All Saints Sunday

The Rev. Roger Bowen

 

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer.

On a warm, grey November day like this one, back in 1969 I was a newly minted, 25 year old, rookie priest sitting on a parishioner’s threadbare sofa in a run down apartment in Wheeling, West Virginia . That was 48 years ago; but I clearly remember two grieving parishioners’ musty living room, and sitting on that old couch next to my mentor priest, the distinguished, white haired, Peyton Williams. He was the rector, I was the assistant … and I mostly just observed while he quietly comforted those tearful, young adults. They had lost their parents.  While we talked, Peyton wrote a prayer on a scrap of paper, and then left it [for them] on a side table as we departed. Here’s the prayer:

We seem to give them back to you, O Lord, who gavest them to us.  But, as you did not lose them in giving, so have we not lost them in their return. Not as the world gives, givest Thou, O Lover of Soul.  For what is yours is ours always, as we are yours, and life is eternal, and love is immortal and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. So, lift us up, strong Son of God, so that we might see further. Cleanse our eyes that we might see more clearly. Draw us closer to you, so that we might know ourselves closer to our beloved, bound together by our love, in the company of the Holy Spirit, in the fellowship of the saints… and all the company of heaven. Amen.

“All the company of heaven.” I believe that means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them, or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. “All the company of heaven” means everybody who ever did – or at some unknown time in the future ever will –  come together at something like that table over there in search of something like what is offered there.

Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we also come to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with saints Gabriel and Michael, and Fr. John Hindman – our first rector back in 1746, and Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth didn’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy … we are the communion of saints, the fellowship of saints. “ 1. Fred Buechner, one time chaplain up at Exeter, said most of that.

So, there are saints, known and unknown … and the example of their lives show us how to live, and how to hope for the joys of the age to come.

Speaking of joy, did you listen as you prayed the collect today? ….  the lovely Collect for All Saints:  Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and Godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…

That is one of the great SAT vocabulary-building collects! … because how often do you get to use the word “ineffable”?  It’s a terrific little adjective, though – it means joy so complete, so immense that you can’t find any way to describe it!  By simply following the saints in virtuous and Godly living, we can find that we truly love God and so know ourselves to be invited to live in the Kingdom of God, where the joy is … ineffable!  

Those great saints we follow were virtuous and godly, but they were not perfect, and their imperfections often promoted their superstar status… their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.  When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by “seven devils,” that Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity, but not now,” that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar… when you consider them, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, maybe even us!

So, great saints are the great heroes of faith. And some of their names are written in our calendar, but most, really, are not, though they are all written in the book of life. Christianity is what it is because of these people.  They were witnesses in their generation to the transforming power of Christ.

In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints. Fred Buechner again.

And yet, there is no question that the earliest definition of the word saint is every believer. But, as you know, a feast day is appointed for the great saints, on November 1st, [for us, Stauntonians who happen to live on Sherwood Avenue – that’s the day after the great All Hallow’s Eve -Halloween invasion – 1300 ‘trick or treaters’ this year… a record, I think] – and then, the day following All Saints Day is a remembrance of All Souls, of every departed person united to Christ by faith and baptism – and how true and honest and real this is because there have been millions of saints who trudged along humbly beneath immense loads, sharing their mercy and cheer and song and food and drink and courage and hope with everyone they met.

Our churches, though, often conflate these two days [All Saints and All Souls] on the Sunday following All Saints… like today. In some parishes, the emphasis is clearly in the direction of All Souls, including the tradition of reading a long list of the faithful departed before offering the Eucharistic prayer. We pray for all those who have gone back to God from where they came – all the billions of human beings who strove and struggled and soared or sank – all of them our brothers and sisters – all of them our team mates on our journey toward the Light. 3.

Those prayers for the dead are a kind of protest, really – they’re a refusal by God’s grace to consign our loved ones to nothingness. We hold them up to God with all our love; we imagine them in a great multitude, among nations and tribes, people and languages, maybe even robed and victorious. We believe or hope that hunger and thirst are no more; we have the image that  – they walk along springs of living water, and God wipes the tears from their eyes. And from ours.

To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy… ineffable joy.

They lived not only in ages past.

There are hundreds of thousands still

The world is bright with the joyous saints

Who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea

In church or in trains, or in shops or at tea,

For the saints of God are just folk like me

And I mean to be one too. 4.

And, all the people said “Amen.”

Amen!

  1. Fred Buechner, Wishful Thinking
  2. Editorial in the Living Church
  3. Brian Doyle, The Book of Uncommon Prayer
  4. The Hymnal, 1982, hymn # 293

Comments

  1. Helen Hartt says:

    So thankful to read your sermon. I work part time for HomeInstead Senior Care and had to work Sunday.

    Blessings, Helen Hartt

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