I sing a song of the saints of God: A Homily for All Saints’ Sunday

I love cemeteries; I have loved cemeteries for a very long time. The best ones are sacred places of beauty and repose, where one can wander and ponder the lives of those who lie buried. I suppose I first encountered the sacred power of graveyards when I visited the Jewish cemetery of the German town of Worms, which was established in the Middle Ages and chronicled the life and struggles of that community through the centuries to the Nazi period. But it was in New England where I come to love spending time in cemeteries. There were the colonial cemeteries in Boston and elsewhere, like Copps Hill, or Old North burial ground, the churchyard of St. Paul’s Newburyport, or the old burying ground in that same city. I could wander in them for hours, reading inscriptions of famous men and women, and of those who were known only to a few friends and family. I also liked to visit Mt. Auburn cemetery, said to be the first in America to be created as much as a beautiful landscape as for more utilitarian reasons.

Corrie and I have taken to walking in Forest Hills cemetery recently. In my mind, there may be no better place to spend a sunny fall afternoon than in such a place, as the sun begins to set and the rich colors of the leaves and the lengthening shadows create an ethereal light. Wandering in cemeteries has taken on new meaning for me since I’ve become a priest. Wandering in Forest Hills means encountering the graves of past members of Grace—the Vilases, Atwoods, Proudfits, and others who shaped this parish over the past hundred fifty years. But it also means passing by and remembering some of those I’ve ministered to and buried, just in this past year, Sara Bolz and Marian Holm, for example.

To walk among gravestones as a historian is one thing, to walk among them as a pastor and priest is something else altogether. As the former, I might have been interested in learning what I could about someone’s life and death, their family and to ponder what life was like when they lived. To walk among the graves of former members of Grace is to be drawn into their lives, not only as a spectator but as a participant to be drawn into the community of faith that spans life and death and the century and a half that this congregation has gathered here.

All Saints Sunday is an opportunity for us to reflect on the larger community to which we belong, a community that transcends the barriers of death and the grave and unites us, not only with those who have worshiped here, but with all those through time, who have been known as Christians. All Saints invites us to reflect on what it means to be the Body of Christ, the Church of Christ, united in earth and heaven. It also invites us to think about and remember those saints, great and small, famous and unknown, who have shaped our faith as a community and as individuals.

But there’s more to All Saints than commemorating the saints who have gone before us and served as models for our own faith. I’m not a cradle Episcopalian so I have no idea what it was like to grow up in this church; I have no real sense of how the church in previous decades sought to form children and young people as Episcopalian. I know we don’t do a particularly good job of it in the twenty-first century. Now and then, however, I catch a glimpse of what that formation might have been like for people who grew up in the Episcopal Church in the thirties or forties or fifties. Such glimpses usually come when I talk with people as they think about their deaths and their funeral services.

As likely as not, this was especially true in the South, one of the most requested hymns is the hymn we will sing at communion—“I sing a song of the saints of God.” It’s not one of my favorites. The tune is rather childish and the words are not particularly profound theologically. But when we sang it, it was often the case that many of the older people knew it by heart: especially the final, third verse:

You can meet them in school, or in planes, 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.

Now, we sophisticated twenty-first century Episcopalians might find such sentiments naïve, a bit old-fashioned or anglo-centric, but the fact of the matter is, there is truth here. I don’t mean primarily that we should all try to be or become saints. That’s certainly laudable. Rather, what I am urging us to think about is that we are, in some ways already saints. Just as we look to those who have gone before us as saints or models of the faith, we need to look around ourselves, even in the pews this morning, and think about how we are or could be, saints, to others.

We tend to think of our spiritual journeys as individual things—about ourselves alone and God—but that’s a profoundly un-Christian way of thinking. All Saints reminds us first and foremost that we are members of a community of faith, the congregation with which we gather but also the community that transcends space and time. But there’s something even more important about All Saints. It is this: just as we are not alone in our faith journey but supported by those who have gone before and those walk with us, so too we are called to support, to be saints to those with whom we journey. All Saints calls us to community and in community. We experience that community incompletely and imperfectly, both as we gather together weekly and as we ponder the communion of all saints. Nonetheless as we go from this place to our separate lives and walk through our weeks, let us rejoice that we walk not alone with God, but that we are accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses. Thanks be to God!

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