XCovid-19: For our live-streamed Holy Week and Easter Services and more info about Staying Connected when we are apart…Read more

Sermon Archives

The Long Conversation

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 02


Text: Hebrews 11 (excerpted) and 12:1-3

Last Sunday, I came here earlier than usual to help set up the puppet saints for a class the kids had with them last week.  Though I missed Sarah who would usually be doing that job, I didn’t mind the effort in the least because it gave me some 1:1 time with the likes of Lionel, Michiro, Maya and the others. I remembered when I first met the three largest ones, our first puppet saints.  I’ve loved them all ever since. You see, these puppets are not merely props for our service, or ways of teaching our kids about saints. They are also tangible reminders that on this All Saints Sunday, we are each invited to use our spiritual and religious imaginations.  When we imagine, as the kids have done, the stories of St. Lionel’s love of lions and his belief that all of nature is a gift from God, or St Philips’ care for the injured and dying in war-torn places, we can also call to mind the particular gifts and contributions that human saints have made and are making and will make to our lives, our community and our planet.  As we hear story after story of Mayor Menino’s impact on the city, it stretches not only memory but our imaginations for how much impact is possible for one leader.  Imagine, St. Tom, the patron saint of urban mechanics!  And imagine the ongoing relationship that he and his memory will have with this city for this and future generations. 


The writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew something about imagination.  Following a veritable role call of spiritual ancestors and saints from Abel to Abraham to Moses, of those men and women who have modeled lives of faith, there comes an at once mysterious but encouraging turn in the letter. He says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us!”  The image here is of a gathering of all those saints and spiritual ancestors who are bearing witness as we run a race ourselves.  Mind you, they don’t care if we win the race.  They just want us to stay on track, following the course and the ways of Jesus’s love, mercy and justice.  They also know, better than we do, that eventually, we will all finish the race, and they want us to be not afraid of what comes next.  Can we begin to imagine what this unseen but ever-present cloud of witnesses is like for our own lives and for this community? 


Truth to tell, I’ve never been much of a runner.  When I was kid, though, I swam for several years on a swim team at a local Y.  Indulge me for a moment.  The Y was just down the road from our house and directly across the street from my school.  By age 7, and with the help of a friendly crossing guard, I’d walk myself from school to the pool! It was a daily routine. In Northern New Jersey, there weren’t just YM or YWCA’s - Young Men’s or Young Women’s Christian Associations.  In my town and in surrounding towns, there were YMYWHA’s as well.  Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Associations.  Decades have since past and it didn’t occur to me until about a year ago that I literally grew up swimming in interfaith waters, daily throughout my childhood!  My team was part of a league of Jewish Y’s and Community Centers. We’d travel all across the state of New Jersey.  No joke - for a period of a good 7or 8 years, all of my ribbons and trophies had stars of David on them!  No wonder I love interfaith work today!  What's more, this pool had a balcony, and because I was a backstroker, I had the distinct privilege of being able to seeing my mom and dad and other parents and friends looking down at me, encouraging me along the way. The point here, is not the race, or even the athleticism of the biblical metaphor.  The point is an invitation to imagine the kind of encouragement that comes from a crowd or a cloud of witnesses that surround us when we are giving something our best.   More deeply, the point is we can, through something like a foggy pair of goggles, or as Paul would say, “through a glass darkly” what we will then see to face to face. We can imagine and we can see and know that there is a continuing bond with those who have come before us, who are now in God’s nearer presence, who can from their vantage continue to love us just as we continue to love them.


There’s a sign at an entrance to the Winchester cathedral in England that starts to get at these continuing bonds and this communion of saints.  It says, “you are entering a conversation that began long before you were born, and will continue long after you’re dead.” As we enter a church, any church and this church, we enter a conversation not only with one another but also with those who have come before us and with those who will be here after we are gone. It is a conversation that spans generations and that’s held with our biblical and spiritual ancestors, and with our loved ones who have died, with our children and with their children and with their children’s children.  Today, on All Saints Day, we pay particular attention to this ongoing conversation and we enter into it ourselves.


 Think about it.  If we could look through our own foggy goggles, we can imagine an entire balcony of First Church saints that are up there cheering us on and encouraging us to persevere in our faith, to not give up, to not lose hope.  After all, the saints of this church have a lot invested in our success.  They built this house of worship.  They've left us our sizable financial endowment.  They wrote the hymns we sing and the Covenants we pray.  They gave us a legacy of speaking out about matters of peace and justice.  You can bet they want us to keep the faith and to build upon it even further for future generations of this community.  They have already made the move from relying on God’s grace to resting in God’s glory and they want the same for us.  Can you feel the encouragement that surrounds us in this place? When we begin, as one writer says, to “mentally populate” (Ref. 1) that great cloud according to our own stories of people who we’ve known and loved and even those who have inspired us from the pages of history, the image of encouragement becomes all the more powerful.  I wonder what names and pictures of people come to your mind?


For me, the cloud of is full of old friends, like Eric Gold, who died way too young in a car accident during our sophomore year in high school. It’s Wilbur Vandergoot, my next-door neighbor in New Jersey who cared for pheasants and sheep in his own backyard and who would wear wooden shoes.  He’d be in the balcony.  It’s my grandmother Daisy Smith who was a nursing home worker in NJ, and my grandfather Wilbur Applegate who worked for a steel company in Las Vegas.  It’s my father, Albert A Smith, who was a minister, and whose middle name was just A, no period.  It’s my utterly brilliant college roommate Vijayan Kartha, who suffered from bi-polar disorder and ended his own life a year after we graduated college.  It’s Peter Gomes, a beloved mentor and friend, and Joyce Bradley, a close family friend who died of cancer this past year at the age of 44.  For me, its also all those people here and in previous congregations who I’ve been incredibly privileged to minister to and to sit with during their last days and in some cases as they have taken their last breaths. We each have our own role calls of saints, do we not?  Those with whom we may feel some level of a continuing bond. In speaking the names that mentally populate the great cloud for me, my hope is that you will take the opportunity to speak those names that come to your mind and heart.  Indeed, you will have such an opportunity in just a few moments when we come to the table and commemorate the saints.


As I conjure names of people in my head and heart, as I imagine their smiles or even their frowns, I’ve come to cherish the imagination and metaphor that can help me place them somewhere close.  I don’t mind calling it a cloud, or even a balcony.  And I love to think of them all sitting at a heavenly banquet and keeping a space open for you and for me.  What choice do we have but to use our imaginations when we consider what happens to all the saints that have come before us, and even when we wonder what heaven is like?  We should be grateful for the richness of the language of our faith, whether it comes from Paul or from the gospel of John, a house with many rooms, or from Allen Happe’s version of For All the Saints.  We need these words and images to give expression to our own experience of this larger conversation that spans the gap between our past, present and future brothers and sisters in Christ.  


Truth be told though, what’s more important to me than any particular language or idea or vision of heaven is the conviction of things unseen that I carry in my very bones - that the love and friendship I shared with these individuals has not ended. There is a continuing bond that carries on through God’s abiding love. My faith in God, and my own experience, have left me utterly convinced that their spirits are still alive somehow, that the bonds of our love and friendship will continue until I too am in God’s nearer presence and so in theirs.


When we come to take our places at the communion table in a few minutes, a table that was set by God long before we were born, and that will be set long after we die, we participate in that larger conversation of love. To situate ourselves in that larger conversation that spans the ages is to know that we too are saints in the making and that one day we too will be remembered when we are gone from this place and when our own names are called out. The great cloud of witnesses that surrounds and encourages us even now. The great communion of saints!  Our continuing bonds of relationship held together in the Body of Christ, and in God’s abiding and eternal love. Just imagine it.  And better still, by faith, know that this is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen!


I close now with these words by an anonymous author from the Oxford Book of Prayer: We thank thee, O God, for saints of all ages, for those who in times of darkness kept the lamp of faith burning, for the great souls who saw visions of larger truth and dared to declare it; for the multitude of quiet and gracious souls whose presence purified and sanctified the world; and for those known and loved by us, who have passed from this earthly fellowship into the fuller light of life with thee.  Amen.


Ref. 1: Robert B.  Shaw, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews” in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, ed. by Alfred Corn (Penguin Books, 1990).


Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...