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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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All Saints Day 11/2

If you’ve read much of the Bible, at some point you may have come up against and been discouraged by one of the genealogies, those long lists of names.  In the Old Testament there are several of these lists in Genesis; the book of Numbers has its share and the first nine chapters of First Chronicles are an assortment of genealogies (which may be why you’ve probably never read Chronicles and why nothing from Chronicles ever shows up as a Sunday reading); in the New Testament, Matthew and Luke both include a genealogy of Jesus as part of their gospel.  The fact is though, that long lists of family names don’t make for very interesting reading so the tendency is to just kind of skip over them unless there is a particular name that you happen to be looking for.

          It also raises the question of why such lists would even be included in the biblical text?  A couple of reasons are possible.  First of all, it is a way to quickly summarize a great deal of the past; if you actually read one of these  genealogies you would find that they do include prominent names that are familiar from other Bible stories; so they are a way to review some of what has gone on and to establish a connection from the past to the future and to validate the present through this continuity of names.  This is definitely the case with the gospel genealogies as they very intentionally try to identify Jesus as the Messiah by connecting him to Old Testament names that people would have been familiar with.

          Another reason for the inclusion of these names, a reason that might be more relevant on All Saints Sunday, is that such lists point out that every generation has the privilege and responsibility to carry on the faith.  The genealogies are a reminder of that responsibility, a reminder of those who have come before including the names of some who were not particularly good examples and so the calling to those reading the names is to pursue and follow those whose paths did result in faithful worship of God.

          There are reasons for the all the names but I’m still not suggesting that you go home and read the first nine chapters of First Chronicles;  I’m just trying to help you have a greater understanding of why all those names are there.  On All Saints Sunday they are also a reminder of the communion of saints, those who have come before us, who have struggled and hoped before us, those who in many cases have remained faithful and even now continue to believe in us and hope for us, kind of like the list of more familiar names that is read on All Saints Sunday.  The names I read earlier represent part of a church family and like the genealogies, the list included names that are well known to everyone, those who were long time pillars of the church but also some whose only connection might be that their funeral was done by a representative of this church; but they’re all part of what we think of as the communion of saints.

 This idea of a saint gets talked about on every All Saints Sunday but still when any of us hear the word saint we probably can’t help but think of those extraordinary figures whose lives were characterized by heroic virtue and abundant, unwavering faith, so much so that the church has officially recognized them.  Those saints are not excluded today but they are not really who today is about and that confuses things a little bit.

          Further confusing things is the fact that somewhere in your mind you probably have the idea that Lutherans aren’t big on saints, not like the Catholics anyway; that’s partially true.  Luther had no problem with honoring those recognized saints of the church; what he had trouble with was what he saw as the misuse of them, connecting them to works righteousness and you know that Luther was adamantly against anything that had to do with works righteousness.  The saints were being connected to works righteousness through what was called the “treasury of the church.” 

This treasury of the church was understood as a surplus of merit that saints left behind when they died.  In other words, they had been so good that they didn’t need all of their good works to get to heaven; some of their works could be left behind as the treasury of the church and the pope then had the authority to distribute these merits as he saw fit, especially to those who paid the proper amount, the proper indulgence. 

So if Uncle Charley wasn’t good enough to get into heaven on his own, with the proper payment you as his loving relatives could buy some of this surplus of merit for him and he could be released from purgatory; a little Reformation history for you a week after Reformation Sunday.  It’s not a whole lot different than some of the confirmation kids who have way more than enough sermon notes wondering if they can sell some of theirs to those who are way behind.  Unfortunately for them Luther frowned on that a long time ago.

          Luther though was fine with honoring saints, but he was more interested in upholding the idea of what we do today, the idea that all believers are saints…sinners too…but also saints, mostly ordinary, everyday saints as opposed to heroic ones, but saints nonetheless.  That’s why I think it’s useful to think of the biblical genealogies along with the names read today and every All Saints Day as a communion of saints because both listings are a collection of ordinary, everyday people, sometimes even people who it may be easier to think of as sinners than saints.  But today we set all that aside; judgment is suspended, the names are read, the bell tolls and all are placed in the love and care of God.

          On All Saints Sunday our worldly ways of wanting to judge things are suspended and as the names of those who have died are read, we remember that the church always represents a different kind of community and a different kind of judgment.  This year the gospel reading is the Beatitudes, the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with all those “Blessed are theys” that don’t sound like blessings to us; Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted and so forth.  Ever since Jesus spoke those words people have wondered exactly what he meant because there never has been a time when those sayings made logical sense. 

Perhaps the best we can do with the Beatitudes is not to struggle to figure out what the heck Jesus was talking about, only to understand that the rules and blessings and judgments of the kingdom he proclaimed are different, not necessarily what we would expect, and maybe we should be cautious when we do think we’ve figured it out and can judge in Jesus’ place.  His kingdom is a different kind of kingdom where the starting assumption is that everyone is a saint or at least there should be the assumption that we’d better be careful in how we define sainthood, particularly careful about who we might like to exclude from sainthood.  

That’s not to say that there aren’t distinctions to be made, but the distinctions are for God not for us; from our perspective it’s more helpful to start with viewing others as saints rather than sinners understanding as Luther did that we are both saint and sinner at the same time, all of us.

It is the everyday saints that make the church what it is; I’m reminded of that every year when I read the names.  But I’m also reminded of that every Sunday and Monday when I look out at all of you.  All Saints Day isn’t just about those who have died; it’s about all of you too (and others who may not be here today).  You too are saints and you are instrumental in making this church the communion of saints that it is.  You worship and you follow Jesus and you serve in how you live day to day, you serve in how you offer your time, talent and financial resources to the church.  You witness in many ways and you probably have no idea how much of an impact you have on me as your pastor. 

When Luke was here last year and again with Joy this year, they must get tired of me talking about what good people you are.  It seems like every name that comes up I say something like, “He’s really a good guy, he’s great to talk to,” or “She’s a way better person than I am, a much better Christian.”  Now I know that every one of you would say, “I’m no saint pastor,” and in that perfect person sense of a saint you aren’t; I know that.  But I also know that I am blessed to be part of this community because you teach me what it is to be a church and what it is to be a Christian and what it is to be a saint; and you teach each other; it’s a big reason we gather every week.

On All Saints Sunday, I would say, Blessed are you…for yours is the kingdom of God.                  

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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