With All the Saints
With All the Saints
This week marks the church’s annual festival of “All Saints” – something we are far less likely to note than “All Hallows Eve” the night before, which has become one of the major occasions for revelry worldwide. While it may seem like innocent fun, it can be otherwise. Our hearts ache with the loved ones of the more than 150 young people killed last weekend in a Halloween party stampede in Seoul, Korea.
Halloween coincidentally falls on the same date as Reformation Day, when Martin Luther is said to have posted his ninety-five theses on church financing practices on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Luther did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church, and did not intend for his theses to spark a revolt. His protest was very specific, directed against the way the church was raising money. It’s not so different today – church disputes over money can still lead to church splits.
This is not to diminish the significance of Luther’s complaint (it was in fact more about the theology behind the fundraising than about the money itself) – but far too often we become more fixated on money than on the saints. We are willing to break bonds of fellowship if we don’t like how the church’s money gets raised or spent.
All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are all bound together across space and time as the one people redeemed by one Lord to constitute one Body with one mission. When we let money, or any other concern, cause us to break fellowship with one another, we are moving in the opposite direction from the Holy Spirit’s work.
The Westminster Confession reminds us pointedly, “By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit all believers being vitally united to Christ, who is the Head, are thus united to one another in the Church, which is his body.” (Book of Confessions 6.054) If we are united to Christ, we are inescapably united to each other.
The great biblical symbol of the gathering of all the saints is the heavenly banquet, something Jesus mentions often. At the heavenly banquet, he says, earthly hierarchies are overturned, everyone is at the same level. The Lord’s Table at which we gather is our end of heaven’s banquet table.
Presbyterians know something about banquets. We call them church dinners, and usually they are potluck affairs. Guests come free, but members are expected to contribute. In the congregations I served, many of the contributors had perfected their particular dish, bringing it every time, to everyone’s delight. As a pastor, I loved watching those who had lovingly prepared their contribution delighting in the way others enjoyed their food. My main problem was that I felt it was a pastoral obligation to sample everyone’s offering, and I went home overstuffed.
Nobody is excluded from the church’s banquet. Jesus includes even those who intend him evil in the Passover banquet he shares with his disciples. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter what you believe, how you earn a living, who you hang out with, or what you look like. All the saints belong, no exceptions.
The banqueting saints are expected not only to consume, but to contribute. Guests pay nothing, but members don’t come empty-handed. They are expected to bring their offering to the table, to be sure, but like the potluck pros they find great joy in bringing the best they can. God especially loves those who bring their gifts cheerfully, Paul says.
If September was, for the church, “program launch month” and October was “leader appreciation month,” November is often “stewardship development month.” Pastors sometimes hesitate to talk about stewardship lest it be taken as drumming up money to support their own livelihood. But if giving is a cheerful thing, the pastor need not worry.
Individuals who belong to the company of saints ought to find joy in giving cheerfully and generously. My mother found great delight in bringing enough to dinner that there were always leftovers – and sometimes the food was even tastier the second time around! Generosity and joy go hand in glove in giving.
Just as individuals express their solidarity with all the saints by bringing their gifts with them to their congregation’s banquet, so congregations do with the rest of the church by contributing joyfully to the regional banquet at which they gather. For Presbyterians, one way to get in on that joy is by gladly giving their per capita request to enable the work of their church’s governing bodies.[i] That is just a starting point for giving, not its final goal. Guests, such as New Worshiping Communities, need not pay. But for abiding members of the wider fellowship, giving is expected. To be sure, they will be welcome at the table regardless of whether they bring to it their share; but they’ll miss out on the joy that could be theirs were they all in.
We give not because of what we can get for our dollar, or because it is demanded of us. We give out of the joy of being part of the great company of all the saints.
Yours in the joy of sharing at the Table,
[i] For more information on how our per capita giving works, please see our presbytery’s per capita guide posted here