All Saints’ Sunday
November 6, 2022
At the ripe old age of 27 I was called to lead a congregation for the first time. I was, and am, a bona fide millennial. See, the funniest things would happen. People would complain to me about “kids these days.” “Those millennials,” they would say, “they won’t get a job. They just want to live off their parents.” They would say, “you know when I was that age I was working and doing this and doing that.” I remember someone once lamenting to me that his grandkids didn’t know how to change a flat tire on their car. “You know, it’s just a real shame that they don’t learn the things I learned.” Feeling a little defensive, I asked him if his grandparents had taught him how to hitch a horse and buggy. I’ve got to learn to stop myself.
But it’s funny, right, there is this cognitive dissonance. We complain and gripe about “kids these days” and how things seem to be getting worse, and yet at the same time we’re always asking the rhetorical question, “what will our children say about us?” When it comes to social or environmental issues, we’ll say, “how will future generations talk about the decisions we made?” We always say this during elections, and every election seems to be the most important one ever, “What will history say about us?”
I mean, first of all, why are we assuming that future generations will be more virtuous than we are now? I thought that we were supposed to gripe about “kids these days.” I think we raise the specter of future generations, for either good or ill, to work out our pathos. When we want things to change – to stop burning fossil fuels, to address racial issues – we conjure up this vision of school children decades from now, shaking their heads at how shortsighted we are now. But, when we want things to stay the same same – we shake our heads at all those same children, because “they aren’t doing it the way we did it.” We have worked ourselves into an ideological pickle.
And then along comes All Saints’ Day. One of the real blessings of the Christian faith is that we are rooted in history. On this day we think back to the great heroes of the faith and all that they accomplished by the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus. As the book of Hebrews says, the heroes of faith who went before “…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy” (11:35b-38).” Saint Bartholomew preached the gospel and was flayed alive. Saint Julian of Norwich lived alone her whole life to know the love of God. Inspired by her faith, Florence Nightingale went to the worst of battlefields and created modern nursing. In the 1840s, one priest in Ohio volunteered to be foreign missionary, ended up on a dingy little sand bar in the Gulf of Mexico, built the church we’re in now, and is buried right there. These are the saints of God; real men and women who lived in history, who lived and moved and had their being from the Almighty. They had the courage to serve and pray and build and live and yes, even die for the Lord Jesus.
On this All Saints’, then, we must stop conjuring up fictitious visions of future generations who will be judging us. Instead, we must return to our ancestors, to our own Christian history, and ask how the saints are judging us now. That we would measure our lives against theirs. Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not say that the saints were all perfect people and that we should follow them exactly. I’m not saying that if only we would go back in time then things will be better. Of course not. Where they failed, we hope to improve. But where they were faithful, we hope to follow. So when a Christian is faced with a question, with a moral dilemma, with an ethical choice – we must think first of our past. In my life of prayer, in my devotion, in my discipleship, my first concern is with the bones of our ancestors, not with the ghosts of the future. We can make the future say whatever we want it to say. But we can’t escape from rigorous, thoughtful, faithful study of our Christian past.
This is precisely the vision laid out by Jesus. He looked up to his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets…”(Luke 6:20-31). See, Jesus is already comparing his disciples with the prophets who came before them. We Christians have always been looking to the past as our judge. This is not so much an aspirational guide for how to be a saint, rather it’s a reflection of what a saint already looks like. These are the ones who are blessed – the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the reviled – just like the prophets of old. Of whom the world was not worthy. We must look to the bones of the past, not the specters we create from the future.
I also fully recognize that our church and our whole community has experienced grief upon grief since All Saints’ Day last year. Trinity alone has held fourteen funerals in that time. This day, of all days, we pause to remember our beloved brothers and sisters who have died, and to grieve. We read their names aloud, we offer them to God in prayer, we walk by the columbarium to see their names etched in stone. Here again, Christian faith is rooted in the past. The remains of our fellow Christians abide with us. And yet that is also our hope. For that columbarium, the grave, that is the Church Triumphant. That is the Church Victorious. And on this day we pray to be inspired where their faith was strong, to learn where their faith was weak. To think on them and the standard they have set for us.
Because one day, sooner or later, we will join them. We will become history to another generation. I don’t mean to tell you that you better live up to their standard, no. But All Saints’ is that awe-inspiring reminder that we follow Jesus in our time so that our children and their children and their children walk in the footsteps of faith. There’s a certain quiet dignity to this holy day. It is not the joyous birth of Jesus on Christmas. It’s not the bursting forth from the empty tomb on Easter. It’s not the raucous Spirit-filled Day of Pentecost. No, today is the solemn reminder that we stand in long line of faithful disciples stretching back to the beginning of time and onward till the End of all things. And when faced with decisions, with questioning, with worry about what happens next, all we do is think back to Jesus and those terrifying words of saintliness – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:20-31).