Sermon from All Saints Day Celebration, November 7, 2021

All Saints Day (transferred)| St. Paul’s, Evansville
Joanna Benskin | 7 November 2021

Isaiah 25:6-9 | Wisdom 3:1-9 | Revelation 21:1-6 | John 11:32-44

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of saints and visions.

Good morning, friends. We’re here today celebrating all saints and all souls. We remember the ones we love who are no longer with us. We light candles for them; we open our hearts again both to our loss and grief and to the ways our loved ones might still feel present with us even after death. We look to the saints from the early ages of our faith and onwards, and we tell their stories. We look back today on the lives of our own family members and friends as well as the lives of our spiritual ancestors, those who came before us in the faith.

And so you would think that this feast day would be about remembering the past. Those of us who are alive now are looking back into the past at people who have already died. And there’s power and beauty in looking back, in holding space to grieve our losses, in telling the stories we know about those who came before us, and in carrying on an ancient tradition. In some ways this day is about remembrance, and our connections with the past.

But when we get to our readings, we see something different. In Isaiah, we see a feast where all people are invited to share in delicious food and drink—someday in the future. In our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, we hear about the souls of the righteous in the hand of God, and we learn that they will shine out like sparks of fire—someday in the future. In Revelation, we hear about a new heaven and a new earth and a new city where God will comfort God’s people and wipe away every tear—someday in the future. On a day about remembering the past, we’re also invited to share in these visions; we’re invited to imagine God’s future together.

And we hear this invitation today of all days because the saints are holy people who already know something about that future, and they call us towards it. So, I want to talk a little bit about some ways we might understand the saints, and then about the ways that they might call us today toward God’s vision of the future.

Some of us may have grown up learning about the saints, but for others (like for me) saints were mysterious and unfamiliar. I learned that the idea of saints grew over time. In the early Hebrew literature in our Bible, it’s unclear what happens to people after they die. There’s a vague shadowy realm called Sheol that we hear referenced in the Psalms sometimes where all the dead go. But back then, the main sense of an afterlife was in those who remain behind: we pass on our blood and our stories and our memories to those who will keep living after we die, and that legacy is how people believed that they would still be part of the world even after death.

But eventually, we hear whispers of something new in Hebrew scripture. We hear visions of a future where God will welcome and feed all people, like the one in Isaiah. Later on in the tradition, we even hear that individual people might not be done living when they die. Maybe God isn’t finished loving us even after death. Maybe we aren’t finished shining forth who we are and experiencing relationships with God and others after we die. Our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon is part of this tradition that developed in Judaism after the prophetic writings.

In Jesus’ time, Jewish communities are still debating the idea of the resurrection. Some groups thought the dead would rise again someday, and others didn’t. And in that context where people are trying to figure out what they believe about life after death, Jesus not only says that there is a resurrection, Jesus claims that he is the resurrection and the life. And Jesus still weeps at the death of Lazarus—Jesus is with us in the grief and loss we experience. So don’t let anyone tell you that our hope of resurrection means we shouldn’t grieve.

And yet, when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave and brings him back to his loved ones, Jesus shows a preview of his own nature as the one who will overcome death, and a preview of the world where all the dead will be raised up to continue loving and being loved.

In early Christian communities, some people were killed for their faith—these are saints like Perpetua and Felicity who died for claiming to be Christians. And those they left behind trusted that the martyrs were still a part of the community—still worshipping God, still speaking with God in prayer, still caring about their friends who were still alive and facing life’s dangers. These people were considered saints, which means holy people.

As Christian faith grew and took different forms, people have understood what sainthood means and how we relate to the saints in a lot of different ways. Some of these ways feel more Protestant and some more Catholic, and in our church we get to try lots of different ways. We’re here in this middle way—or you could say we’re spiritual racoons who just get to go around to everybody’s camp site and take their food.

So we might see the saints mainly as examples to follow—we learn their stories, we see how they followed God and faced adversity, and we pattern some part of our own lives after the saints. This is a more Protestant take on sainthood. We see the saints mostly as examples to learn about and follow. We might look to the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and learn something we can use; we might look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for justice and try to follow that. We can find inspiration in the stories of the saints that helps us live our own lives.

Beyond seeing the saints as examples, though, we might also relate to the saints through prayer. This way, we see the saints as people who are already in God’s presence, and they can pray for us or pray with us from that place. This is one of the ways our Catholic siblings often relate to the saints, and many in our church do too. We might pray with Jesus’ mother Mary or St. Francis. We might experience a beautiful companionship and guidance from the saints in practices of prayer and devotion, trusting that the saints are still actively caring for the living.

The way that the saints draw us to God’s future is related to both of these approaches to the saints. When we look at the examples of the saints, we’re looking at people who already glimpsed God’s vision in their own time and lived according to it. When we pray with the saints, we’re praying with people who are experiencing something of God’s future because they are with God now.

Whether we focus on the saints’ earthly lives in the past, or the saints as praying with us in the present—either way, they draw us onward to God’s vision. Our scriptures today give us some glances at this vision, and the saints invite us to share it with them.

We’re invited to imagine a world where people of all nations and races come together in harmony. We’re invited to imagine a world not only where everyone’s needs are met but where there is abundant feasting. We’re invited to imagine a world where righteousness finally prevails and all lies are uncovered.

We’re invited to imagine a world where all people know God’s love, where God comes close to all people. We’re invited to imagine a world where healing is possible for all the brokenness we carry, where God will comfort every grief.

To use the language from our collect today, we’re invited to imagine a world of “ineffable joys” where we will truly see God in all God’s glory, and will truly see one another among all the saints in their radiance. We’re invited to imagine a future where all people are welcome to the feast, all people are loved, all people are celebrated.

This is the future we imagine together when we come to the altar and pray that God will bring us along with all the saints into the joy of God’s kingdom. This is the future we imagine when we proclaim together that Christ will come again in glory.

Imagining the future together can be a powerful thing. Holly can tell you about the work Leadership Everyone is doing to get people together and share visions of the future they want for our city. It starts with imagining a shared future and leads to action together to move toward that future. Imagining the future together can give us the vision and the strength we need to act in the present.

Imagining the future together can also transform our relationships. When my husband Brian and I were first dating, imagining the future was a turning point for us. We’d already asked practical questions like: “If we’re still together when I finish grad school, would you move out of state with me for a job?” We’d thought and even planned about our possible future together, but things changed when we started imagining a future together.

We’d imagine scenes of our life together—little things like taking a walk or coming home to one another after work. One of us would say, “Oh, I just had a Future Us” and we’d describe the Future Us scene of ourselves together at some later stage of life, fixing the kitchen sink or noticing the seasons change or feeding guests at our table or whatever it was. When we did this, we felt close to each other in a new way. Imagining a shared future gave us new joy and energy to nourish our relationship in the present.

And that’s what these visions of the future in our readings do—they draw us together in community and give us strength to live toward God’s imagination together. These are visions that draw us onward to the future God wants.

We do not look for this future alone, but together in community with each other and in communion with the saints. We baptize Gemma into that communion today so that she will never have to be alone in her hopes for the future. We will be here to support her in her hopes and fears and struggles.

We’ll teach her what we know about God’s love, and she will teach us things about God’s vision that we never could have imagined on our own. We will walk this road together as we look for God’s future. The whole communion of saints has gone before us. And they call to us from further along.

From our perspective these saints lived in the past, and yet somehow they saw God’s future in life, and they still call us onward to that vision. Time has twisted and looped in on itself as the saints of past ages call us to God’s future. And today as we honor all saints and all souls, we exist with them in the same mobius strip of longing and praise and vision. When we praise God, we join our voices with theirs. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we feast with the saints here and now even as we look to the richness of God’s feast yet to come.

And in a moment, friends, I’ll invite you to light candles as an act of remembrance and an act of vision. You can light a candle for a loved one you have lost, or a saint whose light you follow. Light a candle for someone you’re praying for now. Or you can stay and pray from your seat if that’s the space you need.

You can also light a candle for a hope you glimpse of what’s yet to come, the flickering light of God’s future vision we share. Light a few—take your time. We’re on holy ground together here. The saints of ages past draw us to God’s future in this place, and we have all the time we need.