Hebrews 12:1-2

Years ago I read a novel called Ironweed by William Kennedy; it won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out. Now every year I think about it as the leaves fall, the days darken, and the church talks about end-times. It’s set in Albany, New York, in the 1930s, at just this time of year, Halloween night and All Saints’ Day, and is about the life of what we would call today a homeless man, but in those days was just called a bum. Francis Phelan made some terrible mistakes early in his life, had ended up leaving his family to drift from city to city, living in alleys and under bridges, but now 20 years later he was coming home.

From the first page of the novel, I realized something strange was going on. As he rides back into town in the rear of an old truck, he notices the town cemeteries, where, he thinks, even the dead seem to live in different neighborhoods. The story describes Francis’s long dead mother stirring in her grave as Francis goes by, and Francis’s father in his grave lighting his pipe and smiling at his wife.

Are these people dead or alive? As you’re reading it’s hard to tell. What is clear was that in some way they are living on. And as the story goes on I kept noticing that Francis’s struggle to come to terms with his past and to let go of his guilt is taking place in the presence of the people he had loved who were now dead.

Then in the climactic scene of the story, when Francis returns to his old home to see his wife for the first time in all those years, we discover that the dead have set up bleachers in the backyard to watch the reunion. And everyone is there—the man who had run for sheriff years before and got beat and then turned Republican, another man who inherited a fortune from his mother and drank it up, and countless others, good and bad, successful or not.

Reading Ironweed, I had a sense I often get in cemeteries and churches, especially of how thick the air is with the lives of those who have gone before us. “The past isn’t over,” William Faulkner wrote, “it’s not even past.” And in that story I found a powerful awareness of how connected we all are, the living and the dead.

This All Saints’ Day is intended to encourage and give us heart. It is a day when we celebrate the heroes and heroines of the Christian faith, and especially the unsung, ordinary saints—the ones who are in our bleachers as we make our way.

One of the great lessons for All Saints’ Day is from the book of Revelation, where it describes “that great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered around the throne of the Lamb, representing Christ. We call this the “communion of saints,” and every time we say the creed we affirm our faith in it. We sang about it in that great hymn “For All the Saints.”

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee for all are thine. Alleluia.

Saints are part of one’s life—made up of the living and the dead.

The communion of saints says that we are not alone in our struggle to live faithful, loving, and truthful lives, that we still have with us the company of those who have gone before. In them we have models of what it means to live Christ-like lives. But even more than that, the communion of saints affirms that they are with us still. Those who have died into God’s eternal life surround us now with their prayer, love, and encouragement. In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews describes it best. The writer is addressing a drifting, compromised, demoralized church, and the best thing he knows to do is to remind them of the great saints of their past: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, and of course Moses, who led them to freedom. So after listing them, and remind his hearers of their stories, he says this: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

I remember learning in my youth a way of talking about the church that stems from the Middle Ages. The church throughout time and history, I was told, consists of three divisions—armies you could almost call them: the infants and children in our midst, who are called the Church Expectant; the whole company of Christians living now, who are called the Church Militant; and the company of those who have died, the Church Triumphant. How do you like that? We are the Church Militant, all of us on the march of spreading Christ’s kingdom of love!

Those are old-fashioned phrases. But they picture us as one company, some of us alive now, doing the best we can to be channels of Christ’s peace, some of us now dead, but alive with God. The saintly Archbishop Oscar Romero who was martyred in El Salvador some years ago always read at the Eucharist the names of those members of the community who had been killed or kidnapped, or as he said, been called to the Church Triumphant. As the names would be called out in the service, the congregation would respond to each name by boldly proclaiming, “Presente!” (“Present!”) They were dead, but they weren’t gone.

We need the saints to keep reminding us who we are. We need St. Francis, climbing down from his horse to embrace a leper and give away all his coins to show us that we can’t turn our backs on AIDS victims, or Darfur, or on health care for everyone. We need Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, both burned at the stake for their beliefs during the Protestant Reformation, we need Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, shot and killed by the dictator Idi Amin as he knelt in prayer. We need Monica, the mother of the wild young St. Augustine, to show us what long-suffering parenting is all about, and we need Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers Movement working with the poorest on the streets of New York City. We need saints in every generation to make explicit what it means to live Christ’s life in our time.

In fact, one of the realities of being here in the Cathedral is that we can’t escape the presence of the saints. Any time you step in here the air is thick with their presence. To come in by the main doors this morning you had to make your way past St. Peter the impetuous, unstoppable disciple, and St. Paul who died in a Roman prison after almost single-handedly spreading Christian faith across the Roman Empire. And every window and carving points to another one: to Florence Nightingale, the nineteenth-century tireless nurse, and Howard Thurman, the African-American preacher and mystic. They are here to challenge and encourage us, to cheer us on and to push us further in living Christ’s life.

Sometimes the saints can seem palpably close. One of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century was a man named Philips Brook of Trinity Church in Boston. Some 70 years after his death another great preacher at Trinity Church, Theodore Parker Ferris, wrote this:

I have lived and worked in the rectory that was built for Brooks for almost 22 years. There are times when I am so busy with my work that I seldom think of him. There are other times when he is unbelievably close to me. When I read [his words]…I [[was] proud to be in his company, honored to be one of his followers. It was as though I stood upon his shoulders and therefore could reach higher than I could ever hope to reach if I were standing on my own feet.

Saints give us shoulders to stand on.

The truth is we are accountable here to the saints. My sermons and our prayers are going on while the saints are listening. It can be hard to know that the prophet Isaiah and Martin Luther King are listening to everything that gets said from here! And so the question I have to ask is not whether you find my sermon sufficiently interesting, moving, and short, but will it hold water in the presence of the saints?

But today is a time to remember especially the everyday saints in our lives. If you were to name your saints today, whom would you name? Who are the ones in your bleachers, watching you, cheering you on? A parent or grandparent, teachers or coaches, doctors or therapists, old friends, or relative strangers for that matter, a nurse, say, who saw you through a hospital stay? I remember an uncle, an Episcopal priest, who showed me what Christian courage looks like as he stood against racism in Mississippi, a professor who showed me what it meant to be a Christian scholar, an ancient friend who became like a grandfather to my wife Marguerite and me when we were struggling graduate students.

None of these saints was perfect. But they are saints because somehow God’s love came through them. One of the gifts of this day is that it gives us a chance to remember the ones who shaped us, and not just that but to sense how close they still are. During Communion today, why not hold up their names quietly, as if to say, “Present!” because they are here. They are here, because in God time and space fall away.

I was struck reading recently that writer Madeline L’Engle, who died not long ago, said that she had come to understand her father much better now, years after his death, than she had ever been able to during his life. I imagine that’s true of many of us. My hunch is that we have some thanking to do for the imperfect saints in our lives, maybe especially the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as the mentors and supporters. If they are still alive, this is a good time to do it. But if they are now gone, they are still in our bleachers, our cloud of witnesses. And some of us have work to do yet: apologizing, forgiving, saying, “I love you.” In the communion of saints, it’s never too late.

There’s an old story that when we arrive at the pearly gates of heaven St. Peter will be there, just to check our name and resumé and be sure we’re ready to come in. And as we stand outside the gate, he will ask who our friends are, our bleacher people, who helped us along the way. And we will think back and name all the great and not so great people through whom somehow enough light and love came to brighten our way. And St. Peter will say, “You know, I just saw that very crowd of people you just named, and a few others too! Come on in.” And as you walk over the next hill you see them, all standing together, holding up a sign that says, “Welcome home! We’ve been pulling for you!”

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