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.