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"Remembering Who and Whose You Are"
This past week as I was thinking about All Saints' Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of the small Romanian village of Sapanta. In this small village there is an unusual cemetery called the Merry Cemetery. Now, what makes this cemetery so unusual is it attracts more tourists than it does mourners. In fact, busloads of tourists visit the Merry Cemetery every year. And they walk through the narrow paths to see and read the more than 600 wooden crosses that capture the wit, work and daily life of a rugged and traditional Romanian peasant. Everyone from the local barber, to the lumberjack, to the shepherd, to the butcher, to the village drunk are immortalized through the carved and brightly painted pictures and sometimes witty epitaphs that make up the cemetery. In fact, Anthony Bourdain visited this cemetery in his popular television show No Reservation when he was in Romania.
While the epitaphs in Merry Cemetery are somewhat amusing, we are reminded that an epitaph is a brief literary piece that commemorates the life of a deceased person. An epitaph serves a legacy – that person’s last words, if you will.
I will never forget an article that I heard on NPR that talked about how some cemeteries are offering QRCs for tombstones. The QRC or Quick Response Code is a small encrypted code and you scan them with an app on your phone which will then download the encryption. These QRCs on tombstones allow people to include their obituaries or other more lengthier epitaphs on their tombstones.
Someone once wrote, "You are writing your epitaph now." How true that is! What we do and say now will ultimately be what people will remember us by when we are gone.
Within the Church, November 1, is All Saints' Day and since it doesn’t always fall on a Sunday a lot of churches will celebrate All Saints' Day on the closest Sunday. All Saints' Day evolved around the eighth century C.E. The Church seeking to purge the pagan traditions of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, set aside All Hallows Eve, which is where we get the word "Halloween" from and All Hallows Day or All Saint’s Day as an opportunity to remember the dead and celebrate the lives of the saints. It is a time when we look to the faithful saints who have helped shape and impact our lives, and seek to model our lives after them. It is a time when we are to remember that we are all called to be God’s faithful saints.
Our Scripture Lesson this morning from the Book of Psalms, chapter 139 is a very personal psalm. It is one my favorite psalms. Here the Psalmist expresses his awe over the fact that God not only knows him personally, but also intimately.
This psalm expresses what is known in theology as the three O’s of God. Within this chapter, the Psalmist expresses the Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence of God.
First of all, the Psalmist speaks of the Omniscience of God – that is to say "the awareness of God" in verses 1 through 6.
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down. You are familiar with all my ways.”
Here is a picture of a personal God – a God who is real and active, involved in our lives. One who knows us, loves us, and is concerned about us. Now, I don’t know about you, but I need to hear these words from time to time. Because sometimes this couldn't feel further from the truth to me. Oftentimes, I feel as though God could not be farther from me. I feel as though God isn’t concerned about me, or what is going on in my life. I feel as though God doesn’t hear my prayers or even pleas for mercy. But these words assure us otherwise and give us comfort. When I feel this way, I must remind myself of these words "you have searched me, O LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down. You are familiar with all my ways." And, what's more, I must have faith and trust these words.
Second, the Psalmist speaks of the Omnipresence of God - that is to say, the all encompassing presence of God in verses 7 through 12. This is what John Wesley meant when he described God and God's grace as "prevenient" - a grace that goes before us. But this presence and grace does more than just go before us, it comes full circle and is also behind us.
I don’t know about you, but I need someone to walk not only in front of me, but also behind me sometimes. The other day, I went hiking with my kids. And there were some places on the trail that were rocky, slippery from the fall leaves and I was careful to make sure that I had someone in front of them and someone behind them. In my own spiritual hike, I need God not only in front of me, who is "familiar with all my ways" but also behind me to catch me if I begin to fall or perhaps even nudge me forward if I begin to get tired or start to lag behind.
Listen again to what the Psalmist says in verse 7, “Where can I go from your Spirit?" The Ruach or Spirit is a concept in Hebrew that describes God's Spirit as the wind that is ever present and is all around us. And the Psalmist goes on to say in verse 7, “Where can I flee from your presence?” This word "presence" here in Hebrew literally means, "face". The Greek concept of God's Spirit is parakletos, which literally means "One who walks along side" or "beside". So, not only does God walk in front of us and behind us, but also beside us. What a beautiful thought!
And finally, the Psalmist speaks of the Omnipotence of God - that is to say the power of God in verse 13 through 18. In verse 17 we read, “How precious to me are your thoughts.” This is a beautiful verse especially on this All Saints' Sunday. The Psalmist is calling to mind – remembering God’s thoughts.
This idea of calling to mind, recalling or remembrance is an important concept in Judeo-Christianity. In fact, in the First Testament, the Hebrew word zakar, “to remember” appears more than one 160 times. This was the purpose of all of the Jewish feast, festivals, rituals and traditions.
In verse 17, the Psalmist is saying "How precious to me are your thoughts." In essence, the Psalmist is saying as we sang a little bit ago “precious memories.”
I think the Psalmist is reminding us to remember who we are, by remembering whose we are. And certainly this is the reminder of All Saints' Sunday. You see, I don't think we can remember "who" we are until we first remember "whose" we are.
The Psalmist reminds us that it is in knowing that God knows us, searches us and loves us; walks with us and empowers us that we know who we are.
Oftentimes, we are tempted at considering who we are, without considering whose we are. And in doing so, we often times see our imperfections, our brokenness, and our weaknesses. And we feel as though we are unworthy. But we are children of God - we are unique, gifted and diverse. You see, we could all have a place in Merry Cemetery. We all have a vice, we all have imperfections.
I read once that a chemist once analyzed the composition of the human body and concluded that the average person has enough fat to make seven bars of soap, enough iron to make a medium-sized nail, enough lime to whitewash a small building, enough phosphorus to make 2,200 match tips, enough magnesium for a single dose of Milk of Magnesia, enough potassium to explode a toy cap gun, and there’s a little sulphur thrown in there. The chemist concluded that our net worth is around $10.00. That's it - $10.00!
As the writer of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms reminds us, we are "dust and ashes". As James reminds us, "we are but a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes". And, as Paul reminds us, "outwardly we are wasting away." But we are more than dust and ashes. We are more than a vapor that appears for a little while. And we are more than a vessel that is wasting away. We are more than clay. We are a children of God. Created by God and God has breathed into us the breath of life - God's very Spirit.
I love how Paul describes us in II Corinthians chapter 4, as earthen vessels, literally ostrakinos skeuos in the Greek, which is to say, old, dirty, dusty, broken, clay pots. Now, you may not like that description. But Paul reminds us that "we have this treasure in clay pots." In ancient times people would often hide their most valuable treasures in clay pots. Within us, is a treasure - the Spirit of God. And we are to allow this treasure to shine through us!
Yes, we are cracked. Yes, we are marred. Yes, we are broken and dirty and dusty. But our imperfections and brokenness are a means through which God can allow God’s light and grace to shine through us. I mean, after all, if a vessel isn't broken, the light cannot shine through it. It is through our brokenness, our weaknesses and cracks that we are able to relate to others; to share our story and experience God's love and grace.
In the uncanonized Gospel of Thomas, the gospel begins with the words, "The kingdom of God is within you!" This is what Paul meant in II Corinthians 4 when he said, "We have this treasure in clay jars..."
Who are we? Well, that is answered by whose we are. We are God's! We are kingdom people! We are God's saints! How can this be?
The Psalmist tells us in our Scripture Lesson this morning. We are saints because God knows us personally and loves us! We are saints because God is with us! And we are saints because God has empowered us. We are God's saints!
Here is the episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain travels to Romania. You can watch where he visits Merry Cemetery.