Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, November 1, 2013

For All the Saints

A week ago our congregation in Sumner, Maine said, “Fare Well” and, “Godspeed” to one of the saints of the church.  

Tom Bragg was just a month shy of his 93rd birthday.  Serving as sexton of our local cemetery, he had completed the last mowing of the season the week before he died, and his list of remaining chores included weed-whacking around the stones, and rototilling and sowing winter rye on the 100’ x 100’ pumpkin and veggie garden at the church.  A man of deep faith, Tom served as Deacon, and Trustee over the years, and was out in front of about every major church project.  His advice when one of his sons asked about ageing was, “Don’t get old.  They’ll try to talk you into it, but don’t let them.”

This week on All Saint’s Sunday, we will lay to rest another of the saints.  George Jarvi, age 90, led a more private life than Tom, but he was no less a practitioner of the faith.

Both men were, as they say, generous to a fault, freely sharing the produce of their gardens with anyone in need, and likewise the meat they raised or the results of their hunting.  They didn’t hesitate to speak of their faith, but never pushed it in ways that put down or demeaned others.  They were genuinely humble, and had bone-dry senses of humor with which they could make a point, be self-deprecating and very funny, all in a few well-chosen words.
In this age of self-absorption, when awkward traffic situations too often lead to incidents of road rage, George once used that humor to defuse a situation that could easily have gotten out of hand.  It was a hot summer day, and George’s car overheated on a busy bridge over the Androscoggin River.  While he was trying to get it started, a Cadillac pulled up behind him, driven by a large florid-faced man who, while chomping on his cigar, leaned on the horn, and blew it without letting up.  George calmly walked over to the car, and in a friendly tone of voice said, “I’m having a devil of a time trying to get this thing going.  I wonder if you’d be willing to go over and give it a try – I can stay here and keep your horn blowing.”  The honking ceased.

Two of the saints, but that’s a widely misunderstood word, so perhaps I ought to explain what I mean.  In the New Testament the word (Hagios), which is translated “saint,” signifies "separation to God," or putting God first, and is used of all believers, not just of certain exceptional characters we could call “Super Believers.”  By this definition, Tom and George are two of the saints, in that their lives testified to their love and trust in God.  Neither was perfect, but each of them understood his imperfection and sought to move beyond it.  With the rest of the gathered community of faith they did things they ought not to have done, and left undone things they ought to have done.  They had moments of strong conviction and belief, and moments of doubt and wondering.  It is of people like this that Paul and others write in the numerous references to “the saints” that are sprinkled throughout the letters of the New Testament.

Recovering this word, and the corresponding sense of our churches as communities of saints could go a long way toward drawing us out of the sense of malaise that afflicts many churches.  After all, there is a big difference between seeing our churches as voluntary associations defined by membership, and communities of disciples growing into the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ.  In the first instance our church connection is one more community commitment among many.  In the second, our commitment to live and pray and work together as the body of Christ can give shape and meaning to the living of our lives.  Understanding who the saints really are can relieve us of the fear that we are not good enough, and it can save us from exaggerating our own self-importance.  We do this trusting that Christ calls us to bring our imperfect lives together, to be re-formed by him, and used by him to change whatever corner of the world we inhabit, be it large or small.

There is a song written in England in 1929 that captures this understanding of the saints.  The writer, Lesbia Scott, was a young mother in her twenties, who wrote a number of hymns for her children, to help them understand some of the basic concepts of the Christian Faith.  It is usually sung to a bouncy tune, and while the lyrics show the song’s English origin, it is actually better known on this side of the Atlantic than in the United Kingdom.  It captures for children what I’m saying here for adults:

I Sing A Song of the Saints of God

I sing a song of the saints of God,

Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus' sake
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there's not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.
They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.

An alternate third verse, found in some hymn books, aims to relate more readily to North American language and society:

They lived not only in ages past;
There are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
In church, by the sea, in the house next door;
They are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
And I mean to be one too.

This weekend may we celebrate the lives of the Saints, great and small alike.

Howard MacMullen
© November, 2013

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