Finishing the Race
Beloved God, hold us now as we grieve those who have gone before us. Help us to listen now to a word of grace, and I pray that these words would hold that grace. Where my words go astray, I pray that no harm would be done. Amen.
"Death doesn't discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway.
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes."
I was struck by this line from the musical Hamilton this week as I was preparing for this service. “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” No matter who we are, we aren’t getting out of this life alive and all of our loved ones will die eventually. Today, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we remember the saints who died before us - especially those whom we have loved and who have died in this last year. Grief and sorrow are a part of the remembering, as is introspection and the contemplation of our own life and death.
We buried another saint this week. Elsie Lamberti was 98 years old. When I spoke with her daughter to make the arrangements, she tearfully told me, “It doesn’t seem to matter how old we are, losing a mother is still so hard.”
I have heard it said that when one of your parents dies your whole mental universe gets rearranged.
I suspect that there is something very similar for widows and widowers. Especially those who have been married for decades. How do we understand ourselves apart from those who have helped to make us who we are? Honestly, we really can’t. Those who have gone before us will always be a part of us and we can find some comfort and perhaps healing in the remembering.
All Saints is our annual remembrance of those who have gone on before us, whose lives in this world have ended... lives that showed us and taught us the Way of Jesus.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” says Paul as his life draws to its inevitable close. I have always loved this verse. It reminds me of the line in the parable of the talents when Jesus says, "Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master." I know that for me, when my race is finished and my life comes to its inescapable conclusion, I long to hear those words from my Master. Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Master."
So Paul ended his life as he lived it, faithfully pouring himself out for the work of the kingdom. Paul loved the imagery of the athlete. We see it in several of his epistles as well as in Acts where Paul is quoted as saying "I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course" ...his ministry, the course, the race course that he faithfully ran throughout his lifetime.
Have you ever heard people talking about resisting evil in the world as being a marathon and not a sprint? It has become a common metaphor again recently for many who struggle to balance making the world a better place with enjoying the world around them and taking care of themselves. I've heard it and I fully appreciate it, but I want to tweak it a bit. The race we run is definitely not a sprint, but instead of a marathon, I like to think of it like a relay race - a very very long relay race. We each have a section of the race to run, and then we hand off the baton to the next runner. We run strong not just for ourselves, but for our team, for the other kin*dom workers who run with us, who ran before us, and those who will run after us. We run on the same team as Paul and Timothy. We run on the same team as people today on the other side of the planet. And we run on the same team as people who will be born in the years to come.
As we run, as we put our all into the race, let's remember that we aren't in it alone - ever - we have each other, and we have our coach - Jesus - who gave us the training guide we need.
As we celebrate the lives of our departed saints, let’s recommit to our own leg of the race that is set before us and prepare for the time when we will hand off the baton to the next generation of runners.
One aspect to our race team is that we have team dinners, as it were, around the communion table weekly. We often talk about how the communion table is a place where we share a meal with Jesus as our host. We also acknowledge that we share this meal with other Christians from around the world at the table, including those from centuries past. We can also meet our dearly departed loved ones here. They are some of the departed saints, afterall.
I was speaking with one of our members several weeks ago and she was sharing with me a communion experience she had. Her mother had died rather suddenly and unexpectedly and the death had left her rather shaken and, as would be expected, bereaved. As I said before, when a parent dies our whole mental universe gets rearranged. Well, our community member was at worship the Sunday after her mother’s passing and was offered a moment of intense spiritual peace because she felt, in a very real way, that her mother's presence was with her at the communion rail. What a beautiful thing! In her moment of grief, she was offered comfort and assurance that she was not alone. Although this mother could no longer run the race course of life, she was still present in the timeless race with her daughter.
Today as each of us comes forward for communion, I want to invite us to remember that we gather with more than just those we see in physical form around us. Remember those who run with us this day all over the planet, and remember the saints who have passed on from this life, those who ran and then handed off the baton to us. Help us also to remember those who are yet to come, whose lives we may guide and encourage, those who will someday remember us after we complete our last lap.
Beloved God, for all the saints who from their labors rest, we ask that you would continue to inspire us by the legacy of the race that they have run; we ask that you would be our vision for the race that we are running now; and we pray that you would gather us in with those who will follow us - that someday we would all gather at your table in the world to come. Amen.