All Saints Sunday
Texts: Luke 6:20-31;
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
CONNECTIONS IN THE SPIRIT
Orville Smith told me a great story this week about one of our Prince of Peace saints, Don Peterson. When Don was a boy of 14 he was cutting a neighbor’s grass, only to find out that the elderly man had been a drummer boy at the battle of Gettysburg. And when this drummer boy had gone to the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial Battlefield, hearing the Gettysburg Address in person, he shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln. The old man reached out and shook Don Peterson’s hand. In telling that story to Orville, Don reached out and shook his hand. Orville smiled at me this week and shook my hand. “There,” he said, “now you’ve shaken the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of the man who shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand. You’re only three handshakes away from shaking Lincoln’s hand yourself.” Isn’t that a cool story?
One of my favorite moments as a pastor is praying the prayer of confirmation for the Holy Spirit, as I will in a few moments for little Marissa. I will place my hands on her head and pray: Stir up in Marissa the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.” It’s similar to the moment last Sunday when we lay hands on the head and shoulders of our confirmands and pray a similar pray for God’s Spirit. God’s very Spirit! Can we even begin to comprehend what that means, to have the gift of the Spirit of the Creator of the universe available to us throughout our lives? It’s the same prayer which Christians have laid hands on each other back to St. Peter and to Jesus himself. Hands passing along the gift of the Spirit, hands to head, hands to head, hands to head, thousands of generations back to Jesus himself. Isn’t that pretty cool to think about?
I’d like the images of hand clasping hand back to Lincoln, and hand on head back to Jesus, to help us glimpse the spiritual reality of what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the “cloud of witnesses” — or, in more conventional terms on this All Saints Sunday, the “Communion of Saints.” Take a moment to clasp a hand next to you. Let’s let this physical gesture we can see help us understand and believe in the unseen spiritual reality that we live with all the time. For better and for worse, the spirits of those who have gone before us live with us just as surely as the hand we now clasp. It may be as simple as my hearing myself say something to my children that my mother, who died two months ago, used to say to me. Mostly, the spirits of thousands interact with our spirits and greatly influence our actions and behavior at any given moment. I’m not talking about ghosts. I’m talking about the fact that we human beings are embodied spirits who have the spirits of others operating in our lives all the time to shape our very desires and thus shape our actions.
On this All Saints Sunday I want to emphasize the way in which the best part of our departed saints can shape us through God’s Holy Spirit. But, obviously, those spirits can and do shape us for ill, as well. That’s what the idea of original sin is all about. Our sin goes back all the way to the first Adam, the first person, who chose to desire according to the creature instead of the Creator. That’s the story we know so well from Genesis 3. The first man and woman listen to the serpent and catch the desire for the off-limits fruit from him and from each other. So, instead of catching their desire from the Creator who made everything and everyone in love, they caught the desire of rivalry from each other. “You can know what God knows,” the serpent convinces them.
So what is the upshot of having our desires entangled with each other all the way back to Adam and Eve? It would take the coming into the world of a Second Adam, as St. Paul calls Christ, the true Son, to connect us with God’s loving desire for the whole creation once again. It is only in the true Son, then, that we can both see the depth of our sinfulness, but then also gain our spiritual connection back to God so that we might begin live in God’s Spirit.
What is it we see through Jesus about our sin and God’s loving desire? Simply put: that our loving desires always come up short. Our loves are always based on being over against someone else, the other person from that other group over there, that one who is less than human and wants to hurt us, that enemy. But in the loving desire of the true Son of God we can begin to more fully experience God’s love once again, which is precisely a love for all the people of this earth as children. So in the terms of our love it is a love that reaches out even to enemies. In the terms of our skewed loving, it is a love that reaches out to that other who we usually leave out, the poor, the hungry, the weeping.
How do we know that God’s Holy Spirit is now blowing in this world and making a difference? We know it through the best moments and best parts of our dearly beloved saints who we remember today. What are the moments in their lives when they passed on that kind of love to others?
And because God’s Spirit blows where it will, we can also see it in those who don’t even claim the name of Jesus, whose Spirit of love it is that they pass on. Witness this story from, of all places, ESPN sports news. Fifty years ago, at Vermont’s Middlebury College, sophomore Roger Ralph noticed a grandmother struggling to get her 13 year-old grandson with cerebral palsy, Butch Varno, from his wheel chair into her car after a Middlebury football game. Roger Ralph went over to help. Well, Roger Ralph began to make a habit of helping this grandmother get Butch to all the Middlebury football and basketball, and he began to invite his friends to help. A week or so ago, Middlebury College, during a halftime of one of its basketball games, celebrated fifty years of “picking up Butch” and bringing him to every home football and basketball game. Not only had Roger Ralph recruited his friends, but before they left Middlebury they made sure to recruit underclass students to carry on the tradition. Today, it’s simply part of being on Middlebury’s basketball team that you pick-up and bring Butch Varno to all the football games, and then the football players bring Butch to the basketball games. Fifty years! At half-time a couple weeks ago, they honored Butch and helped him do something he had always wanted to do but couldn’t on his own. They picked him up out of his wheel chair and helped him walk onto the football field. That’s the Spirit of Jesus’s love reaching out to include those we usually leave out.
As we go to our homes this week, as we work, as we play and relax, as we go to school, as we live our lives as citizens of this country, how can we catch the Spirit of that love that reaches out to others? It should enter in to the way we parent, the way we live as families. How does our time as families, our finances as families, reflect a love that reaches out to those who are usually left out? In our work? In our lives as citizens? How do we open ourselves to living in Jesus’ Spirit instead of the spirit of the first Adam? How do we see ourselves ordained in that loving Spirit, hand on head all the way back to Jesus himself, so that we may reach out our hand to those who most need it?
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 7, 2010