"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us...looking to esus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him eudred the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."
A few years ago on a wednesday in early November twelve confirmation students were wandering around in a cemetery at dusk. It was pretty spooky, as you can imagine -- their pastor had forgotten when she scheduled the field trip that daylight saving time would be over and it would already be pretty dark. So what in the world were they doing there? Why did they come?
Well, first of all they came because their pastor made them. They also came because their parents drove them.
But most of all, they were there because it was All Saints Day -- and they were there to remember some saints, and to help their congregations remember them as well. They came to the cemetery with flashlights, of course -- it was a good thing they had them along -- but they also came to the cemetery with crayons and big sheets of butcher paper. They were going to find some interesting grave markers at the cemetery and make rubbings.
As their pastor had imagined it, they would find an interesting name or a Bible verse, or maybe even an interesting picture, and then hold the paper over the stone and rub with the crayon until the name and the verse and the picture came through on the paper.
They wandered around in the dark that night in search of saints. It was so cold they could see their breath. They held flashlights for one another, did their work and remembered some of the saints among them.
The next Sunday they intended to display their rubbings on the walls of the churches they attended, so that the whole congregation could remember with them on All Saints Sunday.
...The author of Hebrews spoke of a specific cloud of witnesses from the Old Testament: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Samson and David, all who lived and died believing in God's promises, but not yet seeing Jesus. Although he remmebers the stories of many famous people, he also mentioned the many who kept the faith but whose names we don't remember, whose stories we don't know. They too are part of the cloud of witnesses. When the early church first began the practice of celebrating an "All Saints Day", it recognized this reality: that there are so many faithful ones, too many to receive their own day, too many for us to name. The cloud of witnesses is too many to count, even too many for us to remember. But they all deserve to be remembered, don't they? Even ordinary saints deserve to be remembered.
....Here's one reason to remember the saints -- their stories tell of God's faithfulness, God's mercy, God's wisdom, God's love. Their stories tell about how God sustained them on a long sea voyage, thorugh a dusty depression, during times of scarcity and times of abundance, through both companionship and loneliness. Their lives, whether long or brief, tell of God's tender mercy and love toward them -- and toward us. their witness says to us -- keep running, it is worth it.
....Finally, we remember especially those saints who have died because they remind us of the place we are running toward, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice and mercy that they hoped for, that God has promised. They remind us of the hope of the resurrection, the hope we have of a joyful reunion with those we love -- in the presence of Jesus.
...Gerhard Frost once saw a scene at an airport of a young family headed on a trip. The father held the older child's hand, and the child was bursting with excitement. "Where are we going?" he asked. "To grandma's," she replied. She didn't say, "To Fargo," or "To Billings." To her, they were going to a person and the place hardly mattered. Perhaps, Frost thought, heaven is not so much a place as a face. Of this our saints remind us, for we confess that they are now at home with their savior, and that they see him face to face. While we work in the dark with flashlights, they worship the Lamb in eternal light.
Those twelve confirmation students who walked in a dark cemetery one night remembered well. So when the light of Sunday morning dawned, we were surrounded, in those little churches, by the names of those wih whom we had worshiped. As we sang and prayed together, we remembered the grandparents who had died within a year of one another, the beloved daughter and aunt who died of cancer, the bachelor farmer who was always generous with his family of faith. We remembvered the invalid who wrote poetry, the older sister who couldn't get to the hospital because of a blizzard, the Sunday School teacher who never had children, but who introduced many to Jesus. We remembered the handicapped son who never spoke, a gracious mother, a secret giver. We saw, for a little while at least, a small part of the cloud of witnesses that encourage us. We gave thanks for their lives. But most of all, we gave thanks for God's faithfulness to them, God's love which kept them going -- and that keeps us going as well.
So keep running, you saints of God's faithfulness and love surround you as certainly as this cloud of witnesses surrounds you. God remembers you, and in the end, God will bring you out of the darkness into the presence of his Son, to celebrate together with the saints in light. Amen