“Let us not tire of denouncing the idolatry of wealth,
which makes human greatness consist in having
and forgets that true greatness is being.
One’s value is not in what one has,
But in what one is.”
After he became a martyr for the faith, those words of Oscar Romero were immortalized in the book, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero.” It is the very essence of our being that Jesus was talking about in the Beatitudes, our gospel reading for today. It is our true character that makes a real difference when we are alive and that we will be remembered for when we are dead.
It always breaks our hearts a little when a beloved member of our congregation dies after years of faithful service. Even though they are at peace with God, there is a transitional period during which we sense an empty space which they used to occupy, a holy space that gradually and naturally becomes smaller and smaller until we are whole again. On the Day of All Saints the names of those who have passed on during the past year are read aloud with reverence and thanks. We sing, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”
Who are all those saints? Talking about the early saints – the people with the official designation “Saint” before their name, does not often generate much excitement. Even though we refer to the saints of old who shone in glory, most of us prefer saints closer to home. Our communion of saints is a more familiar crowd – those who died from our congregation and our own loved ones. We are also more apt to remember saints who lived closer to our own lifetime. For example, because we shared the same century with her and felt as if we witnessed her saintliness firsthand, we remember Mother Teresa more than the St. Teresa’s of earlier times.
Even though our tradition does not have the same emphasis on sainthood as a process – we talk more about the communion of saints rather than individuals attaining sainthood – Mother Teresa was an extraordinary individual whose life exemplified the qualities we associate with saintliness. She had an enormous capacity for giving of herself and for truly loving the most destitute, downtrodden and outcast people. We have learned that, like many of us, she experienced doubt as part of her faith. We also remember that she never hesitated to speak the truth, making more than one person in authority very uncomfortable, whether their power was religious or political. Gentle and loving with those who suffered, she was steadfast and uncompromising in her conversation with those who had the power to alleviate suffering.
Today is a good time to remember Mother Teresa and all those who have gone before us, those on whose shoulders we stand, people whose lives and witness have brought us to this new day. We can study the history of our faith and proudly say that we are where we are today because our ancestors in the faith raised their voices, made bold decisions, prayed and taught that faith. We are where we are today because our ancestors were willing to go to jail, to be thrown to the lions and burned at the stake, all for their faith. We are here today because our ancestors fought for religious freedom, because they were brave enough to explore and settle in a new world, establishing churches here in America and spreading the gospel. They did all these things because they loved Jesus, but also because they loved us, their descendants whom they would never know. They loved us so much that they wanted to make sure the gospel story would be here for us to learn. We are who we are today because of their faith, their devotion and their courage.
Congregations are also the spiritual descendants of the members who have gone before us – of the wonderful stewards who gave their all, and no doubt also of some curmudgeons who tried to throw water on the fire of the Holy Spirit at every opportunity. Here at Saint John we are the spiritual descendants of people like Adeline Witte and Elain Larson. Very few remember them anymore. Back in the days of WWII when pastors were in short supply, during a time when it was unusual for laypeople – and unheard of for women – to lead worship, Adeline and Elaine would provide supply for Pastor Bulin, who served here for more than 30 years, when he was on vacation. Adeline told me that she and Elaine would always be nervous before the service began; waiting together in the sacristy, taking deep breaths and sharing a quick prayer, they would bravely walk out and take their places and suddenly, their nervousness would vanish. Everyone who participates in or leads worship is honoring their legacy.
We are the spiritual ancestors of people who, like us, would gather to drink their coffee and eat cake after worship – but they were also waiting for the counters to finish counting the offering. They would compare the money that came in with the bills that were due, and come out and announce, “We need $5 more to pay the bills this week!” A hat would be passed and people would dig in their pockets for a spare quarter, nickel or dime. They took pride in the fact that they were never overdue in paying their bills, but they had even more pride knowing that no matter how bad their own circumstances appeared to be, they never diverted money from the offering that was designated for benevolence and giving to others. That is a faithful legacy which we still honor today.
On some All Saints’ Day in the future our names will be read. We are the saints for future generations, for our own descendants. What type of ancestors do we hope to be? Will we be the type who sit on our hands or will we raise our hands? Sometimes we tend to forget that we aren’t just living our own busy lives. We’re also laying the foundation, molding a future, establishing a legacy. Will they sing of us, “there breaks a yet more glorious day, saints triumphant rise in bright array?” Will we leave a legacy of justice, will we be remembered for how we told the story? Those we admire as witnesses to Christ are the ones who we believe provide the best examples of living the commands of Jesus, to love God with our whole heart and all of our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus said those who do that are helping to establish the kingdom of God.
Being a saint means living in hope and not in despair, it means forgiving, not judging; loving, not despising; lifting up, not tearing down. Being a saint means that you can mock evil – which, by the way, is what we do on Halloween, contrary to the fears of religious fundamentalists – we mock evil rather than allow ourselves to be afraid of it or controlled by it.
This time of harvest, when we mark the dying of the year, is also a good time to take stock of ourselves as well as reminisce about those who have gone before. The rumbling of that low bass note that signals the beginning of the hymn “For All the Saints” calls us to reflect on the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses to the faith who have gone before us. It is a call to remember and emulate St. Peter, St. Paul and Mary Magdalene; Martin Luther and so many reformers from 500 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa. We remember countless saints who have gone before us and whose memory we honor. As we remember their strong shoulders on which we stand, we are also challenged to build up our own shoulders, so that the next generation will find a firm foundation on which to stand. We are ancestors in the making, future saints for a generation yet unborn. Do we love them as much as our ancestors loved us?
We are called to “Rise Up, O Saints of God!” to rise to the challenge of telling and living the gospel story in our time and our place. As the words of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero remind us, it is not what we have, but who we are, that will determine our legacy. Amen.