Because I am going to be in Houston on All Saints Sunday, we celebrated a week early at my church. (Here’s hoping the Liturgical Police don’t catch wind of it.) The sermon includes a reference to a cookie recipe that I was commissioned to create which you can find here, and a poem that I wrote for the same event. The service was rich and meaningful, even if we were a little early.
I can remember the first time I heard—and sang—our last hymn.
I was a child sitting in the pews of the Argyle Road Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. I even remember the pastor’s name: Basil Medgett. It was a congregation not much bigger than ours made up of mostly English people who had moved to Zambia for one reason or another. We were the only Americans, and we were welcomed there.
The line that got me from the very start was the one about meeting saints at tea, which seemed an odd place for a saint to be in my young mind. I had heard Bible stories, so I imagined saints as those who put their lives on the line—the ones in the first verse who were prophets and priests and killed by a fierce, wild beast—but what were saints doing in shops and at tea?
Didn’t they have more important things to do?
Perhaps that is why Lesbea Scott, the hymnwriter, wrote this song for her children. You may already know this story, but this hymn was a part of a collection she wrote called Everyday Hymns for Little Children that she composed to help her own kids understand more about faith. The sequence of the verses follows the way our understanding of the word “saint” has grown over time.
The oldest meaning is much like the first verse: saints are ones with devotion that goes beyond what seems normal, if you will. But as we mark All Saints’ Day, our understanding is much more like verse three: we are remembering those who ate with us, who talked with us, who loved us—and who are no longer physically with us. Saints are those who are loved, and that is every last one of us.
Celebrating All Saints’ Day is another way of reminding ourselves that we are not alone. We call the names, and we open the memories, we honor the grief of their loss, and in all of that we assure ourselves that the ties that bind cannot be broken by death, or anything else for that matter. We are not alone. We are together and they are still with us.
We sing our own song of the saints of God—the saints we knew, the saints we loved, the saints that sat around our breakfast tables, or worked alongside us, or went to school with us—and we remember that to be a saint is not to be perfect but to be present.
To become a saint, officially, among those denominations that grant sainthood is an arduous and lengthy process that always happens after the person has died. Their words and deeds are examined, and those examiners have to prove that the life of the would-be saint was not just your average life.
That’s exactly why I love this little hymn—because the road to sainthood is wider and filled with fellow travelers and not just those who have gone before. Sainthood is present tense rather than posthumous. The hymn begs us to write our own verses:
they lived not only in ages past
they are walking through Hamden still
our streets are filled with joyous saints
who all love to do God’s will,
you can meet them for donuts, apizza, or wine
at tai chi, the tag sale, the grocery line
for the saints of God are around all the time
and I want to be one too
We don’t become saints; we are saints, which is another way of saying we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved, and also capable of great love delivered in daily doses.
Journalist David Brooks has a new book called How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. I started reading it this week, alongside of preparing today’s sermon, and the timing was perfect because his ideas about how we invest in one another’s lives—how we really see each other—go right along with how we live into our calling as the saints of God.
One of the things he talks about is how much of life is about accompanying one another. He says,
Ninety percent of life is just going about your business. It’s a meeting at work, a trip to the supermarket, or small talk with another person dropping off the kids at school. And usually there are other people around. In the normal moments or life, you’re not staring deeply into one another’s eyes or unveiling profound intimacies. You’re just doing stuff together—not face-to-face but side-by-side. You’re accompanying each other.
He says accompanying one another requires four things: patience, playfulness, other-centeredness, and presence. It is less about grand gestures and more about showing up and paying attention, about singing harmony to someone else’s melody, about letting life be about something other than our agenda.
The other phrase he uses is that it is about bearing witness. And he quotes the poet David Whyte who said the ultimate touchstone of relationship “is not improvement, neither of the other or of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another’s, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, some-times just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
We named those this morning to whom we bore witness as they lived with us and loved us, and as we loved them. We named them because they bore witness to our lives, which is part of why we grieve; they don’t do that any more. One of the profound gifts we give each other as we gather together is attending to the daily details of life. The small conversations—the small acts of witness—create the space for deeper expressions of love when the time comes.
It is this wonderful mixture of accompaniment that fills our life together with love—I started to say with the flavors of love because of the story I want to tell.
I brought cookies for coffee hour this morning. They are a recipe I created for an event at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, where I will be next weekend. They commissioned me to create a cookie for All Saints’ Day. Since the church is in Houston, I started thinking about Texas flavors. Pecans are the state nut (well, one of them), and the prevalence of Mexican food led me to add some corn meal. The other big culinary influence in Houston is from Vietnamese residents, so I also added crystallized ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon. Then, because of its mystical qualities and because I always wanted to put it in a cookie, I added fresh sage. It’s a big mess of ingredients that turned into a really great cookie—and that is the review from Ginger (who doesn’t like nuts or the spice, ginger) and Rachel, my mother-in-law. Rachel, in fact, called them “Amazing Delights.”
When I sent a text to Sid Davis, the Minister of Music at the church in Houston who commissioned the cookie to tell him what she said, he wrote back, “They are both amazing and delightful.”
I answered, “As are we, my friend, as are we.”
That is true of not just Sid and me, but of every last one of us. We are amazing delights. We enrich and flavor each other’s lives—that’s why it hurts when one of us dies. The love continues, but their absence is profound. And so we accompany one another—with singing, with stories, with quiet presence, with meals, with laughter, with tears, with uncertainty, with hope—all in Christ’s name, not to replace loved ones, or to explain away the sadness, but to remind ourselves we are not alone. Love is stronger than death. And we are really, really loved.
And it is that love that brings us to the Table this morning . . .