “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too!”
Here at MPC we call this day of the church year Remembrance Sunday rather than All Saints Day. The word “remember” comes up a lot in the Scriptures. Often in reference to God’s mighty acts in the past, like the story of the Exodus and the Hebrew people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. Over and over, in narrative and in poetry, in their laws and in their Passover worship, the Israelites were called to remember those important events as signs of God’s love and protection. Think God doesn’t hear the cries of the oppressed? Think God isn’t capable of miraculous deeds? Remember, says the Old Testament. Remember the Exodus.
In the New Testament it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that the early church is called to remember, again and again. In the gospels, in their letters to one another, and in their worship as well, as they broke bread together. They remembered Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf, remembered the great miracle of his resurrection, and remembered that he would one day come again, just as we do when we break bread today in our celebrations of communion. Like the memory of the Exodus for the children of Israel, the memory of Christ’s resurrection keeps hope alive, reminding us of God’s tremendous love and unmatchable power. Think God doesn’t understand human suffering? Remember. Remember the cross. Think God is disarmed by evil or defeated by death? Remember. Remember the resurrection!
All of this biblical remembering provides a backdrop, if you will, against which we continue to remember, and on a day like this we specifically remember people of faith who’ve gone on before us.
This morning’s psalm speaks of one generation lauding (or praising) God’s works to another, and of the kingdom of God enduring through all generations. (Psalm 145: 4,13)
I also love this New Testament glimpse, from 2 Timothy, of a particular family’s legacy of sharing faith across generations. Paul writes to young Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5)
Some of you, I know, have been privileged to be nurtured in your life of faith by generations who came before you. At one of our women’s groups earlier this month, a number of you shared what a gift it can be to inherit family Bibles, reminders that you are carrying on a family legacy as you read the Scriptures yourself.
Some of you may not have come to faith through your family, but through a Sunday School teacher, a camp counselor, a youth group leader, a neighbor, or a friend. Surely these influential souls form part of your family of faith, and they may very well be the faces that come to mind when you hear the psalmist speak of one generation praising God’s mighty works to another.
And if you are completely new to church, I can’t stress enough the importance of finding yourself a Christian community where you can feel at home, like part of the family. Stick with the people of God, surround yourself with people of faith, and learn about a few of the more famous saints through the ages while you’re at it. Because none of us are in this thing alone. The Christian life was never meant to be a solo act.
Now think about how your particular “posse,” if you will, your support team in your own Christian life, is multiplied over and over again even right here in this room, as together we each recall who first told us about Jesus or who first taught us to pray. Some of these saints are still living and some have died. But oh, when we picture them all together? And when we picture them flanked on all sides by a great global cloud of witnesses across time? That’s where that final verse of our opening hymn comes in.
From earth’s wide bounds and ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
It’s a glorious vision.
There’s one final invitation I’d like to offer you this morning, in the midst of all this remembering, and that is to remember … the future.
We’ve been taught in order that we might teach. We’ve been
mentored so that we might mentor others. We’ve been supported and prayed for, so that we might support and pray for others coming along after us.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve read before about grandma Lois and mama Eunice teaching young Timothy, my thoughts have gone immediately to the Loises and Eunices in my own life, in other words my role models in faith. Maybe it’s hitting my 50th birthday this year, but the very same words struck me differently this time. It seems to clear to me now that there’s another message for us here too: For whom are you, for whom am I being that role model, that teacher of the Christian faith?
Likewise, when we hear a phrase like “one generation … to another” in Psalm 145, we’re invited not only to remember backward – the generation that went before us, and helped us learn of God’s mighty acts – but also to remember forward – that we are that generation of proclaimers, teachers of God’s mighty acts, both for those coming after us in our families and for the children of this church. It’s wonderful to remember saints who came before us in this church, but we also need to remember: We are now them. “They” are us.
Wow… If that feels like a pretty big responsibility, it is!
The song we’ll be singing in a moment expresses that responsibility in the form of a prayer:
May all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
May all who come behind us find us faithful.
So today I invite you to remember…
Remember the saints of God, both those virtually everyone has heard of, and those virtually no one has heard of - but whose influence has made a huge difference in your life. Remember saints “who from their labors rest,” and those still doing remarkable things in our world today. Remember those who’ve worshipped in this very room in years past, and remember those worshipping right alongside you this morning.
And then … remember the future. Remember that for our church kids, as Carly Simon sings, “these are the good old days.” Because today, in 2017, 500 years after Martin Luther did his thing, the children of this congregation are right now learning about being people of God by watching all of us. They are right now building memories they’ll call to mind along their respective journeys of faith for decades to come.
So let’s show them what it means to be saints of God. Let’s model for them what was modeled for us – or what we wish was modeled for us – to help them understand what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Let’s demonstrate what it looks like to worship and to pray, to study and to serve, to practice what we preach and live what we believe. For that matter, let’s model what it means to embrace our identity as Protestants in this 500th anniversary year, and let’s keep on protesting the injustice and corruption we see in our world.
We needn’t worry that we have to get it right all the time. Some saints are more saintly than others, you might say, but we’re all flawed and broken in one way or another. The good news is God absolutely loves to work with hot messes like us. One of my friends recently paraphrased in a sermon a line from the movie “Elf,” the part where Will Farrell’s character says “I love smiling! Smiling’s my favorite!” She put these words in Jesus’ mouth: “I love the broken ones. The broken ones are my favorite!” (Rev. Adrienne Schlosser-Hall)
Yes, Jesus loves us, broken ones all.
And we have a rich legacy to carry on.
When it comes right down to it, friends, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” How about you?