All Saints B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

There was a small lake near my boyhood home in Colorado where we kept a rowboat upside down in the tall grass beside the shore. The lake was well stocked with bluegill and cutthroat trout. I carried my fishing pole and tackle box to the end of our street, through a cow pasture, over an irrigation ditch to catch (and release) fish on Claymore Lake. I remember being a little clumsy with the oars. If you’ve ever rowed a boat, you know you must pull each oar equally and evenly. If you’re out of sync just a little you turn in circles. What’s more, you must face backwards to go forwards. To get to the best fishing spot I kept my eyes focused on what was behind me to get where I hoped to go.

It strikes me that facing backwards to go forward is a good metaphor for what we are doing here today. The ancient Celts, who celebrated the festival of Samhain around November 1st, believed the veil between heaven and earth became especially permeable at this time of year. We celebrate Halloween, All Saints, and the Day of the Dead in faith that the beloved dead are alive with us in Christ. Looking to them they provide a reliable reference point to steer us where God wishes us to go.

Ten days ago, my son Sam and I were in rural New Brunswick, Canada bouncing along dirt roads in search of towns that would have been familiar to my great, great, great grandpa Joseph William McFarland born there in 1848 after his parents immigrated from Scotland. A tragic house fire left him and his three siblings to raise themselves with the help of a hired hand who remained with them. He later moved to Minnesota with his sister and brother-in-law, and then, to North Dakota. His two younger brothers remained in Canada and are buried there. Sam and I walked the Presbyterian graveyard in Harvey Station but didn’t find them. A memorial celebrates the early settlers from England and Scotland who “built the foundations deep and wide on which to build throughout the years.”

Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama (yes, apparently, Bruce and Barack are now good friends) have a new book out called Renegades: Born in the USA., in which they reflect on friendship and dealing with their own complicated relationship with their fathers. Springsteen said, “The trick is you have to turn your ghosts into ancestors. Ghosts haunt you. Ancestors walk alongside you and provide you with comfort and a vision of life that’s going to be your own. My father walks alongside me as my ancestor now. It took a long time for that to happen.” (Excerpt from Renegades: Born in the USA, Springsteen and Obama, The Guardian, 10/23/21).

We face backwards to go forwards. It may seem unnatural at first. Except, it turns out we do it every day and even every waking moment of every day. Perception and consciousness do not reflect what is but what was. Expectations and prior experiences profoundly shape what we perceive. Clarity about the past provides clearer vision for what lies ahead.

On this feast of All Saints, we search the past to renew our strength for the present. We light candles to remember the sacred dead in recognition they are a part of us, still. As we reach the end of this liturgical year and approach the start of a new one, we enter what we here at Immanuel honor as a seven-week Advent. We acknowledge our beginnings and endings often overlap and connect. We look backwards to move ahead.

We are surrounded here by signs and symbols of our ancestors in faith. There is Saint Birgitta of the 14th century, Martin Luther of the 16th century, and Nathan Soderblom, and Pope John the 23rd of the 20th century. There is our dear sister, suffragist and social activist, Emmy Evald. There are symbols of eleven apostles and the four gospels.

One former matriarch of Immanuel, Ellen Breting, used to point to the doves with halos in the stained-glass windows who are part of that great cloud of witnesses who dine with us at the Lord’s Table. She gave a few of them names of her own departed loved ones. (I’m sure Ellen would be happy for you to do the same.) Because we are people of faith, we look backward to move forward.

This Thursday is Veteran’s Day. Last week, I was fortunate to spend a half day in Gettysburg. That pivotal battle of the Civil War was the backdrop to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which, in just 272 words, he re-framed the war as a war against slavery and challenged Americans to increased devotion inspired by those who died that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” In these politically divisive times, we draw wisdom from when Americans took up arms and declared war on one another to keep us moving through today’s storm. Lincoln inspires us to love our enemies, to listen with compassion for that is the only way we may be reconciled to one another. Abraham Lincoln is someone we look back to, to help us move forward today.

Last Sunday, congregational president, Charles Carper, gave thanks for the works of faith done by each of you to nurture and inspire his own faith. Saints aren’t just those who have died. Saints are those who have been declared holy. Saints are those created in the image of God, including the whole human family. Today we honor those who have gone before us to better honor the living. We strain upon the oars toward a better world of equity and justice.

God has set you apart, claimed you and called you. Anything you do in faith can be called holy –whether you’re changing diapers; volunteering as a tutor; inspiring laughter; caring for the sick; going to the polls; visiting a neighbor; befriending a kid at school others pick on; or anything else you do in faith. God in Christ commands us step out from the grave and gifted us with the work to help one another remove our grave cloths. With borrowed insight, wisdom form each other, we have the calm and peace of mind to pull the oars smoothly and evenly to move us in the right direction. We know where we are headed. We row toward the New Jerusalem.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to a feast upon God’s holy mountain, in the new Jerusalem. In Revelation, John’s vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God, adorned as a bride for her husband. (Revelation 21:2) There God will remove the heart of stone in us and replace it with a heart of flesh. Joined together with all the saints of God in Christ, we are moving from grief into joy, from scarcity into generosity, from fear into courage, from death into life.

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

12 score and 2 years ago our ancestors brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “All men,” of course, referred narrowly only to people of that same gender, who were white, who had lived on American soil for at least two years, and could prove they were of good moral character. We have expanded the circle of inclusion ever since, striving for that, ever elusive, more perfect union.
Abraham Lincoln said it at Gettysburg, ‘It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work our American ancestors in each generation have so nobly advanced.’ “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 11/19/63)

We all have a stake in this freedom franchise. Whether our ancestors immigrated here in the 19th century like mine or were brought and bought here in bondage against their will, or, whether they walked here during the last ice age, we all have a role in this American experiment in democracy. This strange, COVID-afflicted, safe-distanced anniversary of our nation’s independence, when the meaning of what it is to be American is debated in our national politics, it’s worth remembering this. It is necessary to reassert this so that a new birth of freedom may also be born in our own time.

As luck would have the proper use of our God-given freedom is a question addressed in our readings appointed for today. It is, perhaps, the central question of the great bible narratives of creation, Exodus, Christ and the cross. I would like to think the American dream of human equality is rooted in the witness of scripture and the persistent council of grace in human consciousness that all people are children of God.

Human beings living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into have asked themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was taken is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, in times of great struggle found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

So, it makes perfect sense. That’s why Jesus’ answer to the problem of the proper use of our freedom is this—an animal yoke. What? Yes. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In fact, what Jesus seems to have in mind in a double yoke like this one. (that I hope you can see now.) Stick your head in this, join with me, Jesus says, and you can’t go far wrong.

It seems counterintuitive to find rest and greater freedom in taking upon us a yoke—even the yoke of Jesus. For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude, a diminishment of freedom and choice. Indeed, Jesus was relentless in his criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion too heavy. They made religion into something used merely to weigh people down with the artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the one religious Zealots want to lay on you. Instead, here is wisdom written deep within creation: being kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the God-given dignity in every other. In this yoke we find our own humanity. In this yoke we find purpose for our freedom. In this yoke we find the inalienable human right of all people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Human dignity increases as we join ourselves to God’s purpose. In this way we find greater freedom and power. But Jesus’ invitation doesn’t sidestep the fact that a yoke is still a yoke. Faith requires a commitment. Faith assumes there is a load to pull, and that it must be pulled.

People are confused about the purpose of their freedom today. We have an adolescent view of happiness. The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us. There will be a new birth of freedom among us in our time when we realize in Christ, we are yoked to those suffering now. We are yoked, so none of can be free when one of us can’t breathe.

We remember the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Their deaths sparked national outrage but there were many others you didn’t hear about. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.”
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. (I Can’t Breath, NYT, Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia, June 29, 2020)

As we face these challenging times, we need wisdom, wisdom born of grace. We need individual wisdom—yes—but perhaps even more, we need our public institutions to have greater wisdom. It is time once again for a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth but have a new beginning. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Take on the yoke of Jesus. Let him show us the way. Yoked to Christ, we can’t go far wrong. Our life’s journey is made easier when we have a companion along the way with whom we can share our worries who is stronger than we are. Let Jesus lift the crushing burdens impossible for us to lift. See, even our griefs and sorrows are transformed into something like love and understanding when we share our burdens with one another in Christ. See greater meaning and purpose for our lives is at hand. Let freedom ring.