Tuesday, November 3, 2015

For All the Saints

We are a people surrounded by saints.  They live in our memories.  They fill our Bibles and Prayer Books.  We have as our chapel’s namesake, Athanasius, a saint who speaks to us across time, inspiring us to become a people transformed by a living relationship with the Trinity.  But he is just one among the thousands of saints who have run this race before us.  With this large body of saints we remember, a day given to celebrate all the saints seems to me a bit of an overreach.  This day seems dense, in a way, until I remember to dwell on what this feast offers us as people still living with brokenness, sin, death, and grief.  So let me tell you a story of what All Saints’ Day has come to mean to me.

In the eighth grade, I was an angry boy.  And I let my anger show. As it often does, my anger manifested itself as typical middle school cruelty and meanness.  And there was one other fellow who joined me in my escapades of misdirected anger and passion.  We would spend our nights pranking houses in my neighborhood and our days insulting our peers.  And one particular boy, Josh Rogers, presented himself as an easy target.  He wasn’t much taller than me though he was a grade above me.  He was a bit chunky, like I was, and he never had much to say.  Much to say to me, at least.  Unassuming would be a good word to describe him.  For whatever reason, my buddy and I began following him down the hallways kicking at his feet, trying to trip him.  We’d push him, pull him, and call him some pretty cruel names.  But he never returned that cruelty with his own cruelty.  When he did speak to us, he’d simply ask us to stop.  He never threw a punch, or screamed back at us.  He never even went to the principal.  He simply tolerated our cruelty and ignored us.

This went on for some time until the school year ended.  Summer came and Josh Rogers wasn’t in my cross hairs any longer.  My buddy and I spent our days riding our bikes and our nights watching great cinematic classics like Rambo, the Terminator, and the Star Wars trilogy.  In all of this, I never gave Josh Rogers a second thought.  I never game him a second thought until August 22, 1999.  That was the Sunday before the school year began.  My church was throwing a big, Back to School youth group bash.  Mountains of pizza, an unlimited supply of soda, and my youth pastor dying his hair green on a dare.  But what I remember most is my encounter with Jesus and what happened then.  For some time I had been feeling a tug towards ministry, and at the end of his sermon, my youth pastor asked if anyone wanted to surrender their life to Jesus and commit to a life of ministry.  When he asked that question, I knew that my answer had to be yes, that God was calling me to be a pastor.  But something began nagging at me.  What about Josh Rogers?  For the first time, I began to replay in my mind all that I had said and done to him.  The weight of my guilt came crashing down, and I decided that I couldn’t answer God’s call until I had made things right with Josh Rogers, until I had apologized to him and reconciled with him.

As those thoughts were running through my mind, I noticed someone approach my youth pastor and hand him a pink sticky note.  His face became sullen and he approached the microphone.  “Some of you may know Josh Rogers.  He goes to Faith Christian School.  I just received word that he was involved in a pick-up truck accident and is being rushed to the hospital.  Let’s enter into a time of prayer for him.” We all bowed our heads in prayer.  Stunned, I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.  On the night I realized that I owed him an apology and more, it became clear that I might not be able to give him that apology.  I prayed as hard as I could for what seemed like an eternity.  Moments later, another pink sticky note.  “Friends, Josh Rogers has just died.”

The room was silent.  Then the tears.  And my tears as well.  In a very real sense, answering God’s call on my life to preach became tied to the realization that I had deeply hurt Josh Rogers, as well as being tied to the impossibility of being reconciled to him.  At his funeral, I found out that he was an amazingly loving young man, with a passion for things I cared deeply for, like Star Wars and poetry.  Truly, he embodied what the word ‘saint’ means.  A holy one.  In the face of bullying and torment, Josh never returned one strike for another.  He always offered his other cheek.  I learned that he was a man of prayer, a man of peace, a holy one, a saint of God.

I’ve carried this burden for years, and I think about Josh quite often.  Not every day, but there isn’t much time between one thought of Josh and the next.  He was a saint in my midst, but my bullying and cruelty blinded me to his beauty.  But in spite of the pain I felt, and the pain I feel, there is hope, especially as we keep this Feast of All Saints.  In our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, this beautiful truth is declared: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed 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.” Josh, and his memory, were not lost on account of my bullying, nor was he or his memory diminished because of me.  God’s grace and the power of Jesus’ resurrection trump everything, including the misguided actions of fallible human beings, and especially the death put to death by Christ himself.  And so today is a day that I joyfully confess that Josh has been “received into the arms of Jesus’ mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” He has been knit deeply into the heart of God, that place where no tears are shed and where the pain or sting of a fallen world cannot touch him.  And that is the place we have, in prayer this morning, asked the Lord to bring us when our time comes.

Truly, saints surround us, though we may not recognize them.  Men, women, and children among us who witness to the undying love of God as we see them run thrift shops, or serve lunch to high schoolers, or build homes in Juarez, or package toy boxes for needy children.  There are living saints who witness to us by sharing our burdens in the midst of a crisis.  Or, in my case, refuse to return evil for evil even when the logic of the world would have suggested Josh had every right to punch me in the face.  When someone we have loved so dearly is taken from us, or even a person with whom we never had a relationship is lost, we grieve that they have been taken from us too soon, and we despair because they are gone.  I’ve taken great consolation in the words of theologian Nicholas Wolterstoff, who quite profoundly reflected on his son’s death and all the regrets that filled his mind after his passing: “I shall live with them.  I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds.  But I will not endlessly gaze at them.  I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living.  And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ The God of love will surely grant us such a day.  Love needs that.”

If you’re like me, and the remembrance of someone who has died causes you to dwell on your regrets, take heart.  If you have come today and the Feast of All Saints has caused you to feel the pain of a loved one you have lost, take heart.  For all who have died are resting sweetly and peacefully in the loving and merciful arms of Jesus, and have taken their place with the great company of saints in light.  And we all, like Lazarus in the Gospel, will be called from death to life, unbound and granted entrance into the heavenly feast where our sister and brother saints dwell.  And we will know this truth firsthand: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." Whether it is to say, “I’m sorry” or to say “I love you”, we will be given the chance to see them again as we come to share in that grand company of the saints in light.  The God of love will surely grant us such a day.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on November 1, 2015.  The texts were Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.

An audio version is available here.

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