On this All Saints Day, I’m thinking about my second call. It was a two-point parish with a town church and a rural church. The first time I went to that little country church, I noticed that there was a cushion in one of the pews, but nobody sat in it. When I asked about it, I learned that the cushion belonged to a man named John, who was homebound and couldn’t get to church. I met John and saw him regularly when I took Holy Communion to his home, but I never saw him in church. And yet, his place was still there; the cushion waited for him on the pew. After John died, I wondered what would become of his cushion, since now we knew beyond a doubt that he wouldn’t be coming back and he would never sit on that cushion again. Well, nobody touched it. For as long as I remained at that church, John’s cushion remained in the pew.
What if every worshiper had a place marker like that? And what if we never removed them, even when the person died, so that we’d always be reminded of their presence in worship? Some of us who have been a part of a particular faith community for a while probably know exactly where their cushions would be. And then, imagine seeing all of those who have worshiped in that space through the years at the same time. That’s what the communion of saints is about. We’re connected to God’s people of every time; there is a oneness we share with people we can no longer literally see. They’re very much with us.
Now, you don’t have to die to be a saint. But as long as our pilgrimage on earth continues, we are saints who carry a heavy load. We’re people who have all kinds of limitations that keep us from being completely the people God created us to be. We’re less than whole as God’s saints. It’s like we’re carrying this heavy weight on our backs. We’re never free of it. No matter how much we grow in God’s grace, we can’t shake it. We’re always burdened by it. But when we leave this earth, that burden is removed from us. We leave it behind. The sinner part of us dies; only the saint part of us lives on. We finally become whole people, freed from our earthly limitations.
Just imagine how it would feel to carry a heavy pack on your back for years and years and then to finally have it removed. Imagine how freeing that would feel. That’s what that phrase in the hymn “For All the Saints” is talking about when it says, “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” We’re all saints. But some of us are feebly struggling saints, while others are gloriously shining saints. All Saints Day is a time to give thanks for the saints who once feebly struggled through life as we do, but now in glory shine. Even if we never knew them, they are the ones who have it made it possible for us to be here today.
There’s an old African parable that tells about the process ants go through when they come to a small stream and want to get across it. The first ant comes to the stream and steps out into the water, only to be swept away downstream. And the next ant comes to the water’s edge and the same thing happens. One by one the ants come, and they are swept away by the water. But, eventually, there are the bodies of dead ants accumulating on the water’s edge. Until, finally, there are enough dead ants that they span all the way across the water. Now, the ants that follow are able to cross the stream of water by walking on the backs of those who have gone before them. As the story goes, this is a metaphor for the whole human race.
It’s a story that has stayed with me over the years as I think about those whose backs I have walked upon in my life. As a woman pastor I think about those who came before me who didn’t make it to the other side of the stream, but provided a way for women like me: the women missionaries who came before me, the women who first served as presidents of the congregations, the women who started the first women’s organizations. Way back when, this was a bone of contention in many congregations and those women took a lot of grief because they wanted to make their own unique contribution to the life of the church. I would not be a pastor in the church today, were it not for the courageous ministry of those women.
As we get ready to head to the polls to vote, I can’t help but think about the people whose backs I will walk across to get into the voting booth: the colonists who fought for freedom in our country and the women suffragettes who marched for the right to vote.
When I walk through the door to my church on Sunday, I know that I will be walking on the backs of those who came before us: the people of St. Mark’s Lutheran church who started our congregation as a mission church; Pastor William Lutz, the first pastor of Holy Trinity back in 1916 and all the pastors who followed him; all who contributed financially so that future generations would have a place to worship and do ministry; those who struggled through times of crisis and wouldn’t give up. They weren’t just the ones who were here before us, they were the ones who have made it possible for us to be here. No doubt, many of them could not have imagined what our church might be like today, but they provided the way for us to get here.
What about us? There will be others coming after us, walking on our backs to get to the next place God is calling them. Just as those who came before us have left a legacy for us, someday we’ll be doing that for those who follow us. So, we march on and take our place within the great procession of saints.