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Devotion: All Saints

Joseph Crippen, a tenor with the NLC, and also a pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, shared this devotion before our All Saints concert on Sunday, November 3, 2013.

All Saints at Mount Olive is a holy day like no other.  We have, of course, other high holy days – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, others – but there is something beautiful and holy about All Saints at Mount Olive that is its own joy and peace.  This morning, as I looked out into the congregation I saw the smiling face of David Cherwien, and it was good; it’s felt like a long time he’s been on sabbatical.  He has respected that sabbatical and he’s respected Bill, who’s filling in while he’s gone, and stayed away.  But when I spoke to him after the liturgy, what he said was, “There was nowhere else I could think of where I’d rather be than here today.”  I completely understand.

This morning at Mount Olive, as I’m sure was true in your congregations for those of you who made it to church this morning, we named the names of those sisters and brothers who had died this past year.  And we proclaimed the promise that they, and we, live in the hope of God’s unshakeable love for us that transcends death.

As we read the names I had the same odd feeling I have every year, that I know there will be people in this nave for worship today who will be on our list for prayer next year, and I wonder who they might be.  Not in a strange, predictive way, like, “it will probably be that person.”  But in a reflective and awe-filled way, that this God in whom we trust holds both past and future for us, that we, like those who have gone before and those who will come after, we all will be on someone’s list some year, and that All Saints reminds us of that truth, and that trust that we are in the hands of the eternal and life-giving God who made us and saves us and keeps us in life.

I’ve been reflecting on what it is we do as the National Lutheran Choir.  It occurs to me that our All Saints tradition, this worship we do each year, is perhaps the closest thing we do to our core mission, at least for me.  What we did at Mount Olive today is in many ways exactly what we do as the National Lutheran Choir in our All Saints program.  And in the very same way there are people who will be here today for the very reason David came to church this morning, because there’s nowhere else they could think of where they want to be but here.  Because this is a holy place and holy things we are doing.

I know we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to other choirs, but this much we can say: unlike any other choirs of our level of professionalism and skill, what is unique about us in this community is our mission, a mission that this concert this day proclaims fully.  Today we sing with all the best we can bring to honor the pain and loss and death we all experience in this world, and the pain and loss of those who come here today.  And yet our mission is ultimately to proclaim to them, to us, the hope in the truth that those whom we have lost are in God’s hands always, always.  Always.  Now and forever.  That’s our mission.  That’s what we get to sing.

I know there are a few Cobbers here, and I have to say that I’m becoming very grateful for Concordia College, Moorhead, and the wonderful teachers there who are opening up a new world for my Rachel, in her first year.  She’s finding that typical freshman joy of having her mind blown open to new possibilities all the time, and she’s reveling in it.  She’s been especially blessed by the interfaith group she’s in, and the possibilities of interfaith relationships in the world.  One of the things she learned that she shared with me is that the Arabic word for human being means “the one who forgets.”  For the Hebrews, the word for human being comes from the word for earth, for dirt, the “people made of the earth.”  For the Arabs, humans are the ones who forget.  I love that image.  And it’s directly tied to what we do here today.  We sing today, we make music so that we and those who come here don’t forget, and we do this to proclaim the One who never forgets, so no one ultimately is ever lost, ever forgotten by God.

This flows throughout our song today.  We sing of the pain of life, the bent and broken bodies, the reality that it’s always “too short a time” we have with those we love who die, the pain of “City of Heaven.”  That song, “City of Heaven,” might be the most painful song we sing today for me: his mother has died, his father “walks in sin,” his brothers and sisters reject him, because he’s seeking heaven as a relief from the tossed, troubled life he lives.  We sing so we, and they, don’t forget this truth of the world.

But there is a “City called Heaven” in that song, isn’t there, and that’s the singer’s hope, isn’t it?  He’s even realizing that he can “start to make it” home even now, not just as a future reality.  There is “lux aeterna,” light eternal, and a reality that we can pray “requiem aeternam dona eis Domine,” grant them eternal rest, Lord, and it will be heard by the Lord who destroys death forever.  And “Peace Like a River”: well, I’ve never liked that song much.  It’s always felt too simplistic and as if it didn’t say much.  But what this composer has done to it is transforming for me, and has given me a new birth of appreciation for it.  So while you women are singing so powerfully and painfully “I’ve got pain like an arrow in my soul,” pulling us into the pain, singing the searing truth, we tenors are standing behind you through that whole verse, repeating again and again and again, “let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  Let not your hearts be troubled . . .”  In the pain you sing, we become a lifeline of hope that never changes.  And then when the altos – God bless you altos – when the altos next so richly sing “I’ve got peace like a river,” the sopranos – God bless you sopranos – beautifully sing above it, “My peace I give unto you” again and again.  This is not some vague, unspecified peace.  Jesus himself gives it, “my peace I give unto you,” and the sopranos keep reminding all of that.  And to bring it fully home then the sopranos and tenors both add, “not as the world giveth peace.”  That’s why we’re here as a choir, to give that truth, that hope, in the midst of a world of pain and fear.

This is the hope that centers whatever we sing, and in the way music works in hearts and souls, it is able to name that all this we proclaim is, at its heart, mystery.  I’m so grateful, Sarah, for your bringing Elsa to us last night in your devotions, because her presence in that story is deep, abiding mystery, and yet it is absolutely true.  We are all in God’s hands, and I was so glad to have Elsa with us last night, and she and so many others will be with us today as well.  How this works, that’s mystery.  That it is true, that God makes it work, that we proclaim.

This is the mystery, then: there is loss . . . but we are not lost.  There is much unknown . . . but we are known by God forever.  There is death . . . but really it is life in God’s heart always.

This is why I think that the Rachmaninoff we are singing actually puts this all together for me.  Unlike Latin, or even German (which I’ve studied), where I know the texts well enough that I can always get a sense of why the music is written to fit the words, I know no Russian.  Which means all the Russian we’ve done these past few years has been a little removed, and distant, just sounds.  So I’ve been taking the time each time we sing Russian to keep looking at the English, so I know what we’re actually about, and what the music’s doing.  And it turns out that the part that Craig has been telling us is the musical center of this piece, the two times we sing the word “Táynam”, that word means “mysteries.”  What we’re singing is praise to God because God has made us “worthy to partake” in these “holy, divine Mysteries.”  Mystery is what we sing, yet anchored in the trust in the God who makes these mysteries real in us and bears the truth behind them.

Which leads to the tenor line we get to sing.  A few years ago when we sang a Rachmaninoff piece at the Basilica, I was envious of you basses for that powerful line you got to sing which started low and ratcheted up to a glorious light.  Well, we got our line in this piece.  But what I’ve learned over these past weeks is what we’re actually singing: “Keep us in thy holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon thy Righteousness.”  Or “thy Truth,” since it’s “pravde.”

That’s our All Saints gift every year, a gift we get to treasure and share, a gift of song we make because we are the people who forget but who belong to the unforgetting God: the gift that we gather today in God’s holiness and meditate upon God’s truth, God’s life, that holds those whom we love, that holds all things in light and grace for all time.

For our prayer, let us pray with the words of the Rachmaninoff.

The Lord be with you.

“Let our mouths be filled with thy praise, O Lord, that we may sing of thy glory; for thou hast made us worthy to partake of thy holy, divine, immortal, and life-creating Mysteries.

“Keep us in thy holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon thy Righteousness.  Alleluia.  Alleluia. Alleluia.”  Amen