“In That Number”

November 6, 2011


Revelation 7:9-17

Luke 6:20-31


On All Saints Sunday we remember and give thanks to God for the lives of the members of our congregation who died in the past year. Fredrick Buechner reminds us that “‘all the company of heaven’ means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of.” Now, we in the United Church of Christ,  like Protestants in general, do not canonize or pray to saints, but we do look to people in our lives and our heritage for inspiration and encouragement in our own Christian journey. We recognize that the word saint applies to all who follow the living Christ. And in faith we recognize that there is an “enduring communion between the living and the dead in Christ.”[i]

It is good to remember.

It is good to give thanks.

What I’ve realized this year, however, is how stunted my understanding of a day such as this has become—and how serving this congregation for over four years now has opened my eyes to a deeper understanding.

Let me explain.

At my previous church, I officiated at a good number of funerals. Some were for members of the congregation. And because the church was, as some put it, the “default” congregation for the small town it was in, a lot of people considered themselves members of the church even if they’d never attended a worship service. So I officiated at many funerals of people whom I never met.

At the end of my ten years there, I counted up the funerals—120. An average of one funeral a month for ten years.

Over time, I started to think that All Saints Sunday was about our dying—kind of a generic funeral service.

Now that I’ve been here for a little over four years, I’m a little out of practice with funerals. I’ve officiated at just two this year. Some years we haven’t had any.

But the baptisms! One last week. One today. Two later this month. And those on top of several others earlier this year. Baptism, we say, is a sign of our dying and rising with Christ. It is an outward and visible symbol of God’s inward and invisible grace active in each of our lives. This morning we also welcomed Alison into the church through the sacrament of baptism, giving thanks to God for “the hope and happiness that come into our lives by the presence of a child.” What better day than this to remember that being baptized into Christ Jesus is sharing in Christ’s death so that we might also share in Christ’s resurrection?

On this day we remember and give thanks. And we are called into the awareness that “In life and in death we belong to God.” This is a simple affirmation, and one with profound implications. It is, first of all, an affirmation that this life is a supremely good gift from a loving God who, having created us, is with us continually. This life is not an isolated moment; it is a relationship with the One to whom we belong, a relationship that surpasses the temporal boundaries of living and dying.

These words bring immense comfort: we are not alone because we belong to and belong with God.

These words also affirm that there is purpose in living. “We are not our own. . .we are God's.” Our own immediate fears and needs, our own opportunities and options are not the boundaries of our existence. Each of our lives has a larger context of relationships, and we are responsible to those relationships—including our relationship with God—as long as life endures. Even through illness and the process of dying, we are not our own: our lives and what we do with them matter because they belong to God.

This is the Sunday on which we remember men and women who lived lives that mattered because they recognized their lives belonged to God.

This is the Sunday on which we hear again the call to live lives that matter ourselves, because our lives belong to God.

The Christian life is a life lived in community. Our faith is not about “me and Jesus.” Instead we affirm, especially in the United Church of Christ, that faith is about “you and me and our neighbors and the world and Jesus.”

So if we are going to live lives that matter, it will be as we live with one another and with the rest of the world in the presence and in the love of God. Look around you. This is where you will find companions for the journey.

Companions, however, are not only those whom we can see. All Saints’ Sunday reminds us that as we seek to be faithful, as we seek to share the love of God, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

At the Barnes and Noble over in Coralville—and from my experience at every Barnes and Noble across the nation—high above all the coffee drinkers and book readers is a mural. The scene shows some of the great writers—although some of the omissions are glaring—sitting at tables, talking, drinking coffee. From their seats on high, they look down upon the contemporary customers—a great cloud of witnesses,  a communion of the literary saints.

It is a religious sense, I think—this awareness of a cloud of witnesses round about us.

The world tells us that a chasm is fixed between the living and the dead. In faith we speak of the communion of the saints. All are one in God, for all are held in God’s eternal care.

As is usually the case, I can better understand this unseen, spiritual reality by looking at what I can see.

“A tree,” Thomas Merton wrote, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying God. The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like God. If it tries to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give God less glory.”

Perhaps we can say that the blaze of autumnal color that swept through here in recent weeks was the result of the worship each tree gives to its Creator. The brilliance and the death and falling of each leaf is a part of a tree being a tree—being itself and therefore giving glory to God.

Merton continues: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them who they are without consulting them.

“With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not—as we please.”

For me to be a saint means to be myself.

What we know, what we have seen may yet help us in facing the mystery of our own lives before God.

In this congregation, when we think of the saints of God we also recall the desire expressed in the old spiritual: “O how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.”

The vision from Revelation tells of a great multitude, which no one could number, the saints singing words of wild praise even after trouble and tribulation.

“Oh how I want to be in that number.”

Luke begins his account of Jesus’ sermon on the plain by saying that a great multitude—Jews and Gentiles, the sick and distressed—had assembled to listen as Jesus spoke.

“O how I want to be in that number.”

A quick reading of Jesus’ words might make everyone feel left out. The call to love our enemies, to do good, and the list of woes can all be overwhelming.

But this sermon begins with a promise of life—of blessing. It is those who have nothing to offer who can best hear the offer of real life that God gives.

If we listen, perhaps we can hear as they heard in the words of Jesus an invitation to be ourselves as we are.

There is no immediate call from Jesus to pray or perform any other religious act. Each person is like a riverbed through which flows the water of God’s goodness. But even a riverbed is changed by the water that flows through it. God’s goodness seeks to open us to prayer and to acts of love and compassion even in a hostile world.

“Blessed are you,” says Jesus, if you let the goodness of God flow through you. If in that love of God you find who you are.”

Think of the saints in your own life—the women and men whose lives were marked not so much by goodness as by an honesty of self. Chances are they weren’t people interested in showing you how religious they were. There were people who increasingly were themselves before God—letting God’s goodness flow through them and being transformed by it. They were people who expressed in their lives who they were before God.

The brilliant light of their living and their dying gave glory to God. The more they were themselves, the more we are ourselves, the more God becomes known in this world.

In Jesus Christ we hear the astonishing news that we are accepted and loved by God—as we are. Secure in that knowledge, you are set free to be yourself—to be a saint in the truest sense: not so much perfect as persevering; not one who has arrived, but a pilgrim on life’s journey.

In our living—and in our dying—we belong to God.

In living—and in dying—each person gives glory to God by being the unique individual that each one of us was created to be. This is our calling, this is our great opportunity as the struggling saints that we are and might become.

With all the saints, may we here find the strength and the sustenance, the grace to be ourselves, the saints God created us to be.

[i] Page: 1
J. Moltmann, quoted in Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, pg. 109.