Sermons That Work

For All the Saints, All Saints’ Day (A) – 1999

November 01, 1999


Since the fourth century various Eastern Orthodox churches have commemorated a feast of all martyrs: those who have given their lives as a witness to the power of the Gospel in this life. By the sixth century, this commemoration was celebrated in Rome. Later it was celebrated in the British Isles where it was seen as a “harvest feast” and a close to the liturgical calendar of the church. In 844, Pope Gregory IV established November 1 as the date for all the Western Church, and it became a day to commemorate all faithful departed.

A separate commemoration of all faithful departed was celebrated in the Eastern churches on the Saturday before Lent. And in the eighth century, the Western Church, beginning in monastic communities, established November 2 as an annual commemoration of the dead. Discontinued by the Reformation churches as a protest against the abuses associated with masses for the dead, this feast has been restored to a place of honor in our own liturgical calendar by the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

There is an emerging pattern, in some churches, of celebrating the feast of the martyrs in the morning Eucharist on All Saints Day and all faithful departed later in the day, at a choral evensong. This may be the best possible way to create one great daylong festival of prayers for all the faithful departed. On this same day, we also celebrate new life, and the dedication of those new lives, to a life of witness through the rite of Christian Initiation, Holy Baptism.

Yet, despite all these centuries of tradition, priests are frequently asked the question, “Why do we pray for the dead? They’re dead, so why do they need our prayers?”

Of course the most direct and simple answer to that question is that they are not dead.

We are those people who believe in the truth of the resurrection. That life is changed not ended. That those who go on before us are even now living a life in the total presence of the God who sends us here and one day will call us home to gather us with all our ancestors who have gone before us. So we continue to pray for those for whom life has not ended, but has been changed. They are living still and we pray for their ongoing witness in a life lived in God’s eternal presence.

We also pray for them because praying for the dead is another way of praying for ourselves.

The great English writer C. S. Lewis has observed that those people whose lives make the greatest impact in this world are the people who have their eyes locked-on to the next life, life in God’s eternal presence.

We pray for the saints or martyrs because their lives among us were lived as lives already in God’s eternal presence. Martyr means witness. Their lives are a witness to us of the nature of eternity itself, and how knowing the nature and shape of eternity can shape the way we live our lives as a witness to the power of Christ in our lives here and now! So it is that Jesus offers a glimpse of what eternal life is like in his sermon we call the Beatitudes. Notice the present tense, for the poor-the kingdom IS theirs. It is theirs now-not later.

Judeo-Christian religion is not a religion about the “ever after.” If that were the case, it would have had no lasting historical impact on human life and history.

Perhaps the greatest theological voice of this century, Jewish or Christian, has been the voice of the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel. It is reported that the day after young Vietnam War protesters were killed at Kent State College in Ohio by the National Guard, Heschel walked into a classroom, looking for all the world like one of the prophets just returning from a retreat in the Judean wilderness, and had his students stand in silence for several minutes to honor the lives of the students who had died in Ohio. To honor their lives.

Hearing Rabbi Heschel talk about the nature of man and God changed the lives of many of the stunned students who heard him that day. Perhaps the most important thing Rabbi Heschel did on that now long ago day was, in fact, the simple act of having the students in that classroom honor the lives of their brothers and sisters who had died. For it is Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote in his book, Man Is Not Alone, “Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is not a cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. God has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.”

This is why we pray for the dead-all the dead. For they all know the truth of eternity. Those we call “witnesses” or “martyrs” knew it in this life and lived accordingly. They are those people who lived and cried for eternity before the grave. They did this for themselves and, most importantly, on behalf of others.

Today we pray that we might live our lives knowing what the dead already know: eternity is perpetual presence – presence with God.

Today we pray for the dead so that we can remember what it means to be baptized: to live our lives in God’s eternal presence, and like Jesus who calls us to walk in God’s eternal presence, we are to bring this eternal life to others.

Especially the others Jesus talks about: those who are poor, those who hunger, those who weep and mourn, those who for whatever reason feel separated from the life of eternity.

The world to come is not only a hereafter but a “herenow” for those who live in God’s eternal presence.

As we renew our Baptismal Covenant with its solemn promises, may we hear them as an invitation from God to live in God’s eternal presence today and every day. May we hear them as a chance to honor the lives of the dead by living in the truth they now see face to face. As we say, “I will with God’s help,” may that be our cry for eternal life for ourselves and others prior to our descending to the grave.

And as we pray for the dead, may we remember that they are living still. And that our prayers for the dead are, at the end of the day, prayers for ourselves as well. Prayers that we will remember who we are and whose we are and live our lives accordingly.

Turn to page 395 in the Prayer Book. Let us pray: Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

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