For All the Saints

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 4, 2021

For All the Saints

Each year at our September meeting, our presbytery celebrates the saints of our number who have been promoted to their eternal habitation over the past year. The church as a whole has done the same traditionally on “All Saints’ Day,” November 1. Many of our congregations will observe this day this coming Sunday. Today I invite us to consider three of the saints of outsize influence on our presbytery, who departed our company between presbytery’s September meeting and All Saints’ Day: Jean Kennedy, Justin Johnson, and Hill Jordan.

All three were larger-than-life Black leaders in the Presbyterian Church, yet their lives were profoundly different. Jean made her mark in physical and spiritual health care, with professional training in both nursing and theology. Justin was a tower in the legal community, both as an attorney and as judge for the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Hill was a leading figure in Pittsburgh’s historic vibrant jazz world. As diverse as their lives were, they were united in following Jesus as their Savior, and in serving his body in its Presbyterian expression.

Jean and Justin both served as Moderators of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Jean was on staff at the presbytery for many years, and Justin was a long-time member of the presbytery’s Board of Directors. Both had retired from active professional life yet remained deeply involved in their church and civic communities. Hill was still very active professionally and served currently on presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. He was one of our presbytery’s commissioners to the last in-person General Assembly in St. Louis, where among other things he reported to the plenary Assembly on the progress of our Freedom Rising initiative, and he played in the Assembly’s plenary praise band.

In one of his recent Facebook posts, Hill expressed pleasure that “I played my first REAL Pittsburgh Funeral parade” on September 6. He was always out and about in the neighborhood, a one-person ambassador of joy, love, and peace. Hill and I bonded over our shared love of music, delighting in playing gospel and jazz music together several times. We talked off and on about doing a recording project together. That will have to wait until we find a studio in heaven that is ready to work with us.

It was also during this month of great losses that I marked the first anniversary of my father’s passing. Seven years ago I wrote in this space a tribute to Dad for “Pastor Appreciation Month,” since in so many ways Dad was the classic good and faithful pastor. Several months earlier my mother had preceded him in death. Death has been very near and present to our family in 2020-21, as it has to the families that grieve losing more than 5 million loved ones worldwide to the ravages of COVID-19.

Christians trust that death is no more the final word in our story than it was in Jesus’ story. This is why, in our Book of Common Worship, the funeral is called a service of “Witness to the Resurrection.” Paul reminds us that in Christ, our grief over losing our beloved ones to death is tempered and transformed by our hope in the resurrection. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

We have been exploring recently what our Book of Order calls the “notes” of the authentic church. (F-1.0303) In earlier posts I discussed the first of these three notes, namely that the Word is sincerely preached and heard. The second is that the sacraments are rightly administered. For John Calvin, that meant that they were administered “according to Christ’s institution.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.9)

The Gospels relate many instances of Jesus at table with friends and critics alike. He also tells several stories about banquets, both earthly and heavenly. It was when they sat down at the table that the disciples in Emmaus recognized the risen Jesus. Jesus’ table stories joined together the living and the dead into a single congregation of saints at God’s banquet. At the Lord’s Table, the lines between heaven and earth evaporate. Jesus makes the point that in God’s realm, the ancient patriarchs are still alive. (Matthew 22:32)

Let us rejoice in the communion of saints, from both sides of death’s vale, forever united in Christ. “I know that my redeemer lives!” Job exulted in ancient poetic utterance. We who belong to Christ echo, “I know that the redeemed also live!”

As we mark “All Saints Day,” let it be with the conviction that those whom we have lost in our earthly journey are still united with us in a single fellowship, a single joy divine, all “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” – a gospel song that Hill and I played together with gusto in New Orleans jazz/blues fashion. Until we play together again, God be with you, my brother – see you soon!

With resurrection hope,

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