Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
One of my all-time favorite films is called “Places in the Heart.” You may not remember this 1984 film, but you may remember an incident associated with it. In 1985, “Places in the Heart” star Sally Field won her second Academy Award for her role in this film. In her now famous acceptance speech for her Oscar, Field said “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” This line, of course, has been slightly misquoted as it has become well known as “You like me, you really like me!”
“Places in the Heart” is a wonderful film. Set in rural, poor Texas in the 1930’s, it is a story of survival amidst very difficult circumstances. Sally Field plays a poor widow with small children. She takes in boarders to help make ends meet on her dirt poor farm. Two of her boarders are a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and a farm hand, played by Danny Glover. Glover faces overt racism from Field’s white neighbors.
“Places in the Heart” is a story of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. Sally Field well deserved the Oscar she won for her role in this film.
But the reason I like “Places in the Heart” so much and the reason it fits so well on this All Saints Day/Sunday, is the final scene in the film, a scene which, I believe, makes it one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made.
The final scene in “Place in the Heart” takes place in church, during Holy Communion. As communion is being distributed, the camera pulls back from a close up of Sally Field’s character. There now pictured around Field are all the people, living and dead, who are and have been important in her life. Pulling back further, we see others from the film, living and dead, who have played a less direct role in Field’s character’s life. It is a portrait of the heavenly banquet, of the communion of saints, if ever there was one!
If we “pull back the camera,” so to speak, on our own lives, we, too, can picture such a scene – people who have played a significant role in our lives and the lives of those we love.
Take a moment and think of these people. Enjoy thinking of them surrounding you in a heavenly banquet. I see my parents, my favorite Aunt Edna, dear friends from our first congregation and many others. And Kris and my still-living friends are there, too. I think of that scene and smile! Now think of those who would be at your heavenly banquet with you.
Then, think of others who you do not know – the homeless people who have died on the streets of our area since last year or the many soldiers and civilians killed in the many wars in this world just in the past year. Perhaps you can think of others also. Some of these are known to us, others are unknown. All are known to God. All are saints of God.
Now, look around you this evening/morning where you are sitting – around you in the pews are living saints. Perhaps close by are family and friends who are saints in your lives. Not far are folks you do not know well, who are also saints.
This is our Lutheran understanding of saints. We Lutherans honor at least three groups of saints:
• Saints who are famous Christians from the past whose lives we can emulate. In this group are saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, like St. Francis, and others like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
• Another are more our personal saints, those who have influenced our lives and the lives of others, and now rest with Jesus – our parents, dear friends and many others.
• And, for us Lutherans, there is a third group of saints: those who live and work and worship around us, with all of our good and bad points, strengths and weaknesses. Saints with names like Allan and Al and Susan and Cheryl. We, too, you and I, are saints of God for others and for one another.
As I thought about the saints in my own life, I remembered the Rev. Richard L. Lundin. Pastor Lundin was pastor of my home congregation, Atonement Lutheran Church in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, during my college and seminary years. He was a well-known and beloved preacher – Pastor Lundin had taught preaching at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and, while he served my home congregation, was still in demand for preaching and teaching. Folks said he had such a fine voice that he could read from the telephone book and people would say “Good sermon, Pastor!” I did not know him well since he was not my pastor as I was growing up and I was away at college by the time he came to serve my home congregation, but Pastor Lundin was always kind to me as a “son” of the congregation preparing for ordained ministry.
Now, it may not surprise you that I was once young and foolish. (Well, okay, some of you may be thinking, the only difference now is age!) Anyway, I was young and foolish, especially in my early 20’s. While I was in seminary in the 1970’s, Pastor Lundin invited me to preach at Atonement for one of the services during Holy Week. That week the Christian Century magazine had an editorial stating that Holy Week and Easter were a farce as long as the war in Viet Nam continued. Knowing everything as I did, I decided to preach using that editorial as my theme. Shortly before worship, without telling him what I was going to say, I asked Lundin what he thought of preaching on that theme. Not knowing that I was about to do just that, Lundin responded honestly that he thought it would be a bad idea, that it would be only be heard as a “hit and run” sermon from an immature seminarian. Ouch! But, I did not listen – after all, I was 24 or 25 and thought I knew everything – I preached the sermon anyway.
Then, I left and headed back to seminary in Ohio and left Pastor Lundin to clean up the mess I had made. And, indeed, I had created a mess for him to clean up.
That’s a pretty good story about my foolish youth, but it is not the purpose for me sharing it with you this evening/morning. What Pastor Lundin did next is my reason for sharing this story. It is also one of the reasons that he is a saint in my life and a mark of the kind of man he was.
What Lundin did was that, a few weeks later, he preached essentially the same sermon that I had, taking any criticism that might have come my way onto himself. My foolishness became his and criticism came his way rather than mine.
That is why the Rev. Richard L. Lundin is a saint in my life.
What about your life? Who are the saints, living and dead, who have influenced you, especially in your life of faith? They may be famous people you admire or a parent, grandparent, other relative, friend, pastor, Sunday Church School teacher or youth advisor.
Take a few moments to think again of the saints in your life. Not just those who are no longer with us, those we thought of at our heavenly banquet a few moments ago. This time, think of ALL of the saints in your life – those living and those no longer here in this earth. Think of them. Say a quick prayer of thanksgiving for their influence on your life.
Some years ago I had a privilege of accompanying then ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson on an ecumenical journey, Presiding Bishop Anderson’s first visit with the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome, the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul, and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury in London. As you can imagine, it was an amazing trip.
While we were in Rome our delegation visited the Catecombe San Calisto outside of the city. There 300,000 people, including early Christians and Christian martyrs from the first to the fourth century, had been buried in now-empty crypts carved out of volcanic rock on four underground levels, each level with rows and rows of tombs stretching high up the wall. Nearly half the tombs were for children.
Surprisingly, it was not a place that was cold or dark or closed-in, but light, even airy, cool and open. We saw the first use of well-known Christian symbols – the fish, the Chi-Rho, the anchor, the dove. We gathered in one tomb and prayed and sang “The Church’s One Foundation.”
As we prayed and sang I was struck again with the thought that we, you and I, exist today only because of our forebears in the faith, those who have gone before us, known and unknown, who now rest with Jesus Christ. It is said that the Christian faith is always just one generation away from extinction, that, unless we tell others about Jesus, our faith will die. Those who came before us and told us of Jesus, they are the saints in and for our lives. They are the saints in our lives along with all those, living and dead, known and unknown who came before us in the faith. They are those we honor today on this All Saints Day/Sunday.
Today, on this All Saints Day/Sunday, let us honor those who hold that special place in our hearts, those saints in our lives, some famous people whose example we try to emulate in our lives and the many not-so-famous, some of whose names will be read aloud today, those we love who are not with us here but are still part of our lives, and those who are with us this day. They are all saints in and for our lives. We are here today because of their lives and faith. On this All Saints Day/Sunday we remember and give thanks for all the saints in our lives.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Places in Our Hearts
Sermon for All Saints Day/Sunday.
Written by Rev. Eric Shafer.
November 1 & 2, 2014
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica