October 31, 2010                                                                                                  Leviticus 23:39-43

First Congregational Church                                                                                                    Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11

Anchorage, Alaska                                                                                               Romans 3:19-28 

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell                                                                                                        Luke 19:1-10

                                              

 

Remembering Our Saints

 

Good morning. Happy Samhain (SOW 'in). Happy Halloween. Happy All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Happy Reformation Day. Depending upon our personal focus, we can celebrate any and all of these days today. But it is interesting to me that these autumn celebrations all converge about now. Perhaps, you will discover some interesting similarities as we follow their development.

Festival of Booths

Let’s start with the Israelites’ fall harvest festival that we heard about in the Leviticus passage this morning. The observance was, and currently is, held between mid-September and late October. It’s called the Festival of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, and lasts seven days. The people gathered in their crops, took a day of rest both at the beginning and end of the week, and on those days in between, they celebrated with feasting and living in temporary shelters or small tents. The little shelters were to remind them of their ancestors’ forty years of wilderness wanderings, the “time in between”, between their lives as slaves in Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land.

Samhain

Moving to northern Europe, we find SOW’in, a pre-Christian, Celtic celebration. This pagan festival, similar to the Israelite festival, marked the "Last Harvest" or "Summer's End" only in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. SOW’in is celebrated on October 31, recognized by the ancient Celts as the end of the "old" year. But they didn’t really celebrate the coming of the "new year" until Yuletide, December 21. The time between SOW'in and Yule was thought to be both magickal and dangerous, a time when the veil between the worlds was the thinnest, and communication between the living and the deceased was most possible. The “time in between” the harvest and the longest night of the year – which, of course, is followed the next day by the steady return of the light.

Halloween

Halloween fits in here. It’s really not SOW’in, although it has some SOW’in roots. It has some Christian roots, as well. "Hallow", in Old English, means "holy" or "sacred." Therefore, "Hallows' Eve," or "Halloween" simply means "the evening of holy persons" and refers to the evening before All Saints Day, tomorrow, November 1.

Halloween is also a "Fall Harvest" event celebrated October 31 with kids dressing in skeleton, ghost and witch costumes and collecting candy. Remember, it is the night before All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Feast of All Saints

So what is All Saints Day? Some of us Protestants might not remember. While Rome was throwing Christians to the lions, the Church established the Feast of Martyrs Day to honor their memories. When Rome stopped feeding the lions in this way, the Church needed a way to honor especially holy people even if they had not been martyred. A system of granting sainthood was developed and the Feast of Martyrs was renamed The Feast of All Saints, to recognize them. All Saints Day was eventually established for November 1, bringing it in close proximity to other autumn festivals, most particularly SOW'in, the day marking the beginning of the “in between time,” the time when the veil thinned and spirits moved between the worlds.

All Souls Day

Not satisfied with one day to honor the dead, in the 10h century, the church added the next day--November 2nd--as "All Souls Day" to honor not just the martyrs and the saints, but all Christians who had died. People took this day to pray for the souls of their dead asking that they be released from that “in between place” called purgatory. In our tradition, we offer prayers of thanksgiving for our loved ones’ lives.

The Old Church believed that on these two days, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, souls would leave purgatory to take the form of witches or toads to haunt persons who had wronged them during their lifetime. Gifts of food, candy, etc. were offered to appease these spirits.

That reminds me -- November 2 is also Election Day. Please vote for your favorite witch, toad or Great Pumpkin.

Reformation Sunday

There is another event we observe today which is especially important to the Protestant branch of the Christian family. Today is Reformation Sunday. A day we honor our spiritual ancestors in the church. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. This action set into motion the series of events that we now call the Protestant Reformation. Roughly half of the Christians in the world today - one billion of them - worship today in churches that exist because of Luther's actions. Perhaps it was only by accident that Luther nailed his sermon notes on that door October 31, at the end of the harvest, at the end of the year. But his action did mark the end of one way of being Christian and the beginning of a New Way, which I might add includes the Congregational Way. From the Protestant point of view, the Reformation was the great rediscovery of the Gospel, the good news of salvation by grace through faith, the basis of which is found in the Romans passage we heard read earlier.

So How Does It All Fit Together?

SOW'in, All Saints and All Souls Day, Halloween, Reformation Day - we are celebrating them all. The Matanuska-Susitna farmers have their crops put away, our flowers have been pulled for the winter, the snow is on its way, the kids are clamoring for costumes and candy, and we're settling in for winter.

We are entering the time of year for reflection. The time in between. The end of one way of being and the beginning of another. The official thanksgiving holiday will be here soon, followed by the Christmas excitement that lasts for at least a month. Right now, for just a little while, there is a time to rest and reflect and give thanks for life, and for the loved ones who have graced our lives. On this day we lift up their memories and release them to the Great Shalom of God.

But what is our understanding of Shalom?  Peace, wholeness, healing, it’s both a greeting and a goodbye.

“It helps if you remember your Greek and Hebrew,” I was reminded this week. Shalom is the Hebrew word synonymous with the Greek word for salvation. It means all those things, but even more. Shalom exists when everything is the way it ought to be. Perfect.

When used as a greeting the message is one of hope and expectation. “Shalom. I trust that everything is going well for you.” When used as a farewell, the message is a prayer. “Shalom. I pray that everything in your life is good and even the best.”

The goal of the Hebrew scriptures is to achieve the experience of shalom. The New Testament has a companion message also summed up in a single word. That word is salvation. Salvation is also experienced when everything is the way it ought to be.  To be saved in this way of thinking is to be brought into a state of perfection by the grace of God.

A tradition has developed in many Protestant churches of celebrating our All Saints and All Souls days by reading an Honor Roll of those who have gone before us, having faith that they have entered a place where everything is perfect, the way it ought to be. This Honor Roll is read on Reformation Sunday. Claudia Kneifel and Kate O’Dell spent several hours this week compiling a list of members of First Congregational Church whose memories we would like to honor this morning. Paul Hancock will read their names. When Paul is finished, we will have a period of silence when we lift up not only these saints but also our own loved ones, offering not only thanks for their being, but also releasing their memories to the Shalom of God, with faith that in God’s grace, all is, and shall be, as it should be.

Let us pray.

O God, our Creator and Sustainer and Renewer, we come before you with humble appreciation that your power is expressed toward us in your all-enveloping love. We are grateful for the courage and insights of our forbearers. We cherish the rich heritage of our families, our culture and our church and we pray that you continue to open our hearts and minds to a growing understanding of our traditions.

O Lord, make us a grateful, loving, compassionate people. Your love has come to us in many ways and through many persons. On this Reformation Sunday, may we honor the Saints of First Congregational Church – those people who have faithfully walked among us, worshipped with us, prayed and played with us, and then gone before. Help us, O Lord, to celebrate the lives of these persons as we place their names and memories before you.

(After Deacon Paul Hancock reads each name, Caroline Valentine will toll the bell.)

Lord we thank you for the life of:

(Names)

Lord, we bring before you in silent prayer our own special “saints”, our loved ones, those who have blessed our lives with their presence and have gone on before us.

(silence)

The souls of our loved ones are in the hand of God, and there no evil can touch them. They are in peace and their hope is full of immortality. For God has tested them, and found them worthy. Thanks be to God.  Shalom.

 

Click to Return to Sermon Index