By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Portions of Hebrews, chapter 11
Our lives are moving at an increasingly hectic pace. For many of us, it is all we can do to keep up to what is immediate and pressing. On a daily basis, the urgent takes us hostage; contrived emergencies and deadlines. But here, in the Church, we can and do experience time differently. We encourage holy pauses that allow us to reflect and to remember and to focus on what is truly important and enduring. Daily our thoughts and our energy are consumed by things that – in the broad stroke of eternity – won’t have much significance: paying bills, picking up groceries and dry cleaning, answering email. So church is the place and All Saints Sunday an important time to put things into proper perspective – to release ourselves from the tyranny of the urgent and pause to celebrate what is real and eternal.
Faith is one of those eternal things. The beginning of this 11th chapter of Hebrews tells us that faith (or trust in God) is the assurance, the substance, of things hoped for. The Greek word that is used there for “assurance,” is interestingly, the same word the author of Hebrews uses at the beginning of this letter to describe Jesus. Jesus, too, is God’s very substance. Another way of saying it is this: that just as Jesus demonstrated the incontrovertible reality of God, our faith or trust in God is incontrovertible proof that even what we don’t see in this life, in this world, is still real. In other words, our faith is more than feelings we carry inside our hearts. Our faith, lived out, gives witness to God.
Today is All Saints Sunday; a day to make the time to remember and give thanks for the witness of God’s saints. Taking time to remember our saints is more than a trip down memory lane. It is a time of thanksgiving and celebration that shapes our lives and reinforces our faith. The very act of remembering shapes and forms our spiritual identity and gives us hope for our journey.
Faith is a journey; life is a journey. So the writer of Hebrews names those who have traveled this road well, our sojourners; saints like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and David; the faithful down through the ages, more than can be named or counted. They journeyed by faith even when, at times, the path was dark and unclear.
Today we pause to remember and celebrate the saints. So I wonder: who are the saints who have most shaped your life and faith?
As a child, my mother would lead me in that popular, well-known bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” In my family, that opening phrase was followed by thanksgivings for the day, various requests and implored blessing for family members and friends. Although I could not have expressed it as a child, that opening phrase and the prayers that followed began to shape my understanding of sainthood and faith. Saints, my friends, are not those who display an inordinate amount of patience and have good manners. Nor are saints limited to those who have gone on to their heavenly reward. Rather, saints are those who know and trust that the Lord does, in fact, keep them; and the way in which saints live their lives demonstrates their trust in God’s faithful keeping. Saints are those folks who, though perhaps not using the wording of that children’s prayer, still find a way at the end of their days to express both their hope and their confidence that God will faithfully keep them in his care. They trust in what can’t be seen by the naked eye.
The prophet Habakkuk affirms that the righteous live by God’s faithfulness. Incidentally, the writer of Hebrews quotes that very same verse in his letter, as well. Our God is trustworthy and always reliable and faithful to us. And, saints are persons who live their lives banking on that fact. They are people whose decisions and life-styles give a witness to their trust in God’s faithfulness. To be a saint means that, even during times of fear and sorrow, sickness and suffering, poverty and want, we can, ultimately, trust in God’s faithful keeping.
As I already mentioned, this letter to the Hebrews begins by affirming Jesus as the substance of God; God’s incontrovertible reality. Jesus shared with us flesh and blood and all that our humanness entails so that, like Jesus, we might find it possible to trust in God’s love, in God’s promises, in those things unseen to the naked eye. Because of Jesus, whose death gave way to resurrection, we believe in the Lord’s keeping, in God’s faithfulness to us. We can believe that our death, too, gives way to resurrection.
Hebrews 11 names some of our earliest saints, our spiritual ancestors. Those ancestors in the faith endured some pretty tough times; just as the early Christians were undergoing tough times; just as many of us go through tough times. And yet, those faithful of old endured in their commitment to God and in their unwavering trust in his promises.
Faith is more than the sum of our emotions on a bad day (or a good day for that matter). Even in the midst of the toughest struggles, saints are those who still find a way at the end of their day to express hope and confidence that God will faithfully keep us in his care. Saints are those who end their days remembering and affirming: now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep… and know their prayer is heard.
My friends, today is a special day; hallowed, holy time to remember the saints: those we love, those who taught us that we are loved by God; and those who showed us by their lives that God’s care for us can be trusted and relied on; those whose remembrance emboldens our confidence that God keeps us faithfully in his care.
I hope today, during worship and after worship, that you will take time to remember the saints.
Years ago I was with a group of youth who had traveled to Appalachia to work on the homes of some poor folks in rural Tennessee. Each day we traveled to a different home and each day’s experience was unique. Some people seemed bitter and antisocial. Some were warm and friendly. At some of the homes, the youth seemed comfortable and, at others, they felt awkward or uneasy. But, I remember our “Friday” experience best of all. It was the end of the week and we had a long drive from camp before we reached a tiny little house nestled into the side of a hill. Before we were out of the car, the elderly woman was on the porch waving to us. Warmth exuded from her and from her home. It was filled with pictures of children and grandchildren and a loving husband who had long-ago passed on. She spent the day with us. Moving about from room to room, learning our names and where we were from. When one of the youth accidentally knocked over a knick knack and it broke, it was as if nothing had happened. We didn’t have the right tools to complete one of the jobs we’d been assigned. But, that was OK. Whatever it was hadn’t worked for quite some time. It was no big deal to get by without it a little longer. At lunch time, she insisted we bring our cooler into the kitchen. She had kool aid and cookies for us. Even when a couple of the younger teen boys in the group got a little punchy and told a story that was a little crude, she just lowered her head and grinned as if to say “Boys will be boys.” Although she was too frail to attend church anymore, although her children all lived out of state, and although her husband had been dead for decades, she spoke of them all as if they were an on-going part of her daily routine.
At day’s end, we piled into the van and headed back to camp. Everyone was amazingly quiet for a few moments - as if we’d just had an encounter with the holy. Finally, one of the girls spoke up and said, “Wow, she was a really nice lady.” Then one of the boys - the one who’d told the crude story about cheese and constipation over lunch - said “Yeah. But I just wish she didn’t talk about dying so much. That was kind of depressing.” And, he was right, I realized. She had frequently spoken of going home to be with the Lord. And yet, to me, it was not depressing. It was the testimony of a faithful saint; one who’d known her fair share of suffering. Nothing spectacular; just the average, common kind of suffering - losing a baby in its infancy, being a widow for far too long, having a leaky roof, feeling isolated, the aches and pains of a body growing old… She’d known it all. But, it hadn’t made her bitter. Her eyes, though cloudy with age and cataracts, saw beyond the things around her. She had a quiet, gentle strength and an enduring hope.
I wondered what it must feel like to end the day in that humble little house tucked into the mountains; isolated, with no neighbors close by. But then I realized; she wasn’t alone. In the twilight of her days, she held firm to the incontrovertible truth of God’s keeping.
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
 Habakkuk 2:4b: but the righteous one by my faithfulness shall live.
 Hebrews 10:38.
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