Celebrating Stories

What an amazing All Saints Day celebration we had at the Rehoboth Congregational Church this morning!  Here is my sermon – enjoy!

Ruth 1:1-18
Mark 12:28-34

Celebrating Stories

Saint Augustine once said: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

This past Thursday, November 1st, was All Saints Day. Years ago the early church used this day to honor martyrs that had died in the name of Jesus Christ and today the Catholic Church honors all saints that are venerated. The Protestant Church, on the other hand, celebrates All Saints Day by acknowledging the Priesthood of All Believers. We lift up everyone who has come before us; we acknowledge the cloud of witnesses who have touched our lives and have somehow shaped our stories. We celebrate the pillars of our spiritual wholeness, the pillars of our families and the pillars of this church. We celebrate the ways that they have shaped our lives and our faith and our ministries. And today – we will celebrate their stories.

This week’s lectionary passage from the Old Testament starts us at the beginning of the Book of Ruth, a book that tells the story of a Moabite woman named Ruth. Ruth’s husband was killed and so she journeyed with her mother-in-law Naomi – a woman who had lost her husband and two sons – to Judah. Ruth left her home to stay with Naomi. She took chances and made sacrifices out of allegiance to her family. And her story was told. The Book of Ruth is the only book in the Bible named after a woman. Why? Why was Ruth’s story preserved in this way? Why was this book canonized and included in the bible? What can we learn from Ruth’s story today, in our lifetime? How can we celebrate Ruth’s story?

This morning’s Gospel tells a story about scribes going to Jesus and asking him what the greatest commandment was. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Why was this interaction between Jesus and the scribes preserved? What can we learn from this story today, in our lifetime? How can we apply these words to the lives that we are living? How can we celebrate this story?

Zoom out for a second and look at the Gospel as a whole. How can we celebrate Jesus’ story?

Think about the bible for a second – what is it, essentially? It is many things, but if you think about it on a very basic level, it is a collection of stories. And when we come together – week after week, in worship and in bible study and in Sunday School, generation upon generation – we are discerning how we can celebrate these stories by learning from them and using those lessons in our lives. These two scriptural passages are the Old Testament and Gospel texts for this week’s lectionary, not the All Saints Day texts. This was intentional on my part. Because while they may not specifically reference saints, they are wonderful examples of why we celebrate this day – and how we can be living celebrations of the saints in our lives every single day.

My grandfather died a few weeks ago. When I spoke at his memorial service I started by reading a passage from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which is part of the Apocrypha, written by a Jewish scribe in Jerusalem in the early 2nd century BCE.

Ecclesiasticus 44 – “A Hymn in Honour of Our Ancestors”
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who rule in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valour;
Those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
Those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
Those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore; they were wise in their words of instruction;
Those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing;
All these were honoured in their generations, and they were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.
The assembly declared their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.

I read this because it said so perfectly what I was having a hard time putting into words. I could not easily sum up 89 years of life, love, laughter, wisdom and teaching; so instead I declared his praise. I thanked him for the lessons that he taught me – and for the ways that his stories have shaped the way I live my life today. I celebrated his story.

After I spoke the chaplain at the retirement community where my grandparents lived approached the pulpit. He talked about a visit he had with my grandfather after my grandmother died last year. During that visit my grandfather told him a story about when he was a junior grade lieutenant in the United States Navy. He was oversees during World War II and assigned a crew of sailors. His crew consisted of all white men, with the exception of one black man. When my grandfather was tasked with assigning a second-in-command for his crew, he knew – given the racial hostility that was taking place in the United States – it would not have been favorable for him to assign the black man to this task. Yet he did it anyway; he was the right man for the job, Pop Pop told the chaplain. He did not care what other people thought, he wanted to do what was right.

As the chaplain spoke, I looked around at my family. We all shared the same look on our faces; none of us had ever heard that story before. My grandfather was a man of deep humility. He never told us this story because he did not want to boast; he just wanted to live a life of faith, integrity and honor.

Why is this story important? How is the way my family and I heard this story – for the first time at his memorial service – important? What can I learn from this story today, in my lifetime? How can I celebrate this story?

Here is the thing about stories, about histories and about traditions. They mean nothing unless we are learning from them moving forward. We will never be able to emulate the past precisely in our own lives, but we can use it to shape the decisions that we are making in our lives today and in the future.

Look at the Old Testament reading from this morning: We will probably never share Ruth’s experiences, but we can learn from the decisions that she made, from her unassuming devotion to her late husband and her mother-in-law. We can learn how to think outside of ourselves and how to love unconditionally. Think about the Gospel: None of us are Jesus, we never will be. We may not be able to multiply loaves of bread and heal with a touch, but we can shape our lives using the examples that he set and the lessons that he taught. We can live our lives as a celebration of the Gospel, of the Good News, of the stories of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We are Christians, not Christ. We can celebrate Jesus’ life through our lives and context.

How can our lives be a celebration of all the stories our saints have left behind?

Today, instead of reading off the names of our saints, I thought that we could celebrate the stories of our saints. There is an index card in your bulletin with a sticker on it that says ‘Celebrating Stories’. During our music for reflection I invite you to write down a story of one of your saints that you would like to celebrate in your own life. Know that you do not have to live your life exactly the way that person lived theirs; you simply have to celebrate their life through the journey that you take. When you are finished, you can either bring it forward or have one of the Deacons come take it from you. After worship today I will gather the cards and put them together – and we will have our own collection of stories of the saints in our lives that we, as a community of faith, can celebrate in our lives.

Robert Benson once said, “All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.” Let us now celebrate the stories of our saints!

Thanks be to God!

Amen.