Magazine article The Christian Century

Saints and Sinners

Magazine article The Christian Century

Saints and Sinners

Article excerpt

IT ALWAYS BREAKS my heart at little when an elderly member of my congregation dies after decades of service and faithfulness. It breaks my heart a little more when only a handful of members attend the funeral of a shut-in. But on the Day of All Saints the names of these people who have passed oil are read with reverence and thanks in front of the entire congregation. "For all the saints who from their labors rest," we sing.

Who are all these saints? Most churches don't generate much excitement by talking about the early saints (the ones with "St." in front of their names). Even though many of the hymns for this day refer to the saints of old who shone in glory, most of us prefer saints closer to home. Our communion of saints is a more familiar crowd--those who died in our congregations in the past year, our own parents and grandparents. We're also more apt to remember those famous saints who lived closer to our own lifetimes. Because we share the same century with them, we remember Mother Teresa and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin more often than St. Teresa or St. Joseph. It's a great day to remember all of those who have gone before us, the ones on whose shoulders we stand, the ones whose lives and witness have brought us to this new day.

We can study the history of our faith and proudly say" we are where we are today because our ancestors in the faith raised their voices, made bold decisions and prayed and taught the faith. We are where we are today because our ancestors were willing to go to jail, to be thrown to the lions and be burned at the stake. We are here today because our ancestors fought for religious freedom, braved and explored a new world to establish churches in America and spread the gospel. They did all these things because they loved Jesus, but also because they loved us, their descendants whom they would never know. They loved us so much that they wanted to make sure the story of the gospel was here for us. We are who we are today because of their faith, devotion and bravery. Rise up, O saints of God!

But wait a minute. These saints were not our only ancestors. Isn't it also true that we are here today, that we are who we are, in the condition in which we find our selves, because we also had biological and spiritual ancestors who sat on their hands, who cared only for themselves, who thought little about the impact of their actions on future generations? We are also the products of those who were apathetic in their witness. We are the biological and spiritual descendants, for example, of those who advocated a racially segregated society. …

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