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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

All Saints Day

All Saints Day
Hebrews 11

I know it’s coming and it’s just around the corner. For some it will be exciting, all of that dressing up in costumes, going to parties, bobbing for apples, knocking on doors, candy surprises and all that. For others it is discomfiting – all of those ghouls and goblins, super heroes and sassy mummers, black cats and witches, not counting the tomfoolery that sometimes attends that night, as when your car gets “egged,” etc. Some Christians have no problem with the event; others think it is straight from the mind of the devil. But there is something really important that almost always gets lost on Halloween – All Hallows’ Evening. It’s the next day (1 November) which for many Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Lutherans) is All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day. Now, this may not be the experience of your particular Christian tradition – it’s not in my tradition either, nevertheless it’s worth the time to take a moment and reflect on the value of this old celebration and what it meant.

One aspect of All Saints Day is the idea of celebrating the testimony of faithfulness displayed throughout the centuries. It’s about rejoicing and remembering how Christians of the past served God in the midst of terrible situations, as well as in ordinary seasons. Part of its purpose is to give thanks for their testimony of faith and faithfulness. Two of the important benefits of this are (1) to encourage folks in the present to persevere in godliness, and (2) to bring about a communally experienced, joyful reminder that we are all connected to those who have gone before us; that each and every one of us stands on the shoulders of others.

Notice how the writer of the letter to the Hebrews brings out this shared experience. He is remembering all of those in sacred history who had faith and acted out on that faith. There was Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob all the way to Moses (v. 4-31). Next he bundles up an army of others in verses 32-38 – Gideon, Barak, Samson, etc along with a host of unnamed folk. The writer is drawing us into sacred history, giving us a shared story and showing us that we belong to a long line of believing women and men who faced odds and ends, ups and downs, high and lows, hots and colds. Then the writer declares, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (39-40). Ahhh, the writer has announced that the story isn’t over! In fact he is claiming that the finishing touches of the story, the final chapters, are being penned out in our lives! Hand-in-hand we can look back and see a “faith genealogy,” a long connection to the past that can and should inspire us in the present. We’re not alone in this “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson). We’re here, at this point, in this faith at this time because of the faithfulness of hordes and hordes of others who came before us. Good stuff to remember; humbling stuff to recall! For better or for worse, by ways of utter faithfulness, and sometimes faithless faithfulness, our little, personal stories are being drawn into God’s story big, world-rescue-operation story! We have a heritage, which helps us to grasp the idea that we have a forward-moving aim.

In a similar and perceptive vein, comes the observation of a British writer from the early 1900s, as he dealt with a topic similar to what we’re thinking about; “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father” (G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4).

The suddenly the writer of the letter to the Hebrews points us onward, in chapter 12, to look in the direction that all of our forbearers looked – as we think about our forebearers and how presently the story is being continued; “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12.1-3).
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Allow me, then, to draw from all of this and make some suggestions that might change the whole temperature of this time of year for you:

Take around a week and start thinking of those who were immediately instrumental to you coming to faith in Christ. Write out their names and maybe a one-line description of the role they played. Next, go further back to as far back as your mind and memory can reach, writing down the names of mothers, fathers, grandparents, great-grans, jotting down that one-line description. Don’t be ashamed of their warts and stains, don’t try to gloss them over – the Bible doesn’t! Instead, remember that they were just as big of hypocrites and sinners as you and I are; what made them memorable, at the end of the day, was where they were looking – the story they are in, looking unto Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith!

Secondly, go outside of your family lineage, and recall others who were significant in your life of faith in Christ, reaching as far back as you can recollect. Martin Luther King Jr.; Abraham Lincoln; Harriot Tubman; George Washington; Susanna Wesley; John and Charles Wesley; Thomas Cranmer; John Calvin; Martin Luther; Philip Melanchthon; Martin Bucer; St. Thomas Aquinas; Anselm; Athanasius; Clement of Alexandria; Julian of Norwich; Perpetua the martyr; back, back, back. Again, don’t be shocked by their warts and stains, remember that they were just as wrinkled and rotten as you and I are, and yet God still penned the continuation of his story through them.

Then on a specific date very soon, say on Saturday, November the 1st or Sunday the 2nd; spend some significant time – maybe even with your family gathered around – giving thanks to God for these forbearers in the faith. Give thanks that in spite of all their failures, episodes of faithlessness; moral disasters here and there; weaknesses and imperfections, that God was active in them and through them; that they ran the race looking to Jesus. Take delight that God is faithful to his promises. That he is "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34.6-7a). Rejoice that he takes pleasure in enlisting loads of broken people to bring about his goodness and righteousness and world rescue operation. And if he did this in the past – hallelujah! – he will do so now and on into the future. There is a place for us!!!!

Finally, allow your droopy hearts to be cheered. You have a destiny; you have a role to play; you have a purpose and direction; God’s world rescue operation story is being filled out in your life as it is drawn into his narrative. Therefore, fueled by the “democracy of the dead,” so to speak; and looking along with them in their gaze upward and onward, you can now begin to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and [can] run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

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