The Sunday Sermon: For All the Saints

A couple of weeks ago I returned to Yale Divinity School to celebrate the 20th reunion of the class of ‘97. It was a joyful time of reconnecting with old friends, worshiping together, and witnessing how, thanks to many generous gifts, the YDS campus has been transformed from the derelict state it was in when I was a student there. It’s almost like the school has been raised from the dead.

The Div school is built around a grassy quadrangle, with cloistered walkways and the classic white, steepled Marquand Chapel in the place of honor at the eastern end. As I pushed open a door to enter the quad for the first time in about a decade, I felt the presence of the saints: beloved teachers and mentors from my time at Yale who have since joined the great cloud of witnesse:

Brevard Childs, legendary Old Testament scholar, read his lectures from handwritten notes in a small notebook, always beginning with a prayer of his own composition.

Marilyn McCord Adams, my first spiritual director, a specialist in medieval philosophical theology, loved to wear her biretta and designed a liturgy for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, which we celebrated with incense and chant in the quintessential New England puritan space of the chapel.

Rowan Greer, a bookish bachelor priest, brought his golden retrievers to work, and in class read Scripture passages, translating on the fly from his copy of the New Testament in Syriac.

David Bartlett, who died just before our reunion, was the most liberal Baptist I ever met and taught us joyfully to preach God’s unconditional love, his booming laugh echoing down the Div School hallways.

Each of us has our own personal canon of saints, the people who have reflected God’s love to us in endlessly quirky ways. Someone has defined a saint as someone who lets the light shine through, just as our stained glass windows let the light shine through, in unique and beautiful ways.

Look around you: have you ever paid close attention to the saints who surround us in this place? As you probably know, the lower level of windows tells the story of St Paul, panel by panel, from his witnessing of Stephen’s execution through his conversion and all his adventures up to his own execution in Rome.

If you are able to look higher up at the clerestory level without getting a crick in your neck, you will catch glimpses of a whole company of illustrious individuals, from Abraham (back left for the congregation) through the Old Testament prophets to the four evangelists on this north side, and from Peter and Paul through the history of the church, via St George and Queen Elizabeth the first to Bishop William Ingraham Kip in that southwest corner. Who? Bishop Kip was the first Episcopal Bishop of California, who celebrated his first worship service in this state here in San Diego in 1854, just 15 years before the founding of the parish that today is St Paul’s Cathedral. Brooks Mason has a small collection of binoculars which he will make available after the service, so that you can get a closer look at our resident saints.

We are surrounded by the saints, and not just on holy ground, but throughout our lives, if we are blessed. Today’s celebration of All Saints is sandwiched between the Requiems for two people many of us dearly loved, the Rev Canon Alden Franklin, commemorated Friday, and Rosemary Bolstad, whose life we will celebrate on Monday afternoon. Our columbarium in the back there is a constant reminder of those whom we have loved, the people who mentored us in the faith and whose good stewardship and generosity in their time ensured that St Paul’s can continue to change lives and be a force for good in our own time.

As we each ponder our financial pledges for the coming year, we can give thanks for the benefits we receive today from those who came before us, and we can in our turn give generously to ensure that St Paul’s will be here for future generations. The writer of the book of Wisdom reminds us that trust in God is a sign of the righteous soul, and that we can trust in God to watch over us as we strive sacrificially to cultivate community in this place and to help our city of San Diego to reflect in some way the holy city of God as envisioned by John in his revelation.

The psalm proclaims boldly that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it: that’s something to reflect upon in our practice of stewardship. It insists that God is in charge, even when current reality suggests otherwise. I see plenty of evidence that God is actually in control: God’s grace is to be found everywhere.

I see it in the faith of a resilient friend in the face of chronic illness.
I see it in the legacy of a distinguished and beloved teacher.
I see it in the strong community of this cathedral congregation.
I see it in the dedication of volunteers providing showers and service to our neighbors who sleep outside.
I see it in the prayers that we offer for one another, day in and day out.
I see it in the positive energy of our fall stewardship gatherings and in the steadily growing pile of completed pledge cards.
I see God in charge when faithful people step forward to train as Stephen Ministers or to serve on Chapter or diocesan committees.
I see God in charge when a Listening Hearts session enables someone to find clarity in their vocation.
I see God in charge when the church fills up for a Requiem of a beloved fellow parishioner or priest.

Our neighbors in Mexico make the most of this season in their observance of el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, which corresponds to All Souls Day on November 2. You can see the special ofrenda or altar our Misa members have built up here, with photographs of loved ones whose graves are perhaps far away, and offerings of food and flowers. Traditionally, families take picnics on November 2 to the graves of their loved ones. They bring flowers and fruit, they sing and dance, rejoicing that they can in some way be once again close to those who have gone beyond the veil. Maybe that’s what we should be doing today. Maybe we should have planned a fiesta down there in front of the columbarium, with songs and celebrations to remember how much we loved and were loved by those whose ashes rest behind those marble panels. In a sense I think that’s what we are doing, in our dignified Anglican way, when we celebrate the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist in the same sacred space as the columbarium.

In the celebration of the sacrament on this day we are proclaiming that death doesn’t have the last word, that we are still connected to the saints, even through the impenetrable mystery of the grave, even when we are so bereft that we can’t imagine life going on.

In the Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus, God in Jesus confronts the reality of death with us. Every painful detail of loss is here: wrenching grief, blame, decomposition, the physical separation of the dead from the living. We learn that God grieves when we grieve, that we are not alone in our loss. Jesus walks through the whole experience with his friends. He grieves with the sisters. But then he insists on opening the grave. He speaks to the dead man. And Lazarus comes out. Jesus wins the victory: death is defeated, and all tears are wiped away.

Throughout John’s Gospel, glory and death are closely entwined. In the raising of Lazarus we see the glorification of God. In the death and resurrection of Jesus we see the glorification of God. We glorify God when we affirm and celebrate the victory of love over death. We glorify God when we live as if death has no power over us, as if the resurrection is a promise we can take to the bank, because it is. The saints knew that, and today we honor all the saints who live on in our hearts and in the loving heart of our good and generous God. Amen.

All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

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