The Episcopal Church I first attended regularly was St. Paul’s, Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was constructed in the early 20th century, on the site of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire. As was the custom in England, and in many colonial towns, St. Paul’s churchyard was also a graveyard. To enter the building, you walked along a sidewalk that cut through a jumble of old headstones, some of which dated back to the late 18th century. It was a reminder of the church’s history, of all those who had worshiped there over the centuries.
Although Grace is more than 150 years old, we don’t have gravestones like that to remind us of the people who sat in these very pews over the years. We do have a columbarium, where the ashes of members and loved ones going back to the 1980s rest. Last week, I spent an hour in the columbarium, dealing with some administrative details. As I worked, I read the names on the urns, remembering as I did those I had known, their faithfulness and commitment, the stories they loved to tell, the times we shared together. It was a holy moment that reminded me we are not just a congregation of people who gather on Sunday in 2019, but that we are communion with those who have gone before us, whose faithfulness and commitment continue to sustain us in many ways.
Today we are observing All Saints’ Sunday, which really wouldn’t be a thing, except for the fact that All Saints’ Day is November 1. Although it’s one of the major feast days of the Church, we don’t typically have a Eucharist on that day. So we move its observance to the Sunday following November 1.
It’s also the custom at Grace as at many congregations, to remember on this day the faithful departed, our members and loved ones who have died in the past year. That’s a nod to All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of the all the faithful departed, which although it is not on our liturgical calendar, has traditionally played an important role in the lives of Christians and of Christian communities.
On top of that, this Sunday is considered one of the four times throughout the year when it is especially appropriate to celebrate the ritual of baptism. We had planned to do that, but a family situation led us to change our plans at the last minute. In the course of our service today we will also recognize new members of Grace and encourage you to return your estimates of giving or pledges for our 2020 operating budget. So there’s a lot going on. So much in fact that it might seem all a bit confusing or even too busy to be meaningful.
It may be best to begin by talking about saints. I suspect that most Episcopalians or Anglicans are somewhat confused about our understanding of saints. That’s to be expected because our tradition has a rather confused understanding. On the one hand, there are the great saints of the New Testament and the early church—the apostles and martyrs, and the familiar saints of the Middle Ages—St. Francis, for example. It gets a bit more confusing as we come closer to the modern period. The Roman Catholic Church which has a clear process that leads to canonization—we’ve seen that recently with Ss. Oscar Romero, John Paul II, and just a few weeks ago, St. John Henry Newman.
Anglicanism has no such clear-cut process. If you look at the front of the book of common prayer, you will see listed on the calendar all manner of names—people whom the Episcopal Church deems worthy of commemoration. In fact, there’s been something of a controversy over the last decade or so, as General Convention of the Episcopal Church has sought to clarify what the calendar of commemorations—the sanctoral, as it’s called—is supposed to do and who precisely belongs on it.
So what, who are the saints? And why All Saints? Today’s commemoration has its origins in the earliest centuries of Christianity. During the Great Persecution, many Christians were martyred for their faith. Of those, some were remembered. On the anniversaries of their martyrdoms, surviving family members and members of the local Christian communities would go out to the graves of the martyrs and have feasts, including Eucharist to commemorate their witness and faith. But the Church realized that there were many martyrs whose stories and names were unknown, so a commemoration of all of those unremembered but faithful saints was created and eventually was observed on November 1—All Saints’ Day.
All this may or may not be interesting to you; more importantly, you may be wondering about its relevance to your lives in the 21st century. The saints may be remote from our lives, but they are also sitting in the pew next to you. In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess our faith in the “communion of saints.” In the first place, the saints are models of faith, meant to inspire us to grow more deeply in holiness as we seek to follow Jesus. Their examples show us how humans can live “Christ-formed lives.” And they’re not just restricted to ages past.
You might take a moment to reflect on who, in your own life, has helped to shape you in faith, who has inspired you, helped you, prayed for you, or carried you when you stumbled. Was it your parents, a friend? They, too, are saints.
Even as you think about those who have been saints to you, you should also think about whether you have served that role, or how you might become more intentional in your support and encouragement of others.
In the gospel reading, we hear Luke’s version of the beatitudes. It’s rather different from Matthew’s much more direct and connected with the realities of daily life: blessed are you who are poor now; blessed are you who are hungry now, blessed are you who weep now. And he adds a corresponding set of woes—Woe to you who are rich now, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing.
This set of blessings and woes, not blessings and curses—It’s hard for us to understand just what Blessed and Woe mean in this context. One commentator suggest we think rather in terms of “satisfied” and “yikes, or watch out” It’s not that one group is “saved” and the other “damned” but that the hungry and the poor receive God’s favor, and the wealthy and well-fed need guard against losing God’s favor.
These are stark binaries; and it’s easy in our world and divided nation to think in terms of such stark binaries as well. But we in the church are a communion of saints, part of a new community, a new social reality called together by Jesus, a new community that crosses every boundary of socio-economic, racial, gender, and ethnic status. It is a community that even breaks down the boundary between the living and the dead. We come together to worship, to be community, to be in solidarity with those whose lives are very much unlike our own. May we experience that community of all the saints, and may we walk together in mutual support and love, inviting others to join us as we experience Christ’s love.