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All Saints’ Sunday, November 3, 2019 | 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Gifts from the Saints
Part of the sermon series:
“Remembering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future”
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Hebrews 11:1–3, 13–16
“O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
From the hymn “For All the Saints” by William Walsham How
In a sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in 1921, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the congregation, John Timothy Stone preached on the theme “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” In that sermon he provided some remarkable anchors for the world he inhabited in post-World War I time. It was a boom time in Chicago. It was a time when religious communities such as Fourth Church were working very hard to reach the population that found its way into this high-energy city of Chicago, which Stone notes, “dominates the Mississippi Valley commercially. Its influence reaches up to the Canadian border to the Pacific Ocean and to the Gulf of Mexico. As Chicago moves, so moves the west.”
But on that particular Sunday in February, Dr. Stone noted, “It is not enough to associate the past with the personal or even the general experiences to which our minds revert at such a time as this. Our heritage is not a museum, neither a mere accumulation; or is it simply past deeds, nor allowed associations. True memory,” he said, “has to do with influences which have been, and as we look back we realize that ‘others have labored and we have entered into their labors’” (John Timothy Stone, Sermon on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Fourth Church, February 1921).
“Others have labored, and we have entered into their labors.” In today’s achievement-oriented world, where we assume our destiny resides in our hands, his words are sharp and challenging. And as we land on this Sunday, as we consider our legacy through this sermon series, “Remembering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future,” and also on this All Saints’ Day, his words awaken us to the larger history we inherit, because the power of the history we share in this congregation is founded on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as it shaped and charged generations of faithful people and holds the promise of the future.
Today we celebrate those whose legacy of faith lives on throughout time. These are the known people of our history, those whom we shall name in a few minutes, who have died in the past year and also the saints we have not known, those of recent and long-ago times, whose faith and life sustain us by their witness and contribution through time.
Someone has said that the most precious commodity and the most soul-churning gift we have to give is our time. This is quite true for young adults and those with young families, who are constantly bargaining for more time to do the necessary tasks of demanding lives and also find a bit of sabbath. But it is also very true for those of us who realize the power of mortality. In the familiar hymn“Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,”oneof the stanzas of the hymn goes like this: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.” There is birth and there is death. There is the reality of our mortality. And time marches on.
As we age many of us come to realize that time is a precious commodity. We ask the question “How much time do I have left?” We come face-to-face with the physical changes aging brings: skin sags, eyes develop a blur, hearing is not as sharp, old injuries show up. And we may, in the quiet of our facing-up moments—whether old age or midlife crisis— wonder if our lives meant anything anyway. We may face promotion depression: when you’ve gotten the coveted position and you become depressed, either because you don’t want new responsibilities or the change didn’t bring with it what you though it would.
Time takes its toll on us—that is, unless we give ourselves over to something remarkable, something that arises from the very universe itself, a calling, God. I think we forget that Abraham and Sarah, whose lives are mentioned in the verses of scripture that are left out of today’s reading, were quite old when that call came to them to leave Abraham’s homeland and accumulated wealth in the land of Ur and go to the place that God would show them.
We may wonder why this ancient couple would respond with faith, not knowing where they were to go. They took up a nomadic existence, living in tents, stepping over into the unfamiliar. They did not have much time left, and lo and behold, the power of the living God showed them the way. They sojourned to a new land, never possessing the promise given to them.
Why did they do it? The author of Hebrews says because Abraham’s vision was not strictly earthbound but looked beyond temporal binding to full life in God. Abraham looked toward a city whose builder and architect is God. Such faith in a God who calls us from the temporal to the eternal brings with it a new understanding of time itself. Our time is in the scope of God’s time, and we are sojourners being led to the fullness of life in the eternal now.
In a wonderful essay entitled “I Am the Clock Winder,” Garret Keizer, vicar of a small Episcopal church in Island Pond, Vermont, writes about his role as the person in town who climbs the church tower to wind the clock. As you can imagine, this role is one that has all sorts of symbolic dimensions—a congregational pastor keeping time—but, on the other hand, it is simply a role that contributes to the well-being of the community in which he lives. He writes,
I am the town clock-winder for Island Pond, Vermont. I have been so almost as long as I have been the lay vicar. . . . Twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday, I climb through the vertical tunnel inside the Carpenter Gothic spire of my church up to the little wooden house that holds the clockworks. With a key like an antique car crank, I wind the two drums of steel cable, one for time on the four clock faces and one for the great bell that rings the hours. . . . Along with my ministry, this minor job has given me a focus for thinking about work, faith, and time and about the places in which individuals come to reckon with those things. . . . And as I have looked out from behind the clock faces . . . I have wondered about my own comings and going and about the town’s history and future.” (Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, p. 81)
Keizer uses this metaphor of winding the great church clock for the way that time comes and goes, people come and go, and for the eternity of congregational life, with its history and contribution to that community and how it shapes the world in ways untold.
I love to think about the tie of his clock winding to the bells that toll the hours of this church on this corner. I think the tolling of the bells locate this church on this corner, Michigan and Delaware, and also remind folks, who are wandering the streets to shop or eat or sleep or go to school or work, that the church bells toll for them. Time is now, and the legacy of this church is one that was here before the Hancock high-rise or the Water Tower shopping plaza or even the Drake Hotel.
The power of faithful engagement that has been in this location since 1914 and has been in this city for nearly 150 years is a light of faith and courageous investment of those who came before us. The faith of those lifted up in the letter to the Hebrews and the faith of those who have gone before us are reminders that faith enables us to cope with trials and tribulations, but it also sets us at odds with the culture in which we live and even with our own families and maybe perhaps even with the call to dedicate one’s life to the church.
I suspect that those who gave to the endowment of this church in its earliest days, responding to the call from John Timothy Stone in that same sermon to give to the church in order to sustain its future, may have wondered if this was the right move. I imagine they looked around at those who were coming to church and thought that others were more capable or it might be better to keep the money in the family. But what is amazing is that they listened to the call and stepped out on faith, not knowing exactly where the institution was going, how the vision of God would guide, or where the light of faith would shine. And, like Abraham and Sarah, they died in faith, never fully seeing the promise.
We are those who have inherited the promise from them. We are invaded by hope that arises from the very DNA of our historic commitments and bold initiatives and, today, waiting for God’s new day to shine brightly through the promise of God for this very time. Though we assume this church will continue its ministry for 150 more years, we also realize its work has been going for a very long time!
In the human developmental sequence, when a human being gets into its aging process, there comes a time of generativity where we see people who, in their older years, come to a new sense of calling, self, and capacity. Generativity also comes to the fore when the welfare of future generations becomes an essential part of one’s own adaptational concerns. The capacities one has gained in earlier stages serve as a store for this time: hope, will, purpose, skill, fidelity, and love. But it doesn’t end there. There is what James Fowler calls “gero-transcendence” when humans move from materialistic pursuits to connection with the world beyond in new ways. They become aware of the interrelatedness of all things; they are profoundly moved by the beauty of simple things, and time becomes misty and truly a gift.
I wonder if a congregation also moves through developmental phases, striving for a sense of deep and awakening purpose as it steps over the threshold to 150 years? I am keenly aware that the legacy of faith that shines out of this light in the city actually shows up in the future directions the Session of this church recently adopted for the next five years of this congregation’s life. Among these are the legacy of welcoming those who are in major life transitions—young adults, immigrants, those who live at the margins of our society; the legacy of public witness, where we hear God’s call to address injustice, to honor the “least of these my brothers and sisters”; the legacy of abundance, giving out of the fullness of all that we have received with gratitude; the legacy of partnerships with other congregations and those who work for the good of God’s life in our midst.
And I also wonder if this congregation’s generativity and even our gero-transcendence is just beginning. With God as our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, we wind the clock back and forward to find ourselves in the eternal now. With God our help, who guides us while life has passed and our eternal home, our hearts are stirred to create our legacy for the future generations who want nothing more than to know that we trust and entrust the gift of faith to them.
At the end of Vicar Keizer’s essay on clock winding he reflects on the people of that little town in Vermont who live life each day awakened by the bell and go to sleep to its sound as well. Keizer says, “These people are all reasons why the clock must run, and run as well as I can make it, not because it ran when they were young and their lives require that consolation, not for nostalgia or as a souvenir, but for the sake of faithfulness, which in every nuance has been the stuff of their living” (A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, p. 91). Vicar Keizer knows these are the saints and their gifts to the world are to be celebrated and render us thankful. And those saints join our saints, faithfully listening to God’s call to go to a land God will show you, faithfully knowing that Jesus is with us to the end of the age.
Yes, it is so—and so be it, this day and evermore. Amen.