Whenever I think about all the saints I am drawn to the book of Hebrews, and the passage that says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. (Hebrews 12:1) What is this great cloud of witnesses? Is it all the saints we commemorate on certain saint’s day, and does it include lesser saints that are on our church calendars? Yes, it does, but it also includes all saints. It includes my grandfather and grandmother, my father and mother, my elementary age Sunday School teacher, and all the other brothers and sisters in Christ that have gone ahead us into this great cloud of witnesses. You, my brothers and sisters in the Lord, are also saints.
Saints go all the way back to Adam and Eve, Moses and the early patriarchs and matriarchs. It also includes the Christian Church born on the Day of Pentecost. I like to think of the church as a cathedral with multiple rooms, social rooms, places for Bible study, rooms for worship and prayer, fellowship, breaking of bread and eating together, and places for quiet reflection and meditation, for counseling and healing, places to rejoice, places to celebrate achievements and honors, places to cry, and places to remember those that have gone before us.
When we enter this huge One Holy Catholic Church, like a cathedral with multiple rooms, we first enter the front door into a welcoming hall, to be greeted and introduced to others.
We hear people welcoming newcomers, and explaining, things to all the newly arrived, leaders of the church, including lay members and clergy, assisting newcomers to find their place, adjust to the rooms, and teaching from the Bible about the great cloud of witnesses and eventually we begin to find our way around, and in time become comfortable as members, assisting newcomers, just as we were assisted, looking to see where others can be assimilated into this community of faith called the Church of Jesus Christ, the called out ones to follow the Living Word.
We begin to volunteer for duty, taking on responsibilities, opportunities and privileges, because that’s what church members do, finding places where we fit best. We begin to grow and mature, taking on leadership roles, teaching children, singing in the choir, collecting tithes and offerings, governing the affairs of the church and various stewardship roles. We grow in faith and years, and we know that beyond the altar is a door, and we know that all people sooner or later will go through that mysterious door.
We’re not too sure what’s beyond the door. Nobody we know has ever gone out that door and come back to let us know. We know resurrected life has many pictures in the Bible, pictures of life after death, heaven, eternal bliss, peace and joy, a place where there is no more sorrow or pain. We are told in the book of Hebrews that we are headed for a city whose architect and builder is God. There will be no night there, neither the need of a light, for Jesus will be our light. He’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright. (Rev. 22)
Eventually our Shepherd directs us to that mysterious door, and perhaps there is spiritual ladder beyond the door, like Jacobs ladder, where angels are ascending and descending.
And, as we go out this mysterious door and begin to climb this ladder to paradise, there will be new faces coming in the front door, and in time these new arrivals will centime in the works that you started or built or that someone else worked on, and someone else before them and someone else before them.
The Apostle Paul tells us some are called to start new things, and some are called to continue what others have started. Paul warns us to be careful how we build. The ministries do not belong to us. Our gifts, time and resources as stewards, are given to us to share with others, to build up the church, by considering others as more important than ourselves, and to take on the mantle of leadership. This mantle of privilege balanced with responsibility is for everyone.
And Jesus also tells us to carry purses that will never wear out. Near the end of our journey, as we walk toward the door behind the altar to our heavenly home, our purse will benefit others in the community in the form of endowments, or a purse full of good works, leaving fingerprints on the lives touched through teaching, pastoral care or in many other creative and wonderful works.
This is what Jesus means when he says carry a purse that will never wear out. No-one will ever take your place. They may take over your place of ministry, but your personality and hand print is registered and remembered in the DNA of the church, and will be evident and left for the benefit of others. Ministry continues and new personalities emerge and shape things.
Just as your personality and handprint is unique, so is the personality and hand print of a local parish is unique.
The way we approach ministry and the types of ministry we are involved in here at St. Alban’s is different than First Presbyterian, St. John’s Lutheran. And from every other Episcopal Church in the Diocese of San Diego. We can learn from others and identify with them, and they can learn from us. We will all be a part of this great cloud of witnesses, and none of us are exempt from this outcome.
New people will take our place, to be taught, fed, and cared for. They will someday be the teachers, caregivers, responsible stewards and leaders of the church, to continue with ministries others have started, continuing the things in which we were once were responsible. That’s what we are called to do.
And, someday you too will be called to glory, and people will come together on All Saints Day to remember you, their fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, loved ones and friends that have gone on before you on this journey toward the New Jerusalem, whose maker and architect is God.
All Saints include saints from the past, saints in the present and saints in the future. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.