A Cloud of Witnesses
November 6, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17 Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

This morning, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, by people who have gone before us in life and in faith. We each have saints whom we remember for the way they touched our lives, who are personal to us. We also have saints we remember as a community, as a family of faith. These saints are our parents and grandparents in faith, showing us the way and encouraging us as we struggle to be a church, to be a part of Christ’s body in this time and place. Some we remember for their ability to pray fiercely, others for their hugs and always-warm greetings, some we remember for their quiet presence, and still others for the way they goaded us on to think deeper and harder and challenged us to become more than we were already. In a few moments, you will have an opportunity to speak about someone who is held in your heart in a special way.
Our reading from Revelation this morning reminds us of the joy and celebration of all of those who have made their way through life and arrived in God’s presence. They are sheltered and fed and protected in all ways necessary and imaginable. Our Hebrew scripture text draws us into the culmination of the story of exodus that we have been following for several weeks now. As they enter into the land long promised to them, the people are invited to make their choice; will they serve Yahweh or not? Joshua warns them that this is not a decision to be made lightly, but rather one they should consider very carefully. Yahweh is a jealous God, so a decision to follow him means that everything else must be let go. No other gods will be tolerated. One’s whole heart needs to be involved in both the initial choice and in the living out of that choice forever afterward.
The life of faith is not an easy one for any of us. Following God is not for the faint-hearted because it demands everything of us. It is not a journey that is meant to be taken alone, either. While there is plenty we can do on our own, including prayer, contemplation and fasting, yet the core of this faith is that it is communal. It is meant to be shared and lived together, supported by one another. Joshua knew this when he offered the choice to the people. This is why this was a public event, so that the people could hear one another’s vows of fidelity, so that they could look into one another’s eyes and offer the support and encouragement that each of them needed for that moment, and the promise of continued support and encouragement along the rest of the journey. We are in a similar situation to the Hebrew people of old. It has not gotten any easier to follow God, despite the resources at our disposal. We still need accompaniment on the way. The old Celtic tradition of the Anam Cara responds to this need perfectly. Anam cara is Gaelic for “soul friend,” referring to a tradition that arose in the convents and monasteries of Ireland and Scotland. The anam cara was a lifelong platonic friend and spiritual guide who acted as a counselor and confessor and eventually even read the last rites of the deceased. As time went on, the idea became popular with the laity, who would have such a relationship with a member of the clergy. The soul friend became indispensable to Celtic Christians; the anam cara was not simply a friend, but a soulmate who was one's connection to God. A ninth century story of St. Brigid of Kildare, recounted in the Martyrology of Oengus, speaks of the importance of the soul friend: A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster son of Brigid's, used to come to her with wishes. He was with her in the refectory, to partake of food. Once after coming to communion she struck a clapper. “Well, young cleric there,” said Brigid, “hast thou a soul friend?” “I have,” replied the young cleric. “Let us sing his requiem,” said Brigid, “for he has died. I saw when half thy portion had gone, that thy quota was put into thy trunk, and thou without any head on thee, for thy soul-friend died, and anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head; and eat no more till thou gettest a soul friend.” (from Jennifer Emick on Netplaces.com)
I imagine that some of the people we will light our candles for today were soul friends to us, helping us along our life journey in one way or another. Perhaps the person you are thinking of helped you grow in faith, or maybe their influence was in the more secular aspects of your life, but in some way they touched your heart and today is a good day to honor them. (I invite you to come up and speak of someone who was significant in your life and light a candle for them. You can just say their name, or feel free to say more if you would like.)


Remembering the Saints on All Saints Day
Rev. Nathan Decker

We who walked in the darkness of doubt;
Darkest and deepest
down,
down
down…
We who sought to catch just a moment of your presence;
Chasing the wind, gasping for air, drowning, 
 down,
 down,
 down…
You, Lord, have called us:
Voices and grandfathered whispers off yellowed pages,
Guides in the desert, faceless faith still being shared, 
 Up,
 Up,
 Up…
You, Lord, have lifted us up by your hand:
Wrinkled strong hands of grandmother's grace,
Quiet prayers spoken, lifting us up from despair,
Up,
 Up,
 Up…
You, Lord, have shown us light:
The light of a million candles sharing their faith.
The light of saints past,
the living tradition of the redeemed,
the resurrection retelling,
the passing of this flame from generation to generation.
We Remember,
We Remember,
We Remember, and 
because of you in them, we walk in the candlelight of Christ.

About the Author: The Rev. Nathan Decker is the pastor of the Cheriton Charge on the Eastern Shore District and a clergy member of the Virginia Annual Conference. His great love is the diversity and inspiration of God's creative nature in worship. Used by permission, General Board of Discipleship, UMC.