And he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Today is All Saints’ Day. For this community, it is our namesake; it is our patronal feast day. It is a day of celebration, where we would normally walk through the front doors of the church following the brass band to the tune of When the Saints Come Marching In. It is a day of awe and wonder when we are struck by that moment we see the flags—flags filled with prayers remembering those whom we have lost…flags written with love and care. And then once we get to our seat, we look around and all at once it hits us…we are surrounded by saints.
This day is a day set aside to honor all the saints—saints in heaven and saints on earth—those whom we memorialize by the flags hanging above…the cloud of witnesses hovering over our heads, and those who are sitting right next to us. It is in that moment I realize I am not alone. I am not the only one grieving the loss of a loved one. I am not the only one yearning to be recognized as a creature of God. I am not the only one desperate for connection to God and one another. And it is in this service we realize—with all the doubt, grief, and pain that exists in us and the world—that with God’s help, there is hope and that anything is possible. This sums up what All Saints’ Day really is; it is not simply a time to remember saints and loved ones who are no longer here, but it is a turn we make together, after remembering and recognizing our grief in the context of a loving community, toward realizing our strength to then go out and be God’s agents of good and love in the world.
All Saints’ Day is both a pause and a pivot. It is a pause because it forces us to stop in the midst of this world of change, and intentionally linger with what this past year has either brought or taken away from us. And it is a pivot because with the reminders of God’s grace, presence, and loving action in our lives, we are empowered to move forward with confidence into the new year (church year) that is to come.
I don’t know about you, but I am needing All Saints’ Day more this year than ever, but knowing that this year is different— no brass band, no full church, not having that feeling of the loving community surround me – I’m worried that on this day of pause and pivot, in this year of loss and chaos – this year when uncertainty and fear and anxiety pervade our souls and minds unlike ever before – I won’t be able to find the hope and strength needed for me to pivot.
This community is an expert on pausing. While many other parishes simply read a necrology during this service—reading aloud the names of those from the community who have died that year—we have the flags, thousands of flags, that we use to name those losses we’ve experienced. But what’s written on the flags is different this year. In past years, mostly names and stories of remembrance were written on the flags. In 2020, many of these flags tell the story of the many other types of losses this year has brought. “Goodbye to the job I loved and brought me happiness and security…I loved spending my time with you and making a difference in this world.” “To the long awaited vacation we had planned for years, we didn’t get to meet you, but we deeply miss you. Maybe next year?” “Hugs- I promise to never underestimate you again. You are sorely missed.”
The pause this year feels heavier. No matter who we are, we have not been able to escape grief in one way or the other this year. And while naming our losses is an important first step toward wholeness—recognizing that we do have grief—it doesn’t make us miss them, or any of our losses, any less. It doesn’t make me question any less why things had to turn out like this—why our loved ones had to leave this earth too soon? While it may be comforting to picture what I think is a true image of those who have died as now being part of all the Heavenly chorus of saints who are now always with us in our heart, what about the 545 orange flags remembering those killed by gun violence in this city, or the 1,100 white flags on our front lawn representing the over 5,500 who have died because of COVID-19 in Cook County? This Heavenly image no matter how true or beautiful it is, it doesn’t stop me from weeping when I think of them, or any of those people who should still be here. Why do people have to suffer? Why does such violence exist? Why are there so many deaths when so many could have been prevented? In times like these, what else is there to do other than weep?
I’m usually not one to gravitate to the book of Revelation to find words of hope and comfort, but this morning I found solace in hearing what God does for those who weep in the midst of great strife and pain. The community who first read Revelation were weeping due to religious persecution, experiencing physical and emotional pain, and feeling the harsh sting of wrongful death. They literally had no food and no water, and their ears heard the same message we heard this morning, “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This is our pause. We recognize that, as humans, we struggle with injustice, we experience pain and suffering, and we certainly weep. God does not make these bad things happen. It is God, in the form of a human being, who experienced firsthand what being human was like, even weeping, himself, at the death of his dear friend, Lazarus—weeping during his time of despair. This pause is important and necessary. But as Christians, this is not where we are to stay. Our God is a God who weeps, but as we learned from Revelation, our God is also the one who wipes away every tear from our eyes; wipes the tears from our faces. Our God is a God who becomes human, knows the anguish of death himself, and, then, defeats that death for all of time. For Christians, death and loss is not the end, but the beginning. This is the pivot.
All Saints’ Day is ultimately about new life, and as part of that new life, we mark this pivot to new life by renewing our baptismal vows. The Book of Common Prayer echoes Paul’s Letter to the Romans, proclaiming that we are buried with Christ in his death, share in his resurrection, and are reborn by the Holy Spirit. When we renew our baptismal vows, we remind ourselves that we share the same abundant life with the saints who came before us and who lived out that life in the world.
What does living out that life in the world look like now – in 2020? As baptized Christians, we say we will “Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… persevere in resisting evil, and, wherever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord… proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ… seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Hearing this list, and knowing myself, I sometimes feel like I am not up for the task. These tasks are the work of the real saints and not me! “I’m not a good enough person…I’m too flawed…the problems of the world are too big…what can I do?” And these Fears would likely be realized if we had to go it alone. But All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are not alone. With all the saints, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven—we are part of a great cloud of witnesses to God’s grace, love, and help. When we are asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we don’t answer, “Yes, all by myself!” Instead, we pivot, and honestly, humbly, and reverently say, “I will, with God’s help.”
On this day of remembrance and transition—of pause and pivot—with the knowledge that none of us is alone, I ask you these questions:
Will you remember your own path to sainthood—that what you do and how you treat others, through the power of God’s Spirit bursting out from within you, brings life where there was once death? Will you remember?
Will you remember that God is always by your side, ready and willing to guide you, give you a soft heart, wipe away your tears and help you persevere through life’s difficult times? Will you remember that God loves you unconditionally? Will you?
Let every saint here at All Saints’ say in response:
I will, with God’s help.