Sermon; All Saints' Sunday Year B; Is. 25:6-9 and John 11:32-44
Today we celebrate All Saints' Day. The official day, of course, is November 1, but the calendar allows us to transfer it to the first Sunday after November 1. This feast day has a long and varied history which I don't need to detail, but there has been, for a very long time, a day set aside to remember and honor people of the faith who lead exemplary, outstanding, passionate lives of faith, as well as remembering and honoring those people whose martyrdom was a direct result of that faith.
And while November 1 is All Saints' Day, November 2 is All Souls' Day, or the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. This is the day we remember the vast body of the faithful known only to God. These are the everyday people who lived their lives as best they could, toiling in anonymity, as they worked to love God and love neighbor.
So on November 1 we remember people like Peter, James, and John.
On November 2 we remember people like Frank, Joe, and Sally.
The Episcopal church has tended to conflate these two specific days, as have many parishes, us included. Each day has its own focus – the heroic faithful witness of certain people in the past vs. that of remembering all those who have gone before. You see it here with the celebration of All Saints' Day combined with the reading of the necrology that is more properly read on the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. And, depending on which liturgist you talk to, that may or may not be a good thing.
But today we have this celebration, commemoration, and renewal of vows. Today is a day to give thanks for all those whose witness has helped build up the Church. Today is a day to remember all those people of the faith known to God alone. Today is a day to remember and renew our baptismal vows and what it is that we as Christians work to do every day. Today especially we join our voices with patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and with countless throngs of angels and archangels. We do that every Sunday, but today it seems that much more important; today it seems that the great cloud of witnesses is that much closer. Today gives us several reasons to celebrate.
This is not to neglect or ignore any number of troubles, pains, and/or traumas we have or are experiencing. The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed recognizes that the loss of people near to us is painful and can often lead to tears. But, surrounded by all the company of heaven and lifted up by our faith, we also recognize that, for them, life is changed, not ended. There is hope in that.
All three lessons appointed for today address this very thing. The reading from Isaiah is a vision of the end of days, as is the reading from Revelation (which we didn't hear). In both of those readings there is a recognition that pain and suffering and death cast a shadow over all people. And in the gospel today we hear about the death of Lazarus with Mary, Jesus, and others all weeping. This struggle with pain, suffering, and death is recognized in the second opening anthem of the burial service when we hear or read, “In the midst of life we are in death.”
In the midst of life we are in death.
It might be that now, more than ever before in our lives, we can relate to this statement. Over the past 20 months or so we have been living under the shroud of COVID-19. We have been witnesses to a world in mourning and crying for the deaths of 750,000 people in the US and over 5 million worldwide. We mourn and cry for a country whose past racial sins and exclusionary practices have been allowed to rise up and divide us once again. We have mourned and cried for those people who have had friends or family members die, COVID-related or not, who have not been able to properly bury and mourn the deceased. We mourn and cry for what we have lost and for an unknown future made even more unknown by the presence of a global pandemic.
And yet there is hope. Even though in the midst of life we are in death, we know that our Redeemer lives and we shall be raised up and see God. We have our hope in the resurrection and that life is changed, not ended.
In our faith, and in this place, we hold to the hope that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples and swallow up death forever. Here we hold to the hope that death, mourning, and crying will be no more. Here we hold to the hope that God will wipe away every tear and make all things new.
In the midst of life we are in death, that is true. But we live with the hope that God will make for all peoples a feast of rich food. We live with the hope that God will be with us. We live with the hope that new life is to be found in Christ Jesus. Signs of hope are all around us.
Hope can be found in pledge cards and other donations as we continue to love God and love our neighbor. Hope can be found in the number of people vaccinated. Hope can be found in a cookbook. Hope can be found in Thanksgiving Day pies. Hope can be found in how we work to stay connected. Hope can be found in the body of Christ's faithful people as we come together to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Hope can be found in our ancient liturgy as we recall that we have been sealed as Christ's own forever and invited to partake of a heavenly banquet. Hope can be found as we remember all those who have gone before and are now part of the heavenly chorus as we sing together and through all eternity, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts; heaven AND earth are full of your glory.”
In our lives in general, but here in particular, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We live with the hope that God will prepare a feast of rich food, that he will wipe away every tear, and that our lives will be changed not ended. On this All Saints' Sunday, when we commemorate All Faithful Departed, let us remember that we are all living in hope together, and that together we can offer hope to a world that desperately needs it.
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.