Naming the Saints
by Rev. Scott Summerville
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth
Today is a day of names. We read the names of beloved Saints. Each name summons up the universe memory, an awareness of loss, love and pain. For every name there is a person and the story.
When I was a college student in my first semester in 1969, I would hitchhike every weekend, usually from Rhode Island to Poughkeepsie, where I had a friend. Some of the days were cold and rainy and it took longer to hitch a ride than other days, but back in those days hitchhiking was something the thing to do, and eventually somebody would pick you up. My hitchhiking days came to an abrupt end one afternoon a busy six lane expressway. We were zooming along busy traffic when the driver behind the car was riding in began honking his horn. This seemed to confuse the driver who had picked me up, so he stopped the car right there in the middle of the traffic, tires screeching and large trucks coming to a halt behind us and cars whizzing all around us. He got out of the car and walked back to ask the other driver what was the matter. I got out at the next available opportunity, and I never stuck out my thumb again.
That was 1969. Fast forward to the year 1981. I was now a seminary for several years and serving a church in Stamford, Connecticut. A message came across my desk from the senior pastor asking me to make a call at a local nursing home. I went to the home and looked up the person. He was not the typical nursing home guest. He was my age, almost exactly. He was the son of members of our congregation. He was seriously brain injured from an automobile accident. He had no short-term memory. He had certain memories from the past, but each moment seem to move into the next without leaving a trace. He could meet someone and not recognize them moments later when they entered his room. One time I want to see him and he was waiting in the lobby, he told me he had a date with a girl he had met. Then he said, “I hope she recognizes me because I don’t know what she looks like.”
I came to know more about this young man: he went to the same college I attended; he started his freshman year the same year, 1969, as I did. He hitchhiked on the weekends through New England, as I had. While riding in a car, that had picked him up, he was in a serious accident. After extensive surgery and slow recovery he survived, at least part of him survived. All those years since 1969 that I spent studying, figuring out my future, having romantic heartbreaks, falling in love, getting married, having a child, he had been institutionalized in this and state of permanent disorientation. I stayed in touch with him for a number of years, until he moved to another part of the state I moved to New York. A clergy friend of mine took over seeing him regularly and he had a connection with the local United Methodist Church. Until one day he disappeared from the facility. Months later, his remains were found; there was never any explanation for his death.
His name was Alan. He is one of the names on a list of Saints today. I confess I had not thought of him all year, since last year at this time. It seems he comes back to me whenever we have this All Saints remembrance.
There are such mixed and complex feelings in my heart when I think of Alan, in part because of the mystery surrounding his death, and in part because I have always thought that I could be he, and he could be I, or even in some sense that I am he, and he is I.
I often have observed with you how in our life as a congregation there is always a joy, and there is always sorrow; there is always celebration, and grief. Sometimes tragedy and joy come at us in a single moment. Yesterday I stood here and Mary Thombs sat at the organ console. The bridal party assembled at the altar rail. Two very dear people were joined in marriage, with tears of joy flowing from friends and family. Last month weeks ago I had received a call from the bride. She informed me that the father of her fiancé had died unexpectedly, suddenly. They were not certain then what this would mean for the wedding plans, but it was soon decided that plans that had been made would proceed.
So yesterday there was a seat reserved in the front pew for dad, and in the service sorrow and joy were woven together, and those traditional words of the wedding vows took on special meaning: “to love and to cherish, until we are part in by death.” This father’s name is not on the printed list of Saints to be read today, but I will include it in the reading of the names today.
Most of us have a concept of life – a concept of an ideal life from active, happy childhood – through the bumps and bruises of adolescence and young adulthood – into the fullness of work and activity in pleasure as an adult – and gently into old age, until, as the poet says, we “cannot see to see;” we close our eyes and we are done. When life is been full and rich and death has been gentle, we are able to rejoice and celebrate, and when the names of the beloved dead come to our lips, our hearts are filled with thankfulness and love. In our list of the Saints there are those who lived long and well and happy and died blessing every moment they had lived and every inch of earth they had touched, and even lived to delight in their children’s children’s children.
But as we know, life does not follow our ideal conceptions. The child dies before the parent. All those mortal ills that flesh is heir to come at us in their untimely way. Sometimes those who depart leave behind unsettled relationships, unfinished business. Even Jesus on the eve of his death, asked, “Abba – Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”
We read the names the Saints under the sign of the cross, at that place where love and suffering meet – at that place where joy and pain converge – at that place of deep memory where we find our grounding to face the future unafraid.
Above all, we speak these names in love – because above all, the cross is a sign of love: reconciling, forgiving, enduring, love, love that shall prevail beyond all our fears
and all our faults and all our troubles.
Grace and peace to you.