Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry live,
and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen
All Saints Sunday is the holiday that involves the least church decoration. It has no pageants. It has no special candy. No yard signs “Former home of a Saint!” even though I bet many people see that sign in their minds eye when they drive through places they once lived. For me, it evokes images of old cement statues covered with a bit of moss and the sense that someone somewhere did something good.
Some may think All Saints Sunday is only for Catholics. Indeed, it began with Pope Boniface IV in 609 AD when he dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a church to the martyrs and Virgin Mary. It moved to November in the early 700s when Pope Gregory III made a special chapel for all the saints in St. Peter’s. For Presbyterians, it’s a little different. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, or considering them to be a mediator for our prayers or a special trinket, we give glory to God for the ordinary holy lives of believers in this and every age. Presbyterians are wary of a theology that sounds like a heavenly ranking system. Not all Christians are like this, but we are allergic to royalty or special holiness on earth and we seem to extend that to heaven as well. So, All Saints is a day of living our faith through everyday acts of service, marked by gratitude and humility. We remember that first-century Christians referred to one another as “saints,” and the early Christian community understood itself as a commonwealth of saints: each member of the church made holy by their faith. One article I read said, “to Presbyterians, all believers are saints, even if their character is dubiously holy.” So, greetings, all ye saints, ye who are grateful to God even when it seems your luck has run out, ye who remember someone acutely this day, and ye dubiously holy.
Gratitude and humble service. Those aren’t practices intended to raise our status in the hereafter. They are the sacred ways to access God’s replenishment every day.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” the voice of the Psalmist is raised in gratitude after a really difficult time. One way we are replenished is a discipline of thanksgiving.
Earlier this week, I was trading texts with a woman who has been facing numerous surgeries. Each time, her procedure was described as routine, an easy fix, but you know as well as I do that there is no such thing as routine surgery when it’s on you. Then, some unforeseen issue or surprising mistake meant they’d have to go back in. “Go back in,” as if she were a grocery store and they’d forgotten the milk. She said she was secretly hoping for frequent flyer miles from the hospital. I said, “Yes, I think on your 4th visit you get a free sub sandwich.” Our laughter settled into prayer. Voices hushed, words swept together like pieces of hope on the floor that only God could mend, then silence and then an amen. I told her I would keep her I my prayers, and she took a deep breath and said the thing I have heard her say a dozen times. “I have a lot to be thankful for.” There it was, a pool of water in a dry land, a modern-day Psalm raised from the pleather chairs of a hospital waiting room. Her simple refrain has stayed with me. Nudged me. It sounds so obvious that we should form words of thanksgiving with our mouths, but I notice how often my brain opts for comfy complaining or creative catastrophizing. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Speak words of thanksgiving, to God, to other people, to yourself, and you will be replenished. If you’ve been helped, say so. It’s like raking the leaves out of the gutters of your soul. All those memories of God’s goodness before will push you through what is hard now. Say so.
Another way God replenishes us is through humility. Jesus said it himself, Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is hard because our world has a different mantra. It often says, those who exalt themselves shall have a bigger platform. Those who exalt themselves shall be praised by the organization. Those who exalt themselves shall be seen as experts and specialists. Those who exalt themselves shall have full churches and widened wallets and no one will have time to verify if they practice what they preach. We might be living in an exaltation economy, with more tools to exalt ourselves than our 1st century Christian counterparts could have ever imagined. But we also know the jagged side of those glass screens. We feel how the tools of self-exaltation dehydrate our joy. Someone can be on the best vacation and suddenly it feels like dry desert when compared to someone else’s. Someone can have a fruitful job and suddenly it can feel like a salty waste when compared to someone else’s. We want faster and better and higher, but what if that thirst we can’t quite explain, what if that airplane dry mouth feeling of the soul, is coming from our soul’s need to be grounded.
I love that humility comes from the root word humus, ground. Jesus calls us to stay grounded. To keep the ground close to us. To spend time with knees on the earth. Jesus spent his life in fields and gardens and lake mud and especially with those who had hit rock bottom. Washing people’s feet. Taking on the cross. Even facing death itself and going into the ground. So that with every word he spoke, with every act of grace, he taught us the blessing of downward mobility and how it leads to the way of resurrection. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
I read recently that one of the reasons our souls feel so dried out is that our technology has outpaced our agency. We see images of savagery and yet we don’t have a way to respond with direct service. Our media is saturated with brutality and we don’t have a way to respond with beauty. One gift of All Saints Day is the reminder that even if we feel powerless in the face of catastrophes, we are still not cement statues covered with moss. And that can be a bracing call to action. There is plenty of work of thanksgiving and humble service to do right here.
This year, I spent Allhallowtide, yes, that is the name for this week, closer to death and dying than usual, even for a pastor. Of course, my neighborhood was erupting with Halloween festivities, all this playacting of death, skeletons and grim reapers and ghosts outnumbering the Taylor Swifts and Barbies, barely. As trick or treaters roamed by, my neighbor saying, “Oh look, moon shadow!” The moon was so bright it cast a shadow on the yard. And at those words, my heart noticed the dissonance of this week. Three beloved people had died. One, Glenda, the mother of my dear friend from college. Two, David, a beloved neighbor and co-worker to many of you. And three, Wendy, a 46-year-old woman who lives near me. She sought me out in August to pray with her as she moved through hospice. Real death is no cartoon. It is crying phone calls and horrible errands. But to be with people gazing at the cliff of eternity, feeling the updraft of the holy, that is a supreme honor. And this week it also conjured some of the most exquisite words of gratitude and acts of humble service I have ever seen. Words like, “Thank you for being here. If you knew my mother, Glenda, then you have experienced unconditional love.” “If you knew David, you really understand that there are angels on this earth.” “Wendy taught me what it looked like to hold this life in your arms as tightly as you can and also what it meant to let it go.” People stopped what they were doing to help. They added casseroles to the freezer and covered every surface with flowers and tended the yard, as I learned one man had been doing for a year in Wendy’s case. Hugs lingered for a long time, as did prayers, prayers sought by people who were a bit rusty in this healing language before grief made them thirsty for them. Maybe this sounds like a week that was terribly sad, but I promise you it was more luminous than the moon. Humbled people were exalted. The Holy Spirit was palpable. Parched spirits pooled with rivers of compassion. Saints were everywhere.
So, my invitation to you today is simple. Be grateful and stay grounded.
Look to God in thanksgiving. Look out for ways to serve.
And this is the truth: God will replenish your soul again and again. Amen.