A sermon offered Sunday, November 4, 2012
At Saint Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church,
All Saints – All Souls Day
Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .
I grew up in a small town in southeastern Ohio. There were a handful of days in the year when my little home town came together to celebrate in a big way – starting with a parade down main street led by the high school band, followed by many of the civic groups in town – veterans groups, girls scouts, boy scouts. . . Sometimes there were a few vintage model cars with proud owners smiling and waving and wearing bow ties. Usually the newest and shiniest fire truck with lights flashing brought up the end of the parade.
In May on Memorial Day the parade route was slightly different than on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day. On Memorial Day we ended up in the cemetery on the top of the hill by the high school. The band would march into the cemetery to the somber beat of a single snare drum. There would be a short speech of some kind. A trumpet would play taps. And then the girl scouts would disperse to put flowers on the graves throughout the cemetery.
This was the town’s way of honoring all it’s past citizens – by decorating the graves of loved ones who had passed. It was a beautiful, beautiful memorial, as I remember it.
The church remembers the dead at an entirely different time of year. Today we’re celebrating the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In the New Testament, the word “saints” is used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, that communion of saints that we name in the Nicene Creed each Sunday. From very early times, however, the word “saint” came to be applied primarily to individuals who were especially holy, heros, whose lives were remembered with gratitude by later generations.
All Saints day was celebrated from the very early days of the Christian Church, as early as 270 A.D. Beginning centuries later, in the tenth century, Christians began to set aside another day as a sort of extension of All Saints Day. On All Souls Day the Church remembers the larger body of the faithful – people who are unknown in the wider fellowship. It’s also a day for remembering beloved family members and friends. We’ll observe All Souls Day today by reading the names of people who are near and dear to your memory. giving God thanks for their lives and their ongoing living presence with us.
But what is it that keeps the Church’s celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day from turning into ancestor worship? What makes it different from the practice of decorating graves? The church preaches the Good News that we are all part of one people, not individuals unto ourselves. We are individually members of One Body. We are collectively the Body of Christ on earth – and we are One Body.
In the Episcopal Church, as in other Anglican churches and the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day is one of the principal days for baptisms. So All Saints Day is traditionally a day when new saints are brought into the church, in conjunction with the celebration of past saints. This emphasizes the continuity of the people of God, the ever-growing and ongoing communion of saints.
If you listen with fresh ears to the words of the Eucharist prayer today, you’ll hear a reminder that we are in mystical union with all the faithful including “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” And when we take the Body and Blood of Christ at communion, we are feasting together with and in Christ – in anticipation of the heavenly banquet – in that new heaven and new earth that we read about in the book of Revelation.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus calls Lazarus out from the grave – calls him from death to new resurrected life. This foreshadows Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and it foreshadows the deathe and new life that we all can look forward to.
The Good News is that in the new creation :
“Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
The Good News is that Jesus Christ is making all things new! In Him, we are made whole – and we live as the Communion of Saints, now and throughout eternity.
When we decorate graves on Memorial Day we tend to dwell on our loss. A date of death on a gravestone reminds us of the day someone left us. But on All Saints and All Souls days we focus on resurrection. The Church’s celebration of saints and souls reminds us of faith, hope and love . . . and reunion.
The Eucharistic celebration today is an Easter celebration – a resurrection celebration. This is a great and powerful and loving gift of God – a blessing that we can, in turn, offer to those who live in fear of dying and to those who grieve.
And our Easter commemoration and celebration – and it’s something far, far greater than putting flowers on a grave . . .