Sunday November 3, 2019
All Saints Sunday 2019c
Old Testament – Psalm 8:1-9
New Testament – 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The Ones The Sun Shines Through
INTRODUCTION: A few years ago, an Anglican website asked readers to choose the one hymn they would want to have with them on a deserted island. And after compiling the results, the top 20 vote getters were posted.
The list, as you might suspect, has some classic hymns on it. “Amazing Grace,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” are all, deservedly so, in the top ten.
But one hymn on the list, perhaps a bit surprisingly, is “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” which holds the 14th spot. Composed by Lesbia Scott in Britain and first published in 1929, the tune was originally a children’s hymn that she liked to sing to her kids when she was in her twenties.
And even though the words were set to new music by Henry Hopkins in 1940, hints of the childlike nature of the song remain. “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was shepherdess on the green.”
Well, no wonder that Episcopalian higher-ups in American, as recently as 1982, were ready to drop the song from their hymnal for lacking what they called “theological profundity.” But after people from all around the country wrote letters in protest, the hymn was saved and it remains in the Episcopal hymnal even today.
And so there the song sits despite what some consider to be its weak theology. It is number 14 on a list of the hymns people of faith would like to have with them on a deserted island.
Also included in the Presbyterian hymnal, is it any wonder “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” is a highly recommended hymn for All Saints’ Day.
While officially held on November 1st every year, it is not uncommon for churches to also observe All Saints on the first Sunday of November, as we are doing today.
And like many of our traditions as Christians, the thinking seems to be that All Saints’ Day was sort of born out of various pagan practices that were common at the time.
In ancient Rome, for example, there was a festival called Lemuria held every May 13th. During Lemuria, Romans would perform assorted rites to exorcise unwholesome and restless spirits from their homes. People would make assorted food offerings to manovelent spirits to placate and appease them, while also completing other rites to further protect and guard their dwellings in the future.
And as is often the case, early Christians eventually co-opted the custom turning it into their own kind of observance for the dead. Yep, as early as the 4th century, according to some, Christians were observing All Saints’ Day on May 13th as a way to collectively honor the martyrs for the faith.
Of course, around 740, All Saints’ Day would get moved to November 1st because of yet another pagan ritual. The Celts, it turns out, also had a big festival on October 31st that involved mischievous spirits roaming the countryside causing trouble. Known as Samhain, the festival is thought to be the source for our modern day practice of Halloween.
And so Pope Gregory III moved All Saints’ Day to November 1st around 740 to coincide with the Celtic festival of Samhain.
Of course, being good Reformed people, saints are always more than just those people who have died in the faith.
Nope. In a move that might seem a bit strange to us even now, the Reformers stressed the idea that all people of faith, those gone as well those alive, are actually saints.
While we are often quick to think saints are those people who were especially meritorious in life and, therefore, somehow earned the title with their deaths, that really isn’t what makes a saint for us. Sainthood, just like everything else when it comes to God, is a gift.
Why Paul, in his opening words in 1st Corinthians, even goes so far as to suggest sainthood is a calling. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
Well, that kind of changes things a bit, right? For if being a saint is a calling, well, then that means sainthood is actually something we get to live into. In the same way Paul talks about the need for us to live into our sanctification, so it goes with our sainthood.
One Presbyterian minister and writer has famously put it this way, “Many people think of saints as plaster saints or moral exemplars, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole life long...The feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.”
Or as Albert Schweitzer was also known to put the matter: “A [person] does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint.”
So saints are everywhere, as far as we’re concerned. Yes, there are those saints with God right now who have gone before us in the faith, but there are also saints at work this moment in factories, schools, government buildings, shops, hospitals, and just about everywhere else we might think.
Saints, then, are people who sort of manage to live straddled between two worlds.
While they live and work and walk in this world, they also live attuned to that deeper and mysterious world behind and underneath this one. There is the world - as it is - that we live and move in everyday, and then there is the way God intends the world to be. And saints, through their simple acts of grace and love and mercy, have that great ability to bring a little bit of God’s intended world with them into this one.
There is the story of religious professor who was showing his young son the stained-glass windows at the university chapel on a bright sunny day. With the sun beaming through the windows, the father asked his son, “Those windows show pictures of the saints. Do you know who the saints are?” His son, gazing at the sun streaming through the windows, replied, “Yes. The saints are the ones who the sun shines through.”
Well, not a bad way to think about saints, right? For they really do have a way of allowing the sun to shine through them.
No wonder in the last verse of “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” we are told we can meet saints “in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in the church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk” like you and me.
Several years ago Martha Hubbard, a Christian Educator, wrote an article for Presbyterians Today.
According to her, she has her own private way to celebrate All Saints’ Day. Along with attending a worship service, she also sits down every year to write a letter of thanks to one of the “saints” in her life.
Grateful for the guidance and encouragement various people have played in her own journey of faith, Martha sets out to make sure they know just how important they were in her growth and maturation.
“One year,” Hubbard writes, “I was mentally preparing my letter for Dr. Tracy Luke, a religion professor at Alma College, when I learned of his death. He had been such a strong influence in my life and in my calling as a director of Christian Education that I wrote the letter to his wife, telling her about the impact her husband had on my young life.” The annual letter is Hubbard’s own way of honoring the saints that have been so important in her life.
This coming summer, as part of my sabbatical, I will head back to Knoxville for a similar purpose. Thankful for the people who have been so important in my baptismal journey, I will return to Knoxville to express my gratitude to three people in particular: Lou James, my senior high youth director; Peter VanEenam, the choir director and organist at Westminster Presbyterian; and Randy Shoun, my supervisor over two summers while serving as a chaplain at UT Medical Center.
Each one of them, in their own unique ways, saints to me and for me. There have been others, of course, who have also been important in my baptismal journey so far. But Lou, and Peter, and Randy are three the sun really shined through.
CONCLUSION: So let us remember and give thanks for all our saints.
Let us give thanks for 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.
But let us also not forget the living in the midst of our remembering, for we too, believe it or not, are all also saints. Not so much because of what we’ve done, but rather because of what God is doing in and through us right here, right now.
After all, one hardly has 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.