One weekend, when our youngest son, Craig, was about three years old, I was out of town on a retreat. Eleanor was putting Craig to bed and talking to him about his grandparents who lived some 2,000 miles away in Minnesota. She asked him, “Do you remember Grandma Ellen, Grandma Bea, Grandpa Ed?” running through the list of relatives in order to keep him in touch with his family. At one point he interrupted her and asked, “Do you remember Daddy?” I suppose I was often absent, as are many fathers.
Today is All Saints Sunday. All Saints Day was yesterday. The evening before All Saints Day is more familiar to us as it was called the Hallowed Eve and eventually became Halloween. As the saints are spirits, Halloween came to be associated with spooks and the like. On All Saints Sunday, we do not remember spooks or ghosts, but our departed loved ones, saints of Wesley Church, and the saints of church history.
The Roman Empire, concerned about the growth of the church and convinced that the church was becoming a challenge to its authority, conducted an extensive persecution. Christians were thrown to wild beasts or burned alive in front of shouting, sadistic crowds. In the city of Smyrna, about 155 AD, the persecution was intense. Some Christians had been martyred. Some had renounced their faith rather than be executed. The proconsul decided the time was right to confront the Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp. Polycarp, 86 years old, was a respected, loved leader. In his youth he had met people who had actually known Jesus, so his teachings and his example had far-reaching consequences.
The High Sheriff led Polycarp to the stadium and stood him before the proconsul. The shouting was so loud they could hardly hear each other. The proconsul had pity on Polycarp and pleaded with him, “Have respect for your age. Spare yourself this torture. Confess Caesar as Lord and denounce the atheists.” Christians were called atheists because they refused to acknowledge the emperor as god. The proconsul persisted, “Swear by Caesar, curse Christ, and I will set you free.”
Polycarp answered, “86 years have I served Christ, and He did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me? Hear a plain answer: I am a Christian.” The proconsul threatened, “I will have you burned alive unless you repent.” Polycarp answered with serenity, confidence and joy. His face radiated peace, “You threaten me with the fire that burns for an hour and is speedily quenched; but you know nothing of the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment which is reserved for the wicked. Why delay? Bring what you will.” The proconsul announced to the crowd, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The crowd shouted, “Burn him alive!”
Polycarp was not the first martyr, but his martyrdom so captured the admiration and imagination of Christians, they began worshiping at his tomb. The martyrs who held steadfast to the faith, in contrast to those Christians who had weakened and confessed Caesar, were held in high esteem in the church's memory. As we heard read today from Revelation, a great multitude stood before the throne robed in white, praising God. Someone asked, 7.13, “Who are these robed in white?” “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” They believed the martyrs have a special place in heaven.
Not only were the burial places of the martyrs of special significance, but the bones of the martyrs and their possessions were venerated. In time, only special persons were named saints. These official saints were assigned special days on the church calendar when they were to be remembered and honored. Children were baptized with the name of a special saint. Prayers were prayed to saints to intercede with God on behalf of people. As it was believed that only martyrs gained immediate entrance into heaven, ordinary Christians had a waiting period in purgatory. In 994 AD, November 1 was decreed as All Saints Day to honor the saints in heaven, and November 2 as All Souls Day to pray for the dead who are still in purgatory.
You will note that today is November 2 but we are not praying for those in purgatory! The Protestant Reformation changed that. The reformers took the church back to its origins, back to the Bible and the early creeds. There we find that all Christians are saints. On All Saints Day we remember and honor the martyrs. We rejoice in the example of Polycarp and hold him before us as a hero. But, we also include all those who have died in the Lord. We remember our loved ones who have died. We remember the saints of our church who have died.
The purpose of remembering is to hope. Memory gives content to hope. We remember in order to hope. A provocative definition of hope is: Hope is remembering tomorrow! The major religious traditions are about events which fulfilled hopes. Remembering those events gives hope for the future. The Passover in the Jewish tradition is a remembering of the exodus from Egyptian slavery. The remembering gives hope for freedom from all oppressive situations.
The major Christian celebration of Easter is a remembering of Christ's victory over sin and death. The remembering gives content to our hope for the coming of God's kingdom and our own eternal life. Communion, a remembering of Jesus' last supper, is future oriented as we fellowship together until the kingdom comes in all its glory. Thanksgiving is an American remembering of the pilgrims who fulfilled their hope for a new start, a new beginning, a fresh land. Celebrating Thanksgiving as a nation points us to the future for anticipated new starts, new beginnings, for a nation in which everyone is given a chance. We celebrate past events in which people were looking forward. To hope is to remember tomorrow.
Therefore, we tell the stories of yesterday in order to remember tomorrow. We tell each other the stories of the Bible, about the heroes and heroines—the saints—of church history. We tell our children and grandchildren the stories of our family. We tell each other stories about our church. Why? To establish roots in the present so that we can live today in confidence and set directions for the future. Tomorrow is built out of yesterdays, and the best of yesterday is what we want to claim for tomorrow.
Trevor Nunn expressed this sentiment beautifully in his poem, “Memory” which was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Cats.
Midnight. Not a sound from the pavement,
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone.
In the lamplight the withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan.
Mem'ry. All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then.
I remember the time I knew what happiness was,
Let mem'ry live again...
Daylight. I must wait for the sunrise,
I must think of a new life
And I mustn't give in.
When the dawn comes tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin.
Let memory live again. A new day will begin. When times are rough, remember the good times. Don't give in but let the memory give hope for tomorrow.
Remember your ancestors—their struggles, their joys, and let the memory fill you with hope for your future.
Remember the single men who came to San Jose from Japan to work, and faced persecution and discrimination for their color and nationality. Remember the men who bonded together to organize the Japanese Methodist Church of San Jose in 1895. Remember your spiritual ancestors who loved this church, built its buildings, and ministered to Japantown. Remember and let the memory give us hope as we make monumental decisions for the future of Wesley Church.
Hope is remembering tomorrow.
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris