October 27, 2013 Various scriptures
Who knows what next Thursday, October 31st is? Halloween
Who knows what Friday, November 1st is? All Saints Day
Who knows what Saturday, November 2nd is? All Souls Day
Today most of us know more about Halloween than we do about All Souls
and All Saints Days. How many of you know that the origins of Halloween
go all the way back 2,000 years to a group of people called Celts, who lived
in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France?
They celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end
of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a
time of year that was often associated with human death. All celebrations
and religious holidays and rituals back then were tied to the cycles of
nature: planting, harvesting crops and the time when the land laid fallow.
Iʼve been there in January, and believe me itʼs cold!
Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between
the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of
October 31, they celebrated Samhain,(sow-in) when it was believed that
the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and
damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits
made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the
people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic
deities. (sounds a little like the Jewish temple sacrifices)
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of
animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When
the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had
extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect
them during the coming winter.
By 43 C.E. Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. During
the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of
Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally
commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor
Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.
By the 800s, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh
century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to
honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was
attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but
church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or
All-hallowmas, and the night before it, the night of Samhain (sow-in) began
to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Even later, in C.E. 1000, the church would make November 2nd All Souls'
Day, a day to honor the dead. It was also celebrated with big bonfires,
parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.
Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All
Souls', were called Hallowmas.
European immigrants who came to America brought their Halloween
customs with them. But because of the rigid Protestant belief systems of
the Puritans and Pilgrims in early New England, (our forbearers, right here)
the celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited here,
but it caught on with other groups in other parts of the country and
eventually became the secular celebration we know today.
Keeping that in mind, I want us to return today to our roots as Christians
and combine All Saints and All Souls Day in a ritual and remembrance of
both those who have gone before us and those still in our lives, who have
taught and shown us, through their lives of faith, what it is to be a saint.
When I was a child, my Catholic Church was filled with huge statues of
saints. I had a little book of the lives of the saints which I loved to read,
especially the parts about how they were martyred. To be a saint I thought
you had to live a perfect life - never thinking a bad thought or doing an evil
deed, and you had to die a gruesome death - not of your own choosing.
Today, I doubt that anyone we might refer to as a saint would think of
themselves in those terms. Even Saint Paul wrote to Timothy “I am
foremost among sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15) When a rich young man addressed
Jesus as “good teacher,” he answered, “No one is good but God
alone.” (Mark 10:18)
So I decided to go to our scriptures to see what they said about saints. I
found 40 references in the Hebrew Scriptures, most of them in the psalms.
In my NRSV translation they only used the actual word saints once, in
psalm 31: “Love the Lord all you his saints, the Lord preserves the faithful.”
In other places they were referred to as “holy ones, faithful ones, and those
who turn to God in their hearts.” Nothing there about being perfect.
The New Testament referred to saints in 60 passages, all but one were in
Acts and the letters of Paul and his proteges. Mark contains the only
reference to saints in the gospels and it occurs at the death of Jesus. “The
earth shook, and rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many
bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his
resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and
appeared to many.” It reminds me of the Samhain (sow-in) where the Celts
believed the ghosts of the dead returned to the earth.
In Acts and in Paulʼs letters all the disciples and early Christians were
referred to as saints. Each of the letters begins like Romans: “To all Godʼs
beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” (Romans 1:7) Sainthood is
not reserved for a privileged few here. We know they werenʼt all perfect.
Paul talks frequently about ministering to the needs of the saints, in
Jerusalem and wherever there were Christians. Itʼs emphasized over and
over again that they are to be there, using their talents and gifts and their
bounty for the betterment of each other.
In Colossians we are told that “God has enabled us to share in the
inheritance of the saints in light.” In other words, through the Spiritʼs help,
we grow in Christʼs love, in Godʼs light, handing it down to successive
generations. Frederick Buechner says in his little book “Wishful Thinking,”
“The Holy Spirit has been called ʻthe Lord, the giver of life,ʼ and drawing
their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with
them is to become more alive.”
Perfection set aside, I hope that each of us, in our own way, is a life-giver to
others we encounter on this journey. There are so many who have been life
givers to us. So today we celebrate them, those saints, who through their
example, have taught us how to live our faith, and have graced our lives in
When you enter St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco,
above you surrounding the dome are beautiful icons of their 100 dancing
saints. They include people like Emily Dickinson, Martha Graham, St.
Patrick, Mary Magdalene, Desmond Tutu, Anne Frank and Cesar Chavez.
During the final hymn of their worship, the congregation dances around the
communion table, doing the same kick step as the saints above them.
So this morning Iʼd like us to take a moment of silence to think about those
people, living and dead, those you have known personally, and others
youʼve seen and heard from a distance, who have inspired you to live your
faith. Who are the saints in your life. (silence)
Now, if you would, say the names out loud, as many as come into your
(light a candle for those saints in our lives)
In keeping with the tradition of All Souls Day, Emilia and I will read the
names of those who have gone before us in this past year, while a candle
is lit for each person.
Reading of the names
Please join me in a Litany of Remembrance:
Respond with the words: We remember them.
At the rising of the sun and its going down...
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter...
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring...
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer...
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn...
At the beginning of the year and when it ends...
As long as we live,
they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as long as we remember them.
When we are very weary and in need of strength...
When we are lost and sick at heart...
When we have joy we crave to share...
When we have decisions that are difficult to make...
When we have achievements that are based on theirs...
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us,
as long as we remember them.
The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born and a time to
die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” Our lives
are cyclical and so is the life of the church. So this morning we have
celebrated those who have left us, those who have graced and guided us
over our lifetimes and now those who are gracing our lives by joining our
family of faith this morning.
We join the Eliot Church of Newton, United Church of Christ by making a
covenant with each other. Paul writes in Romans what sounds to me to be
just such a covenant; “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of
the church, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the
saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has
been a benefactor of many and myself as well.” Like that early Christian
community, we are instructed to be here for each other.
So this morning six ʻsaints in progressʼ, including Emilia and I, have
decided to adopt you all and call you our new family of faith. We have been
molded in our faith by other spiritual communities and saints in our lives,
and for those we give thanks.
Some of those joining the church today have a sherpa, a guide or mentor,
who will help acclimate them to life here at Eliot, and help them to become
fully involved in our life together. Emilia and I are a sherpa to all of you, and
David has Emilia, so we donʼt have sherpas.
It is my great joy to invite the Rev. Emila Halstead to come forward, along
with her husband David. Rev. Liz. Her sherpa, Terry, is at a family reunion this weekend;
Miriam with her sherpa Cathleen, and Jen with her sherpa Nadja. I
also invite Kevin, our moderator, to come forward.