There are times in our lives when we need a vision of something greater than ourselves. There are times in our lives when we need to see beyond the world that is right in front of us, and catch a glimpse of the world that is often hidden from plain sight. All Saints Sunday is the perfect opportunity to do this.
We have before us our Altar of Remembrance, or the Altar of the Saints if you prefer to call it that. It includes pictures of the blessed dead: members of Abiding Savior who are no longer with us, but whose love, faith and hard work helped to make us the church we are today. There are also pictures of loved ones we brought with us this morning to honor and remember.
Even if we didn’t bring any pictures with us, we remember the blessed dead in our hearts. We can see their smiling faces as clear as day. We feel their strength and encouragement. We give thanks for the love and faith they gave us which helped us to become the people we are today.
In addition to pictures, we have 12 plates. Those who attended my Revelation Bible Study class this fall know that 12 is a significant number. It calls to mind the 12 tribes of Israel as well as well as the 12 apostles. 12 is the number of organized religion and divine government. It reminds us of the legacy of faith our ancestors have passed on to us since the creation of the world.
When I look at all these pictures and plates, a phrase from the book of Hebrews comes to mind: The great cloud of witnesses. Hebrews 12 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
The image that comes to mind when we hear these verses is a giant stadium. The spectators are the people whose pictures we have before us this morning. These familiar saints are joined by the likes of Martin & Katie Luther, Mary Magdalene & Peter, Abraham & Sarah, along with countless others whose names and faces are not known to us but they cheer us on nonetheless.
We, of course, are the runners in the race. There are some moments in our lives when we feel like we’re at peak performance. Our energy is limitless and our feet are swift, as we head toward the finish line. There are other days when we feel like we cannot possibly take another step forward. We feel weak and depleted, uninspired and and just plain weary.
The power of the great cloud of witnesses is that they know EXACTLY how we feel. They had both good days and bad days. They experienced victories as well as defeats. There were times in their lives when they felt deeply connected to God and nothing was impossible. There were other times when all they wanted to do was plop themselves down under a broom tree, like Elijah did, and throw themselves a great big pity party.
Friends in Christ, they are here to support us, not only on All Saints Sunday, but every day of our lives. If we listen closely, we can her their voices, cheering us one, reminding us we can run the race of faith and run it well, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
I don’t know how you feel about the great club of witnesses, but I find them tremendously encouraging. In fact, every year during the month of October Gary & I set up an ancestor altar at our house in the style of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It’s in our dining room and it’s filled with pictures of loved ones we honor and remember, including beloved pets. There are also small skeleton figurines, known as calaveras, who depict people doing what they loved in life. On our altar you’ll see a baker and a guitar player, a baby being baptized and a tableau of a Day of the Dead celebration. There are also candles and flowers on our altar. When we sit down to dinner we light those candles and literally feast with the saints.
At least once during the month we have what we refer to as our “ancestor dinner.” In my house that includes lots of German food: schnitzel or bratwurst, sauerkraut, red cabbage, and my favorite: potato pancakes with applesauce. Of course, a good German beer accompanies such a sumptuous feast.
Some people may think this tradition is morbid, or too painful to do, but I find it immensely comforting. It helps us to process our grief, and remind us that these loved ones whose pictures are before us are not lost to us, nor to God. They are a part of the great cloud of witnesses. We are immensely grateful for the love and faith they passed down to us.
After All Saints Sunday is done, the altar is taken down, but I keep a mini version of it displayed in a spare bedroom that I also use as a home office. It’s there to remind me that these saints don’t just visit us once a year. They cheer us on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
I share this tradition with you because I want you to appreciate the powerful symbol we have before us this morning on our Altar of Remembrance. It may inspire you to create you own altar at home. There are no rules in creating such a display. Follow your heart and include pictures and mementos that make you smile when you see them. These types of displays are powerful tributes to the saints who are nearest and dearest to our hearts. It’s a very old tradition that is making a bit of a comeback. This time of year, there are even community altars in Asheville that are located in restaurants and stores. These displays are usually accompanied by some sort of feasting and remembering. I think its a beautiful and helpful tradition.
As all of you know, it’s been a rough year for me. I lost my granddaughter, Madison Morgan, as well as my Dad, Herb Eck. There have also been other challenges over the past two years that have left me feeling like a runner who has run out of gas.
Perhaps, you’re feeling the same way this year. I want you to know that you’re not alone! Your grief is shared by those who are sitting beside you. We are here for you if you need us. We hold you in love and prayer.
In addition to our caring presence, we’ve got a big heap of saints on this table who are cheering us on from the sidelines. If we listen carefully, we will hear their voices, telling us that we are loved and treasured, by them and by God. They remind us of the need to keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. They share this good news with us so that we would not grow weary nor loose heart.
This vision of the great cloud of witnesses also appears in our Second Lesson from the book of Revelation. In the midst of scenes filled with scary images of plagues and devastation, John reminds us that the victory over the dark powers of this world has already happened. It’s a done deal.
“After this I looked,” John writes, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. [Sounds like the great cloud of witnesses to me!] They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. no sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Friends in Christ, this is what we have to look forward to. Because, like it or not, we will join the great cloud of witnesses some day. It will be our turn to sit in the stadium and cheer the runners on. It will be our turn to remind them to look to Jesus,
the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We will sing those great hymns of praise so loudly that they will fill the hearts of the runners below, with great strength and love. I know you know what I’m talking about. Because there are moments when we sing those hymns at Abiding Savior, where we can hear the voices of the saints joining ours. Their presence in the room is unmistakable. It gives us the strength we need to continue to run the race of faith and run it wall.
So I wish you all a blessed All Saints Sunday. May the great cloud of witnesses be a source of strength and encouragement to you, not only on this day, but every day of the year. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck