A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
With All the Saints
November 7, 2019
Last weekend the Presbyterian Association of Musicians hosted a workshop on the newly revised Book of Common Worship, led by its editor, David Gambrell. David began with a question that took a while to elicit answers: “Why do we gather each week for worship?” In the eventual answers two themes prevailed: 1. To prepare us for mission in the world; and 2. To honor God rightly. Both answers are sound.
I would like to add a third: We gather to worship because it is impossible to live the Christian life on our own. Hebrews warns us against forsaking the assembly of saints, because it encourages and strengthens us to live as disciples of Jesus in a world that urges us to live for ourselves instead. (Hebrews 10:25) The writer follows this by rehearsing in chapter 11 a brief history of the great saints of Hebrew Scriptures, then follows by pointing out that this “great cloud of witnesses” fuels our own journey as those who seek to follow Christ. (Hebrews 12:1)
A few days ago the church celebrated “All Saints Day,” reminding us that all of us stand on the shoulders of others who have faithfully lived as God’s people. We learn from and walk in the ways of trailblazers in faith, as we seek our way forward facing the peculiar challenges of our own place and time.
The saints with whom we journey have tried every alternative pathway that leads nowhere, and in their company we who all are prone to wander are kept from stumbling and losing our way. Walking the journey with the saints saves us from all the ways in which we would go astray if we were traveling on our own.
Some of these saints who keep us moving in the right direction are seated right beside us. But many are not physically present to us. The most ancient of our companions are those whose stories we read in holy Scripture, the “cloud of witnesses” whose presence and voices we encounter whenever we open the Bible and read it together. All the better if our engagement with sacred text is led by those whose studies have enabled them to understand not just the bare texts, but the communities and cultures in which those saints lived. And better still if our interpretive guides are schooled in the rich heritage of how the faithful who have read those stories have understood and lived by them in the many places and times those texts have been read.
The help the saints provide us is two-fold. First, they encourage us forward in the way we should go. The “cloud of witnesses” is like the faithful of Heinz Field urging the Steelers forward to the end zone. They pump up the adrenaline necessary for pushing through in the face of formidable opposition.
Second, the saints urge us away from pitfalls that could so easily derail us. Like a crowd watching a quiz show in which a contestant is toying with an answer to a multiple-choice question, the audience shouts out its disapproval as the contestant floats a wrong answer. Critical to this assistance is that the cloud of witnesses has a broader perspective than we do. They see what we cannot.
This means I must choose my companions wisely, including those whose perspectives are different from mine, whom I need to warn me about hazards hidden to me in my blind spots. I need the full cloud of witnesses to accompany me on my journey, not just those who see things from my own perspective.
A couple of weeks ago we witnessed the uncomfortable scene of the president being roundly booed when his presence was publicly announced at a World Series baseball game. A report of that event noted, “Mr. Trump’s staff has long tried to shield him from events where he might be loudly booed or heckled.” The people with whom he gathers profoundly shape his sense of success in fulfilling his role as president of the entire country.
With whom do we join company when we gather to worship? Not just those in our pew, not just those who share our perspective, but the entirety of God’s people from all places and times. This is made tangible to us at the Lord’s Table, which is an earthly outpost of heaven’s table at which all the saints are seated.
All Saints Day reminds us that we need all those who walk the journey of faith in the God who is revealed to us first in the pages of Scripture, then consummately in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks be to God for all the saints who accompany us, urging us forward on the road to redemption, and steering us away from pathways of peril!
Yours in the company of all the saints,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister