All Saints Sunday
When I was a young boy, I got into my fair share of mischieve. But one thing I never did was to lie. I credit that to George Washington. You see, I learned early on that I was born on George Washington’s birthday. And before I learned anything else about George Washington, I learned the little story about him chopping down the cherry when he was a boy.
The story went something like this: When Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and chopped down his father’s cherry tree. When Dad discovered the damaged tree, he became angry. He confronted his son and said, “George, do you know how this happened?”
Little George bravely confessed, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.”
Now as a young boy, I took a special delight in sharing a birthday with the father of our country. And if six-year-old George Washington would never lie, six year old Gordon would imitate him. Well, the story was probably a made-up myth, but imitating a hero’s virtue served me well at an early age.
In Hebrews, the bible says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The bible commends us to look upon those examples of holy faith that have followed in Christ’s path. We call them Saints.
And on the All Saints Sunday, it might be helpful to consider some of those leaders – those saints of God – so that we too might imitate their faith. Because these saints knew the power of the risen Christ in their lives. They showed by their example that faith in Christ empowered them to live beyond themselves. It freed them to live unshackled by fear.
All Saints Day had its start when one of our earliest bishops died in 146 AD. His name was Polycarp and he was the Bishop of Smyrna in present day Turkey. Polycarp probably never met Christ on earth, but he was mentored by Jesus’ youngest disciple, John. As one of our earliest bishops, he was one of the great defenders of the faith against teachers who were infiltrating the churches and distorting the Gospel message.
Yes, it was happening even as early as the second century. When Polycarp returned to Smyrna from a trip to Rome, soldiers of Marcus Aurelius Verus came to arrest him.
His response was not what they expected. Polycarp ordered a table to be laid for them immediately. Then he invited them to eat as much as they liked, but asked to have just one hour to pray. Polycarp was taken to Rome for his trial and execution. When he stood in the coliseum before the jeering crowds, the proconsul put it to him very plainly: Curse Christ or be burned at the stake.
He replied: “For eighty-six years, I have been [Christ’s] servant, and He has never done me wrong: How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” As they were preparing to burn him alive, Polycarp offered up prayers and praise. And every year that followed, Christians would gather to take communion beside his grave. There they would take courage from his example. As the years passed, the focus of that day shifted to honoring all martyrs. By the seventh century, the Pope created a holiday to honor all of God’s saints—heroes of the faith.
Polycarp lived a full life when he faced his end. Fifty years later, a different saint stood before a Roman governor.
Perpetua was a Christian noblewoman. She lived with her husband, her son, and her slave, Felicitas, in modern Tunis. But like Polycarp, she faced a culture that was hostile to Christ.
The emperor had just put an end to civil wars and he wanted to keep the peace. There would be no religious conflicts. And to do that, he demanded that everyone would bring their religions under the one Sun God. You were free to worship whoever you wanted, so long as you acknowledged that the Sun God reigned supreme.
But unlike the other religions of the day, Christians refused to accept other Gods. So the Emperor outlawed Christian conversions. Perpetua had committed the crime of being baptized into the Christian faith. She didn’t have to renounce her faith; she just had to accept the other gods too. When she was first arrested, she was pregnant. Her father was a pagan and urged her to just go along with what was asked of her. Don’t be so exclusive, Perpetua. Don’t be so closed-minded to believe that there is just one way to heaven. Just drop a pinch of incense on the altar before the Sun God
She refused to compromise. So she was imprisoned for the better part of a year and was grateful that her execution was delayed until after she gave birth to her child. On execution day, Perpetua, her friends, and her slave were dressed in belted tunics. They entered the stadium to the roar of the crowds who were eager to see blood.
They didn’t have to wait long. A wild heifer charged the group and Perpetua was tossed into the air and onto her back. She got back up, adjusted her tunic and retied her hair so she wouldn’t appear in mourning. Then she walked over to help Felicitas. A leopard was let loose to stain their tunics with more of their own blood.
The crowd grew impatient and called for death for the Christians. So Perpetua, Felicitas, and her friends were lined up to be put to the sword. Her final words to her brother were:
Be strong in faith, stand firm, love one another. Do not be weakened by what you have seen us going through. Then she guided the executioner’s blade to her neck. Even as she faced her death, she was in charge.
Now fast forward a couple of thousand years. It’s August 20, 1965. We are in Haynesville, Alabama. Four young people have just been released from jail for picketing. They walk to a nearby market to get something to eat.
Ruby Sales is a 16-year old African American. When she steps up to the porch in front of the market, she is accosted by a good-ol’-boy with gun who curses her out. Her friend, a young man from Massachusetts pulls her to one side to shield her from the gunman. A moment later, that young man took a bullet from a 12-gauge gun that was meant for Ruby.
The young man was Jonathan Myrick Daniels. While Jonathan was a student at Harvard, he wrestled with his faith and his future. Then he experienced a profound conversion which led him to enter seminary In 1965, Jonathan responded to MLK’s appeal to come to Selma and help secure voting rights for African Americans. In the mid-60’s, the culture in Selma, Alabama was hostile to Jonathan’s faith. Oh, the churches were well-attended on Sunday morning, but they were hostile to the bible’s teaching to love one another.
Jonathan went to Selma and was arrested with his friends for joining a picket line. Days later they were unexpectedly released. They walked to a small store to call a friend for a ride home. That’s when Ruby came face-to-face with the gunman. Jonathan was not trained for combat – he was a seminary student from Massachusetts. But in that moment, he didn’t panic.
His faith kicked in – he took charge to live above his circumstances.We get a glimpse of his faith from his diary: The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown…I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection .. with them, the black men and white men, with all life in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day – November 1st. It’s a Feast day so important, that when All Saints Day does not fall on a Sunday, the church calls us to celebrate it on the Sunday following November 1st. We do it, not only to honor the heroes of the faith – an honor well deserved. But also to learn from their example. To imitate their faith.
Consider just these three saints. One was an old man who served as a bishop. One was a young, pregnant woman from a well-to-do family, and a mother. One was a young seminarian just getting his life started. Very different people from very different circumstances.
But here is what they shared in common. It was commitment. They were all committed to Christ.
They were sold out to Christ. Each one of them was All-in for the one they knew was Lord of Heaven and Lord of Earth. That commitment transcended all other commitments in their lives.
But more than that, their commitment gave them a freedom that few will enjoy in life.
They could live their lives unencumbered by fear.
How many people can say that? How many people do you know that live undaunted by their fears?
Because there are any number of things to fear in this life. I googled “common fears” and came up with the ten most common fears.
Here they are.
10. Fear of getting old
This fear hits middle-aged women and men, who are over 50 years old. That’s understandable because the basic mission of a woman is giving birth and upbringing of children.The basic mission of a man is reproduction and providing for his family.
9. Fear of being poisoned
This fear affects people with an intuitive way of thinking. It probably hits no more than 5% of the population.
8. Fear of being a coward
This is a male fear. It generally hits young people who have a kind of innate sense of responsibility for others. They will tend to compensate by developing managerial skills.
7. Germophobia (fear of bacteria and microorganisms)
These are the people with immaculate homes.They seldom get colds because they’re always washing their hands.
6. Fear of going crazy
Often these are people who aspire to explore the spiritual world. They are the ones interested in religion, philosophy and physics.
5. Fear of intimacy
It’s not just 16-year-olds. It’s common in 40-year-old men and sometimes women. They often have complicated sexuality because of a bad first experience or deep-seated resentments and repressed emotions.
4. Fear of spiders, rats, monsters and, yes, snakes
Let’s just say that these fears are entirely justified.
3. Social phobia.
This would include the most common fear: public speaking. Also, fear of open spaces for agoraphobia. These social phobias stem from a fear of appearing incompetent, ridiculous or stupid to others.
2. Fear of death
This fear is common in hypochondriacs.
1. Fear of loneliness
Even people with autism are afraid of complete solitude. It’s because humans are “social animals.” We can feel happy only when being a part of society.
There are more. But all these fears really can be conquered. And that’s where faith comes in. We build our faith when we exercise our faith. The more we take God at his word, the more we will see him fulfill his promises. And the more we can trust him. That trust gives us the freedom to live unshackled. That’s the kind of faith the saints demonstrated by their lives and by their deaths. That unshackled life is the example they leave us. That’s the kind of faith the bible calls us to imitate.
Next Sunday is our Stewardship Ingathering. You’ll each receive a pledge card in the mail this week. It’s an opportunity to walk in faith, not fear. It’s an opportunity to test God and to build your faith. The Lord invites us to do that in when he says in Malachi: Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.
Polycarp, Perpetua and Jonathan Myrik Daniels. They were all-in for the Lord. And that faith fortified them to live unshackled by fear. The Lord calls us to imitate their faith. That doesn’t mean he’s calling us to be martyrs. But it does mean to live committed to the Lord.
To trust him and his promises. They were all of them Saints of God and I mean, God helping me to be one too.