Sunday, November 07, 2010

from reformation to all saints to all souls

It is an important but somewhat liturgically ambiguous season in which we find ourselves, speaking as a pastor trying to hold the evangelical (at times pietist) and catholic (at times formal) sensibilities in tension with each other, and of course the temptation is alway to slide down one slope or the other. But the life, for me, is in the tension; or, as Flannery O' Connor insisted, "the mystery is in the manners."

I decided to focus pretty strongly on Reformation Sunday this year. For me that brought back wonderful memories: David Steinmetz teaching Luther at Duke Divinity School ("God hidden and revealed") and Ralph Wood leading us through Karl Barth's Dogmatics, in a seminar on Barth and John Updike at Wake Forest, and Carlos Eire in a seminar of Calvin's Institutes at Virginia. I work with a wonderful musician who was right there with us, and we processed into the sanctuary singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God". I actually consider myself much less reformed than I once did; this could be the cumulative experience of spending time with Presbyterian ministers (who are, if you are reading, good friends), and the fact is that I am just not there. This is due, of course, to my exposure to the Wesleyan tradition, and that came to me via Albert Outler, Robert Cushman, Tom Langford and Geoffrey Wainwright, although my favorite theologian, I must confess, is actually Charles Wesley. The reformed tradition came to be something of a cul-de-sac for me, to quote a reformed church leader (and out of my polite southern heritage I will not name him); the Wesleyan way led or rather leads to life: human flourishing, personal faith, social gospel. At its best, I love it.

Still, it was a good to recall the importance of the Word, and occasions when scripture is in conflict with church, and the concept of salvation by grace, and the priesthood of believers. It is all relevant, all a part of the family tree.

All Saints followed the next day, but we observed it the following Sunday. In our congregation we name those members who have died since the last All Saints observance (sixteen men and women, and a number of very close friends among them). A bell tolls, a candle is lit, we share Holy Communion, and then we conclude each service outside in the Columbarium, where brief prayers are offered. Our Columbarium underwent a substantial renovation five years ago; it is a beautiful space enclosed by serpentine walls that bisect the property and especially the parking areas. In this way it is a gift to our congregation and community, and becomes more and more important as time goes by. Pam and I have niches, and at some point our home will be there, but of course, the Christian hope is that our home will also be with God. I told two stories in the sermon: one about performing the wedding of the grandson of a minister who was one of my saints, and another about having breakfast with Bishop James Mathews and his wife Eunice, the daughter of E. Stanley Jones, and an extended conversation with them about non-violence and Martin Luther King, Jr. I connected the latter with the gospel lesson from the beatitudes in Luke and the subsequent command of Jesus to love our enemies.

All Souls Day follows All Saints, and I confess that I don't quite know what to make of this, at least in our tradition, since it is somewhat blurred with All Saints (and so one will sometimes see persons referred to as saints in Christian liturgies who do not claim any faith or relation to God), and further since we do not believe in Purgatory (at least as we follow John Wesley and the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion). Of course it is all a mystery, but I have been helped by the brief volume of N.T. Wright entitled For All The Saints?. Again I note, however, that none of Wright's reflection made it into the All Saints sermon; perhaps another year. The service, really, was carried along by the hymns: For All The Saints, Hymn of Promise, and closing with Shall We Gather at The River.

The two Sundays, in succession, have brought to mind a number of saints in my own journey: Tom Langford, James Bellamy, Ralph Wood and the list could continue. It is the glorious company of the saints of light, the blurring of all kinds of traditions in memory and hope, in a pastoral ministry that can be very emotional and an intellectual life that stands before the mystery of it all. The idealism of a seminary student, taking notes, reading texts, sitting at the feet of theologians, is translated into the ordinary life of leading worship and preaching, giving an account for the hope that is within us: "we feebly struggle", the hymn confesses, "they in glory shine."


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