Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
Hebrews 11 & 12:1-2
After graduating college, Meena Ziyabari moved from New York to Tennessee. It was a stressful time in her life so she decided to start running as a way of dealing with it. She had been at her new practice about a week, doing 5 mile runs each day, when a colleague came to her an said: “Hey, so I signed up for this half marathon, but I’ve gone and got sick. Would you want to run it since I already have the registration?” “Sure!” she said. “Great, the race is tomorrow morning.” Ohhhh-kay then.
So Meena, who has never before this week, run in her life, starts out and is feeling great. So good in fact, that she decides she is going to forego the water stations until she is past the halfway point in the race (6.5 miles). By that point, she is really starting to feel it, and she sees the tent ahead with little cups on the table. She is so relieved as she trots up, grabs a cup, gulps it down, and immediately it comes back up. She looks at the guy in the tent and says: “What is this?!” “Beer!” he cheerfully exclaims. “Do you have any water?” “Nope, that’s two miles down the road.”
Meena musters what energy she can and finally makes it to the water station and mile marker 8. She gulps down a bunch of water and she is feeling amazing. So renewed and ready. She gets back to the running and she feels like she is flying. Miles just ticking by. Up ahead is the next mile marker sign and it says: mile 8.5. She’d gone a half mile. Totally deflated, she gives up and stops. “The amount of miles left in this race are as many miles as I have ever run at one time. What am I doing here?” The race course was a straight line, so she couldn’t go back and she still had a ways to go. At this point man with graying hair jogged past her and she burst into tears.
When she looked up, he had turned around and was coming at her. He stood next to her jogging in place. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m tired” she said. “Do you know how old I am?” “No…?” “I’m 63. How old are you?” “I’m 22,” Meena replied. “If I can do this, you can too. Let’s go kid. Pick it up.” And he ran with her for about a mile before saying “You good?” When she nodded, he picked up his pace, and before long, Meena finished the race. Never saw that man again.
The encouragement that this stranger offered Meena is the same sort of encouragement that the author of Hebrews is giving to a struggling church in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection. It is grounded in reality: things are not always going to be perfect, in fact, often there will be struggles. It is hard to persist in doing goodness, in struggling against racism, in caring for each other, ourselves, the planet. It can be a stretch to believe that justice will win out in the end, or to not wonder if our faith is misplaced in hoping for a working for a better world, a world that more closely resembled what Jesus described as the “kingdom of God.”
The author of Hebrews knows this all too well, and we can presume from the content of the letter, that the Hebrew community was facing their own share of disillusionment and struggles. The faith of so many forebears is cited to encourage them, to remind them of the power of faith to make the miraculous happen, to see God’s vision for us and the earth come through in some small (or not so small) ways.
On this day, we celebrate All Saints day, remembering all those people who have loved us, shaped us, helped us become who we are, and been beacons of God’s love and hope for us when we most needed it. In particular today we commemorate and give thanks for those saints who have died and who rest with God. It is good to remember those who have had a good impact on our lives.
Yet the term saint does not—for us—refer solely to those few canonized by the Catholic Church. Nor must one be deceased to qualify. Neither are saints utterly perfect, blameless, and without flaw.
In fact, with each of the Biblical ancestors that the text mentions, for all the good they did, their flaws are easy enough to name too. Abraham: liar, coward, rapist; Sarah: cruel to her slave; Moses: murderer; David: adulterer.
What makes one a saint is God at work in and through them. That their life shines forth with love, or courage, or wisdom, or gentleness, or perseverance, or grace. The people we celebrate as saints today—we don’t celebrate them for being perfect, but because, their lives have touched our and made us better for it.
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the book reads as a long letter or series of letters to his young son. At one point, the narrator, who had his son late in life writes: “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”
On this Sunday, we remember all those who have come before us, who have loved us into being, through whom God has spoken a word of hope, healing, love, into our lives. Some of these are people we have known personally, some are Biblical or historical forebears. Many, many saints whose names we will never know, who lived ordinary lives, but extended extraordinary grace. It is a long chain through the ages. Each grace and action of love ripples outward in ways that we may never be able to fully see or trace back. And yet this is true for all of us. Even celebrities, even the most virtuous who seem to have their lives fully and perfectly in order: all have people who made them who they are, saints.
I was reminded of this fact in a video of who else, but Mr. Rogers, when he accepted an Emmy for lifetime achievement in 1997. This was nearly 30 years after the debut of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood aired on PBS. In his customary humility and humor, he accepts the award saying: “It’s a beautiful night in this neighborhood.” He then pivots to note that there are so many people who helped him along the way. “Some are here, some are far away, and some are in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Will you just take with me 10 seconds with me to think of those people who have helped you become who you are? 10 seconds of silence; I’ll watch the time.”
As the camera of the telecast pans over the audience, celebrities in ball gowns and tuxedos, wipe tears from their eyes, close their eyes and picture those beloved people.
It is a powerful thing we are invited to do this day. A powerful community of love we are invited into. May we draw strength from Christ and all the saints—known or unknown, Christian or not, imperfect and graced—this day, and may we too seek to emulate and pass on the love that has nourished us, knowing that we too belong to that dear communion of saints.