All Saints Sunday by The Rev. Dick Toll

Lessons:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today is All Saints’ Day on the calendar.  You have just listened to the Beatitudes which represents the teaching of Jesus as he spoke to the hearts of people…people that surrounded him on the Mount of Beatitudes at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.

I have visited this site in the Holy Land many times.  It is always awe inspiring to look out on the Sea of Galilee and hear once again the words of Jesus.  In my visits the most memorable was when I got up early at a hostel that I was staying at across the road from the Mt of Beatitudes.  I arrived as the sun was coming up.  And I was the only person there.  Usually I have experienced hundreds of people with tourist groups.  I found myself in a deep meditation while walking and meditated upon on the words of Jesus that have been a hallmark of the Gospel message for centuries.  Teachings to live by…..Blessed are you!  Teachings that people found meaningful to the point that history defines people who have followed in the foot steps of Jesus to be called “Saints” because of their exemplary lives…people who are good, kind, honest, patient in accepting Jesus into their lives.

You have offered names of those to be honored this day and we will lift them up in prayer.

I believe that today is a day that we remind ourselves where we come from.  In the hustle and bustle of modern day life we often do not explore history in the lives of those who have given of themselves in their own times and generation.  These persons who are known and unknown who are the saints within history.  We need to capture these moments of the past that have provided some very special people who continue to speak to us today.  My thoughts turn to Francis of Assisi who is a favorite saint.

But, we may forget he was a spoiled rich kid who grew up and went off to the crusades in the 13th Century.  He was so distressed by the violence during his time in the crusades his effectiveness was realized when the Muslim Sultan of Egypt allowed his order of Franciscans to become the custodians of the Holy Land in 1217.

Well after his death, his supporters claimed the Holy Sites in the Holy Land and even until today make them available for pilgrims to visit.  Franciscans remain on the front line in trying to keep Christians in the Holy Land.  In the 1940’s, Christians were 18% of the population.  Today, it is less than 1% and it continues to shrink.

I have stayed at their pilgrimage site at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and celebrated communion at a chapel that goes back to the Roman Empire.  The followers of Francis still reflect the prayer of Saint Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace.”  We are recipients of this wonderful human being and his relationship with the person of Jesus in his life.

When we look back into the lives of these individuals who have defined the meaning of Jesus Christ in their day and time, it helps us to find our way through the challenges of our own day.  We do not spend enough time reflecting where we come from out of history and those people who in their own time confronted good and evil .  Their choices are still resounding in our lives.

I have found over the years that moments stand out for me.  What do I mean by that?  And ahh hah moment,  a sermon that I remember, a book that I read that clarifies for me an issue, a conversation that comes back to me.

When I was in seminary, I was struggling with my background of being raised in a culture in Texas that was quite literal and fundamental in its Christianity.  I was caught up with issues of creation, evolution, science, and religion.  Who were the saints I was suppose to listen to?  What did they have to offer me?

One day a professor at the seminary was sharing the thoughts of Saint Augustine of Hppo….a 4th century bishop who was converted to Christianity in his early 30s.  He is well documented in his writings and opened many doors to the people of his time.  The professor pointed out his views of Creation.  What we experience in the discovery and our learning of Creation and it’s mystery of  what God has created and is ours to discover and relate to.  We are given gifts to explore the meaning of Creation which is already there and is up to us to find it’s meaning.  Scientists have always been a part of All Saints throughout history.

I have often been put off by the way science and religion have conflicted over the past few centuries.  Much of the religious argument dismisses science.  It gives a bad name for Christianity.  When I was six years old, my appendix burst.  My six year old life was in danger.  I can still remember the pain of lying on the couch and screaming.  My Father called the doctor who came by the house and sent me to the hospital.  It was 1945 and penicillin was a new drug that saved my life.  I received shots every four hours, night and day.  Science and life.

I had open heart surgery in May with two values replaced.  I put my trust in God, prayer, and my doctors and I thank God for the skill of those who have helped me through this period and the prayers of this parish.  I do not remember a lot of what happened before and after surgery but one memory is very real.  I was being wheeled into the operating room and I was semi-conscious as the surgery door opened.  I thought to myself…I should say a prayer…so I tried to mumble through The Lord’s Prayer.  As the doors opened to surgery, I got to the end of the prayer and instead of saying “Amen”, I said “Ut-Oh”.   I woke up ten hours later in ICU looking at my wife, Elaine.

Again, God has given us Creation to live in, to explore, to choose our path of learning, to be All Saints.

I want to make a point today with our history as the Episcopal Church and All Saints.  I believe it is true that the Book of Common Prayer has been second only to the Bible as the book that is most read by people.  The Book of Common Prayer came into use during the reformation in the mid 1500’s.   It was in English.  Now it is in many languages throughout the world.  Much of the Reformation issue was in offering the use of the Bible and worship in the language of the people.  Individuals were burned at the stake because of this issue of language.  The Bible and Prayer Book were given to us by many Saints throughout history.  Most of them we have no idea who they were.  I have here a Bible and Prayer Book from 1578.  It is in English and is 30 years before the King James Bible.  It is known as the “Breeches Bible” because in Genesis when Adam and Eve saw they were naked they put on their breeches.  How English can you get?

The Prayer Book that is part of this book had only been in usages for about 30 years.  It was written by people, some known and many unknown who were the saints of history.  Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1540’s and 50’s was the chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer. The Catholic Queen Mary of England at that time refused to accept his recantations of not accepting the Pope.  I stood on the spot where he was martyred in Oxford, England in 1556.   Some of the prayers in our Prayer Book can be traced to the early 4th, 5th and 6th centuries of the Church.

The All Saints Collect for today is the same Collect in this Prayer Book of 1578.  I wonder who was holding this Prayer Book and Bible as the Spanish Armada invaded England in 1580? 

Let me encourage you to read through the Book of Common Prayer as you live through this pandemic and discover for yourself all the Saints, known and unknown, who gave us this book.

We honor ourselves on All Saints Day.  Remember who we are as individuals.  Each person within creation…you and me…we are unique to creation.  There has never been and never will be anyone like me or you.  We are unique.  Each of us.  Our gifts, our history, our experiences, our relationships, our decisions, our faults, and on and on.  There has never been another person in the world like who we are and never will be because each of us is unique.  I have a mantra I try to pray as I go through life.  It helps to center me and to keep me focused, “God I am yours you have created me for yourself and for your purposes alone have I been created.”

It is within this perspective that we need to realize that we make a difference in the way Creation moves forward.  It may be our special gifts, our relationships, our intellect,…it may be any number of things, but we make a difference.  It may be our vote.  I am often moved by the astronauts in space that have taken pictures of our planet and how small we are amidst the vastness of the universe.  But like a grain of sand on the beach, we are part of a total that God had created.  We are to nurture the saint within us and those who offer their sainthood to us… past and present.

Finally.

One of the modern day people we honor in our own history is Mother Theresa from Calcutta in India.  She is so well known as to her ministry with the poor, the sick, and the dying.  What a unique and wonderful human being she was.  A quote from her is well worth remembering on All Saints Day.

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

All Souls & All Saints (transferred) Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Nov. 5 2017 image

Lessons:

Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

I met Donald Grayston for the first time at a party almost a quarter of a century ago. And I remember it vividly. Don had this generous energy and a wide smile to match it– a smile in which he opened up his mouth to show an inch or more of gap between his upper and lower teeth, a smile that suggested he was on the verge of laughter, a smile that suggested he was drinking in the beauty of the world around him. And while Don was appreciably older than most of the people at the party – I suppose he would’ve been in his early or mid fifties back then, so eight or ten years older than I am now – he seemed entirely at home in the youthful, playful energy of that room.

I don’t know if it was that night at the party or shortly thereafter that I learned that Don was a Priest. And that knowledge was an instance of cognitive dissonance for me, of confusion. I didn’t have anything to do with church back then, and on the rare occasion when I did think about faith, I reckoned that church was anti-intellectual, judgmental, humourless, and frequently immoral; when I read the news or turned on the TV, I constantly saw churches on the wrong side of the great moral issues of our time. What did it mean that someone like Don – who was fun and smart and compassionate – was a part of church? I started to wonder if there was more to faith than I had allowed.

Don Grayston engaged in evangelism, in other words, by being out of the closet as a Christian and by being Don Grayston. He never handed me a pamphlet, never knocked on my door wearing a suit and tie, never gave me a lecture, never threatened me with hell. What he did was to live with enough curiosity and generosity and compassion and joy that, like the woman at the next table in When Harry Met Sally, I looked at him and said:

I want what he’s having.

I am, in large part, a Christian because of Don’s evangelism. When I read the Bible for the first time and I got to the Gospel of John, in which Jesus makes his first appearance at a party, I said:

Oh! Just like Don Grayston!

I met Donald Grayston for the last time just after Christmas in 2016. He was in the hospital, quarantined into one of those rooms with negative air pressure so as to keep the germs from escaping into the rest of the hospital. I had to wear a mask and a gown and latex gloves when I sat with him. Don was frail and struggling to breathe. The doctors thought that he might have tuberculosis or some other radical respiratory ailment. And while Don he subsequently rallied and got to live for most of 2017, using the time for writing and prayer and visits with friends and activism and maybe even a little holy mischief – Don died on October 23rd – on that day in December, it looked like Don was within days or weeks of the end of his life.

Maybe because of the intensity of his illness, maybe because it was the last time that I saw him, our conversation back in December feels in my memory like a farewell, it has the ring of earthly finality to it. What we shared felt on that day a whole lot like a deathbed conversation.

This is the day on which we remember all the saints, who from their labours rest. And because of that, I’d like to spend a little time with you this morning wondering with you about that final talk with one of the newest saints, with Don. Don and I visited for maybe an hour on that day. And one of the big things that he wanted to talk about was regret. He didn’t feel a need to formally confess any of what we might call sins – but he really did want to sacramentally name, to have a holy context in which to name, his regrets.

And so I listened.

What was amazing to me as I listened to Don speak was how gently he held his regrets. Don spoke without bitterness. His regrets were, like his illness, something that he could hold in his hands, that he could name, that, yes, he could be sad about. But his regrets weren’t something that owned him or controlled him or obsessed him or crowded out the joy in his life.

When I spoke with Don last on the telephone, maybe a month ago, I asked him if I could share his regrets publicly. I knew that I was going to be speaking at his funeral, and it seemed to me that what he had named in the hospital was a kind of epitaph, that what he had shared with me on that day as good a sermon as I could hope to come up with. I wanted to make sure, however, that telling you what he told me wouldn’t mean violating our confidence or hurting anyone. But Don immediately said it was okay, that it was fine.

And so here are the late-life regrets of Donald Grayston. They are all brief.

One. Don said that, when his children were small, he had the opportunity to take his whole family to live and work in a third world country for close to a year. But that they decided against going. Don told me that he regretted the choice not to go – and this is an observation that, as a parent myself, has stuck with me – because a year in in a third world country would have inoculated his children against consumerism forever. Stop and think about that one for a second.

Two. He said that he regretted that he had, as he put it, dabbled in many things but focused really intently on none of them. Don saw himself as a pretty good professor (after he left parish ministry, he taught at Simon Fraser University in the humanities department) and a pretty good Thomas Merton scholar, but as a master in neither field. The problem, as he put it – and I think that this is a challenge shared by many really talented people – is that he found everything, everything to be just so interesting.

Three. Don said that he regretted that neither he nor his former wife were willing or able to name sooner than they did the reality that their marriage had died.

Four. And here is an echo of the regret about the third world country, it would’ve taken place around the same time: Don regretted that he had the opportunity to go teach at a major European university but, with a young family, the idea seemed overwhelming. And so they didn’t go.

There was a time when we understood the late-life words of a person to be a really big deal, when we understood them to be a vital source of wisdom, an insight into the holy. As a culture, we’ve mostly forgotten that today. I think that we have forgotten deliberately. We have forgotten that because we are a culture that denies aging and denies death, and to listen carefully about what someone wants to say as they approach death is to sabotage our denial.

I’d like to see if we can remember that practice this morning, if we can ask the question:

Don was a teacher – not just at SFU, not just in the parish, but across his life. What do Don’s regrets have to teach us? What does his relationship with them have to teach us?

Well, let’s notice the themes that run through them. (Don had a fifth regret, by the way, but he told me that regret number five was too personal to share with you. I will say only that it the fifth regret is consistent in nature with the other four.) Each of these regrets is about loving more, about risking more, about, as Holocaust Survivor and author, Viktor Frankl put it, saying yes to life in spite of everything.

Notice the regrets that aren’t in the list. None of the regrets are about how Don had the opportunity to buy stock in Apple or Nike but he passed it up, about how he could’ve become rich but missed his chance. None of them are about how he might’ve become famous. None of them are about how he hadn’t achieved worldly power.

What Don regretted were those instances when he had the opportunity to become more fully alive and to invite those around him to become more fully alive and he didn’t say yes. Even the regret about not naming the reality that his marriage had died – to my ear, the saddest, the most painful of the regrets – is a regret about not offering real freedom to his spouse and to himself sooner than he did; sometimes, you and I mistake delaying a conversation like that for compassion, we convince ourselves that we are being compassionate by delaying telling another person the deep truth. But as Jesus says – as Don affirmed in his regrets – the truth that will set you free.

On All Souls and All Saints, we name our grief, our deep sorrow at the reality of death. And we proclaim as well the resurrection. We ask:

Grave, where is your victory?

Death, where is your sting?

In the Christian tradition, resurrection is not only something that happened to Jesus almost 2000 years ago – although don’t misunderstand me, the empty tomb, along with the Incarnation and the cross, makes up the cornerstone of our faith. And nor is it restricted to something that we hope will happen in the future, after we die. Rather, in Christian practice, resurrection is a lived and ongoing reality. It is something in which we can participate right now.

Don’s conversation with me in the hospital room was a conversation about resurrection. It was a conversation in which, without bitterness, he named his regrets. He named them as one might name the scars on one’s body. Here are things that hurt, that maybe are hard to look at. But here as well are things that we dare not wish away. Because these regrets, these scars, well they woven inescapably into our story. Like grief, these regrets, these scars, are evidence of having lived and having loved. To wish them away is to wish our history away, to wish our very lives away.

Don had come to understand his scars as his teachers, as something for which, in spite of everything, he could say thanks.

Or maybe scars are the wrong metaphor. Maybe Don’s regrets were like words written into the book of his life, a book filled with jubilation and sorrow in equal measure. Or maybe that too is wrong. Maybe, to borrow an image from the poet, Mary Oliver, Don’s regrets were a box full of darkness that, after years, he had come to understand as a gift.

In our conversation in the hospital, Don lay his regrets down. He placed them on the rectangular table that you can swing over a hospital bed. We prayed over them. And then he gave them to God. And then, with a gap of an inch or more between his upper and his lower teeth, Donald Grayston smiled.