God Re-Members

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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 The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5, 2023

Some of them have left behind a name … But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  (Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9) 

Many years ago – actually, many decades ago – I looked ahead at the lifetime of sermons I would need to write.  I decided that the only way to survive would be to create a repository of thoughts and illustrations for every conceivable preaching topic.  I would have a file on every one of them to avoid being caught flat-footed when it was time to write a sermon.  One of those files is labeled “All Saints.”  Earlier this week when I opened the file, I found a newspaper article that I had saved way back in 1998.  The gist of the story tells how a military family, separated by deployment, stayed in touch using a miraculous new thing called email.  In fact, email was so new and novel that they still spelled it the old-fashioned way: with a dash between the “e” and the “m.”  E-mail. 

Back and forth went the e-mails from Texas to Bosnia, where Daniel, the father, was part of the U.S. peace-keeping force after the brutal civil war earlier in the decade.  In one e-mail, Daniel wrote the following to his wife:

We spent the day at the war-crime mass-grave dig site … In the area where we were, the Serbs had held a large number of people captive for a while before they killed them.  On one large tree by the road, some poor woman, who knew she was going to be killed, carved her name – RADZJA – in the tree, probably so the world would not forget that she once lived.  One of {our} soldiers saw the name, heard the story and decided to give his soon-to-be daughter that name.  All his children’s names start with R, and he had been looking for a good one for his daughter.  I imagined that Radzja was very happy to know that she will not be entirely forgotten.[1] 

All those years ago, I put Radzja’s story in the All Saints’ file because it reminded me then, and reminds me still about what we are trying to do today.  If you had to choose just one word to describe our celebration of all the saints, the word might be: Remember.  In her final, terror-filled moments, Radzja wanted to be remembered.  She wanted the world to know that she once lived, and loved, and breathed the air.  She was here, every bit as much as the names on our All Saints’ list once were here.  Today, our duty and delight is to remember them.  We light candles in their honor, and in accord with the reading we heard from Ecclesiasticus, we sing the praises of famous men – and famous women, too – our ancestors in their generations.  Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.  But of others, there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never been born.  Yes, we try to remember, but the problem is human memory itself.  Eventually, we forget.  The tree where Radzja carved her name – is it still there?  The soldier’s daughter who received her name – does she know the story?  The candles we will hold –how long can they burn?  Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years and memories and monuments away. 

Nevertheless, the writer of Ecclesiasticus continued: But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.  Not forgotten by whom?  Not forgotten by God.  God remembers.  And I think I am on safe theological ground to say that God spells the word “remembers” the old-fashioned way: with a dash between the first “e” and the “m.”  God re-members us.  God puts us back together.  You and I have biological life because our hearts beat and our lungs fill with breath.  But biological life ends.  Death is the ultimate denier of membership in the human family.  What we need is the life Jesus has to give: spiritual life, eternal life, the life we believe begins in the water of baptism.  Eternal life is to live, and move, and have our being in God.  Eternal life is to have God call us to mind.  It is to have God re-member us, even after death.  In the church, we have a word for it when God re-members us.  We call it resurrection. 

The prophet Ezekiel (37:7) saw a vision of God’s re-membering Israel.  Dry bones came rattling together and took on flesh and lived.  Ezekiel was caught up in the mind of God, witnessing God’s re-membering and resurrecting his people.  I suspect that to be in the mind of God is to know life far more abundantly than we know life and consciousness now.  Even better is the promise of Jesus that because of his cross and resurrection, the memory of us causes God to smile, not frown.  The light of God’s countenance shines upon us. 

In the parish pledge letter that many of you have received (and is still coming to some of you), I wrote about how the light from the resurrection stained glass window reflects off the brass nameplates of the columbarium and makes them shine.  Who belongs to these names left behind?  Who are these like stars appearing?  Who are these whom God re-members.  It turns out the saints are just folk like you and me.  Indeed, none of us are perfect people, but the lives of those around us may be a better repository of saintliness than any filing system.  So let us sing a song of the saints of God: patient, and brave, and true.  And let us even declare, “I meant to be one, too.”  Yes, let’s take a moment and participate in God’s work of re-membering. 

I remember Mary Keane.  Mary was the first person whose ashes were interred in the columbarium.  When Mary died in 2015, no one had been a member longer than she.  In the long history of Grace Church, stretching back now over two-hundred years, fourteen rectors have served the parish.  Mary’s membership of Grace Church touched on half of the rectors – seven in all.  She first appeared to Walter Russell Bowie, the 8th Rector, when she was a little girl in the 1930s.  Then she appeared to the next five.  Then last of all, as to one untimely born, she appeared also to me, number-14.  Seven out of fourteen!  Think of the incredible span of history that Mary experienced within this Christian family. 

Alas, longevity alone doesn’t necessarily make us saints.  If you paid attention to today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) – the Beatitudes – you might think that suffering has something to do with it.  If so, Mary had the credentials.  Mary suffered from a degenerative form of MS that rendered her wheelchair bound beginning in the 1980s.  Yet for all those years Mary still embraced life with uncommon grace and courage.  I can recall early on in my time here having lunch with Mary and her husband Ted at their apartment.  It would be difficult for me to understand what Mary was trying to say, but she was beautifully patient until I either heard her correctly or Ted was able to translate.  I would leave those lunches, walking back here to Grace Church deeply moved by the way Mary waited on the Lord.  She went through a great ordeal, yet shined with the light of Christ. 

I remember Richard Scalera.  Richard was a fixture at Grace Church.  He was an usher, a lay reader, and also served as an acolyte.  When he carried the processional cross he would hold it high and straight.  He would turn his corners with crisp, military precision.  He was a godsend at our many Sunday afternoon Evensong services, like the one we’ll have today.  Typically we’d be scrambling for an acolyte.  Richard would invariably show up and gladly go to work for the Lord he loved and knew. 

I remember one Sunday afternoon, when Richard was the crucifer.  At the end of the service, he was leading the choir and clergy down the center aisle, carrying the cross in stately stride and with great dignity.  Two-thirds of the way through the nave Richard passed by a man in a pew who had come in during the middle of the service.  The man was a big, strapping guy clearly living life on the margins.  He didn’t seem to know where he was, or what he should be doing.  Needless to say, the man certainly wasn’t singing the final hymn.  But when Richard came by in all his solemn formality, the man in the pew was so moved by the sight that he straightened his back and saluted.  It was a sustained, rigid salute, so that by the time I came by I wasn’t sure whether I should salute him back, or say, “At ease, soldier.”  Richard brought out the best in the poor fellow.  Richard, we remember you.  We salute you. 

I remember Peter Benet.  No rector could ask for a more supportive, worldly-wise, faithful, generous parishioner than Peter Benet.  He was a vestry member, a warden, and an usher.  As an usher, he didn’t just carry other people’s gifts to the altar in the offering plates, he was all in himself.  I’ll always remember when we were in the asking phase of the Bicentennial Capital Campaign way back in 2008.  One evening I sat down with Peter and Diana in my office and put a number before them, secretly fearing that they would erupt in outrage and tell me I was out of my mind.  I half expected that they would leap across the coffee table and strangle me!  They did nothing of the sort.  With his characteristic wink of an eye, Peter promised they would think it over, and then he spoke words of amazing grace.  “Thank you for doing this,” is what he said.  Peter was thanking me for asking the people of Grace Church for money.  Apparently, not all of my thirteen illustrious predecessors were eager to do it.  So, in Peter’s honor, my promise to you is that I will continue to ask the people of Grace Church for money.  Even today.  Especially today! 

Today is not only All Saints’ Sunday, it is also that most wonderful day of the year we call Pledge Sunday.  If you think I have a thick file at home labeled “All Saints,” you should see the one for Pledge Sunday.  Its contents would overwhelm any one sermon.  Fortunately, the saints who are “just folk like me” provide a better repository of grateful giving and generosity than any filing system ever could.  Mary, Richard, Peter, and a great multitude of others from every generation at Grace Church gave sacrificially of themselves to support the work of the Lord through this place and people.  Why did they do it?  Why do we do it?  Why do we ask everyone to make an annual, financial gift or pledge?  Of course, we have a budget to make and bills to pay.  But the church budget is not the primary thing.  We don’t give towards a budget.  We give out of gratitude.  Hopefully, your annual gift or pledge speaks to how grateful to God you are for all the blessings of this life.  One sure and certain characteristic of sainthood is gratitude.  Saints are grateful to God. 

Note that the pledge envelope has two parts that we ask you to complete.  The top portion of the envelope asks you to list some of the particular blessings of God you’ve known in the past year.  What will they be?  Let them be large and small, mysterious and mundane, sacred and profane.  Let them speak of all the ways that God has broken into your life with the love of family, friends, and pets.  Let them speak even of the times that tried your soul, because in retrospect we can see ourselves as blessed when going through a great ordeal.  Mark down life itself – that by the grace of God you and I not only are, but are aware of it. 

Once we’ve remembered the great deluge of God’s blessings, then comes the bottom portion of the giving envelope that asks you to make a financial commitment for 2024.  The number you write is an expression of gratitude to God.  Let it put a smile on the face of God.  Let it be a tangible way to say thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life.  Thank you, Lord, for the virtuous and godly examples of all your saints: for Mary, Richard, Peter, and Radzja.  Radzja, I’m sure, is happy to know that she has not been entirely forgotten.  Far from it.  She lives, and moves, and has her being in the mind and memory of God. 

Thank you, Lord, for knitting us together in one communion and fellowship: for re-membering us, so that with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, we may come before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple.  And he who sits upon the throne will shelter us with his presence … and he will guide us to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too. 

[1] “I Miss You,” by Dennis McCafferty.  USA Weekend, December 11-13, 1998.