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All Saints' Sunday, November 6, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Communion of Saints
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Hebrews 11:1–3, 12:1–2
Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV)
This past week we have been thinking a lot about loved ones who have died. On Monday it was Halloween, originally known as All Hallows’ Eve, the beginning of Tuesday’s celebration of All Saints’ Day, when we honor people of faith now departed. On Wednesday the Catholic and Anglican churches celebrated All Souls’ Day, in which prayers are said for those who have died but not yet reached heaven. The Day of the Dead was also celebrated, its origins in Mexico.
Midweek, the Chicago Tribune said that on Thursday the road trips to cemeteries would commence. But the trips to cemeteries weren’t about commemorating a Christian holiday. They were about Cubs fans taking baseball caps, balls, pennants, and news clippings to place on the grave markers of their loved ones to let them know—they did it! The Cubs finally won the World Series after a 108-year drought.
Cubs President Theo Epstein had seen this before, numerous people visiting the graves of loved ones. It was when he was general manager of the Boston Red Sox and led them to their first World Series championship in 2004 after an 86-year drought. Epstein “was moved by all the cemetery scenes, the touching tributes to those who taught us to love a baseball team through thick and thin.” Almost every day since that Red Sox victory, fans have thanked Epstein for what it meant to their family and “those who didn’t live long enough to see it happen.” That really resonated with Theo Epstein. Last year he said, “More than anything else, that feeling influenced my decision to come to Chicago, because that was the one place in the world where you could experience something that meaningful again and play a small part in contributing to something that meaningful.”
After the Cubs won the World Series, journalist John Kass wrote, “Before you thought any big thoughts about what it all means . . . I bet you focused on something else, not on the universal, but on tiny things, snips and bits of memory. It could be a parent or grandparent now gone, taking you to that first game, and their smile when your eyes got wide at the thrill of Wrigley in June. Or a dad screaming at the Mets. Or perhaps you might think of a sibling who’s not here, a boy who may have thrown a no-hitter when he was twelve, or an uncle who taught you how to keep score, all those who led you into the Cubs tribe and didn’t get to see this World Series.”
In a struggle that lasted for several generations, Cubs fans and tribe members could not help but remember those who have gone before. In Chicago, fans found themselves crying and smiling all at once as they went to the graves of loved ones who had been devoted to the Cubs. They adorned graves with blue, white, and red flowers or with “W” flags or balloons. At the grave of the late Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, fans have left beer cans, flowers, pennants, a hot dog, and bushels of green apples, a reference to Caray’s comment in 1991, “Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series.” Sharon Sokas on the South Side put a Cubs flag on the grave of her husband Michael, who died in 2003. Sharon said, “He would have been ecstatic. He would have been thrilled. That’s why I feel like I went through this World Series with him” (Chicago Tribune, 5 November 2016).
Fans also stopped by Wrigley Field, chalk in hand, to write on its exterior brick wall messages and names of loved ones who died before seeing their beloved Cubs win the World Series. The singer-songwriter who wrote “Go, Cubs, Go,” Steve Goodman, has also been remembered. He wrote and recorded that song in 1984, the same year he died of leukemia at age thirty-six, just four days before the Cubs clinched the National League East (Phil Rosenthal, “Hillary Clinton's 'Go, Cubs, Go' Connection,” Chicago Tribune, 4 November 2016). Musician Jimmy Buffett wrote on Facebook:, “I think Steve Goodman is rewriting the lyrics to ‘A Cubs Fan's Lament’ and will sing it in those bleachers in the sky.”
During the rain delay before the tenth inning, when the Cubs and Indians were tied, Manager Joe Maddon went to find the old, raggedy Angels baseball cap that belonged to his deceased father. He stuffed it into his back pocket as a good-luck charm. Later he reported that he felt his dad’s presence in the Cubs’ victory just as he had fourteen years ago when the Angels won the World Series while he was their bench coach. “My dad (was) there for the 2002 win in Anaheim, and he was here tonight,” Maddon said. “It’s incredible how this all plays out sometimes. You have to believe in order to see things, and I do believe.”
At Friday’s celebration at Grant Park, before the National Anthem was even sung, the late Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Harry Caray, and Jack Brickhouse were all remembered at the microphone. Later, player Anthony Rizzo said that anyone who had ever worn the Cubs jersey over the years won this championship with them. Their victory was for the fans, all the fans through the generations.
Never before have I experienced such a widespread, exuberant celebration—of the communion of saints.
Communion of saints? That’s probably not how you expected my sentence to end. Celebration of the communion of saints? In this secular world of sports? I don’t mean to be sacrilegious. I don’t mean to insert religious belief where it doesn’t exist (though a lot of people did look like they were praying in the most tense moments of the last few World Series games—heads bowed, fingers clasped tightly together with palms pressed against the chin).
What I am saying is that this past week we have witnessed what it looks like to celebrate the communion of saints. People remembered loved ones who have died, died before they got to see what they hoped in. Their hopes and convictions were honored. We rejoiced in their dedication. We sensed a strong connection with them and felt their presence with us still.
Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Sunday. For Protestants, saints are not models of perfection. Saints include all people who have sought to follow Jesus Christ—those who have heard Christ’s call and entrusted their lives to him. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “The one thing that truly makes a saint . . . is the love of God . . . membership in the body of Christ, which is what all of us, living and dead, remembered and forgotten, great souls and small, have in common. The title of saint is one that has been given to us all by virtue of our baptisms” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Weavings). All of us who seek to follow Jesus are saints.
Later in the service we will read aloud the names of all the members of Fourth Church who have died in the past year. We will thank God for their lives and for their blazing the trail before us on the journey of faith. We will celebrate our heritage and the fact that life goes on beyond death. The next life is the fulfillment of this life the way the flower is the fulfillment of a bud or a butterfly the fulfillment of a caterpillar. Not only does life go on, but it goes on gloriously. On All Saints’ Sunday we praise God for a victory—the victory of life over death. We celebrate resurrection, giving thanks for all the heroes and heroines of the faith who have conquered death and now live eternally in the reign of God.
This festive day also affirms that these people of faith, this company of saints, gather around to cheer for us. That’s the imagery we find in the book of Hebrews. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. All the seats in the stands of the ballpark are filled with our ancestors of faith, cheering us on. Cheering us on, believing in us, encouraging us, praying for us, as we run the race of following Jesus Christ. They have faithfully completed their turn running this race with perseverance. Now it is our turn to run the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The saints surround us and inspire us to keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to trust God with our all and serve God faithfully. From the saints we not only inherit their legacy from the past, but their hope for the future. We are in good company with them, as they bless us and remind us that we are not alone. We never live out our faith entirely alone.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These words of the book of Hebrews were written to Christians in a horribly difficult time. Those first-century Christians didn’t know if they would survive the onslaught of persecution or whether or not they would have the courage to withstand hardship. The writer of Hebrews urges them to stand firm, to trust God and be convicted in hope. To bolster their faith he recalls a long litany of heroes and heroines of faith from the past: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab. What they had in common was that they trusted God—they really believed God’s promises, and they hoped for what they could not see. These same saints are among the many saints who keep company with us now, who bolster us on our faith journey.
Some have said the seventeen-minute rain delay between the ninth and tenth innings of Game 7 was an act of God, heaven-sent, a gift from Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it certainly provided a significant opportunity for the Cubs team to regroup. Player Jason Heyward called his teammates together in the weight room while they were reeling after coughing up a big lead. He reminded them of how good a team they were—the best. He helped everyone recall the challenges they had already conquered. He said, “I love everyone in here.” Circled together, they reclaimed that they had what it took to finish the race.
That’s what celebrating the communion of saints should do for us. When we get discouraged or distracted, feel afraid or veer off course, we can remember that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We can call upon their legacy, their trust in God, their living with courageous faith. They can help us remember who we are. They can encourage us, pray for us, and hope in us.
That’s the power of the saints who have gone before us, who keep us company now. They call forth the best in us. The Spirit of God that lived in them lives in us. So today take a moment to think about who especially have been your role models or encouraged you or believed in you for the journey of faith. Who have been such positive influences on you that their impact didn’t end with their death? Who helps you, whether living or dead, to trust in God with your whole life? Take a moment of silence—who comes to mind?
Now thank God for them. Honor their dedication. Share in their hope. Celebrate with them. Sense their presence with you still. Call on them to bring you strength and courage. For you are, indeed, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Amen.