Feast of All Saints I have been invited to be the preacher at St. John's Church in Sutton as they welcome their colleagues in ministry, the good folks from St. Andrew's, North Grafton to a joint worship service. These two congregations have been finding ways to work and pray together for some time, and I'm honored to be with them on this great day of new beginnings. Below is the manuscript for my sermon.
All Saints’ Day is about our past, our present, and our future as the Body of Christ. It is about our past because we gather here profoundly aware of all the saints who have gone before us, the ones who from their labors rest. That includes those “capital S” saints that we share with the one holy, catholic and apostolic faith: people like Peter, Paul and Mary (the originals, not the band!) and John the baptizer and Andrew the fisherman. And down through the centuries, people like Julian of Norwich who lived through the plague and still insisted that “all shall be well,” and Francis of Assisi who lived during the crusades and kept on praying, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” We sometimes feel like we are living in challenging times and we surely are. But is there really anyone here who considers the days of John and Andrew, or Julian or Francis, to be “the good old days?”
All Saints’ Day is about our past because it also gives us a chance to remember our own personal small “s” saints as well. We have already named some of the members of this great cloud of witnesses and no doubt recall some happy memories and maybe also a few loose ends and unresolved conflicts too, because life and death are rarely as tidy as we wish they would be. For most of us there is some stuff we keep working on long after our loved ones are gone. So we remember them on the day of their birth, and on the day they died, and on Christmas morning and lots of moments in between, including this thin, holy day. They are still part of the fabric of our lives- our lives are knit together, as today's collect puts it and our relationship with them is changed, not ended, by death. This is why even at the grave we dare to make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
St. Andrew’s and St. John’s have some interwoven history and some saints in common, going all the way back to 1825 when the Rev. Daniel Goodwin held the first services at the Rising Sun Hotel for what would become St. John’s. As far as I know he was not related to the Rev. Laura Goodwin! In the 1880s, St. John’s established missions in Millbury and North Grafton, in Barker’s Hall and in people’s homes, planting the seeds of what would eventually become St. Andrew’s. Fast forward about ninety years or so, to the 1970s (because things don’t usually move quickly in the Church!) when these two congregations shared a priest.
I mention these things because we are tempted in the church to have very short memories about tradition, which should not be confused with nostalgia. Often when we speak of tradition what we really mean is how we remember things being done when we were growing up and those memories are often skewed by nostalgia as we remember a past shaped by our present yearnings. In fact, the presence of the Episcopal Church in Sutton and in North Grafton has taken various shapes over the past two hundred years or so, which in God’s time is but a blink of an eye, worshiping in homes, in secular buildings, and in several different church buildings.
Our presence here today, together, reminds us that while All Saints’ Day is definitely about what has been, it’s also about what is, and what will be. As the song we’ll sing when we leave here today puts it:
…they lived not only in ages, past…there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God!
As we gather here today, perhaps dislocated from our normal pews by strangers who are becoming friends, look around you and see God’s beloved – claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Conventional wisdom uses the word “saint” to mean somebody who is holier than thou. But that is not what I mean and that’s not what the Church means by this word. I mean the baptized, these companions God has given to us along the way, these fellow witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ with whom we walk this road as followers of Jesus. These saints teach church school and sing in the choir and go out and flash-mob and do messy church together and make sandwiches for Worcester Fellowship together. They say prayers for us when we are experiencing joy or carrying heavy burdens, and they sit at vestry meetings when there are probably twenty-three other things they would rather be doing. Some of them will even go and sit at Diocesan Convention on our behalf this Saturday. Now that is true love!
If the saints around us are only those who lived in ages past and we are not finding ways to be faithful today, then we misunderstand what this communion of saints is all about. Then it’s just about ghosts. Rather, we are called to ministry, together; to be what in the old days they used to call “the church militant.” That metaphor is problematic for me and I’m not suggesting that we revive it. But the point of that old language was to remind the Church that there is work to be done today and while the saints triumphant cheer us on, they had their turn! The work that God gives us to do is ours, here and now, and if we don’t take up that mantle then we are always in danger of becoming a museum and not the Church. We need all hands on deck.
So I love All Saints Day, because it reminds us not only of our heritage but because it also calls us to fidelity in the present. But there’s even more: this is such a thin place that we also get a glimpse into the future. While we give thanks for those who have gone before us and celebrate the saints in our midst, we also try to peer beyond this moment to the culmination of human history. Even as we shed a tear or two for those whom we love we see no longer, we recall God’s promise to wipe away every tear. We reflect on the banquet where all of God’s children are fed and there is always room at the table for one more. Where the wine is beyond to die for, it’s to live for. And the roast beef is done to perfection. That is what Isaiah is talking about. Can you not perceive it? We reflect on the table where all of God’s children will gather—and they are all God’s children, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is where John (not your baptizer but the seer from Patmos) picks up where Isaiah left off: imagining a world where there is enough for all. Enough food, enough wine, enough healthcare, enough hope, enough faith, enough joy, enough peace, enough love.
There is enough. But one thing the visionary on Patmos does not see are church buildings – because once they have fulfilled their mission there is only the Lamb at the center, only the risen, victorious Christ. As I interpret this it simply means that the mission is always first and whether we are worshiping at the Rising Sun Hotel or in Barker Hall or out at the Brigham Hill Community Barn or in people’s homes or at St. Andrew’s or here at St. John’s, these are all means to an end because the church is not a building, and the church is not a resting place, and the church is not a steeple. The church is a people! The church is the communion of saints. Christian faith is about the hope that inspires us to join in the adventure that is headed toward that future day. This is our work, to participate in and to cultivate God’s mission taking hold in this world and to live the words we join with Christians throughout the centuries in praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Now let me move from preaching to meddling. Johnny and Drew—do you mind if I call you Johnny and Drew? I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the past couple of years. You have some past shared history as mentioned and even some shared clergy in the not-too-distant past. Like all relationships with some history there are some happy memories and perhaps some old wounds too. That’s life. These are not really my stories to tell, they are yours. But it is important to remember rightly and honestly, for in coming to terms with your past new possibilities for tomorrow may emerge.
What is mine to share is how I have been seeing in recent months some of the leadership from both of your congregations working with consultants from the Church Building Fund and with the three canons on the Bishop’s staff. Along with some folks from St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield and St. James in Greenfield, they have been working hard to focus on how they might recast their assets, that is to say in regular language how to use the gifts God has given to each of them to do the work God calls each of them to. The faithful people doing this work are trying to imagine new ways of doing this mission, of finding ways to partner for the sake of the gospel and to ask some questions together about what the future might look like – about where the Spirit is blowing. Along the way they have discovered that St. John’s and St. Andrew’s are remarkably similar congregations; not the same, but nevertheless facing many of the same challenges and opportunities.
And so in the past year or so, St. John’s and St. Andrew’s have been doing some things together and this liturgy is only the most recent example. While it’s not yet clear where this is all going, it seems to be Spirit-led or perhaps Spirit-driven. As you may recall, after Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River by our pal John the Baptist, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark’s Gospel says the Spirit drove him there. Matthew and Luke say the Spirit led him. In my experience, the Spirit does both and sometimes we are led by the hand, but sometimes our own internal resistance is such that we must be pushed. Driven or led, the Spirit has been at work in these two congregations for a long time. But now, driven or led by the Spirit to this place in time, new opportunities to share ministry are emerging that invite you all to do some work together and to learn and grow together.
It’s not yet clear where this is going and there is no “master plan” being cooked up in Springfield. It just seems good to your clergy and your vestries and to your bishop and to me and we believe to the Spirit that there is reason to follow this path. Nevertheless, this is very challenging work and it can raise some anxiety, because questions about identity and of potential loss always raise concerns. And since there isn’t a road map, it’s not possible to say “here is where it is going to end up.” Or over there. It’s a bit more like wandering around the Sinai Desert for a while (hopefully not for four decades) in search of the Promised Land. But needing to get one’s bearings and sending some scouts ahead and maybe even with some grumbling going on. Manna again? Really? All we get is stinking manna! But the Spirit does indeed seem to be leading, or driving, this work. And this much I know, because I can tell you from watching it unfold: it is messy, Church. But it’s also holy, Church.
Today’s gospel reading doesn’t give us a roadmap and definitely not a GPS, but perhaps it is a kind of compass that can help us to at least get our bearings. First, notice that Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. In those tears we see that we really do have a friend in Jesus, one who shares our joys and our burdens. I think it’s a good reminder that we should never underestimate loss. Someone has said that it’s not change people are resistant to, but loss. Every change that comes our way, even when it is good change, also represents some measure of loss. While some of us embrace change faster than others, all transitions involve loss and there seems to be some part of us all that would rather maintain the status quo than deal with loss. But we need to remember also that the costs of inertia are very high as well and we need to acknowledge that. Often we put enormous energy into resisting change because the costs seem too high. But I wonder what happens if we follow Jesus’ lead and weep for what is lost, so that we can then see more clearly what lies ahead? The truth is not only is the church of the nineteenth century gone, but the church of the mid-twentieth century is gone too. All those Republicans on the stage who are debating to see who is nominated for President; last I checked, General Eisenhower wasn’t one of them. The 1950s aren’t coming back!
There were saints who lived in ages past who made decisions based on the leading or driving of the Holy Spirit and they cheer us on, but it is you and I who are called to be saints in this time and place. Look around you – here we are, the starting lineup. At various speeds, congregations across this diocese are beginning to let go of the past in order to discover new missional strategies toward God’s preferred future, trusting that those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. So listen to what comes next. Listen to what Jesus says: (1) Roll away the stone; (2) Lazarus, come out; (3) Unbind him and let him go.
Roll away the stone. We don’t tend to be people who are comfortable rolling away stones. We like to leave things put: my grandmother donated that stone! Sometimes we entomb what needs to be called forth, but you know what, after a while it starts to smell when we do that. Four days, sometimes forty years or more…
But then, Lazarus, come out! Jesus doesn’t go in to get him. Nor does he send in others to do so. Lazarus needs to move away from that tomb himself and toward the One who is Resurrection and Life. I don’t think that requires a lot of words from me on this day when we stand in such a thin place. But just to be clear since we’ve come this far and I’m since I’m almost done: what might it look like to hear Jesus saying to Drew and Johnny – come out! Come out and live!
And then finally, because Lazarus has been bound up like a mummy: unbind him and let him go. There are many things that keep us bound up, to be sure. But I’m already well past the time considered reasonable in Episcopal Churches for sermon time. So I’ll let you all work on that one in the days and weeks and months ahead. Let me just conclude by saying this: I believe this work of unbinding is the primary work we are called to in the Church today. We can and should honor the past, the saints who have gone before us and the work they did. But they did live in ages past and they faced different challenges. We are the saints today. After shedding some tears, and rolling away some stones we need to come out, and we need to be unbound and press on toward the goal.
We are called, in other words, to put our whole trust in Christ’s love and to go on the adventure that the Spirit is leading (or driving) us to. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it’s not a bad idea to bring some friends along.