All Saints’ Sunday – 2021b

Old Testament – Isaiah 25:6-9

New Testament – Revelation 7:9-17


Sinners Who Go On Trying


INTRODUCTION: A few days ago I sat down to write a short letter of condolence to my Dad. 


You see, early in the morning on October 22nd one of my Dad’s good friends and long-time colleagues, Jerry Sundahl, died after being in poor health for several years. 


While my Dad has never said as much, I suspect one of the reasons he and Jerry were such good friends had to do with both of them being strangers in a strange land. My Dad, after all, was a midwestern boy who matriculated through the University of Michigan, while Jerry Sundahl grew up in northern Pennsylvania and attended, first, Princeton University and then Columbia after that. 


Needless to say, the two of them, even in the mid-70s when they started working at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, were always viewed a bit suspiciously. For despite being removed from the Civil War by over 100 years, southerners even in the 1970s still tended to view northern transplants as Carpetbaggers. So my Dad and Jerry were, in a sense, comrades in arms out of sheer necessity, although I think they genuinely liked each other as well.   


So while expressing my sorrow for his loss in my letter, I also told my Dad to remember that All Saints’ Day was coming on November 1st; and therefore, I urged him to hoist a glass on that day in Jerry’s honor.


For it’s good to remember, right? Even when it might be hard to do so because the memories are still fresh, it’s good to remember those who have gone before us in the faith. 


ONE: While there are strains of the Christian tradition which don’t observe All Saints’ Day, I have always been grateful that I belong to one of those traditions that does - even if we don’t have a formal service on November 1st to mark the occasion.  


Apparently, by the early 400s, it was common for communities of faith in various locations throughout the Mediterranean region to hold services commemorating those who had died in the faith - usually around Easter and Pentecost. 


Over time, however, and for reasons that are hotly debated by historians, by the 800s November 1st, at least in the western church, was officially picked as the time to observe All Saints’ Day. One theory that seems to be popular argues All Saints’ Day was moved to November 1st to coincide with and co-opt a popular pagan Celtic fall harvest festival known as Samhain that occurred on October 31st every year - what we now know as Halloween.   


Of course, since Protestant traditions aren’t big on having to attend church on weekdays, many of them have informally adopted the practice of observing All Saints’ Day on either the last Sunday in October, or the first one in November.  


TWO: But regardless of when we observe the day, it is good to pause every year to remember those who have gone before us in the faith, right? For Christianity, after all, didn’t just appear out of thin air one day, did it?


No, as we all know, the very existence of Christianity today is due to that long line of believers who proclaimed and lived the faith ahead of us. It’s due to that legion of followers who trod the path of faith in advance of us, even when doing so might mean having to pay a pretty steep personal price. 


So no wonder John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation is into such majestic and cosmic imagery. Transported into the heavens while in the throes of some deep, mystical experience, John sees a great multitude of people beyond calculation from every tribe and every nation all gathered around a giant throne worshipping God. 


Decked out in fancy new white robes and waving palm branches the people are also crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the lamb!”


And that great multitude of people, it turns out, are all those folks down through the years who sought and strove to be followers. With the angels of heaven and all those gathered elders that great multitude of saints are busy offering thanksgiving and praise to God after completing their journeys and finally making it home. 


Or as that elder speaking to John puts it, “these are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”


THREE: But now here’s the thing. Did you hear the chant of that great multitude of saints? “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the lamb,” they keep saying. “Salvation belongs to our God.”


We normally tend to think saints are those folks who were especially meritorious in life and somehow earned the title, but truth be told they too ended up living by God’s grace just like the rest of us. “Salvation belongs to our God,” they shout together. “Salvation belongs to our God.” Turns out, saints aren’t saints because of something they did in life, but rather because of what God did in and through them.  


“The wonderful thing about saints,” says one woman, “is that they were human. They lost their tempers, got hungry, scolded God, were egotistical, or testy, or impatient in their turns, made mistakes and regretted them. Still, they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.”


No wonder Robert Louis Stevenson could also say, “Saints are the sinners who go on trying.” And that the sharp-witted Oscar Wilde could also add, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every sinner has a past and every saint has a future.” 


C.S. Lewis was once asked what he thought happens to us when we die. Rather than talk about pearly gates, clouds, and angels playing harps, Lewis simply said that he believed the same God who had hounded, sought, and claimed him in life, would do the same in death.  


For “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the lamb.”      


FOUR: Of course, we hear that “saints are the sinners who go on trying,” and suddenly the term takes on a whole new meeting, right?


After all, if saints are those folks that keep “doggedly blundering toward heaven,” then the label obviously also applies to all of us and not just those who are now gone. 


Yep, believe it or not, ever since our forefathers Martin Luther and John Calvin set about putting pen to paper, we Reformed folks have claimed the saints of the faith aren’t just those who have died in the faith.


Nope, in a daring move that can only come from believing in a gracious and loving God, we’ve also labeled all the living that follow in the faith saints as well. Turns out you, me, as well as those now gone, well, we’re all saints together!


And just like with those who have gone before us, we’re not saints because we’ve somehow earned such a title or merited it being given to us. No, we’re saints because by the grace of God, the title has been freely and graciously bestowed upon us.     


There is a story about an oil well that caught fire. But the heat from the flames was so intense, the company firefighters couldn’t bear to even get near it. 


Desperate, the oil company called the local volunteer fire department for any help they might be able to offer. And so about 30 minutes later this old, beat-up fire truck comes lumbering down the road with its crew of volunteer firefighters hanging off its sides. 


With sirens blaring and the firefighters waving frantically  for people to get out of the way, the truck speeds past the gathered crowd and drives straight up to the burning, raging oil well. The gathered crowd, hundreds of feet away because of the heat, could barely believe their eyes. 


Jumping out of the truck, the firefighters quickly sprayed one another down with water before proceeding to bravely put the fire out. 


Weeks later the oil company held a big ceremony to thank the firefighters for their bravery and courage. They also presented the chief of the fire department with a huge check to show their gratitude and appreciation.


Asked by a reporter what he planned to do with the check the fire chief replied, “Well, the first thing I’m going to do is take that old, beat-up fire truck to a mechanic so he can repair the stupid brakes!” 


The point of the story, according to one man, is that sometimes we simply find holiness has been thrust upon us. Or as I like to think whenever hearing that story: We often blunder toward sainthood without even really knowing it or realizing it.


CONCLUSION: Well, as we enter this annual season of thanksgiving and gratitude for the blessings of life, surely it is appropriate to begin with those who have gone before us in the faith. 


So let us give thanks for all those saints who have shown us the way down through the ages, who before the world by faith confessed the name of Jesus and who from their labors now rest. For by the grace of God, they doggedly blundered their way toward heaven. 


Of course, as saints ourselves, we too get to go on trying, don’t we? Surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, we get to keep putting one foot in front of the other in our own slow journeys of change and renewal.   


After all, one hardly needs to be an angel to be a saint.  


And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.