How many of you have heard of All Saints? How many have heard of it but aren’t sure what it means? How many of you didn’t realize there are churches that never celebrate All Saints? That’s the tradition I grew up in. All Saints sounded mighty Catholic to the fundamentalist congregations I was part of, so we steered clear.
Traditionally, All Saints is a time to remember the lives of people who have been canonized (that is, made saints) by the Catholic Church. Increasingly, it’s become a day to recognize any forebear in faith who has lived his or her faith with integrity and courage.
Why do we do it? Why remember the lives of faithful people from the past?
When I was 10–6 years after my grandmother died– Mom and I visited my grandmother’s two sisters, Aunts Henrietta and Inez. As Mom, Aunt Inez, and I pulled out of the driveway after visiting Aunt Henrietta one afternoon, Aunt Inez said, “Did you see how Henrietta pushed her hair back from her forehead? That’s just how Rosalyn (my grandmother) used to do it. Henrietta didn’t start doing that until after Rosalyn died.”
Have you seen that happen? A loved one dies, then someone adopts a characteristic of that person? It’s a way of remembering them, a small way of keeping them alive….and, like so many things with family, it’s probably completely unconscious.
The gift of All Saints is the invitation to reflect on the lives of faithful people who’ve gone before us, then consciously take on the characteristics and behavior of those people.
For example, reflecting on the life of St. Francis might inspire us to care for animals and creation. Reflecting on the life of Dorothy Day might inspire us to feed the urban poor and advocate for better living standards. Reflecting on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer—who announced at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” about segregation and Jim Crow laws—might inspire us to work for racial justice. Reflecting on the life of Dom Camara Helder—who said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”—might inspire us to work to transform social systems that oppress and marginalize the least of these.
Why do we remember saints and loved ones who’ve passed away? We remember, not only to honor and express gratitude for their lives, but also to inspire us to live our lives with even greater faith and integrity.
On this All Saints Sunday, I’ve been thinking about two of our members who died this year—Neva Reitz and Betty Roth. I miss those two so much. I’ve begun thinking about what characteristics of Neva and Betty I might take on. What aspects of their lives might help me live my life with greater integrity and faithfulness?
With Neva, it’s got to be a commitment to social justice. Long before she and Harold moved to Georgia, Neva served on the staff of a Presbyterian church in Rochester, NY. At that time—30 years ago?—she advocated strongly for inclusion of LGBT clergy. It’s only been in the last couple of years that the Presbyterian Church USA has openly welcomed LGBT clergy. Neva was a visionary. Remembering her inspires me to look to the future and see possibilities.
Betty’s illness and death came so suddenly. I wasn’t ready for Betty to die. I miss her so much sometimes, it hurts. The thing I miss most is Betty’s kindness. We are a welcoming congregation. First time visitors always comment on how warm the people in this congregation are. That said, the day Betty died, we lost some kindness. Do you remember Betty’s smile? It just made you feel so special when Betty smiled at you. Betty’s love for others was genuine. And playful. It is that gentle, playful spirit that I’m trying to keep alive. I’m not going to lie; sometimes, I stink at it. But when I find myself being less than kind, I think of Betty… and am reminded again of what kindness looks like.
That’s the real power of All Saints—remembering the lives of the faithful and finding in their lives inspiration for living our lives more faithfully.
I invite you to take a moment of silence to think about your own personal saints, loved ones who’ve passed away. What characteristics or behaviors of theirs would you like to take on? How might you help the gifts they gave the world to live on? (Silence)
Not only can saints inspire us to live our faith lives more intentionally as individuals; they also can inspire communities to live with greater integrity and intentionality.
As we continue our decision-making process about what to build and how to use the new space we create, I’ve been thinking about who might inspire us. What saint-like person might inspire us through this project to live our faith lives with greater integrity and intentionality?
My heart and mind keep coming back to Clarence Jordan.
After completing seminary and a doctorate in New Testament in the late 1930s, Clarence moved back home to southwest Georgia and, with a few like-minded folks, created what he called a “demonstration plot” for the Kingdom of God. They named the place “Koinonia”–the New Testament Greek word for “community”– and worked together to create an intentional Christian farming community. That was racially integrated. Near Americus, Georgia. In 1942.
Things went okay….until the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education. That’s when abuse of the Koinonia community ramped up, including extensive boycotts, frequent drive-by shootings, visits from the KKK, and excommunication from their church. Many families left Koinonia; some sent their children to live in safer places. Clarence stayed with the Koinonia community until his death in October 1969. He died doing what he loved–studying the Bible, writing, and praying in his writing shack out in a field on the farm.
Why did Clarence start Koinonia? Why did he stay with it, even when things got dangerous? He could easily have pastored a big church or had a fruitful teaching career. But God didn’t call Clarence to ministry or to academia. God called Clarence to the work of racial reconciliation in a rigidly segregated south. And Clarence followed that call.
He followed it because he believed in the Gospel. He followed it because he believed in God’s love for all people. He followed it in the certainty that a world of justice is exactly the world God dreams of, exactly the world the prophets, including Jesus, tried to help people imagine and live into. He followed it because that’s what God put him together to do.
As I think about Pilgrimage, similar phrases come to mind—we, too, believe in the Gospel, the good news of God’s love for all people. We too believe in and try to work toward a world where justice flows down like a mighty stream. We too try to inspire others to create a world where the least of these are seen and cared for. And we do all these things because that’s our understanding of what God has put us together to do.
So, in my own thinking about the potential building project before us, Clarence Jordan has become the “saint” I’ve been thinking of, and Koinonia is the community I’m looking to for inspiration…which has led me in my own mind to call the new building “Koinonia House.”
That’s not necessarily what I’m advocating we call the new space. It’s just been a shorthand for me as I’ve thought about how whatever space we create might help us live into the next phase of our life together. We’ve been looking at additional space for education—Clarence remained a dedicated scholar of Scripture, literally, until the day he died. We’ve been looking at a larger space for fellowship. Koinonia is the Greek word used for the fellowship created by the first Christians, recounted in Acts, the community where “they held everything in common.”
We’ve been talking about welcoming new groups to use our new space. Koinonia Farm always welcomes anyone who stops by. We experienced that last summer on the youth mission trip. With the racial unrest of the past couple of years, many of you have expressed a desire to engage more actively in racial justice initiatives. I’ve also heard from you that you’d like to continue the good work we’ve begun with our friends in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. I’ve been wondering how we might use any new space we create to help us with those initiatives.
The possibilities are endless! Not with construction. Those possibilities definitely are finite. J That’s why we’re taking such great care with the planning process. The possibilities that are endless are possibilities for mission, for reaching out to others with God’s love in new and more vibrant ways. How might our community continue to live with faithfulness and creativity? How might new space help us fulfill our mission to act the world into wellbeing?
Are you wondering if I’m ever going to get to the Scripture text? J I’ve saved it for the end. Whichever saints or saint-like people you’ve been thinking of this morning—some of the ones I’ve named or some you’ve been thinking about on your own—I invite you to receive the words Paul wrote to his friends at the church in Ephesus as if they are coming from them.
“From the time I first heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of the holy ones, I have never stopped thanking God for you and remembering you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator. I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see the hope this call holds for you.”
May this be the prayer of and for us all, no matter what the future holds.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2016