The Assurance of Endurance
Text: Wisdom of Solomon 3:2–3: “In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us
to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”
I grew up in a church called All Saints, and maybe because of that fact this day is actually my favorite day of the whole church year. Christmas is a party, and Easter is a victory, All Saints is always history, and I love history.
But as fond of my memories of that place are, and they are very dear to me, I now been in this community more than twice the years that I spent growing up there. In truth I suppose I would have to say I have done more growing up here than anywhere else, even in that place of my youth; and most of the saints that have surrounded me in those years are the people I have known here.
This is the seventh time I have stepped into this pulpit on the first Sunday of November, and by my count it is the twenty-third time I have been in this church on the feast of All Saints. There is no authority given to me by either of those numbers, but as I have prayed over the words I prepared to share with you today I realized that the message I have to offer today has been shaped by that history in ways I am only beginning to understand.
That all came home to me when I sat down with my own little yellow piece of paper and began writing down the names of those I wanted to make certain were called to remembrance on this day of remembrance. That list began to be rather long, and it could easily have been longer.
The way the church is supposed to work, when you are in this part of the ministry of the church, is that you feel this call to serve in an ordained way, and you first take that idea to your own parish, and they think about that with you for a while and then maybe recommend you to the diocese, and the diocese thinks about that for a while, and then you are put in the ordination track, and that track takes you away from the church where you first had that idea and takes you on to other places.
Skip Windsor, our former rector and a treasured mentor to me along my own path, is fond of saying that the ministry will take you places you never thought you’d go; and that is true of any ministry, not just the ordained kind, if you take it fully to heart.
The idea is that for lots of very good reasons you keep moving, and you don’t come back to the place where you started, except as a guest, and then only occasionally.
But it worked out differently for us. The place I suppose I least expected the ministry would take me was right back here. You may well have had the same expectation. I wouldn’t blame you.
Returning to this beloved community after ten years in other ministries has always seemed to me a blessing I could not possibly ever deserve. But at the same time, it has brought along some challenges that would never have come along with any other parish. Because as these past years have flown by, we have together commended to God’s eternal love some of the people who for me were the folks who held the place up when I first came here.
When things go in the usual way, you don’t serve as a minister in a place where you have known the people you’re ministering to for years and years before you come to do this role. And maybe one of the reasons for that is that you find yourself presiding at the memorial services of people that you’ve known and looked up to for years and years.
Their names are included among the many we remember today. But thirty years ago it was hard for me to imagine Saint John’s being Saint John’s without such saints as Evan and Jean Johnson, or Roger Greene, or Addy Webber, or Arthur Dexter. Twenty-five years ago it was hard for me imagine the place without Bertha Brewer or Mary Evans.
Twenty years ago there just couldn’t be a Saint John’s without Dorothy Lythgoe or Kay Shreeve. Fifteen years ago the place would fall down without Janet and Blakeslee Wright, or Monty Joyce, or Eunice Greene. Ten years ago I couldn’t have imagined the place without Steve Schoeck or John Thomas or Alvin and Barbara Hartman. And five years ago the idea of the parish without Ginny Dewey Pat Macdonald or Nancy Goldin or John Evans or Sylvia Slayton was impossible to grasp.
You may remember some of those names. Some of you, I know, don’t remember any of them. We could tell stories.
But all of that has happened—and Saint John’s endures.
When we stood here in this place with all of those saints, and when they gathered here with the countless others that came before them, we learned to say together the teachings of our faith. Whether we understand it or not, we say that it is God’s plan to bring about the resurrection of the dead, and that there is eternal life with God in a new order of things.
But that leaves us with a mystery about the space between now and then.
We are perhaps a little less impatient with Jesus than Mary was. We did not really expect Jesus to show up and somehow restore our brothers and sisters to life.
But we want to know that the good people who helped guide us along our own stumbling path of faith live now with God. We want assurance that God does indeed eventually come to their tomb, and to ours, and rolls the stone away.
The surprising thing that God offers us to give us that assurance is, first and foremost, the continuing life and vitality of the body of Christ—the church. The assurance we get most abundantly, if we are willing to see it and embrace it for what it is, is that we are continuing in the work they left unfinished—and that others will follow us, too.
The assurance we receive is not something that comes from a seance. It comes from finding in ourselves the faith to carry on and move forward into God’s future—a faith those saints helped us to find, and to follow.
At the end of last week’s service back at All Saints I shook the hand of the rector who serves there now and introduced myself. When she heard my name, she invited me to step back in to the sacristy, and there she showed me that the diagrams my mother had carefully drawn years ago to help the altar guild folks set up for the Sunday service were still right there on the counter in the holy hardware room.
Many of the folks who now serve in that ministry never met my mom, and they sure hadn’t ever heard of me; but the place carries on doing its work. The ministry endures. The church moves forward toward God’s call to reconcile the world in love. And in that we find the assurance that God will surely come, in God’s own time, and roll away all the stones. Amen.