facebook Google + Instagram Twitter YouTube RSS News
United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Thankful for the Saints

Hebrews 12:1-2

Thankful for the Saints

Sunday November 6, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan E. Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port


During the month of November our worship theme will be Thanksgiving. Now you might imagine that Thanksgiving is just an American invention, celebrated on the last Thursday of November when people gorge on turkey, stuffing and pie. But Thanksgiving like most of our modern holidays has its roots in the Bible and in our faith tradition. So, when we come to the meal at the end of the month, it will be much more meaningful if we know the spiritual context for the holiday and are grounded in the Biblical perspectives on gratitude.

The great thing about the Bible is that it tells believable stories about people who grew up in real families- knew jealous siblings, demanding parents, harsh realities, even cruel conditions. Yet they found faith. Often as they matured they learned to be grateful – not just for the easy things in their lives but for life. They learned to bless the Lord in good times and bad. They learned to let go of resentments when things were not fair, and not to dwell on the injustice, but seek God’s kingdom. They learned how to walk on this earth with a light step by seeing the blessings all around them.

Let’s take a closer look at what the Bible tells us about thanksgiving.

In the first place, the Bible says, never forget the legacy you have been given of those who have gone before you. The legacy that matters is the faith they gave to you. Jacob inherited the faith of his father Isaac. King David inherited the faith of his great grandmother Ruth. The prophet Elisha owed so much to the faith of his mentor Elijah.

When Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy his affection is both tender and enthusiastic at once. “I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears I long to see you…I am reminded of your authentic faith which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I am sure that this faith is also inside you.”

            Our text today in the 12th chapter of Hebrews is preceded by a section in chapter 11 that recounts the heroes of Jewish history that persevered in passing on this remarkable tradition of belief in God. Paul recounts the debts we owe to those whose valiant faith is part of our tradition. By faith Moses’ parents hid him in a basket. By faith Moses led the slaves from Egypt. By faith a prostitute Rahab led the people into the promised land. By faith Samson gave his life to support this tradition. By faith took risks to change history for God’s sake.

Last weekend at my Installation as your new pastor our preacher Elizabeth Nordbbeck reminded us of the legacy of faith here. We owe so much to the faith of William Bradford who led a foolish mission to these shores, “lost his wife on the Mayflower, and almost lost his life in a bear trap accident.” He thought this venture a failure, “carving farms out of the wilderness”. Enormously grateful to the Wampanoag, he paid for seed and learned from them. But his faith was a legacy we cannot help but feel enormously grateful for.

I speak to a lot of families who are planning the memorial service for a loved one. When they come to my office to describe their parent or grandparent they speak admiringly of character and sacrifice. They recount times when their loved one tried not to burden others with their worries, or when they endured loneliness but failed to be defined by it, or the way they faced defeat but never let it defeat them.  There is something about death that distills the wine of life. In that moment most folks are grateful for the parts of their lives that lit the path for others, and shines still in our collective memory.

In the second place the Bible teaches us that the boundary between this world and the next is much more permeable than we know. Today’s sermon is entitled Thankful for the Saints. Now you might think that when I talk about the Saints I am referring to those men and women designated as Saints by the Roman Catholic Church. They are people of exemplary faith, consecrated by the pope after doctors have validated miracles of healing accomplished when people have prayed to them. They are people long-dead who bridge the gap between heaven and earth. 

But that is not what I mean by the word Saints. In the Protestant Church we refer to ordinary believers as saints.  The Apostle Paul started this when he wrote to the people in the church that he founded in Corinth, Greece or Rome Paul and called them saints. For us saints are not just exemplary folks who answer prayers from heaven. For us saints are people living and dead who think about their faith and the impact of their lives, people who try to let their light shine. When we pause to thank God for the saints we have known these are not people who move mountains that the pope can document, but people who changed the world as we know it.

Dr. Cynthia Taylor, an Episcopal priest from Georgia wrote a sermon about the saints in her life. She talked about her paternal grandfather. She has the Bible he used to teach Sunday School in Norfolk Virginia and the Old Donation Church. Apparently he lost it and it was left in a dusty pile in the church basement for years. At the age of 97  his full purpose was revealed and he entered into Life. She writes, “My grandfather was far from perfect. He had a quick temper and could be impatient and demanding. Short, stocky, he was a naval engineer who spent most of his life around ships and the sea.” All his life,…his handwriting was full of clean straight lines, the signature of someone who believed in rules and the purpose of life. They found his Bible in the church basement several years after his death, with a signature and date – September 21, 1930 and the church sent it to her.  “I remember him as a saint in my life, someone who illumined the presence of Jesus for me by his simple clear faith, that resembled his handwriting.”

We don’t know for sure who Paul was writing to in Hebrews but modern scholars think he was addressing early Christians sometimes after 77 AD. His audience may well have been people of faith who were scared and disillusioned after Rome had sacked the Temple in Jerusalem. That temple represented their hope and now it was gone.  They had lost friends and family to jail or crucifixion or the coliseum but even after all they suffered they never expected the Temple to get sacked. Not before Jesus came back to take them home to God. It sounds crazy to us now, but when the Romans came to Jerusalem and destroyed their precious place of faith leaving it in ruins and rubble it was easy to lose heart. Poets and mystics seem to see through the veil of life but those early Christians carried a clear understanding that although Jesus was dead the resurrected Christ was real and they felt surrounded by this fervent cloud of witnesses.

Finally, our hearts are full of gratitude because when we are aware of these saints, it brings out the best in us. They call our lives to holier purpose. Last week when Beth Nordbeck was preaching about William Bradford, she said he was standing right back there. Now one of my children pointed out to me that I was the only one who looked for him. No one else really imagined that they might see him if they looked in the corner. Now I know it was a dramatic touch, a rhetorical flourish to tell us Bradford was standing there, but I like the idea of him looking over our meeting house and all that goes on here. It keeps us honest and brave.

Paul’s words remind them that they are not alone. We stand on the shoulder of those who have gone before, those who still cheer them on from another room in God’s house. Those who lived this life in faith, not perfectly, but persistently trying to learn from their mistakes. Those in that cloud recognize our courage, applaud our highest ideals and root for our deepest affections. Like Bradford they stand in the narthex of life’s sanctuary, within whispering distance. 

I like the idea that the founders of this church, those sturdy abolitionists who formed this congregation in 1854 have not left us entirely. The idea that they stood up and were counted in the fight against slavery keeps us true to our own best values and ideals.

If we ever needed to be aware of a cloud of witnesses in this country it is now. More than ever, we need to remember the host of witnesses, heroes and heroine known and unknown. Ordinary folks who believed in democracy and gave their life’s breath to build communities governed by equal opportunity, good laws, and fair play. They made their way through lives that never made the public news but ran the race in obscurity or are known only by you and me. With hearty faith and earnest prayers they persevered.  We need to remember the sacrifices of immigrants who believed in democracy because they came from countries where tyranny was the order of the day, and the change of rule was never smooth. We need to recognize that our country was built on a Pilgrim faith, and that means something. We need to pray a prayer of gratitude for this host of witnesses who guide our lives and shape them still.



God of all blessings,

source of all life,

giver of all grace:


We thank you for the gift of life:

for the breath

that sustains life,

for the food of this earth

that nurtures life,

for the love of family and friends

without which there would be no life.


We thank you for the mystery of creation:

for the beauty

that the eye can see,

for the joy

that the ear may hear,

for the unknown

that we cannot behold filling the universe with wonder,

for the expanse of space

that draws us beyond the definitions of our selves.


We thank you for setting us in communities:

for families

who nurture our becoming,

for friends

who love us by choice,

for companions at work,

who share our burdens and daily tasks,

for strangers

who welcome us into their midst,

for people from other lands

who call us to grow in understanding,

for children

who lighten our moments with delight,

for the unborn,

who offer us hope for the future.


We thank you for this day:

for life

and one more day to love,

for opportunity

and one more day to work for justice and peace,

for neighbors

and one more person to love

and by whom be loved,

for your grace

and one more experience of your presence,

for your promise:

to be with us,

to be our God,

and to give salvation.


For these, and all blessings,

we give you thanks, eternal, loving God,

through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Posted: Sunday November 6, 2016