November 7, 2021, Who Was with You on Heartbreak Hill, Book of Wisdom 3:1-9 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In one way or another, the Church has celebrated this feast almost from its earliest days. As early as the third century, a man named Gregory Thaumaturgus (which means the “Wonder Worker”) wrote about a festival of martyrs. In the fourth century Ephrem the Deacon, who lived in Northern Greece, mentions that a feast day in remembrance of the saints was celebrated on May 13th, and John Chrysostom, who was a Bishop in Constantinople in the latter part of the 300’s, wrote that a festival of All Saints was observed there on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Which is all to say, it’s always been important for us as Christians to stop, and remember, and give thanks, for the people of God who came before us. The saints. Now, a lot of us have our roots in the Roman Catholic Church, and I think for us, in particular, it’s important to talk about who the saints are. We Catholics grew up with a great reverence for the heroes of our faith. Larger than life, and twice as holy, the Saints were Christians of a higher order than us plain old churchgoers. There were the “saints of old” like Francis of Assisi and Saint Theresa of Lisieux, Saint Peter and Saint Augustine. And there were living saints like Mother Teresa and the Pope. But, at least if you were raised the way I was raised, we would never have dared to number ourselves among the saints. And yet, that’s exactly what we are. We are the saints, we people of God. Here’s what Paul wrote to the people of the church in Corinth, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” “Together with all those…” That would be us, here in the church of God that is in Norwood, people sanctified in Christ Jesus, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that would also be the many, many faithful people who have been examples and guides to us in our own lives – our parents, teachers, pastors, friends – all the dear people whose names and witness we remember today, giving thanks to God for putting them in our lives. I heard a story on the news back in September, about the Boston Marathon. There were 20,000 people running the Marathon this year, but the story I heard was about 2 of those runners, a mother and daughter, Barbara Singleton and Beth Craig. Beth is a schoolteacher. But what made the mother-daughter team really newsworthy was that Barbara, her mother, has MS, and is confined to a wheelchair. As a team, they ran the whole course, 26.2 miles, Beth pushing her mother in a wheelchair all the way. It took them 7 hours and 15 minutes, but they made it to the finish line, together. And, as I’ve been thinking about the saints in our lives, it seems to me that we’ve all had times when it was really hard, sometimes even impossible, to keep going without their help. It might have been at the time of some tragedy in our lives, a death or a divorce or an illness. It might have been a time of discouragement or anxiety. It might have been one of those times in our lives when we had brought down all kinds of trouble on ourselves through our own foolishness, and needed somebody to talk some sense in us. Or we might just have needed someone to walk alongside us, some good companionship. Whatever we needed, our saints were there for us, these dear people we remember today – surely some of the very greatest gifts God gives to us. None of them were perfect, any more that we are perfect. But God knew they were the ones we needed. We see in the Scriptures how much God’s people need the support of other saints. Even those capital “S” saints we read about in the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, even the great Bible heroes needed the support of the saints around them. There are no Lone Rangers in the church. When Saint Paul had had his great vision of Jesus Christ, when he’d been converted and filled with the Holy Spirit, he faced one of his greatest obstacles, and that was that the other Christians didn’t trust him. And it was no wonder, because he had a reputation for terrorizing Christians and having them thrown in prison, and worse. But it was Barnabas, whose name, most appropriately, means “son of encouragement,” who brought Paul into their midst and convinced them that he was a changed man. It was because of Barnabas that Paul was able to be accepted, and trusted, by the other followers of Christ. Paul certainly became one of the great capital “S” saints, evangelist and theologian and the founder of many congregations. But it was the friendship of Barnabas that first brought him into the fellowship of the believers. And Barnabas was Paul’s companion in many of his missionary journeys, along with other saints, Timothy, and Silas and Mark, Priscilla and Aquila, and many others, we can be sure, whose names didn’t make it into the official reports, but who were there for Paul when he needed them. When Mary the mother of Jesus had had her encounter with the angel Gabriel, who told her that she was going to be with child, and that her child was going to be the Son of God, the first thing she did was to pack a bag and go up into the hills to visit her cousin Elisabeth. She had so much ahead of her in the months to come: the reaction of her husband, Joseph, the condemnation of her neighbors, the hardship of the pregnancy itself, coming all unexpected as it had, not to mention all the wonder and awe of what the angel had said to her. Mary couldn’t possibly face all that without the support and presence of another saint. About 20 miles or so into the Boston Marathon there is well-known hill. It begins after the shops at Center Street in Boston, and it rises a half-mile to Hammond Street. It’s a challenging hill, but not horribly steep. But coming 20 ½ miles into the race, it’s the toughest stretch in the whole course. Which is why it’s been given the name “Heartbreak Hill.” When I think of Beth Craig pushing her mother’s wheelchair in the Boston Marathon, I try to imagine what it must have been like for both of them to face that hill. They were hours into the race, and they came to this hill that stretches on for half a mile, knowing that then they have another 6 miles to go after that. But they faced it together. They kept going, and they crossed the finish line. Haven’t we all had our “Heartbreak Hills,” obstacles that seemed too big for us to handle – obstacles that were, in fact, actually too big for us to handle – on our own. But God gives us to one another, so that when we come to those hills, weary and worn and sad, as the hymn goes, we have someone to run with us, someone to encourage us, or sometimes even someone to give us a push when we just can’t go on. That’s the gift of the saints, whose names and lives we remember today: they are the love and presence of God with us, in human form. Because we are all the saints, called to be the love and presence of God to one another, as we travel this life together. And we all look forward, together, to the finish line, which is life and peace, shining out in the kingdom of our God forever. I want to close by reading again the words from the Wisdom of Solomon: The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise they did appear to die, their going looked like a disaster, their leaving us, like annihilation; but they are in peace. If they experienced punishment as men see it, their hope was rich with immortality; slight was their affliction; great will their blessings be. God has put them to the test and proved them worthy to be with him; he has tested them like gold in a furnace, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. When the time comes for his visitation they will shine out; as sparks through the stubble, so will they. They shall judge nations, rule over peoples, and the Lord will be their king forever. Those who trust in him will understand the truth, those who are faithful will live with him in love; for grace and mercy await those he has chosen.