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A colleague once noted a unique feature of church websites, and a roughly geographical divide. Midwestern church websites often include pictures of people, whereas Eastern church websites tend to include pictures of buildings. Including pictures of people makes sense. After all, as the children sing,
The church is not a building,
The church is not a steeple,
The church is not a resting place,
The church is people.
And being a native Midwesterner myself, I might easily just conclude that eastern churches put more focus on their beautiful old buildings than the actual work of ministry. However, a native Midwesterner turned eastern pastor, I have come to learn something important. Whether the photos are of people or of buildings, what is intended to be captured is the same thing. I serve two churches, one old church (dating to 1767) in a modern building and a younger church (1888) in a historic building.
A couple of years ago, we, in the younger church, laid to rest a saint who was baptized eighty-five years prior in the very same sanctuary in which she spent the remainder of her life worshiping. In fact, the same baptismal font that held the water which welcomed her into the church still stands in that sanctuary. For her, she has seen lives lived out in that space, and so it is much more than just a utilitarian structure, it also holds imprints of the saints of the ages.
The sanctuary was built in 1888. The dedications in stained glass windows contain a “Who’s Who” of the history of our village. The baptismal font has a dedication, as does the communion table cross and candlesticks. Sometimes I just go into the sanctuary and imagine the baptisms and marriages and funerals that happened in that space over the generations. The tears of joy and of grief, the hopes and fears of all the years, and all the faithful people that this represents. The building, then, serves as a symbol which joins us, today, to the saints of ages past as we continue an unbroken line of worship and service in this space.
The older church has a modern building because their third building, a beautiful nineteenth century carpenter gothic building, burned down in an arson. As devastating as that was for the congregation, they pulled together, and put work to building a new space. A few things were able to be salvaged: one whole stained glass window, stained glass medallions which were put into new windows in the current building, and the baptismal font. Some of these items help tie them to the saints of the ages, and the building itself is a symbol of the community pulling together in the face of a tragedy and continuing on despite difficult odds, and serves as a memory to the more recent saints.
All Saints’ Day invites us to remember those who have gone before, the great cloud of witnesses which ever surrounds us. So often we remember the “big” names. Those that others remember, some of those for whom days are named. But on All Saints’ Day we remember all those who may not have a named day, all those who are often not remembered the world over.
We remember the ordinary saints who lived ordinary and faithful lives. The saints who go to church week after week and raise their children and grandchildren in the church. The saints who insist on conducting their business with honesty and integrity despite the gains which can be gained from questionable ethical practices. The saints who, though never highly educated, continue to read the Bible, little by little, day after day after day. We remember these people not because they were singularly exceptional but because they were faithful and important, even if the importance was only to us.
All Saints’ Day is one of my favorite days in the Christian calendar, because it invites us to remember. Memory — individual and collective — is one of the most significant aspects of our faith. We remember what God has done in the past, and we trust that this same God will be similarly faithful in the future. We remember all the saints who “having lived this life in faith, now live eternally with [God]” (Order for Christian Burial). We remember those in our lives, those who have helped to nurture our faith, who have helped us to see Jesus.
And so as we give thanks for the witness of these saints who have experienced the complete redemption that awaits all of creation, and who have been given the beautiful gift of seeing God, let us join our voices with the celestial choirs,
For All the Saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
I enjoyed this blog so much. My take away, in part, will be “the hopes and fears of all the years…..”if we really examine the lyrics of our Christmas Carols, the best way to do it is how it was written in the blog. Thank you!
Your essay reminds me of one written by Martin Marty after 9/11. The churches were packed the Sunday after the attacks. Marty praised the regular faithful saints who week after week, year after year kept the churches alive so people could flock to them when they were needed. Throughout my ministry I have been impressed time and again with the deep faith of the “ordinary saints.”
Thanks Matthew. I have been singing all day and remembering well… And I do think the buildings around us are both a joy and a curse… we hold the tension of both.
And, of course, there is the irony that those lines ending “the church is a people” were written by a NORTHEASTERN pastor: Richard Avery in Port Jervis, New York. And what people they were! The communon of all God’s saints is a challenge for all of us.
My best experiences in ministry was having time to listen to the stories of the common saints who worshipped and served with out fanfare or attention. Their stories often gave context to the “official” stories included in 3 fold 4 color outreach flyers and centennial books recording the inevitable course that the leadership took to arrive at this day… Pay attention to the folks in the kitchen and holding the paint brush.
How fortunate we are as a village to have Pastor Matthew a part of our wonderful community.