Sermon for 11/1/2020: Can we find our future in the past?

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All Saints 11/1/2020

Ps. 34:1 – 10, 22           Revelations 7:9 – 17      I John 3:1 – 3    Matthew 5:1 – 12

 

O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow the blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who truly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (The Collect for All Saints’ Day. BCP p.194)

 

We hold in prayerful memorial:

William S. Miles

William J. Brathwaite, St.

Francis L. Dalrymple

Veterans of St. James

Geneva V. Johnson

Lydia and John Rowsell

Harold Rowsell

Gladys O. Mitchell

Business Women Club of St. James

Alice B. Felton

 

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

is laid for your faith in his excellent word;

What more can he say than to you he hath said,

to you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?

 

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;

For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

(The Hymnal 637)

 

Business Womens Club.Stained GlassIf I were a betting man, I would wager that except for a few among us, that the names which hold place of honor in my homily today are unknown to you.  I confess, they would be unknown to me, except that I became acquainted with them this week, during my visit to our sanctuary.  As is my wont, when on our church campus, as I was on Tuesday of this week, I sat in a pew and looked around, trying to imagine your presence during this ever-lengthening time, in which, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are required to worship via live-streaming.

This moved me to think about the Sunday of All Saints, which we observe today and which takes precedent in our liturgy over any other day in Ordinary Time.  Today is nominally the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.  However, the Church has seen fit, and rightly so in my mind, to hold up for us all to see those who have preceded us in ministry.  I arose from the pew (on the pulpit side) and began to walk slowly down the side aisle toward the rear, pausing at each stained glass window to read each name, a name of someone whom I had never seen, whose voice I had never heard, whose hand had never been extended to me in greeting.  I came upon several windows with the notation “Given in memory of,” where, however, the ones being memorialized are unknown, lost to us, due to replacements necessitated by decades of weather damage.

Nevertheless, during my perambulation, as one not usually given to mystic thoughts, I had the feeling of being surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, including all those nameless ones listed in decades of parish records.  The Collect for today came to mind, the collect, with which I began my sermon and which has its foundation in the Letter to the Hebrews, an epistle whose author remains anonymous.  In that epistle I saw our past, as well as our common present, and hope for the future.  “Therefore,” wrote the epistler, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside very weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith..,”  (Hebrew 12:1f.)

You see, the parish church of St. James did have a beginning, but it did not emerge out of a total void.  Rather, St. James grew out of the faith of those who believed that the gospel of the Good News could bring benefit to this corner of God’s creation. St. James began 1877, 143 years ago, as a mission because of the effort and dedication of a like-minded mission, St. James Cambridge, approximately two miles away, itself but still a mission.  The Somerville mission persevered and was admitted November 1887, ten years later, with the daunting annual budget of $350.00, including the interest on the mortgage of $650.00, as a full and independent parish into the Diocese of Massachusetts.  We, you and I, are the benefactors, 133 years later, of that cloud of witnesses to Christ’s Good News, on Clarendon Hill.  And although the Covid-19 pandemic forces us to be absent from our buildings and to forego in-person worship, our parish still stands.

In times of anxiety, stress, ambiguity, I, as perhaps some of you, am prone to raise the question “where is God in all this?” And then I am reminded, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews does so adroitly that God is not on sabbatical or vacation.  There have always been those guided by the Divine Spirit who provided directions, to those who serve, who reinforce the aim of Creation.  The Hebrew epistler states with great clarity and confidence: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets…and concludes his opening thesis thusly, “Are they not all ministering spirits who went forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Hebrews 1:1, 14)  We are the future of the past, even as we, in the present, are foundation to the future of those yet to come.  For the athletic ones among us—I am not one—I can imagine us all participants in a relay race.

All Saints’ Day in the parish of my teen years was always a big deal, a celebration that rivaled Christmas and Easter in its pageantry, in part because our priest emphasized it as a day of obligation.  It was filled with solemn processions and other liturgical practices.  And, as a teenage torch bearer or crucifer, I liked a good parade.  So was the mind of a young boy.  (Yes, even now I like a good parade.)  Also, I always thought it nice to celebrate All Saints’ because we had not had since Easter and Pentecost anything which was filled with excitement, and so All Saints’ Day brought something different, as we set our clocks back an hour and the daylight hours grew shorter.  I cared little about the operative word in our celebration “Saints.”  Saints were those painted figures with halos in portraits which one could see hanging at the St. Louis Art Museum.  Saints had nothing to do with ordinary, daily life.  Saints were those mysterious beings in history books who brought about miracles, if one were lucky.

I doubt quite seriously that the women and men, whose names I read as I walked about our vacant sanctuary, would have described themselves as possessing special powers, as workers of miracles, and most certainly not as wearing a visible or an invisible halo.  A review of history informs me also that they did not live lives in a paradise, free of pestilence, plague, and flood; and recorded history informs me that they, too, had to confront public servants placed personal gain before the common good.  Still, in times of difficulty the people names in our memorial windows went about “doing good,” encouraged and supported by and in their faith that God’s Messiah had provided them in their day, and would provide us in our own time, with directions for perfecting the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven.

StJamesGroupWhat their specific good deeds were, I can only imagine, because I know not their specific cultural constraints or advantages.   However, when I observe, as recently I did in a TV report, a young man, wearing dreds, link his arm under that of an 84 year-old man, frightened by an escalator in a shopping mall, each unknown to the other, and escort the man to the next level, I see a saint. When I witness with my own eyes a young father in Cambridge Galleria race back up the down escalator to extend his hand and say a soft word of comfort to his young son, initially unknowingly left behind, because the boy feared to step onto the moving steps of the down escalator, I see a saint.

When I, alone and in the solitude of my own home, discover myself applauding the female epidemiologist who was speaking out against the dissemination of false information regarding how to deal with our pandemic, and hear reports regarding others who at their own peril provide care for afflicted patients, I see living, breathing saints.  I see a person who is there to aid, to instruct, to bring comfort in a challenging moment.  These are no miracle workers.  Their deeds do not make national or even local headlines.  No halo, no martyrdom, no expectation of payment or even my distant applause.  They are ordinary folk, moved by the spirit of our Divine Creator, just functioning as messengers of a Creator God for the benefit of others.

Today, I look at All Saints’ Day differently.  I go beyond the ceremony of my youth, but ask myself occasionally, as decades ago, why we should not celebrate All Saints’ everyday.  Of course, I know that we cannot and should not, because we can celebrate every day with prayers of thanksgiving that God works in us all, if we but listen and not lose faith.  All Saints’ Day 2020 is special to us, as every All Saints’ Day ought to be, and we can honor those in the pass, because their faith provided us with a future which became our present, as our own faith will provide, God willing, for the future of others.

Let us today at St. James we do three things:

a) Recite in prayer the names of those family members and friends in our immediate parish family or family circle who moved this year into eternal rest, together with the names of those in our parish family who accompanied us along our way.

b) Give joyful thanks to God for those whom we knew not and whom we will never know on these earthly shores, but of whose existence, through their deeds, we have proof, for we are recipient of their labor.

c) Praise God that God is more generous than are we in acknowledging that acts of goodness, kindness, and mercy are not restricted or defined by peoples, ethnic groups, or nation, as we read today in the Book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our god for ever and ever! Amen.’” (Rev. 7:9f)

We pray for the departed in 2020:

Gary Ann Fitts

Margaret McDonagh

 

We pray for the departed of years prior:

Margaret Alonso

Warren and Mary Baccardax

Leon Sr. and Evelyn Braithwaite

Karen K. Braithwaite

William Brathwaite, Sr.

Shirley and John Carson

Frank Dalrymple

Mazie McCray

Shirley McKinney

Catherine C. Luken

William and Jessie Parsons

Mary Tucker

Cathy and George Walsh

Mark Walsh

Paul Walsh

William Walsh

 

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen                        (BCP, p. 504)

 

And we sing with joy:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

who thee, by faith before the world confessed;

thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might:

thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;

thou, in the darkness, drear, the one true Light.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 

O, may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,

fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and

win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet

all are one in thee, for all are thine.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,

through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,

singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Alleluia, alleluia!  

                                                (The Hymnal 287)