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The Generosity of Generations -- Hebrews 11 (All Saints Sunday)

I used to think that All Saints Day was primarily about the past. On All Saints Day, we remember. We remember those who have gone before, and we give thanks. There is that, and we will do that.

And, as I’ve worked with this text from Hebrews this week, the Scripture has turned my understanding like a kaleidoscope – you know, all those beautiful shapes and colors – and you turn the kaleidoscope and they fall into an entirely new pattern – a new glimpse. And so I want to put this understanding before us right at the start – and see where it takes us – and it’s this:

All Saints Day is about remembering – and All Saints Day is ultimately about the future. What has come before informs the present moment and propels us into a future. Those who have come before have shaped this present moment – they’ve helped shape who we are. And our experience of them and each other – they point us toward and inspire us to live into a promised future. All Saints Day is about remembering – and All Saints Day is ultimately about the future.

But before we get there, let’s start at the beginning – where this Scripture from Hebrews starts. The epistle entitled Hebrews is a New Testament book that we don’t visit often. A writer we don’t know is writing to a community we don’t know.[1] We can tell that they’ve experienced hardship, and the book of Hebrews leans into the writer’s particular understanding of the promise that we have in Jesus Christ – a promise we receive by faith – by trust – a promise we can live into – over time – across the generations. The writer wants the community to know: Jesus is where God is setting the world right – building a new city – a better country. We need to live – trusting in that.

And Chapter 11 offers up a rich tapestry of examples – what some have called “a roll call of the faithful.” Here are folks who have lived by faith in the presence of God – “A Hall of Faith” – what the writer of Hebrews calls “a great cloud of witnesses.” Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab – all of them living their lives – in hard times – in the presence of God. One writer describes them as “pilgrims of faith caught between the past and the future in a very demanding present.”[2] Here is how they lived by faith.

And we go to the very beginning: By faith, we know that all the worlds were created by one Word from God.

By faith, Abraham and Sarah, called by God, set out to live in a foreign land not knowing where they were going. By faith, they lived in tents in the desert, looking for a city they had yet to see. By faith, well into their old age – they birthed generations.

By faith, Isaac, and then Jacob, and then Joseph inherited the promise – and we should also name Hagar and Rebekah and Leah and Rachel.

By faith, Moses left the comfort of Pharaoh’s places to lead a people out of slavery. By faith, when they passed through the waters on dry land, Miriam danced to a song of liberation. By faith, Rahab helped a people she didn’t know to freedom.

A long list of names we know.

And then the writer sighs and says, “But what more can I say? Time doesn’t let me give you the whole list.” And the pace picks up – we get these fascinating stories of trials, tribulation, and heroism. There are highs – they conquer kingdoms, administer justice, escape danger – women receive back their dead. And there are lows – deep lows – they suffer mocking, and flogging, and death. “They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” These who have gone before embody “the tenacity of hope” in all manner of hardship.

The rhetoric is over the top. But what the writer is talking about is the whole of life – including the tough stuff. Those who have gone before stood in the challenges of their time, and by faith they lived forward – forward toward the promise of a better day – a better world.

And then there’s this. At first, it can feel almost heartbreaking. Twice, the writer says this: They lived by faith, and they died by faith, and they never received the promise that propelled them. They saw the promise – they saw the promise from a distance – but they didn’t get there. The city God is building. The better country. They didn’t receive then what was promised – the writer says – because God has something even better. They didn’t receive then what was promised – the writer says – so that they “would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” The promise is one that we don’t receive apart from each other. The promise is one we will experience, in its fullness, together. All the saints. Every one of us.

I love the way that James Earl Massey puts it. He looks at this great cloud of witnesses and says this: “All were persons of their time, but stirred by the forward look; They were seekers, impelled by what was yet to be.” They trusted that the meaning of their days would be clarified and completed by a loving God.[3]

Persons of their time stirred by the forward look.

They lived for – but never saw the promise in its fullness – the world set right. They held all that – all that hope, all that promise, all that life, all that work – they held all that in trust – receiving it from those who had gone before them – and passing that hope and that work – on down the generations – all the way to us.

This holding what we’ve been given in trust... is very Presbyterian. Did you know that that is how this church, this congregation, holds this property, this building? You hold it in trust – legally and under the Presbyterian Constitution. This congregation doesn’t own this property outright – like you might own a house – yours to do with as you please – where you could sell it, or rent it – it’s yours. No. We are set up so that a local congregation holds the property they inhabit – in trust – for the benefit of the whole church – the church writ big – for the work of Jesus Christ in the world. Under the law of trusts, when we hold something in trust – we hold what is entrusted to our care (1) for the benefit of specific people (for their benefit, not ours), and (2) for a specific purpose.

On this All Saints Day, I think of all the saints across the years – in this place – who have held all this in trust. All this (motion to building) – all the hope – all the serving together– down across the generations. The church nearly 125 years ago meeting in the seminary’s Montgomery Chapel. The congregation moved here – and together built this sanctuary – these buildings.

I think of all the life that has happened here – the baptisms, the invitations again and again to the table. All the life that’s been shared – the joys, the illnesses, the grieving, the children growing up, all the ways this community has held the mission of Jesus Christ in the world – here in this corner of the world – in trust. I think of the work for justice in Israel/Palestine. All the trees that have been planted in Afghanistan. The steady, loving work for the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people and our families. All those without shelter – who on a cold winter’s night during the REST shelter found a hot meal and a home for the night. All this – held in trust – for the benefit of those in need.

I think of our moment. Stewardship season is so much more than thinking about what our pledge will be – it’s thinking about how we hold all that we have been given – in trust – for the benefit of others – for the work of Christ in the world – for a future that is promised, but that we may never see – until that day when we see it with all of the saints, together.

What does that mean in our moment? In the challenges of our day? As we continue the hard work of anti-racism, we are learning how systems of racism – in Marin County – have allowed white folks to accumulate wealth and prevented Black folks from doing the same. Black families in Marin City haven’t had the same opportunity to invest in a home of their own, and to pass that on to their children – in the same way that white families have – in San Anselmo, and San Rafael, and Kentfield, and Ross.

As we begin our meetings with Land Acknowledgments, we are beginning to acknowledge that the land we occupy was stolen from indigenous peoples – particularly Coastal Miwok Peoples.

We know that this patch of land we hold in trust is part of a bigger world in climate emergency – whose very survival is at stake.

How do the challenges of our day impact how we hold what we have been given in trust? How do they impact what we do with what has been entrusted to our care? To put an even finer point on it. If we understand that we hold all this in trust – in our day – receiving it from those who have gone before, passing it along to those who will come, how do we answer these questions – and then act:

o For what purpose do we hold all we have been given in trust?

o For whose benefit do we hold all this in trust?

Back in August, we celebrated the long and remarkable life of Bob Houston, who had been the longest living member of our community at 105 years old. We remembered Bob, and particularly all the ways he had led the Building and Grounds committee. Bob joined the church before this sanctuary was built. He was a part of all this. We shared stories of how he worked with Tom Lannert and others on the building – well into his 90s – most of those stories ending up with someone seeing Bob up on the roof.

Before the memorial service, Martha Spears and I gathered with Bob’s family in the memorial garden, as we laid his ashes to rest, next to the ashes of his wife and his sister.

And I looked around. There we were – with Bob’s daughters and his grandchildren – in this garden and this church – he had helped build. And the music of Natsuko practicing before the service wafted out of the windows – and we knew we would gather in a few moments to remember – and then gather again on Sunday, to worship as folks have for nearly 125 years, and to again move into the world, some writing postcards for Voting Rights, some figuring out how they would get their kids to school and then get to work at the start of a new school year, some facing treatment for cancer, some delivering meals to someone who was sick, all of us living life.

On All Saints Day, we remember – we remember those who have gone before – and we stand with them – we share with them – this hope for a future that God is building even now.

The writer of Hebrews invites us into this roll call of the faithful, and then when we turn the page, the writer says this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us set aside everything that holds us back and run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

On All Saints Day, the past, present, and future converge in one eternal moment before God. Those who have gone before are present with us now in the work that has nurtured the world from this place across the generations. They are as present with us now, as those who are yet to come – present with us in our hopes and dreams for a world better than what we have known. We may not see it in its fullness in our lifetime – but we are part of something so much bigger than us – the communion of saints – the body of Christ – the eternal work of God in the world making all things right. Our part is to hold all that in trust – to roll up our sleeves and join this great cloud of witnesses – to work for that better day – so that, in God’s time, we all will get there, together.

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] See Pamela Eisenbaum, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2d ed. 2017); Fred Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998). [2] James Earl Massey, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 457. [3] Massey, p. 458.


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