As part of divinity school training, students are required to perform a period of supervised ministry or internship in a parish where at least one priest has been trained to do such supervision. I was fortunate enough to spend a summer fulfilling my internship requirement over there on the other side of the river at Trinity Wall Street in New York. One of my many duties was taking part in the rotation to lead prayers for peace at St. Paul’s Chapel which is done every day – weekends included – at 12:30 in the afternoon.
I know that you all remember that St. Paul’s Chapel, just adjacent to the site of the World Trade Center, became a relief and respite center for recovery workers following the attacks of September 11, 2001, that over the course of eight months, the chapel was used as sleeping quarters, health care facility, and food service provider. During that time, cards, letters, and gifts arrived from around the world and festooned the balcony and every free space available.
Once the recovery efforts began to wind down, St. Paul’s became, once again, a place of worship, and the mementos of that tragic time were packed away or curated into smaller exhibits. While it is in this location no longer, when I was doing my internship, in one corner of the chapel there was a table containing photos and letters and cards devoted to the missing and dead in the attacks. In the diagonal corner, just as you enter off of Broadway, there was another table. Even then, this was a changing exhibit, frequently needing to be cleared away to make room for more items. It contained the mementos brought in by tourists and other people off the street, most completely unconnected with the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
In those days when I walked up to St. Paul’s to lead the 12:30 prayers, I would usually arrive early and watch the people who came into the chapel, especially those who lingered at this particular table. Many of them would carefully draw something out of a purse or pocket or bag and reverently place it on the table with gentleness and love and great care, tears sometimes streaming down their faces. Some would hold hands with a companion or hug and maybe even close their eyes or kneel down in prayer.
I am convinced that these people, many of whom had no direct connection with 9/11 or St. Paul’s Chapel or Trinity Wall Street or maybe not even any other faith community – these people understood something about the communion of saints, about All Saints which we observe today. They seemed to know that those they have loved and lost are still somehow accessible to them, and that by coming to that chapel and leaving some memento, some memory, of that person, then their loved one could be held in the love of everyone who entered that place, everyone who came to remember, everyone who came to pray.
All Saint’s Day is the second holiest day of the church year in the Eastern Church. Here, it is pretty much over-shadowed by the festivities of Halloween, the night when we taunt death and the forces of darkness. But it is good for us to attend on this day to this moment in time when the beyond is within our grasp, when the veil between now and then is so thin that it seems that we can almost touch those who have passed to the other side, when we recognize that the distance between here and there is not so very far. The ofrenda and the traditions of the Dia de Muertos in Mexico bear witness to our very human need to connect – to remain in relationship– with our family and friends who have preceded us in death, because it is death that is the most difficult yet inevitable part of the human condition to accept or understand.
It is into the inevitability and heartbreak of death and dying that Jesus steps today in the raising from the dead of his friend, Lazarus. It is perhaps the moment at which we see our savior at his most human, most real, because in those moments when Mary and Martha are weeping and the mourners are wailing, Jesus does what we all would do. He cried. Before he reached beyond the veil, commanding death to loosen its grip and set Lazarus free, Jesus, the Lord and Giver of Life, wept with his friends. Just as he weeps with each of us in our sorrow and trouble.
I would love to be able to tell you what happens when we die, where our loved ones are, what it’s like there. Yet, I do not know. My faith tells me that, while our human bodies may perish, what makes us a person dwells in the nearer presence of God, awaiting the day when God’s reign begins, when, as John’s Revelation attests,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ (Rev. 21:3-4)
I’m afraid that what happens, though, when our sights are set on some great beyond, some promised land, we forget that the reign of God is not in a far-off heaven. Jesus does not talk much about heaven, but when he does, it is in terms of the kingdom, or reign, of God. If we get too caught up in trying to define what “heaven” is or consume our lives with making sure that we get there, then we forget that God’s reign is not out there somewhere. It is coming here. It is to redeem this world and all that dwells herein that God so lovingly created. And if we spend enough energy worrying about getting into heaven, then we tend to forget the hell that life in the here and now is for so many of God’s beloved.
I am sure that some of you have traveled to Europe, and if you have, you will know that in many European countries like Italy and Croatia, every town and village and city has its saint, usually Mary, but often some lesser-known capital-S saint. But those capital-S saints were just the beginning. The real work came from those who followed, and if you walk around any of those towns and villages, you see the fruits of the efforts of all those folk simply trying to live faithfully, following in the path of their saint who tried to follow faithfully the path of Jesus.
This, too, is the joy of this day: those capital-S saints have their own commemoration days. All Saints Day is for all the saints – all those little known saints who have gone before and those still here doing their best to live faithfully. When the apostle Paul wrote to the churches and greeted them with “To all the saints who are in Christ Jesus who are in” Rome or Corinth or Philippi, he was not writing to dead people!He was writing to real, live people toiling away to do the work of the church. If Paul were here today, he could just as well write a letter “to all the saints who are in Christ Jesus who are in Hoboken, New Jersey!” That means all of you – all y’all! We are all saints by virtue of our baptism, with nine more joining the party this morning through the sacrament of baptism, and it is our joy and duty to work to bring God’s vision for humankind to reality.
Yes, it can be hard. The troubles of the world can absolutely overwhelm us. But we have a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before, showing us the way, and it is especially on All Saints’ Day, in this thin place, that we receive encouragement to carry on. And even when it seems that all is hopeless and the troubles of the world appear insurmountable, remember the words that we just sang in our opening hymn:
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia! (Hymnal 1982, 287)