Those the Light Shines Through – 11/7/21

Recognizing All Saints Sunday in a community like ours is challenging.  Many of us have different views of what the term “saint” means, different approaches to the Divine, varying ways of considering what is next when our lives end.  As I was considering what common thread may exist between us, I remembered an experience I had with Pax.  I was asked to perform a wedding for a couple, but the number of their guests was too large to hold the wedding in the church I served.  They chose to hold the service in a beautiful church, much older than the one I served and very traditional in its design.  There were rows of wooden pews, a large chancel in the front with a choir loft, and an enormous pipe organ.  But the most striking part of the sanctuary were the elaborate stained-glass windows.  Because Kathy was working, I took Pax with me to the rehearsal.  He had not been in a church like this before, and I could see he was amazed by the size and the beauty.  It was a sunny day, and the light was shining through all of the windows.

After the rehearsal was over, Pax asked me questions about the church – how old it was, why our church did not look like that one.  And he also asked who all the people were who were in the windows.   I told him how the windows depicted famous people from the Bible, people like Peter, Mary, John.  I said that some people referred to them as saints.   When I asked him if he knew what a saint was, he gave an answer that was both straightforward but also meaningful in a way he may not have realized.  He said, “I guess they are the ones the light shines through.”

In our text for this morning, we read another story of the Divine light shining through.  Jesus takes a select group of disciples, those closest to him, up on the mountain.  And while they are there, the gospels report that they see a miracle.  The face if Jesus begins to shine like the sun.  His clothes become dazzling white.  The bright light which is used throughout the Bible as a sign of the divine presence settles on Jesus.

Two of the heroes of the Jewish faith, Moses and Elijah, appear for this event.  Jewish people expected both of these great men to return before the end times.  And that may be part of the reason that these two men are included in gospel stories of this event.  But there is something else interesting about the gospels indicating that these two men appear with Jesus.  The scriptures indicate they both had unique experiences of God.  They both in their lives had powerful experiences of the Divine light.

Like Jesus at the transfiguration, the first man present at the transfiguration, Elijah, also encountered God on a mountain.  In a time of distress and discouragement in his ministry, Elijah was told to go and stand on a mountain for God was about to pass by.  While on the mountain, Elijah experiences a great wind, an earthquake and a great fire, and after these things he hears only silence.  And in this silence he heard the voice of God.  A voice which gave him a mission.  Elijah devoted his life to this mission, and we later read of a remarkable event which occurs in the life of Elijah in light of this obedience.  He becomes one of only two people named in the Bible who never tasted death.  We read in the book of 2 Kings that a chariot and horses of fire took Elijah in a whirlwind to heaven.

We read in Exodus that God called the second person present for the transfiguration,  Moses, onto Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.  When Moses went up on the mountain, a cloud covered it.  And the glory of God settled on the mountain.  We read that the appearance of the glory of the Divine was like a devouring fire.  And Moses remained on the mountain for forty days.  It is recorded that when Moses came down from the mountain “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”  When the Israelites saw Moses after coming down the mountain, they were initially afraid.  But soon all of the people came near and learned of the commandments he had received from God.  But the face of Moses did not lose its light.  Moses put a veil on his face, and when the time came to present divine instruction to the people he would remove the veil so that the people could see the light of God shining through him.

While we may not take these stories literally, we do recognize the powerful influence the stories of the lives of these men have had.  Like the light which streamed through the images of the saints in the stained glass, the Divine light shined in the stories we read of Moses, of Elijah, of Jesus.  They demonstrate that the Divine is revealed through the lives and words of those who work and speak on behalf of that Divine presence, who advocate for justice, who lead others into the Divine light, who follow through on the work they feel called to do, who exemplify love.

All Saints Day is not just about remembering the prominent spiritual leaders through the ages, those whose names are recognized in every church.  It is about celebrating and remembering all of those who were a vehicle for the light of the Divine to shine through in the world.  It proclaims that countless numbers of people of every age, people of all ways of life, men, women and children, those whose names are forgotten by history, those who may have never been known outside of their families, are elevated to the rank of saint because each one in his or her own way allowed the Divine light to shine through them.  And because of their unique ability to reflect that light in our lives, they remain a presence with us far past the time they are with us physically.

I recently read a book called All the Light We Cannot See.  While a work of fiction and not a theological work, I loved the way it described this continued presence of those we love.  The main character reflects on the nature of communication today.  We know there are torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversation, of television programs, of email, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the cities, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters, between antennas atop buildings.  And she asks, is it so hard to believe that souls can exist like this?  “That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?  They flow about the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt, and pass out the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”

Many in this community have lost people that they love deeply.  And one downside of being a new minister in this congregation is that I never got a chance to meet many of the people who have meant so much to you.  I have heard wonderful stories of your parents, your partners, your children, your siblings that you have lost.  And while I have never met them, in many ways I have met them.  Just as the Divine is as near to us as our next breath, in this way so are those that we have lost.  The light of the Sacred which they reflected continues to live in and shine through us.  When I hear those stories of your loved ones, the way they loved you, the contributions they made to this community, the way that they impacted your spiritual journey and the journeys of others, I do meet them.  Just as Moses continued to live as a spiritual influence on the people of Israel because the light of God shined through him, just as the work of Jesus continues through his influence on the lives of many today, so do those we lost continue to live on in us because of the light that shined through them.

This knowledge that those we have lost remain present with us through the manner in which they let the light of the Divine shine is not only a comfort.  It is a challenge.  It challenges us to remember that it is not the possessions we accumulate.  It is not the success we attain.  It is not our esteem in the community which will live on.  It is the degree to which we reflect that Divine love that will have the most lasting impact, the work we do for justice, the compassion we show.

I have not experienced the depth of loss that many of you have.  But I remember when we were waiting to find out the results of my mother’s pet scans and to determine whether the spots on her liver and spine were cancerous.  And I wondered how I would find the strength to move forward if the worst happened.  And one of the greatest sources of comfort for me was seeing how much my son had been impacted by her.  How like her he is kind and generous.   And I knew that each time I looked at him I would see the light which shines in my mother continue to shine in him.

While I do not know what happens at our death, I do believe that we emanate from the Divine and at the time of our death we in some way return to be in that Divine presence.  While we may not ride in a flaming chariot, I also do not believe that we pass into nonexistence when we die.  The love we shared is not annihilated.  And because they abide in the Divine and the Divine abides with us, I believe they remain very much present with us.

Later in our service, as we name those we have lost, may it serve as a reminder of their continued presence with us.  May it serve as a reminder that their light continues to shine through us.  And may it also serve as a challenge for us to carry forward the light of the Divine which shined through them.