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Sermon for November 5, 2017: All Saints (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Today we are celebrating All Saint’s Day, which officially occurs on November 1st. On All Saint’s Day we remember those who have gone before us. In ancient Christianity, each saint had his or her own day of remembrance. All Soul’s Day, which is on November 2nd, was set apart to honor those who were not officially recognized as saints or martyrs of the church. In time, however, there came to be so many saints that our church fathers decided to honor all of them on one “all” saint’s day. These days, since we see all saints as being equal, many churches don’t hold All Soul’s Day services.

All Saint’s is also one of the preferred days to perform baptisms. This seems counterintuitive. Why is All Saint’s Day, which is about those who have died, associated with Holy Baptism, which is about new life? The Prayer Book tells us that baptism is the way we understand our relationship to God and to one another. This includes everyone we come into contact with, but most especially the community of Christ – those who live now and those who no longer live on this earth. We are all members of the same community – the community of saints- and we enter that community through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

When someone dies, we tell each other that that person will live on in our hearts and through our memories of them. My own father died when I was nine years-old. Over the years since then my older sister has often referred to one or another memory of something that happened to us in childhood. “Do you remember when we went to Santa’s workshop”? “Do you remember when we went to Cape Cod and bought lobsters and Daddy chased Mom around the house with one”? “Do you remember how Daddy and Grandma used to tease each other”? “Do you remember – do you remember – do you remember”? And the answer was always “no.” Because I didn’t remember. I had almost no memories of my father. As I grew older, and went to psychology school, I recognized that I should be able to remember. I knew that I had been old enough when he died to recall important things – things like Christmas trees, and burning leaves, and the feel of your father’s arms around you, and his scruffy cheek when he kissed you good night. But I didn’t.

As part of my doctoral program in psychology I had to go to therapy so I could learn what it was like to be “the client.” My goal for my mandated treatment was to try to figure out why I didn’t have memories of my father and to (hopefully) recover some of them. But that didn’t happen.

Feeling a call to ordained ministry is a powerful but somewhat awkward thing. It’s hard to predict how people will react when you tell them. This is particularly true of your family members because they are the ones that really know you. They know that you are not a holy or exemplary person. They’re the ones that you pushed off the swing. When I called my mother to tell her I was in discernment for ordained ministry, she said, “Oh, that’s nice.” I said, “That’s nice? Is that all you’re going to say”? And she said, “Well, what do you want me to say”? I said, “Well, you could say – ‘Are you kidding? You can’t be a priest! ’ or you could say, ‘That’s great. I always knew you would be a priest, ‘or you could say, ‘How ‘bout those Red Sox’?” And my mother said, “Well, that was a good game yesterday.” So I said, “Okay, clearly we’ve gone for option three.” My mother said, “Well, maybe your father has something to do with it. You know he always wanted to be a priest.” Of course, I hadn’t known – or I didn’t remember.

As part of my discernment process, I was asked to write a “spiritual autobiography” – to tell my life story through the lens of my relationship with God and the church. When I sat down in front of the computer, I had no idea what I was going to write. But then an amazing thing happened. I started writing about my father. I wrote about going to visit our church’s mission chapel, where he officiated at Morning Prayer. I wrote about how he taught me that you had to drink the leftover wine and eat the leftover bread from communion. I wrote about how he was my fourth grade Sunday school teacher who allowed me to be the celebrant at the children’s Eucharist where I first stood behind an altar and held up my hands and knew I was called to the priesthood. I wrote about my father, who set me on this path.

And that was just the beginning. As I have progressed on my journey to ordination, more and more memories of my father have come back – memories of picnics on the beach, and “tickle fights” and boat rides and Sunday dinners and eating grilled cheese sandwiches while watching Walt Disney World. My father has been with me. And his presence is so strong, so clear, that it has been evident to other people as well.

As part of becoming a postulant for Holy Orders, you have to be interviewed by a member of the diocesan Commission on Ministry. My interview was with Clinton Williams at St. James in Oakland. St. James is a beautiful church, with a vast nave, carved pews and tall pillars that rise to the ceiling. We sat in the empty sanctuary on a quiet weekday and talked about my life and my spiritual development. Clinton was a good and attentive listener, but when I started talking about my father, he interrupted me. He said, “Do you see someone”? I hadn’t heard anyone come into the church, but I looked where he pointed and saw only a shadow behind a pillar. Clinton said, “There was a man standing there, but he’s gone.” I asked him what the man looked like – and he described my father. And when I told him, Clinton said, “I thought so. It was your father. He’s watching over you.”

Today’s readings provide us with a Christian understanding of what it means to be part of Christian community, both now and eternally. They tell us that we are all God’s children, and that God wants only what is good for us. They remind us that God does not punish us with suffering; we bring it upon ourselves. We are flawed beings, and it is through our human impulses that pain is brought into the world. Yet, even in the midst of our grief, God blesses us – for our meekness, our purity of heart, our efforts to live peacefully with one another, and, most especially, when we sorrow and suffer on God’s behalf. Best of all, we are promised that at the end of our road is God’s Holy City, where we, “will hunger no more, and thirst no more, [where] God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

All we need do is to accept the gift we have already been given -membership in the fellowship of God – walking beside those who are here now and those who have gone before us. “Proclaim the glory of the Lord,” our psalmist exults, “Those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, and none will be punished who trust in him.” We are God’s people and we have been made new in the image of God through Jesus Christ. The glory of God is us. It is my father and my father-in-law and my stepfather and my grandparents, and my brother John, and our brother Joe and our sister Joyce and all the saints who have gone before us. The glory of God is God’s people.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Do you see the glory of God in other people? Can you look at those you hate as well as those you love and see the face of God? Can you look at an election ballot or a newscast and imagine the face of God? Can you remember that ours is a community of all saints, of all souls-good and bad, rich and poor, dead and alive?

We associate baptism with All Saint’s Day because we know that from the very moment of our birth until we leave this world and enter the new life of the resurrection, God is with us. Look and see. Taste and see. See and accept the glory of the Lord – because it is yours –yours to have, yours to know, yours to give, yours to share. O blessed communion, fellowship divine! Let us not struggle. Let us in glory shine. Let us be one in thee -for all are thine. And let us look at one another and see the face of God. AMEN.

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