Charlie Plumb was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He returned safely from 75 combat missions. But on his 76th flight, his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile.
Plumb ejected from the plane just in time, pulled his parachute, and drifted to the ground. He was captured and spent six years as a prisoner of war. He survived that ordeal, and became a motivational speaker, giving lectures on what he learned from his war experiences.
One day many years after his plane had been shot down, Plumb and his wife were in a restaurant in Kansas City, when a man approached him. “You’re Captain Plumb,” he said.
“Yes, I am,” Plumb replied.
“You flew jet fighters in Vietnam,” the man said. “You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war.”
“How in the world did you know all that?” Plumb asked in amazement.
“Because I packed your parachute,” the man answered.
Plumb was speechless. He staggered to his feet and held out his hand. The man grabbed it, pumped Plumb’s arm and said, “I guess it worked.”
“Yes sir, indeed it did,” Plumb replied.
Plumb didn’t get much sleep that night.
“I kept thinking about that man,” he writes in his autobiography. “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform – a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back and bell bottom trousers.
“I wondered how many times I might have passed him on board the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said “good morning,” “how are you,” or anything because you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.
“How many hours did he spend on that long wooden table in the bowels of that ship weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of those chutes?
“I could not have cared less…until one day my parachute came along and he packed it for me.”
Plumb now begins his speeches with these important questions: Who is packing your parachute? Who do you depend on? Who provides what you need to make it through the day?
Do you take them for granted? Do you even know who they are?
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day when we remember all the faithful saints who have gone before us and who live among us. Those who we know – our parents, grandparents, children, friends, teachers, mentors.
And those who we don’t – the unknown parachute packers who shape our lives in ways we may never even realize.
In a reflection on this day, former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori asks questions remarkably similar to those Charlie Plumb asks.
“What saints will you remember this year?” she asks. “It’s an occasion to remember all the faithful, whether we know their names or not.
“In your neighborhood, who is the saint who picks up the trash? Who looks out for the children on their way to and from school?
“Who looks after an elderly or frail neighbor, running errands or checking to be sure that person has what is needed? In your community, who labors on behalf of the voiceless?”
These are the people we remember on this day – not the superstars of the faith, those whose names are immortalized in scripture or who have their own day on the church calendar, but the millions of ordinary Christians, ordinary people, who quietly go about their lives in faithful service to God and their neighbors.
The word “saint” comes from the word “sanctus,” meaning holy. A saint is a holy one. Really, all of us are saints because all of us are made in the image of God, making all of us holy.
God’s love for each and every one of us makes us holy, makes us numbered among the saints.
On this All Saints’ Day we recognize those who have joined what St. Paul calls “the great cloud of witnesses,” the saints who are no longer physically with us, but who still are part of us. As we come to the altar for the Eucharist, we will remember the names of those saints who we still love, but see no longer.
All Saints’ Sunday is one of those times when the veil between this life and the next seems to be momentarily lifted, when we sense the presence of that great cloud of witnesses surrounding us at God’s table.
Scripture tells us something about that great cloud of witnesses. They come from every nation and tribe and people and language. They neither hunger, nor thirst, nor suffer nor cry because God has wiped away every tear. They feast at a banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines.
Today, as we gather at the altar to join in the feast of bread and wine, a foretaste of that heavenly banquet, we stand with those whom we love and miss, and remember and name today.
We do so knowing that this Eucharist joins us with all the saints. Those who are famous and those who are unknown. Those whom we remember with love and those of whom there is no memory.
All present with God, and with us in this holy communion.