All Saints Day allows us a very personal way to talk about the present and the future by talking about the past. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Those saints from our past give us a way of talking about where we are and where we are headed.
Today, you are invited to bring someone (or "someones") with you to this place. There simply isn't enough seating for the hospitality we need to provide this morning.
Saints. They are with us; singing and praying, praising and compassionate, nourishing and sitting with those left behind. Today we remember, and during Communion I encourage you to light a candle in remembrance.
As I tell you my own story today, use this time to recall that person (or persons) you brought with you today in your heart to honor. Several years ago, I traveled through French Canada to Nova Scotia with my grandmother. She wasn't physically with me - in fact, she died in 1976. In retrospect, I think this was an act of veneration on my part - it was a way to complete her story for me. I could honor my grandmother in a very personal way, and it didn't have to be on a specific Sunday set aside for honoring those who have gone on, important as this is to do.
I took the night train to Halifax from Quebec City (after breathing that city in) listening to Leonard Cohen on my iPhone mixed with the rhythm of the tracks below. I rented a car and headed towards the Bay of Fundy. On my way, I remembered the woman I grew up with, as (in a way) I drove her home. Born in 1885 in rural Nova Scotia, she was not a worldly person. But, she played every kid's game with me. We spent hours at the card table in her room playing Kings on the Corner while I heard stories about...
- living on a farm without electricity as one of thirteen kids;
- what chores were like on the Robbins' family farm, and how it felt to sometimes go without a full meal;
- how it was to have all the kids climb up on the lower roof of the barn at night and recline back to become a part of the stars, even sometimes the Northern Lights waving in the Acadian skies, while the land around reverberated to the sound of crickets in the otherwise hush of darkness;
- how to chase fireflies and catch them in a jar in order to make a lantern with a cheesecloth cover tied with string, and sit in the evening chasing your dreams about whom you might one day be or marry;
- what it was like to instantly lose a brother in a farming accident and a sister to a disease; how close and present death was on a farm. Your cemetery plot was where you found your extended family and they were visited on Sundays after services at the Baptist church.
I decided one night at home in Southern California that I needed to see her farmhouse and land as a way of honoring her and acknowledging that I appreciated the stories she told me, and even more than that, the love and care that she gave without holding back. She had been the person who watched over me, just as you had that person, that teacher, mentor, relative, friend or spouse. Anne Sexton said, "Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance." You know that's true - they're beside you today as Pearl Robbins is with me. Dan Millman said, "Saints were saints because they acted with loving kindness whether they felt like it or not."
"Bear River, Nova Scotia 25 KM," read the sign, and Cousin Ike, a man I'd never met, was waiting for me in his truck at the appointed fork in the road, because it all gets too rural after that to find anything. He took me to his modest home, swung out of his truck on his two crutches and led me in where I met his family (now my family). Second cousins I have never seen came from here and there for a supper in the big kitchen with the best red checker tablecloths. Instant family.
Afterwards, he and I drove up to the fields where the descendants of our family horses ran alongside of the truck, and a panoramic view of the Bay of Fundy opened wide. Then, down, down, deep down an old road where he stopped at a farmhouse, and made his way on aching hips to the door. The woman who answered invited us in. In the hall there was an oil painting of a decrepit three-story plan Victorian farmhouse with a title on the frame that read, "The Old Haunted House on Sissiboo Road," and the owner listened as Otis told the tale.
After the family sold this end of the property in 1917, the house was left to sag and decay in what became the woods next door. For a while, it was used as a hunting shack; shelter for men hunting deer. Finally, it was flattened and burned down by the county.
The new owner of the property turned to me and she said that she has met many grandchildren who have been pulled back to this place, and that in a way, it is ours - we are always welcome - but all it is now is a hole in the ground in the woods. If I'm every back this way again...stop in and have a visit.
Driving just a bit down the road, Otis stopped the car. "Get out here," he said, "and I want you to walk 50 paces straight through the tall grass towards that single tree growing out there." I realized that I was walking through tall weeds across what was my grandmother's front lawn. The tree was growing straight up from the cellar of the stone foundation of her house, where inside lies nothing but charred wood, a rusty bedspring, and the remains of an antiquated ice-box. He dropped me back at my car, and I thanked him profusely.
The next day, I retraced our route and found this place again. I stood inside the ruined foundation and thought about how my grandmother lived there with 12 siblings and a mother and father, and what life must have been like. Although the land was so vast, the house could not have been comfortable for so many people, and yet the stories she told were all woven together with tales of how close they had all been. A wide pipe that once was painted red still stood not far from the side of the house, and I pictured my grandmother pumping water just like she said she did.
New life has grown up like wild plantings in a beautiful pot made up of re-cycled stones that now support a different kind of "house." I thought I would want to stay here for a while...but I did not feel as if I belonged, nor did I sense a kinship with this place. The earth was taking back what no longer belongs to the dead.
A trip to the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bear River revealed the graves of family members, including my great-grandparents. The graveside includes (among other) the dashing young soldier, Valentine, who died in WWI, and who now rests with his little daughter who died in a house fire.
The sound of Bear River rushing far below the embankment fills the emptiness of this lonely place. I drove on and away, back to life - and to the here and now, which is the only place we are called to occupy and live in fully. I'm glad I saw it, and blessings upon it for what it meant to those saints who went before. But, being there underlined that we belong in the present, the now, and not in the past.
Today's Gospel reading for All Saints Day is from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12. We know those opening words of blessing as, "The Beatitudes," and in contrast to Moses, who brought the law down from on high to the people, here is Jesus, beginning his teaching ministry by bringing blessings up the mountain to the people, where he sat down with his disciples and taught. "Blessed are you," he said directly to them, as he spoke to the poor in spirit, to those who were in mourning, to the meek who would inherit the earth, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the merciful, the peacemakers and others of us as well.
I am reminded that someone once said, "Saints are those who managed to love more than we did."[i] Blessed are you. Blessed am I. Jesus himself gave those blessings promiscuously to anyone who would receive them. But, once received they are ours to do something with - to be the blessings in this world we were taught we could be. One day, who knows - we will be the honored saints because we took the blessings we received and gave them away just as promiscuously as did Jesus along with all of the saints who followed.
So, come to this table today unafraid to honor someone who helped make you who you are. We point to those who have come before us as a way of talking about who we are, and who we want to be. And one day, one might hope, we will be remembered for the positive marks we left on the lives of others, and impossible as it may sound to us now, we just might be remembered as unlikely saints ourselves.
Unaware on any conscious level at the time, I carefully buckled a dear lady into her seat in a rental car in Halifax and drover her home to where she was a child. Who did you bring with you today to honor and remember? Bring her, bring him, bring them home with you to this table today. Come, for all things are ready. This is an open table - whoever you are and wherever you are on your faith journey, you are welcome here.
[i] Sorin Cerin, Wisdom Collection: The Book of Wisdom