Today we celebrate All Saints Day… along with Halloween. Usually the two are separate dates on our church calendar, which may seem to make more sense, but, in reality, the two are closely connected. Halloween originated in the ancient Celtic times as a time when the veil between the worlds was thin…. When we could connect easily to those who had died. But this also meant they could connect with us too. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The ghosts were said to damage crops and cause damage to homes, and mostly mischievous harm was done. They gathered together to make huge bonfires and give crop offerings to their gods, often dressed in animal hides, and then each home would take a pice of the fire home to light their hearth fire for the winter.
As with many Christian festivals, the Pope’s of the time who were trying to convert everyone to Christianity, used the festivals already being celebrated and changed them to Christian ones. Christmas is set where it is in our calendar due to the Winter Solstice festival, as one other example. And Samhain was no different. Pope Gregory moved the observance of Martyrs from May to November 1st, and expanded it to include all saints and all souls, and soon the Samhain and All Saints were a blended festival, celebrating the dead and helping them stay where they needed to be instead of breaking through to earth to make mischief!
In Mexico Day of the Dead is celebrated in the same manner, remembering the dead with elaborate rooms set up in home to remember those who have died in the last year. As well as a picture of the one who has died, people bring their favorite foods and drinks, colorful sugar skulls, flowers and cloths are laid on the altar or table or bed, and people travel from one home to the next to share stories and wild tales of the one they are remembering. It is a festive time and laughter and music fills the streets and you never leave a home without a cup of hot chocolate or coffee…. And it goes well through the night! It was a honor to be there one year and be invited to join in the celebration!
In the Catholic Christian calendar, All Saints and All Souls have become a time to remember…. Traditionally All Saints it a time to remember those who have officially made sainthood and All Souls everyone else. In Methodism, we see all who have gone before us as part of the great cloud of witnesses…. As saints who have taught us something to be remembered and honored. And while this remembering can be sad, when some time has passed and grief been felt, often we can remember stories about what we have carried and remembered from one of our saints lives with a feeling of celebration rather than mourning.
So while death is still very much a part of our lives, that promise from Isaiah not yet a reality where death has been swallowed up, I believe that, with time, when we remember those who have died tears will be wiped away from our faces when we we remember our personal saints who have paved a way for our lives, who have taught us things that we continue to grow and learn from, who have left us better people than we would have been if we did not know them.
One of the saints in my life was my great aunt Molly. I didn’t ever get to see her very much as she and my great uncle, George, lived in Norfolk and we were down in London. We did not have a car, and neither did they, so the only time I would see them was when were had taken a train to visit my grandparents and my grandfather agreed to drive us to see them. My great uncle died when I was pretty young, so I don’t remember much about him, but I remember visiting their home….. an old blacksmith cottage with a thatched roof in a little village…. And feeling like I was being wrapped in a warm hug. It felt safe and welcoming and like I was loved. They were unable to have children, and this was always a heartbreak to them, but it did not stop them sharing heir great love with the village…. Many of the local kids would pop in to say hi (and often be given a cookie!) And they were surrogate grandparents to the kids whose families lived far away. Their cottage looked like it belonged on a jigsaw puzzle of an English cottage…. A sunny, flower filled garden and this old building topped with its roof. It had been built in the 1700’s…. Small windows and thick walls and a huge fireplace inside.
When I was 18 or so I decided I wanted to visit aunt Molly, and drove myself to stay for the weekend. When I got there there was a note on the door telling me she was just finishing up at church. I knew she went to church every week, but by this time I had stopped going, but I wandered over to the church a few houses away, and crept in the door to find her. She was up by the altar, arranging some flowers she had picked from her garden, readying the space for worship the next morning. We hugged our hello’s and she said she was almost done, so I helped her finish up with the flowers and polishing the pews. Then I asked if we could just sit there for a minute. I sat in a pew and she sat next to me, and I quietly prayed, Molly by my side. She knew I was hurting and struggling, and silently just took my hand in hers. Soon we left the church and went back to her house for tea. We didn’t say any more about it…. The English way! But the next morning I asked if I could go to church with her. The only thing I remember was walking down the lane with the church bells ringing our over the village! But there was something in that moment the day before in that quiet church with my aunt sitting next to me stayed with me….. her faith and hope, even after all the struggles she had endured in her life. She was my grandfather’s sister, and I know she had not had a good childhood with him around. And then the heartbreak of not being bale to have children, of the loss of her husband at a young age…. And many other things I never knew about. It was as though, in that moment in the church when she held my hand, all that possibility of faith enduring was passed on to me.
And I remember being super angry and confused at her funeral. For there, on the cover of the bulletin, was her picture…. But her name was wrong, and everyone kept calling her a different name, referring to her as Janet. How had I never known she was a Janet and not a Molly? But to me, she will always be my great aunt Moly, a woman of deep faith, even with the trials and pain she lived with.
So now, it’s your turn! Each of you should have a ball of clay…. For we are formed and formed and formed over and over again by God’s own hands, by the lived of those who help shape us, by the experiences we have. I invite you to go sit with someone you did not come to church with taking your ball of clay with you. Choose one person to begin and have that person share a vignette of a saint in your life, Tell a story to the other person. It may be a funny story or how you still see their influence on your life, it may be a memory that just comes to mind, or a colorful story that makes you laugh. And as you share your story, the listener is going to shape the ball of clay. If you are the listener, just let your hands move and shape, don’t overthink what you are making, just see what happens as you shape the clay while you listen. After two or three minutes, I’ll ring the bell and the you switch roles, with the listener telling their story and the new listener shaping their ball of clay.
So find a partner, and I’ll ring us in to begin!
Give your clay creation to the one who told you about their saint, and come forward as a pair with them. As you place it on the altar, say the name of the saint you heard a story about and light a candle for them. If their picture is here, you can place it by the picture, but you may have told about someone whose picture is not here, and that fine. If you would like to say other names, and light candles for other saints while you are up here, use this time to do so. With each name, I will ring a bell.
Let us pray
We remember, O Loving God, the presence of those we knew and loved. Once more may we entrust them to your abiding love. We gather strength from kinship with those who hearts also ache with the absence of their loved ones. Grant us healing and hope even as we grieve. Help up remember sties of how they touched our lives, and turn our tears into gratitude and hope and lessons learnt from these great saints in our lives. With your grace help us to face the mystery of death and what lies beyond it. So may we place our trust in you and in the promise that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.
There is a book I nearly always take with me when I go on a retreat…. It’s by a Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alvez, called The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. Rubem, in addition to being a theologian, is a mystic and a storyteller, and the first half of this book, in particular, always teaches me something new. He begins with a story that reminds me of where we find ourselves in todays’ scripture readings. Each morning he goes to his study and sees a spider web. Upset with this sign of carelessness and untidiness, he goes to the kitchen to get the broom and sweep it away. But then, one morning when the cobwebs is up in the same corner once more, he sees it for what it is. He goes on to describe how the cobweb is so precise and symmetrical… a work of art. And then writes,
I am fascinated by the web for another reason too… for what I do not see. I did not see her first move, the move which was the beginning of the web, the leap into the void….I imagine that tiny, almost invisible creature, hanging alone on the wall. She sees the other walls, far away, and measures the distance between them: an empty space…. And there is one thing only she can count on for the incredible work she is about to start: a thread, still hidden inside her body. And then, suddenly, a leap into the void. And the spider’s universe has begun!
This perseverance and leap the spider took, even though it’s home and food source were destroyed over and over, is what the Israelites were doing in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who appointed one of his minion to stay and the the land. He then took all the skilled craftsmen and wealthy people to Babylon and kept them captive, treating them as slaves to do work for his country. He only left the poorest people behind. Jeremiah 25 says, I will send … Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring [him] against this land, and against its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations, and will utterly destroy them, and make them a horror, a thing to be hissed, an everlasting ruin. And this whole land shall be a ruin, and a waste; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
Some time in this period of the seventy year exile, the Psalm we heard today reflects. This lament shows the state of the people who were held captive. The desire to remember Jerusalem, even in this new land where they were forced to live. The desire for future revenge on the Babylonians…. The dreams of paying back evil for evil and this hard image for us to hear of them wanting to dash the little ones of the Babylonians against the rocks. Their pain is raw. Their emotions are real. They have been hurt and wronged, and are struggling to find hope. Yet the pledge to remember Jerusalem and save their songs for God, refusing to sing their songs of joy to the people who had captured them.
But then we hear the counter passage from Jeremiah. God reminds the people that when the seventy years are up, they will be able to return home. The God has plans for them. That if they turn again to prayer, they will hear these plans. When they seek God with all their heart, God will lead them home and restore their fortunes and re-create the community. God gives them a glimmer of hope.
While I take issue with the Book of Jeremiah saying that the whole exile and destruction was God’s punishment for the Israelites, when in reality it is more a way for people to try to understand why this happened to them, the hope that God gives is huge when people are in the midst of suffering. It makes the difference between survival and death.
Many studies were done on people who were imprisoned during the holocaust trying to figure out who survived and who didn’t, and, for those who died natural deaths (including from starvation) were often the ones who had lost all hope, who had stopped telling the stories of who they were outside of the camps, who had come to believe that this was the end truth they had to live in. While others, living in the exact same conditions, who had hope, who remembered what life was like before and dreamed about what life could be after, who shared quiet stories and wept and felt the horror but did not get lost in it, the ones who kept a sense of community and looked out for others in the small ways they could, were more likely to come out of the camps alive…. Even when they gave up a share of their meager food portion to someone else, leaving them even less to eat.
So, like Rubem Alvez’s spider, who never gave up hope and each day set out to spin a new web to replace the one Rubem had destroyed, leaping in to the void drawing on those inner resources she had to trust to stay alive, these Israelites are hearing a piece of hope that they can cling to and spin their lives and dreams on as they hear Jeremiah’s prophecy. It helped those who were told the stories of Jerusalem sitting on the banks of the Babylon river to keep hope alive. But it took the stories and the weeping and the cries for revenge and the being present to emotions and the sense of community with one another, and healing work to be done, for this hope to take hold and grow. Others, who did not get this, never returned to Jerusalem. Some had grown too comfortable with the way things were in Babylon. Some had forgotten the stories of their ancestors. Some had headed off to new places and did not want to return. Some had lost hope in the promise that God had plans for them and decided to turn their backs on God. But for those who had remembered and wept and shared stories, the hope of returning home never died. The hope in God never wavered. The hope in community stayed strong.
So what does this have to teach us?
Firstly, I believe that we have to remember the songs of joy our ancestors have taught us. Think of the old songs from the Appalachian region, passed down from generation to generation, building resilience and giving a rhythm to work to… or the songs used on the Underground Railway that had messages hidden inside them…. Steal Away, Wade in the Water, Follow the Drinking Gourd. Each one had not only messages of the way to go, but drew on the strength of the people that went before them, their ancestors from long ago and not so long ago.
What are the songs of joy you sing? How do they help your faith?
But with these songs of joy, to know who we can sing them to and who to keep them from. Like the stories we tell about our lives, Who can witness them with respect and understanding and who may turn them around to use against us? How can we share and guard our stories of hope so they remain powerful for our lives and a message for lives to come? Some of these captives seemed to do this well, telling the stories of their homeland in a way that made it real and a place the generations after them would want to go back to…. But some did not share the stories in a way that those following them would have that desire placed inside them. I think this is true for our faith too…. Do we tell the stories of a God who is judgmental and would cause the Israelites to be captives in Babylon to teach them a lesson, or do we teach of a God who is loving and invites everyone to the table? Which God are you passing on to your children and grandchildren? Which God did they hear about in their youth? How can we repair the damage done by so many who believe God’s love is conditional? How can we repair the image of God as one who punishes rather than one who walks with us in our times of trial? How can you share stories of a God os Love with those who you love…. And with the world at large…. Through your words and actions?
It also teaches us that we need to feel the feelings…. That we can feel like we want to dash their little ones on the rocks to get revenge… that anger and grief are emotions worthy of being felt not pushed aside, not ignored or denied. We don’t need to act on them…. And please never dash a little one against a rock…. But we can imagine hurting someone who has wronged us and that this is a way for us to move through that anger. For who among us could imagine that and not feel compassion for the little ones who have done nothing wrong. But our picturing it can release the anger and let us move beyond it. Too often we label feelings as good or bad and the bad ones we try to ignore or suppress, when really, feelings are just that. The more we give them healthy ways to be acknowledged the more they can just pass through and not take hold.
And, possibly most important in this story, we need to remember God. We need to seek God with all our heart and search for God in each circumstance and pray to God and call upon God and come before God. Then we will find our hope once more. Then we will be brought back from exile…. From feeling far away from God, restored to God’s side and filled with hope once more.
So leap…. Like the spider in Rubem’s study…. Trusting that what you have inside, what God has placed deep within, is enough to hold you and bring you home. Sing songs to witnesses that can hear them well. Don’t waste your breath singing songs to those who will use them against you. Keep your community in mind as you remember the stories that sustained you before and the hope you have for the future. Tell of a God with a love so great that all are invited to partake in the grace offered. Sing a song of hope, and leap into that hope, knowing that God is right there with you. Amen.