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Sermon - All Saints' Sunday

ALL SAINTS’ SUNDAY, November 7th, 2021 In the Name…

In our churchyard, we have the tombstone of Daniel Coley who died in 1727. It reads, “As I am now, so you must be, therefore prepare to follow me.” A pious sentiment, but, I’m afraid a somewhat irreverent thought has crossed my mind, which leads me to say to Mr. Coley, “To follow you, I’ll not consent, until I know which way you went.”

Those who have studied the inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome have found that two quotations, both from our first lesson, are repeated on the tombs of the early Christians - "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God" and "They are at peace."

Two thousand years later, we are still reciting these words. We have no greater hope than this.

In the year 125, a pagan named Aristeides, observing the Christians of his day, said that he found their funeral practices strange events, to say the least. He wrote: "If any among the Christians die, they offer thanks to their god and escort the body with songs as if the dead person were alive and celebrating."

And, strange it may be, to some eyes, but it is the truth, a truth we repeat every Sunday when we proclaim we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

You see, most ancient religions didn’t believe in life after death. Even the Jews were divided on the subject. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection and a Day of Judgement, but, the Sadducees believed that this life was all there was and you lived on, so to speak, through your children.

It was the Christians who developed the unique concept of a personal soul and body linked for eternity. It was the Christians alone who understood that there was no break between the now and the then. And it was the Christians who articulated that those who have gone before are still as interested in us as they were when they were here.

This was radical then and, apparently, it is still radical today, but that is the whole idea behind what we call the “communion of saints.”

When I was in theological college, we had a visit from Robert Mercer, then the Bishop of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. And, I remember a story about him.

Matabeleland is as big as Maryland and much of it is rural and remote with no good roads. And, on this one visit to a parish, he went as far as he could in his Land Rover, then he travelled on foot, and when he got to a large river he found the rope bridge was out and under repair. On the opposite bank, however, he saw a group of people from the parish waiting for him. Night was falling and he decided to swim across rather than make them wait until dawn. He was only part-way over, though, when the sun set, everything went pitch-black, and he lost all sense of direction.

At that point, however, the people started singing hymns to let him know where they were and he was able to follow the sound of their voices and, after a couple of course corrections, reached the river bank safely.

That story, to me, is an example of what today is all about. You and I are swimming across a river in the dark. We know where we want to be, but it’s hard to see the way. And, then, we hear the singing, directing and encouraging us, and, after a few course corrections, we reach the river bank safely.

That alone should tell us that the saints we remember in our calendar, and the millions and billions of others who are in no calendar, are our sisters and brothers with us on the way; alongside us as companions and guides, sustaining us with their prayers and guiding us by their example.

I think St. Paul might have been a sports fan. We don’t know much about his personal life, but I can’t help but notice he uses a lot of athletic imagery in his letters. And, in Hebrews 12, we find an image of a stadium full of fans cheering on the runners in a race. The imagery is that we are the runners and the saints in Heaven are our fans.

That’s quite a thought. We speak sometimes of the saints as “heroes of the faith”, but St. Paul is saying it’s the other way around. Indeed, in a famous homily St. Bernard said "The saints have no need of our honours and they gain nothing from our commemoration.” And, that is very true. Which is why we need to remember that we remember the saints not for their sakes but for ours. For, what we're really celebrating today is not just a lot of people in the past. We're celebrating the work of God in our lives today.

St. John Chrysostom called death "the separation of the soul from the body.” And, he went on to say, "The soul lives forever and knows no end because" - and this is the key - "because it is the breath of God." The breath of God.

We live in such a busy world, all focused on material things, that we can easily lose the sense that Christians are also something other, something not of this world. The breath of God.

When you and I were born into this world, we were born with that breath within us and it has filled us with the great virtues of faith, hope, and charity. It has given us our character and quality of life. And it is something we will carry for eternity, because it is who we are.

So, I ask you this morning, "What is it that keeps you going in the race of life?” Chances are, if you're only running for yourself you'll be tempted to quit. But, when that temptation comes, think about the millions and billions, the great and the small, the famous and the unknown of Christ's people who fill the stands urging us on, willing us to complete the course we have started and achieve, with them, the crown of glory that fadeth not away.

Yes. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. They are at peace. And, as they are now, so shall we be. Cheering others on.

In the Name…

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