A Sermon for the Commemoration of All Saints, November 3, 2013
David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate
For thy dear saints, O Lord, who strove in thee to live,
who followed thee, obeyed adored, our grateful hymn receive.
They all in life and death, with thee their lord in view,
learned from thy Holy Spirit’s breath to suffer and to do.
In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we celebrate that sacred mystery that connects you and me with those who have gone before, those we no longer see, yet with whom we are bound together in this world and in the next. For many, if not for all of us in one way or another, this Sunday closest to All Saints Day is a very tender Sunday, for it is a time when our loved ones come to mind and our hearts are filled with their memory. As Richard Rohr cites in one of his recent meditations, we have to grieve over the loss of loved ones. Their deaths cannot be dealt with through quick answers, religious platitudes, or a stiff upper lip. The process of grieving cannot be rushed. In this context the Communion of saints is a gift and it is a sacred mystery, for it brings us comfort in our journey. In that beautiful collect for All Saints’ Day we have just prayed,
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee…
This Sunday is a day of holy remembrance. The very act of remembering makes us conscious once again of the past. On the one hand it can become easy for us to turn the chapters of life, past, present, and future, into idols. On the other hand, however, it is also easy to forget the past. Today we are given a chance to cherish the past because it represents the faithful and hard work of those who have gone before us. From time to time it is important for us to revisit the past as it is the past that makes where we are now possible. It is the past that shapes the future. It is an occasion for us to recognize all those who are not remembered by their own feast days but who nonetheless are numbered among the saints who lived the Beatitudes that we heard in this morning’s gospel reading.
Two weekends ago, I had the occasion to drive to Massachusetts to attend the alumni reunion of Lenox School. This was my first time back for a reunion and this year was the 50th reunion of my class of ’63. It was a great weekend but I must say I was shocked at what I saw when I arrived for the opening dinner. After a half century I was stunned by how my classmates and even the underclassmen had aged, why; some even had aged beyond any recognition until they identified themselves!
Lenox School was a fine school established by the Episcopal Province of New England in 1926. It had high academic standards and a fine sports program and it had a profound influence upon its students encouraging them to pursue lives of service to others. The school flourished until the early ‘70’s when, like many independent schools, it ran into financial difficulties and was forced to close its doors, yet today it still has a strong alumni association that keeps the motto of the school, “Not to be served, but to serve” very much alive.
As I drove up to New England I took the more scenic route by going up I-81 avoiding D.C. There wasn’t much on the radio and I’d hadn’t taken any CD’s and I don’t have Sirius XM radio, so I had time to spend with myself and to think while driving those 12 hundred or so miles up and back. That in itself was a gift. As I thought about this approaching All Saints’ Day, the memories of loved ones came to me. It so happened that the Friday of that weekend would have been our son Jamie’s 38th birthday. The day before, as I was driving north on I-287 and then later that evening after I arrived, there were two coincidences that caused poignant memories to surface, and then again on Saturday afternoon at a service like we had in chapel, there was yet another. These three coincidences gave me a wonderful sense that somehow, Jamie’s spirit was present and very near to me. It’s hard to describe or define, yet I believe these coincidences are somehow a part of our experience of the Communion of Saints. There is so much we don’t understand. It is an illusive mystery and though I sometimes yearn that I could feel it more often, when it happens it is a gift.
While in my time in Lenox, I also had occasion to visit 20 Nielsen Lane, the house in which I grew up. It has remained beautifully cared for and while it has undergone some remodeling, it has retained its character as I remember it growing up. A young woman who turned out to be the current resident with her family graciously invited me to come inside and see the house. As I went through the rooms there came a flood of precious memories. In some mysterious way I could feel my parents’ presence. Later in the weekend I also felt their presence when I visited their grave at Mountain View Cemetery. I found myself wanting to thank them for providing me with those years at Lenox School. I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “Now David, keep up using all you learned at Lenox.” I am convinced all this is somehow connected to the sacred mystery of the Communion of Saints.
At the school reunion over the next couple of days there was a flood of great memories as together we recalled the past and those who helped to shape our lives in significant ways. There was the headmaster, The Reverend Robert L. Curry, and faculty members among whom were David Wood, Roger Hinman, and Pete Pickett and others, memories of whom are etched in our minds forever as they made an indelible mark upon our lives. Then there was this one teacher, however, Ara Dostourian, who taught Latin, who was in his early 30’s back then who is still with us and he showed up for the reunion and doesn’t look a whole lot different now from the way he did back 50 years ago! I’m not sure what his secret has been all these years.
We remembered fellow students who have gone before us and even had a service committing the ashes of one of our classmates, Gene St. Jean who died recently. Gene was highly regarded by our class and his death was a loss to the alumni association. His service of committal Saturday afternoon on what was once a football field brought full circle to some great memories we all had of fall afternoons on that football field and of Gene’s loyalty to the alumni association in all the years that have followed.
Then finally on Sunday morning I sat in our family pew three rows from the front on the epistle side at Trinity Church where memories of so many years filled my mind and heart. Trinity Church, after some years of decline is once again thriving under the care of their new young rector. There were some 30 children in this small town parish who went from being with their parents in the service to their time with Godly Play in the parish house. During the service I thought of so many who were the saints of God who have sat in those pews and upon whose legacy Trinity is now coming to life again.
By now you may well be asking, “What does a school reunion have to do with the commemoration of All Saints’ Day? The reason I mention these things about the trip north is simply that I realized, as perhaps you have at times, that it can be very easy to want to go back to the way things were in the good old days of the past, easy to slip into holding on to the past. I was thinking on the beautiful drive home that it could be tempting to turn the past into an idol itself, yet I also began to realize we can never go back. Yes, God invites you and me to cherish the past and from time to time it is indeed important for you and me to revisit—to remember—the past, but we are to remember the past only so that we may be faithful to the present and to the future, a future to which God is calling us. It is those saints who have gone before us upon whose shoulders we stand as we respond to God’s call to us that we too might lead our lives in a manner consistent with Jesus’ call to his disciples as expressed in the Beatitudes we heard in this morning’s gospel. Jesus looked at his disciples and spoke about what it means to be blessed summing up all the blessings and the warnings with the command that when all is said and done, the disciples, and we as well, are to live our lives as did the saints by doing to others as we would have them do to us.
What might this morning mean for us here at St. Mary’s on this commemoration of All Saints’ Day? As we look out through these windows of this sacred space, we see in the Church Yard the graves of so many of the saints who have gone before us. There are those who helped to bring St. Mary’s into being and who supported its mission and ministry over the years. We remember them with gratitude as we stand upon their shoulders as God is ever calling us to new visions for what we are to do and for what we are to be in this place we know and love as St. Mary’s Church. It is indeed a good thing from time to time to think of those who have gone before us, making this parish what it was to become, yet no parish should idolize the past or hang on too tightly to the good old days. What new opportunities for mission and ministry lie before us as we take our place among those with whom we have been knit together in the Communion of Saints? And so as we stand upon their shoulders, may we never rest upon our laurels.
There are for each of you this morning those loved ones whose memories lie deep within your hearts. This commemoration of All Saints calls us to an act of holy remembrance. As you come to God’s table in a few moments to receive communion, bring with you your memories of those your loved ones. As you receive Communion, never forget that you and I are inextricably connected with those whom we love. How we are connected to them is a sacred mystery but that we are connected to them is God’s promise a promise that we remember in a special way today. May you, this morning, in some way feel the presence of your loved ones, for it will be a blessed reminder that our loved ones remain with us forever, and may God grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee.
Thine earthly members fit to join thy saints above,
in one communion ever knit, one fellowship of love.
Jesus, thy Name we bless, and humbly pray that we
may follow them in holiness, who lived and died for thee.