The prophet Isaiah encourages us on this All Saints Sunday: “Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.”
That may indeed be the fitting response to the promise that God will “swallow up death forever,” “wipe away the tears from all faces,” and take away the disgrace of God’s people.
That may indeed be the fitting way in which we remember those who have died, because when we remember in the church we look ahead, recalling our hope, the hope in which others have lived and died—the hope of the resurrection. And hope does not disappoint.
It is good to rejoice and be glad. Sometimes we need some help with that.
Sometimes, by the grace of God that comes in so many ways, we receive that help.
I woke up twice last week to find the trees in my yard and my neighborhood were dressed as ghosts, wearing beautiful, snowy costumes. October, it seems, had decided to go as January for Halloween.
On Tuesday morning, as I walked down Clinton St., making my way past the already melting snow, I ran into Caroline Tolbert, a professor of political science and member of this congregation. Caroline had a bag of stuffed-animal ears that she was going to give to her students that day “To cheer them up,” she said. And, honestly, students or not, we can all use some cheering up in these days.
Caroline was kind enough to offer me a pair of the ears. While she was keeping the giraffe ears for herself, I was able to choose these tiger ears. Then, with my heart cheered and my spirit a little emboldened, I took off my earmuffs, put on the ears, and walked with a tiger-like ferocity along the Pentecrest to the church.
The Book of Proverbs tells us: “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up.”
My bus driver works at cheering his passengers. Last Wednesday, adding to his usual “Have a good day,” that he shouts at each stop as people get off the bus, he encouraged us: “Make it the best day ever!”
And I thought, “Well, why not?” His words reminded me that I’ve got a head start, after all, living here in Iowa City, ministering with this congregation. Why not make it the best day ever?
My heart was cheered once more.
And I hope your hearts were cheered in some way by the costumed children at your door last Thursday. Maybe you dressed up a little—or a lot—as well and cheered others.
Halloween, after all, is a Christian occasion—and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It looks beyond the current shadows toward the dawning of God’s new day.
On Halloween we mock evil rather than acquiesce to its control over our lives and our world. Devils and dragons show up at our doors and we find that we can handle it. Of course, it’s also nice when a princess or a knight shows up.
We are cheered.
Like the early snow, Halloween came and went. All Hallows’ Eve became All Saints Day on Friday, and we continue the work already begun as we look in hope toward
an end to sorrow—the wiping away of tears;
an end to shame—the removing of indignities from the people;
an end even to the end—the destruction of death.
This morning we mark All Saints Sunday according to our tradition with all the improvisations and surprises of jazz—echoing all of the improvisations and surprises of life. And we join together in the joyful feast of the people of God, breaking the bread of life with “all the saints on earth and saints at rest,’ as we sing in one hymn.
As Protestants we recognize that the word saint applies to all who follow in the way of Jesus Christ—the living and the dead. In faith we recognize that in Christ there is an “enduring communion between the living and the dead.”[i] The world tells us that a chasm is fixed between the living and the dead. In faith we affirm that there is a bond that death does not destroy.
On All Saints Sunday we open our eyes and recognize that we are faithful people, not in isolation but in community. By the grace and mercy of the living God, that community extends not only in space but also through time. We are united in faith and struggle with those who came before us just as we are united with those who come after us.
This morning we remember in particular our connections with Rod Malcolm and Virginia Spalding and a son of this congregation, Mark Heininger. Doing so, even in sorrow, we find our hearts are cheered.
Every year as October comes to an end, I remember that Rod and Bill met on Halloween—and their relationship lasted over 50 years. Rod was one of the first people I saw when I walked through the door on my first day of work here over 12 years ago, his warm smile welcoming me. Rod and Bill were busily cleaning the back stairs—I think they were removing some of the detritus from the work preparing for the installation of the new organ. Their grand gift became a very poorly kept secret around here. But the desire for anonymity certainly grew in part from Rod’s quiet and unassuming nature. We were all cheered by his wonderful laugh and his sometimes-puzzled expression as he pondered the perplexing mysteries of life and its frequent silliness.
Late in life Virginia found a new church home in this welcoming and open congregation. Her smile, her energy, her positive attitude, and her mere presence cheered our hearts. We gave Virginia a crown when she was the queen of our Epiphany celebrations a few years ago. We probably could have given her a pair of those tiger ears as well, because when Virginia saw others suffering because of inequality, hunger, or war, she raised her voice and let politicians know her opinion in no uncertain terms.
Sharing a grief that is still fresh, we also remember Mark. And, Mary, we are especially privileged that you and your family are here with us today.
Mark knew this church as children and youth know it—its pageants and its hiding places. Mark is in that iconic picture that was taken in 1968 when to the dismay of all present, the church cornerstone was opened, revealing only decayed documents. When we remember someone who grew up in this church, we remember, as we say at baptisms, “the hope and happiness that come into our lives through the presence of a child.” We remember the hope with which we send people into the world, giving thanks for the various ways in which their own spirituality and commitments develop in adulthood.
Rod, Virginia, and Mark loved family and friends, loved this life and this world. In living and in dying, they showed us how to live in hope. We remember them and give thanks for their lives that we might be of good cheer.
In our loss and in our grief—whether it is fresh or has stayed with us for many years—we hear the god news that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. This is a simple statement, but one with profound implications. It is, first of all, an affirmation that this life is a supremely good gift from a loving God who, having created us, is with us continually. This life is not an isolated moment; it is a relationship with the One to whom we belong, a relationship that surpasses the temporal boundaries of living and dying. We are not our own: we are held in God’s eternal care.
This is the message of All Saints Sunday—or it is at least the first part of that message.
But the message of this day is not simply about those who have died or even about us in our own living and in what will be our dying.
The good news of this day is that God is with us in all the difficulties and demands of life. God is with us in all the challenges we take on.
In all the defeats and setbacks we experience, God still calls us forward.
In all our failures and outright sinfulness, God still offers forgiveness and the very real chance to begin anew.
In our sorrow God is with us, comforting us with a peace beyond understanding.
And yes, God will be with us in our dying as God was with Rod and Virginia and Mark in theirs, as God was with all those whom you and I remember in our hearts this morning.
We give thanks that their lives were a part of our lives.
We remember the “saints” of God, not because we worship the dead or the past but because they serve as reminders to us of the God who not only was but is active in ordinary lives—like theirs and like ours.
Even now with all of the struggles of living, we recognize that we move from despair to joy, from paralysis to action, from sickness to health, from death to life. Even in November we are an Easter people. We live with the empowering awareness that in Christ God has conquered death and the sin that separates us from God, from one another, and from the best in ourselves.
We belong to God.
Be of good cheer.
Rejoice and be glad in the wholeness that God brings to our lives.
[i] . Moltmann, quoted in Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, pg. 109.