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Sermon Archives

For ALL the Saints

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Nov 01

Text : 2 Corinthians 4.7-18

A magazine cover caught my eye this week while I was waiting to meet a friend at Out of Town News up in the Square. On the November 2nd issue of The Nation, in large bold letters, read the words: Black Deaths Matter. Without even opening it, I snagged a copy off the newsstand, dropped a bill on the counter and stuck it inside my jacket. Even after I read the subtitle “Generations of African Americans are still buried in racism” I was still half-expecting to see a litany of names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, those black individuals whose deaths have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the article made no explicit reference to the movement, nor to any of those names. Instead, it was a story about the ongoing dilapidation and neglect of Black cemeteries, and one in particular in Greenwood, Missouri.

At the Greenwood cemetery, and others like it across the country, most of the gravestones are so overgrown with thick brush and covered with poison ivy, weeds and trash that it can be impossible for descendants to find and stand at the graves of their ancestors and pay their respects. Many of these graveyards are located nearby well-groomed and well-endowed cemeteries, many of which did not see Black burials until the 1960’s. The problem is not a lack of care or effort on the part of families. For one thing, many of these family and church-oriented burial sites were all but abandoned when large groups of African Americans fled their homes, often heading North to escape persecution, lynching and other violence. There were very few caretakers left! For another thing, there are fewer private resources available to pay for the much needed upkeep and maintenance. The writer Alice Walker once noticed this phenomenon in an essay about her search for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave at a Florida burial site. “This neglect is staggering,” Walker noted. “As far as I can see, there is nothing but bushes and weeds, some as tall as my waist.” She eventually stumbled into an indentation in the ground that turned out to be Hurston’s unmarked grave. She eventually purchased a headstone for her literary inspiration.

Whether we are Black, White, Asian or Latino, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Humanist, how we remember people matters! How we honor the dead and death matters, and not just for those great cultural figures like Zora Neale Hurston but for every child of God! Indeed, how we honor death and the dead says something about how we honor life and the living, for better and for worse.

All Saints Day is one of the ways that our Protestant Christian tradition honors the dead and the living. The tradition finds its roots in scripture like the ones we just heard. We can hear the heartfelt awareness of the dead in the Wisdom of Solomon passage: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” and despite whatever torture or affliction they experienced in life, no torment will strike them now. They will “abide with God in love, because grace and mercy are upon them, and God watches over them.” These are words of great comfort and hope, and how much more so for those who have experienced not only existential suffering but the suffering and violence that comes with being an oppressed people.

Paul echoes these themes as well, albeit in a more decidedly Christian frame. The afflictions or grief or persecution we suffer in this life can deepen our solidarity with the suffering and death and the new life that Jesus brings. Paul is here proclaiming an unrelenting and transcendent hope rooted in God’s abiding love which is stronger than death. Jesus preached and taught and lived this love, with his heart ever trained on the oppressed and on those who society would otherwise forget. Paul’s words are ultimately a profound recognition of hope in the face of death and despair. His hope is rooted in a vision of God’s abiding love that transcends grief and death. It also stems from a vision of God’s abiding justice for all who are persecuted in this life. And so, Paul writes, “we do not lose heart.” We yearn to know this hope, do we not, to be able to articulate and live by it, especially when faced with our own mortality, or the death of loved ones or the searing preponderance of violence and injustice in our world!

Some might say our mainline Protestant tradition is relatively anemic in terms of its own rituals for remembering, at least as compared to other traditions within and beyond Christianity. But we do have All Saints Day! For Protestants, saints aren’t only those who have been canonized. The saints are all of us! We are all saints! We are all saints just as we are all sinners. You might say that we are, each of us, saints in the making! Today, we celebrate all the saints, and we especially lift up that “great cloud of witnesses” who have come and gone before us, our great-great-great’s, our mi-ma’s and our pop-pop’s, our mothers and fathers and siblings in the spirit, our precious children and our friends who have, as the saying goes, “crossed over to the other side.” In just a few minutes, we will have an opportunity to honor and read the list of names of those who are connected to this community who died in the last year. We will have the chance to speak the names of our own loved ones who have joined that sacred role call! As we do so, we are invited to remember with grateful hearts that their souls are at peace. We are invited to ponder and imagine that they are still with us, in our hearts, in our memories, in ongoing relationships held in God’s abiding love. This is a beautiful thing.

And (not but), and, All Saints Day is not just about them because it’s not just about us. It’s not just about our beloved and precious or sometimes prickly loved ones who have died, nor even about trying to find reconciliation in our ongoing relationships with their memories, some of which are no doubt fraught. Its about all the saints, the saints of every time and place! And here, I have to confess. All Saints Day is one of my favorite celebrations. It's a special to time to honor the reality and perpetuity of my own grief. On All Saints, I call to mind deeply personal memories of those many people I’ve known who have died. The confession is that it can sometimes be hard for me, and perhaps for you as well, to take a more expansive and inclusive view of All the Saints. I want to remember “my saints!” And yet, this celebration also holds an important and powerful invitation to remember and to re-member our inherent connectedness to all God’s children, across time and across those oft too-high barriers of our tribe, culture, language and race.

You see…All Saints Day is a decidedly counter-cultural celebration in this regard. Properly understood, it can serve as an antidote to our often unconscious cultural tendencies to think that our lives and deaths, and those of our families and our tribe, somehow matter more than those of others. It's a chance to reflect on and repent of our tendencies to remember only those lives and deaths that matter to us. It’s an opportunity to remember that universal love that Jesus lived, that constantly upended human hierarchies and social inequalities. In remembering death as the greatest of equalizers, we can also remember a vision of beloved community, that great kin-dom of God in which we are called to share an equal inheritance of justice and joy. It may go without saying that this broader sense of human community would be more diverse in every way than our own gathered and much beloved community here at First Church. All Saints Day invites us not only to check our privilege and to stand amidst a crowd in vulnerable recognition that none of us will be spared of grief and death. It also allows us to check our culture’s myth of present-ism. Its not all about us and its not all about what’s happening ‘here and now.’ Taking the longer view of generations in whose line we stand, taking the longer view of the stark reality of our uneven earthly inheritances, we can see all the more the need for models and guides and indeed saints who can remind us what it means to live as part of a great and hope-filled struggle to bring that heavenly kin-dom and equal inheritance of God’s love and justice to earth. This long view is also a powerful reminder to care for the earth itself with far greater urgency so that it’s still here for future generations.

Long before festivals of All Saints or All Souls Days, long before All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween, before there was a “Dias De Los Muertos” a Day of the Dead, an early Saint of our tradition, St Paul, wrote about a faith and hope and love that abides. He wrote about how early Christians reckoned with their death, and found new purpose in their lives, in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and wretched of the earth. With Jesus, some of the Saints we will name and remember today have surely been our models for this way of living, living with hope despite the very real struggles of their times. Today, we will also lift up other names of those who have died recently, names that represent Black lives, and transgender lives and street lives. While we cannot know the moral measure of all their lives as we may at least be acquainted with that of our own loved ones and ancestors, we can by all means use this day to take in the wider sense of a human community, that sense that Black lives and deaths matter and matter greatly, and trans lives and trans deaths matter greatly and homeless lives and homeless deaths matter greatly! We can use this awareness as an ongoing measure of and prompt for how we choose to live, as sinners, as saints in the making, and as followers of Jesus.

When I was in Israel last summer, I had the opportunity to sit with an Israeli and Palestinian representatives from a group of bereaved parents. Though they began their work with this group wanting to compare their loss and suffering as greater than the other, they came to realize, as one woman noted, that the power of their shared pain has become their most powerful ally in the work of justice and peace they now undertake together. What if the same could be true for us this day, that as we tap into the power of our grief over lost loved ones we find there, in that most existential of human experiences, a source of human solidarity, and a powerful ally that can drive us too into an unrelenting hope and into the work of building a better world for future generations.

As we call to mind the perhaps well-tended graves of our loved ones, can we also remember those overgrown burial sites, and ponder our collective inheritance both of human suffering but also of shared vision and hope that transcends our earthly afflictions. In so doing, we will renew our commitment to being and building a beloved and widely diverse community of all saints. We have help all around us! We have playful reminders of the puppet saints who help us imagine a more diverse array! We have both joy and pain of remembering those closest to us and those who we may not have had the chance to meet as equals here on earth but in the heavenly kin-dom await us in glory! We have the lasting nature of this magnificent gathering place, a gift from our saints departed, and it’s not just the benefactors and architects whose names are on the walls, but those who carried the stone and put in the hard labor of construction! As we will belt out at the end of the service, indeed, we give thanks “For ALL the saints, who from their labors rest!” May it be so and may we too take up the unique labors that are before us, trusting always in the hope-filled promise that God’s love and justice will abide through our every grief and pain and death. Amen.

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